Newsweek International | December 2007 (year-end special issue)
MY grandmother, then a 16-year-old Polish Jew, came to America in 1910 and never looked back. Neither did her son, despite vestigial anti-Semitism early in what became a flourishing legal career. Nor did I, her grandson—not, at least, on account of being Jewish. The experience of anti-Semitism has been as unknown to me in the United States as it was ubiquitous to my European forebears.
To be an American homosexual, however, is more complicated. Few of us feel or want to feel anything but American; but many of us, perhaps most, have at one time or another looked envyingly at Europe.
Belgium, the Netherlands and Spain allow gay marriage (as do Canada and South Africa). Seven European countries offer nationally recognized civil unions, which are almost the same as marriage, and five offer domestic-partner status. The United States, by contrast, allows same-sex couples to marry in a single, relatively small state: Massachusetts. A few other states offer civil unions or domestic-partner programs. Most states, however, ban same-sex marriage and, often, civil unions.
The federal government in Washington affords no recognition of same-sex couples at all. Heterosexual Americans can obtain residency for their foreign partners for the price of a $25 marriage license; countless gay Americans cannot get residency for their partners at any price. To stay together, more than a few same-sex couples live in exile abroad—often in Europe.
The litany goes on. Nineteen European countries—plus Australia, Canada, Israel, New Zealand and South Africa—allow homosexuals to serve openly in their armed forces; America joins Cuba, Iran, North Korea and Saudi Arabia (among others) in banning gay military service. No less important, millions of Americans, particularly but by no means only on the religious right, continue to anathematize homosexuality and campaign for public policies that do the same. In much of Europe, by contrast, homosexuality is just not very controversial. In America, gay people have achieved a large measure of toleration and respect, but being noncontroversial—well, that seems far beyond our reach.
Yet, despite all that, America has some cause for pride, straight as well as gay. To say America is “behind” Europe on gay equality is to overlook that America’s coming to terms with homosexuality is a very different kind of project than Europe’s, because America is a very different kind of place.
In Europe, acceptance of homosexuality is by and large an afterthought in the larger movement toward modernization and secularism. Europe, though more religious than the common U.S. stereotype allows, is decidedly less pious than America—and homosexuality, though condemned by the Abrahamic faiths, poses no conflict at all with secular modernity. If gay people are stable, productive, law-abiding citizens, what could anyone have against them?
Much of Europe has also embraced what American observers sometimes call a deinstitutionalized view of the family, in which all kinds of family structures enjoy equal claim on public recognition and social resources. Marriage, in such settings, is increasingly a mere formality. Children in Denmark and Sweden, for example, are less likely than American kids to be raised by married couples. Yet Danish and Swedish children are more likely to be raised by both their parents. Something other than marriage is the glue holding these Northern European families together. In a post-marital culture, same-sex marriage looks like a lifestyle choice, not a threat.
In short, Europe is dissolving many of the traditions that make homosexuality seem morally and socially problematic. America is not. America has embarked on a harder, perhaps more ambitious, project, which is to reconcile homosexuality with traditional moral scruples and social structures.
The United States is a country of immigrants, of transients, of ethnic diversity. Identity comes less from language, ancestry and birthplace than from creed, community and culture. Americans tend to understand who they are in terms of what they believe and who they believe it with. Millions ground themselves in the Bible, in faith communities or in generations-old unwritten norms, which is why so-called “social issues” like homosexuality and abortion are so central to U.S. politics (mystifyingly so, from a European point of view). This may be good, it may be not so good, but it is a fact, probably a necessary fact in so fluid and diverse a society.
And therefore it is also a fact that America cannot just “outgrow” or “move beyond” its conflicts over homosexuality. America will have to reach a new understanding with homosexuality, one that squares it with the claims of both civic equality and social tradition.
For gay Americans, the bad news is that this reconciliation is a difficult and slow process, the work of generations. The good news is that the work is proceeding apace, faster than I once believed possible.
I was born in 1960, a time when homosexuals were America’s vampires: pale, sinister creatures with warped souls and insatiable appetites who lurked in a nighttime underworld and sucked society’s lifeblood. The AIDS crisis of the 1980s and early 90s, terrible though it was, helped transform us to mortals. The country saw us bleed and die; it watched as we cared for each other when too often even our own relatives would not. Now, as same-sex love and commitment—to each other and to children—comes front and center, the country is starting to see us as families.
Just a decade ago, same-sex marriage was a nutty joke, a contradiction in terms. Today (according to recent polling by the Pew Research Center) more than a third of Americans support it, and a majority support civil unions. Millions of Americans have come to accept the dignity and morality of homosexual love and commitment, even if they have trouble with gay sex per se. No less important, most gay and straight Americans who support same-sex marriage do so because they believe in marriage, not because they want to dethrone it.
Those who dismiss America as “behind” Europe on social issues often fail to appreciate where America is coming from, and how far it has traveled. Where gay equality is concerned, you can call the United States the most laggard of major secular societies; or you can call it the most progressive of great traditionalist cultures. Or, most accurately, you can say it continues to go its own way by working out how to be both at once. Whatever you call it, I would not trade it.