National Journal | August 8, 2009
LAST October, Bill Meezan, my cousin, left his home in Columbus, Ohio, for a business trip to Philadelphia. Bill is the dean of Ohio State University's College of Social Work, and he travels quite a bit. In Philadelphia, he thought he felt an old cold coming back. Then he developed a nasty cough. On October 31, he went to the hospital.
He remembers nothing of that day, but Mike Brittenback recalls sharply how doctors in Philadelphia called him in Columbus to say they suspected pneumonia. Mike, an organist and choirmaster, is Bill's partner of 30 years. A few hours later that Friday, they called back to confirm the diagnosis. Mike was concerned but not alarmed.
At 3 a.m. the next day, the phone woke him up. It was a doctor in Philadelphia. Mike needed to come to Philadelphia immediately. Bill had gone into septic shock and might not survive more than a few hours.
* * *
"Here's the key principle," Peter Sprigg, a gay-marriage opponent with the Family Research Council, said in an April radio interview on Southern California's KCRW. "Society gives benefits to marriage because marriage gives benefits to society. And therefore the burden of proof has to be on the advocates of same-sex marriage to demonstrate that homosexual relationships benefit society. Not just benefit the individuals who participate but benefit society in the same way and to the same degree that heterosexual marriage does. And that's a burden that I don't think they can meet."
* * *
Having just been told, at 3 a.m., that his partner of three decades might die within hours, Mike Brittenback was told something else: Before rushing to Bill's side, he needed to collect and bring with him documents proving his medical power of attorney. This indignity, unheard-of in the world of heterosexual marriage, is a commonplace of American gay life.
Frantic, Mike tore through the house but could not find the papers. He would need to retrieve them from a safe-deposit box. Which was at a bank. Which did not open until 9 a.m.
Somehow Mike made it through the next six hours, "crying and frantic and all kinds of awful things running through my mind," fetched the documents, and got on the road. By some higher mercy, those lost hours did not cost Bill his life. When Mike arrived in Philadelphia on Saturday afternoon, Bill was still alive, though in grave danger.
Mike had packed clothes for a week.
* * *
National Review has a cover story this month by Maggie Gallagher, a prominent anti-gay-marriage activist, subtitled: "Why Gay Marriage Isn't Inevitable." She is right, in a sense. Most states explicitly ban same-sex marriage, often by constitutional amendment, and the country remains deeply divided. The national argument over marriage's meaning will go on for years to come.
In another sense, however, she is wrong. Never again will America not have gay marriage, and never again will less than a majority favor some kind of legal and social recognition for same-sex couples. The genie that gay-marriage opponents still hope to stuff back into the bottle is out and out for good.
Oddly, Gallagher, Sprigg, and other gay-marriage opponents don't understand why this has happened. It comes down not to demographics (young people are more likely than their elders to favor gay marriage, but the demographics are changing quite slowly), nor to liberal elites' cultural influence (Gallagher's explanation). It comes down to Mike and Bill.
* * *
At the hospital, Mike found Bill in an induced coma, attached to so much equipment that the only place Mike could touch him without touching a tube was on the forehead.
A vigil began. Mike spent days at Bill's bedside and nights at a hotel. His career and personal life mostly stopped while he fielded queries from friends and relatives, kept in close touch with Bill's anxious parents, and dealt with mail and household business from Columbus. Above all, he managed Bill's care.
Bill had repeated setbacks. Two cardiac arrests. The dialysis machine kept failing. Thrush spread to the lungs. Heart arrhythmia. Hallucinations. Trouble removing a breathing tube. In person by day, on the phone at night, doctors huddled with Mike.
Days stretched into weeks. Thanksgiving came and went. Six weeks passed in Philadelphia. "I never missed a day," Mike recalls. "I felt he needed me there. I really felt he knew I was there. He would smile when I came in, even when he was in an induced coma."
* * *
Peter Sprigg and Maggie Gallagher are cut from different cloths in some respects--Sprigg condemns homosexuality, whereas Gallagher accepts it--but they have in common what they offer to couples like Mike and Bill: silence. The same is true of nearly all other prominent opponents of same-sex marriage. (David Blankenhorn of the Institute for American Values is an honorable exception.)
If gay couples can't be allowed to marry, what should they be able to do? Asked this question, cultural conservatives say, in the words of Tom Lehrer's song about the German rocket scientist Wernher von Braun, "That's not my department." Effectively, conservatives are saying that what Mike and Bill do for each other has no significance outside their own bedroom.
But what happened in that hospital in Philadelphia for those six weeks was not just Mike and Bill's business, a fact that is self-evident to any reasonable human being who hears the story. "Mike was making a medical decision at least once a day that would have serious consequences," Bill told me. Who but a life partner would or could have done that? Who but a life partner will drop everything to provide constant care? Bill's mother told me that if not for Mike, her son would have died. Faced with this reality, what kind of person, morally, simply turns away and offers silence?
Not the sort of person who populates the United States of America. If Republicans wonder why they find themselves culturally marginalized, particularly by younger Americans, they might consider the fact that when the party looks at couples like Mike and Bill it sees, in effect, nothing.
* * *
By Thanksgiving, Bill was stable enough to be brought out of sedation. As he drifted in and out of consciousness, he formulated a plan. Tubes and a tracheostomy prevented talking, but almost as soon as he could write on a whiteboard, he scrawled a message for Mike. "Will you marry me?"
Mike broke down. "I cried. It was tears of joy."
In January, now back in Columbus, Bill was finally released from the hospital, his weight down by more than a fourth. Over the next few months, he underwent weeks of physical therapy, and Mike developed post-traumatic stress disorder, and Bill's mother died, and Bill decided not to renew his deanship. In the press of events, the marriage proposal seemed to recede. In conversations with Mike, Bill equivocated about when to tie the knot.
* * *
Conservatives have a decision to make. They can continue pretending that the bond between Mike and Bill does not exist, is of no social value, or has no place on conservatives' agenda. Doing so would be of a piece with their retreat to economic Hooverism, their embrace of cultural Palinism, and, in general, their preference for purity over relevance.
Or they can acknowledge what to most of the country is already obvious: Whether the nation finally settles on marriage or on something else for gay couples, Bill and Mike are now in the mainstream and the Republican Party is not. If cultural conservatism continues to treat same-sex couples as outside the social covenant, the currents of history will flow right around it, and future generations of conservatives will wonder how their predecessors could ever have made such a callous and politically costly mistake.
* * *
This month, Mike and Bill will vacation on Cape Cod. Mike is expecting to relax. Bill has been shopping, secretly, for wedding rings. His equivocation, of course, is a ruse. Same-sex marriage is legal in Massachusetts. On August 20, without warning Mike, Bill will produce the same whiteboard that he used in the hospital last year, and on it he will again write, "Will you marry me?" Four days later, they will be married in a small ceremony with friends.
"When I asked him to marry me in the hospital," Bill says, "I have never seen a smile on his face like that. I have never seen that kind of joy. Ever. I want to re-create that. And that's why I want this to be a surprise."
And so it will be, reader, if you can keep a secret.