Marriage and the Media: Simple Gifts

SANY0170 When Dick Cheney — of all people — appeared at the National Press Club, and was asked about gay marriage, he rather casually said that he didn’t “have a problem” with it.

The reaction from gay activists ranged from surprise to skepticism to suspicion, but there’s something that seemed to resonate in the media coverage: Simplicity.

In the days following the California Supreme Court’s decision to uphold Prop 8, on shows like “Larry King Live” and “The View,” it was as if the debate evolved into a frank yes or no question, left to be asked of any celebrity or politico who came along.

The campaign against Proposition 8 was hobbled not just because it found itself so often on the defense, but because its own message was frought with confusion. Not the least of the problems was the fact that “no” meant “yes,” that many ads dealt with equality in the abstract, or that Barack Obama was against same-sex marriage but against 8. By the time of the election, it was hard for many voters to understand what exactly they were voting for — or against.

The genius of Ted Olson and David Boies’ filing of a federal challenge last week was not just in the publicity value of the two Bush v. Gore foes teaming on the case, one that earned them plenty of national media, but that their argument itself was easy to understand, that Prop 8 was a violation of the 14th Amendment.

“Whatever discrimination California law now might permit, I can assure you the United States Constitution does not,” Olson said.

Addressing criticism from some gay rights orgs that fear (perhaps justifiably) that the suit will end in a precedent-setting loss, Boies said, “When you have people being denied constitutional rights today, it’s wrong to say, ‘No, you have to wait.'”
 
If you consider that the right loves to frame issues in black-and-white terms, it can’t be much of a surprise that two conservatives, Cheney and Olson, are helping to pushing the debate at the national level into a matter of you are either for it or against it. In this case, it puts the onus on Democratic politicians (and the president) to explain why they take the more nuanced position of being against gay marriage yet also believe that it is a matter better left to the states. That in itself is an argument that is giving away to a new refrain. Last week, Bill Clinton said that his position is neither for or against, but “evolving.”

But the simpler message also is due to a different cast of players, beyond the gay enclaves of Los Angeles and San Francisco. 

SANY0135 At the Meet in the Middle rally in Fresno on Saturday, a gallery of speakers from all across the gay rights movement took to the stage. Celebrities  worked the press tent. Charlize Theron, who had a few days earlier issued a siren’s call to progressive activists to make the trip, sat on a lawn and merely listened. Earlier in the day, marchers made the symbolic trek from Selma, Calif. into the central California city to declare the relevance to past civil rights struggles.

But the greatest cheers at the event were reserved for the woman who organized it, Robin McGehee, a mother from  Fresno who married her partner last year, only to be pulled off her son’s Catholic PTA board for so stridently opposing Proposition 8. After the election loss, she vowed to stage a rally in the downtown area of her city, even if that meant that only 60 people showed up. As it turned out, thousands came.

McGehee is an emotional face for gay marriage, something that largely eluded the No on 8 campaign. She has a tendency to tear up, whether it is in telling her story or in expressing her disappointment in the president. When you are with her, it is hard to think of her as a person ready to plot cunning strategy. Rather, she comes off as a genuine person with a simple question: Why not now?

On “Real Time with Bill Maher” on Friday, the host had his own take. Yes I am for it, but enough with the wacky outfits of Pride parades, he said, while displaying examples of the outrageousness, including a shot of Pope Benedict. It was a play for laughs, but also a dig at identity politics. The message was, you are winning the battle, but just keep it simple.

Photos: Cleve Jones speaking at the Fresno rally, Charlize Theron listens to a speaker.

Correction: In one version of the post, in talking about conservative support for gay marriage, I gave the wrong reference to Ted Olson, an error that was made in haste and, hopefully, not in ignorance.

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