Some time during the late 1980s, some guy (I don't remember who) from some conservative think tank (Cato? Hoover?) asked me at some Washington reception whether The New Republic, where I worked as the editor, would be interested in publishing an article advocating gay marriage. It was the first that I had heard of the idea.
At the time, the virtue of marriage as a civilizer of men was a major conservative theme in the debate about the underclass. This fellow wanted to argue that if marriage turned a man from a rampaging animal into a productive member of society, it would be especially useful when both members of the couple were these uncivilized beasts. Encouraging stable and monogamous relationships was especially important, he noted, in the age of AIDS.
I invited him to give it a try but never heard from him. So, after a while, we turned to a young writer named Andrew Sullivan (now among America's best-known writers and thinkers on gay politics), who produced an essay called "The Conservative Case for Gay Marriage," which was The New Republic cover story for Aug. 28, 1989, and surely one of the first articles on gay marriage in a mainstream publication.
Gay marriage was such a novel idea that the cover image of a wedding cake with two little grooms on top wasn't even a deadening cliche. But even this article, or at least the motivation for publishing it, was slightly in the spirit of "A Modest Proposal" (Jonathan Swift's famous tongue-in-cheek essay advocating the eating of babies). Not that The New Republic was actually against gay marriage. We were using it as a thought experiment. The object was in part simply to stick it to conservatives, and in part to use this arresting concept as a way to make people think about gay rights in general. Gay marriage itself seemed so far out and unlikely to happen that whether you were actually for it was beside the point.
Government-sanctioned gay marriage still hasn't happened in the United States, except for Massachusetts. And President Bush has endorsed the effort to head it off at the pass with a constitutional amendment. But last Thursday, the Canadian Supreme Court cleared the way for the government to legalize gay marriage, which the prime minister says he intends to do. The very focus of U.S. opponents on a constitutional amendment is evidence that they think the momentum is against them. Gay-marriage supporters and its opponents would probably bet that it's going to be legalized.
Take a moment to consider how amazing this is. Just 15 years after that New Republic essay, marriage is the defining goal of the gay-rights movement. There were more modest possibilities for acknowledging gay relationships, emphasizing tolerance and nondiscrimination. But gay rights have blown right past those milestones and are headed to the next one, which is official approval.
Gay marriage is on the verge of joining abortion rights on the very short list of litmus tests that any Democratic candidate for national office must support. Not gay rights, but gay marriage, or at least "civil union," which is an unstable half-step that is bound to turn into the real thing. Some say this just illustrates how far Democrats and liberals have drifted outside the mainstream. But the mainstream, and even the right, is not far behind.
Gay civil union, itself a radical concept from the perspective of just a few years ago, has widespread support outside of liberal circles. The notion that gay relationships should enjoy at least some of the benefits of marriage (hospital visitation rights being the unanswerable example) is probably a majority view. And even the most homophobic religious-right demagogue feels obliged to spout - and may well actually believe - bromides about God's love of gay people.
Today's near-universal and minimally respectable attitude - the rock-bottom, nonnegotiable price of admission to polite society and the political debate - is an acceptance of gay people and of open, unapologetic homosexuality as part of American life. This would have shocked, if not offended, the great liberals of a few decades ago - men such as Hubert Humphrey.
Such a development is not just amazing. It is inspiring. American society hasn't used up its capacity to recognize that it harbors injustice, and it remains supple enough to change as a result. In fact, the process is speeding up. It took black civil rights a century, and feminism half a century, to travel the distance gay rights have moved in a decade and a half.
This is also scary, of course, because there is no reason to think that gay rights are the end of the line. And it's even scarier because these are all revolutions of perception as well as politics. That means that all of us who consider ourselves good-hearted, well-meaning, empathetic Americans - but don't claim to be great visionaries - are probably staring right now at an injustice that will soon seem obvious, and we just don't see it. Somewhere in this country a gay black woman, grateful beneficiary of past and present perceptual transformations, has said something today in all innocence that will strike her just a few years from now as unbelievably callous, cruel and wrong.