Our friend Barney is getting married. That’s hardly newsworthy — this is the wedding season, after all — except for one thing. Barney’s last name is Frank, he was the first gay congressman to talk openly about his sexuality. Now he’s the first to have a legal wedding.
We have known and loved Barney for a long time. He and Steve are from the same town in New Jersey, and it was Barney who recruited Steve to apply to Harvard and got him involved in student politics. We met at one of those political functions (Cokie was at Wellesley; our dorms were 12.5 miles apart) and Barney was an usher in our wedding in 1966. So it’s a special moment to celebrate his marriage almost 46 years later.
On a personal level, we’re thrilled Barney has found a devoted partner, Jim Ready. On a political level, we’re glad he lives in Massachusetts, one of only six states where gay marriage is legal. He and Jim have a right that all same-sex couples should enjoy, but we didn’t always believe that and neither did Barney.
A supremely practical politician, Barney once worried that gay marriage was reaching too far and expecting too much from the political system. But he changed and so did we. We came to understand that Barney, like many other gay friends, wanted the same things that straight couples were searching for: a hand to hold, a heart to share.
Our “evolution” on this issue, in President Obama’s phrase, mirrors the rest of the country. The latest Washington Post/ABC News poll shows that a majority of Americans, 53 percent, now favor legalizing gay marriage. In California, long a harbinger of social trends, that figure is 59 percent, and pollster Mark DeCamillo tells the Associated Press: “The numbers are inexorably moving in one direction. Older folks, who are more in opposition, are dying out and younger folks are more inclined to support it. It’s not rocket science.”
The single biggest reason for this shift is not ideology but experience. Take Lynne Cheney, the former vice president’s wife, a conservative hardliner who once bristled with anger when Cokie asked about her gay daughter, Mary, in a TV interview. Yet last month, when Mary married her longtime partner, Heather Poe, in Washington, D.C., the elder Cheneys issued a statement describing the couple and their two children as “much-loved members of our family.”
The two women “have been in a committed relationship for many years,” said the statement, “and we are delighted that they were able to take advantage of the opportunity to have that relationship recognized.” Good for them. But that “opportunity” was only available because Washington recognizes same-sex unions. Most gay couples are still waiting for equality, and that battle is being fought on several fronts.
One is legal. Two major cases are likely to reach the Supreme Court next term. One challenges the Defense of Marriage Act, which defines marriage as a union between a man and a woman and bars same-sex couples from receiving federal benefits like joint tax returns. The other asks the court to overrule Proposition 8, a ban on gay marriage approved by California voters in 2008.
There is ample reason for the court to approve same-sex marriage under the equal protection clause of the Constitution. Why should Barney and Jim, and Heather and Mary, enjoy a right while it’s denied to many others? But even if the court shies away from legalization, the political process is moving in that direction.
A good example of why is Maureen Walsh, a Republican state legislator in Washington state who opposed same-sex unions until her daughter came out as gay. Then she changed. “It’s selfishness, but it’s motivated by love,” she told The New York Times, “and I’d rather err on the side of love, wouldn’t you?”
Role models are also important here. Barney made a huge impact by openly disclosing his sexuality years ago, and so did TV anchor Anderson Cooper when he recently announced that he was gay. As Cooper put it, “The tide of history only advances when people make themselves fully visible.”
Our friend Barney knows the truth of those words. He’s lived a public life full of wit and courage. When he retires from Congress at the end of the year, we hope he and Jim get the chance to “err on the side of love.” They deserve it. So does every couple, gay or straight.
Steve and Cokie Roberts can be contacted by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.