“The very idea of marriage is basic to recognition as equals in our society; any status short of that is inferior, unjust, and unconstitutional.” These are the words of Theodore B. Olson as quoted in a Jan. 9 Newsweek article. Olson is one of two lawyers seeking to overturn Proposition 8, a 2008 referendum that banned gay marriage in California. Olson stated that he took the case because “this is not a conservative or liberal issue; it is an American one, and it is time that we, as Americans, embraced it.”
Olson’s Newsweek piece is intelligent and thought-provoking. But what renders it particularly unique is the background of the author: Olson is a staunch conservative. He rose to prominence as the foremost conservative lawyer in the nation by winning the Bush v. Gore Supreme Court case and ensuring George W. Bush’s 2000 presidential victory. And yet, almost 10 years later, Olson is at the forefront of the quest for marriage equality. While Olson’s actions could be easily discounted as an abnormality, an increasing number of prominent conservatives are publicly standing up for gay rights.
Just a few weeks after Olson’s piece appeared in Newsweek, Cindy McCain, the wife of 2008 presidential candidate and current Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), was featured in an ad released by the pro-gay marriage NOH8 campaign. NOH8 released a statement saying, “Cindy McCain wanted to participate in the campaign to show people that party doesn’t matter.”
Then there’s the case of Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.), whose recent record of alliance with the left is weak at best. A few weeks ago, Lieberman stated he was “proud” to be the primary sponsor of a Senate bill that would repeal the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy and allow gays to serve openly in the military. In a written statement, Lieberman argued that Americans should be allowed to defend their country regardless of sexual orientation.
Perhaps most striking has been the support of gay marriage by former Vice President Dick Cheney. Speaking before the National Press Club in 2009, Cheney highlighted the impact that having a gay daughter had on his thinking. “I think people ought to be free to enter into any kind of union they wish,” he said.
It is clear that the average ideology of Olson, McCain, Lieberman and Cheney falls squarely in conservative territory. With the exception of Lieberman, who represents the liberal state of Connecticut, none of these figures are likely to gain popularity among peers because they support gay marriage. And yet all four have come out as strong allies of the gay movement. Joining their cause are the Log Cabin Republicans, a growing national organization of conservatives who embrace LGBT rights. They are part of an increasing number of Americans who believe that gay rights is a civil rights issue instead of a political issue.
As a person who identifies as gay, I am comforted by the fact that Americans are uniting across party lines to support gay rights. While I tolerated the argument that gays should not be allowed to marry early in my coming out process, over time I have realized that the institution of marriage is constantly evolving. In our nation’s past, polygamous marriages were once legal and African Americans weren’t allowed to marry whites. These practices might have survived to the present day if people had continued to support the status quo. If we managed to abandon the idea that marriage should be limited to “one (white) man and one (white) woman” or “one man and multiple women,” there is little reason why the definition of marriage can’t survive a further revision.
My support for gay marriage comes from within — at the deepest of human levels. I believe that, at its core, marriage is a symbolic representation of two people’s love for one another, and to deny people’s ability to marry implicitly repudiates their love. I find strength in the long but successful history of the civil rights movement. As Mahatma Gandhi once said, “When I despair, I remember that all through history the way of truth and love has always won. There have been tyrants and murderers and for a time they seem invincible but in the end, they always fall.”
The growing number of unlikely conservative allies is a testament to Gandhi’s words. As an increasingly diverse coalition of Americans stands in proud support of marriage equality, it’s clear that, despite referenda like Proposition 8, gay rights opponents are like fish swimming against the flow of the river. And for that, every ally, especially our conservative ones, deserves the deepest praise.
Tommaso Pavone can be reached at email@example.com.