For several weeks now a storm has been brewing in the Senate over just how homosexuals fit into the mainstream of American life. First, an honest debate on the criminalization of gay sex in Texas somehow gave rise to baseless fears about permitting bestiality and incest. Then, after the Supreme Court's reasonable ruling in Lawrence v. Texas that the government had no business policing people in their bedrooms, a panic developed. Some worried that the decision would lead to gay marriage, thus posing a threat to the survival of the American family.
In the view of this old Senate hand, it's time for everyone to take a deep breath, calm down and wait for this storm to head out to sea. But no such luck: Several Senate members want to create more anguish by pushing a proposal to amend the Constitution. It would set a federal definition of marriage as being a union between a man and a woman.
Like most Americans, and most Republicans, I think it's important to do all we can to defend and strengthen the institution of marriage. And I also believe it is critically important to defend the integrity of the Constitution. But a federal amendment to define marriage would do nothing to strengthen families -- just the opposite. And it would unnecessarily undermine one of the core principles I have always believed the GOP stood for: federalism.
In our system of government, laws affecting family life are under the jurisdiction of the states, not the federal government. This is as it should be. After all, Republicans have always believed that government actions that affect someone's personal life, property and liberty -- including, if not especially, marriage -- should be made at the level of government closest to the people. Indeed, states already actively regulate marriage. For example, 37 states have passed their own version of the Defense of Marriage Act.
I do not argue in any way that we should now sanction gay marriage. Reasonable people can have disagreements about it. That people of goodwill would disagree was something our Founders fully understood when they created our federal system. They saw that contentious social issues would best be handled in the legislatures of the states, where debates could be held closest to home. That's why we should let the states decide how best to define and recognize any legally sanctioned unions -- marriage or otherwise.
As someone who is basically a conservative, I see not an argument about banning marriage or "defending" families but rather a power grab. Conservatives argue vehemently about federal usurpation of other issues best left to the states, such as abortion or gun control. Why would they elevate this one to the federal level?
What's more, it is surely not the tradition in this country to try to amend the Constitution in ways that constrict liberty. All of our amendments have been designed to expand the sphere of freedom, with one notorious exception: prohibition. We all know how that absurd federal power grab turned out.
My old and dear friend Dick Cheney put it best when he said during the last presidential campaign: "The fact of the matter is we live in a free society, and freedom means freedom for everybody. . . . And I think that means that people should be free to enter into any kind of relationship they want to enter into. It's really no one else's business in terms of trying to regulate or prohibit behavior in that regard. . . . I think different states are likely to come to different conclusions, and that's appropriate. I don't think there should necessarily be a federal policy in this area."
Dick sees clearly the other reason why federalizing marriage is troublesome. The Republican Party I call home is one that purports to respect "freedom for everybody," respecting the rights and dignity of the individual. And that dignity must be respected by both the letter and spirit of our laws.
My views were formed back in my days as a kid in high school in Cody, Wyo. There was one classmate everyone would whisper about: "Jimmy, he's one of those." And we all knew what "one of those" was. Then, one horrible day, Jimmy committed suicide. It was the worst thing, a terrible waste, a sickening tragedy. Jimmy was one who felt isolated and hounded. He deserved a helluva lot better, from those of us in Cody, and from American society as a whole.
As our country has gained honest and steady knowledge about homosexuality, we have learned that it is not a mental illness or a disease or a threat to our families. The real threats to family values are divorce, out-of-wedlock births and infidelity. We all know someone who is gay, and like all of us, gay men and women need to have their relationships recognized in some way. How are gay men and women to be expected to build stable, loving relationships as all of us try to do, when American society refuses to recognize the relationships?
Not long ago the daughter of an old family friend of mine came home for a Thanksgiving dinner with her lesbian partner -- and my friend is one of those "old cowboy" dads, too! He and his wife gently took their daughter's hand, and her partner's hand, and said grace together just as millions of American families do every year.
To reach the best understanding, the debate over gay men and women in America should focus not on what drives us apart but on how to make all of our children -- straight or gay -- feel welcome in this land, their own American home.
The writer is a former Republican senator from Wyoming and honorary chairman of the Republican Unity Coalition, a gay-straight alliance of Republican leaders whose avowed purpose is to work to encourage tolerance and to address concerns of gay and lesbian Americans.
© 2003 The Washington Post Company
The Washington Post