Two events within a few days of each other recently underscored the perplexing quality of the debate over gay rights in the United States.
The first was a celebration of tolerance and a memorial to the awful things that happen when antipathy consumes people. At a home in suburban Maryland, a group that crossed the lines of party and ideology came together to honor the decision of a group of gay rights leaders to raise $1.5 million for Washington's Holocaust Museum. The gesture, said David Mixner, a key organizer of the effort, was to demonstrate appreciation for a museum that teaches the consequences of "unchecked hatred, unchecked bigotry, unchecked intolerance."
Mixner's initiative was warmly welcomed by the museum and by a range of figures inside and outside the Jewish community, some of whom might have been surprised a few years ago to find common ground at such an occasion. "It was a lovely event," said Leonard Garment, who represented Richard Nixon's White House 25 years ago in discussions with Mixner, a prime mover in the 1969 Moratorium against the Vietnam War.
Then, two days later, voters in Austin, Texas, overwhelmingly backed the repeal of a law that offered insurance benefits to the unmarried partners of city employees, including both straight and gay couples. The vote in one of the country's liberal citadels was another setback for gay-rights groups and a victory for conservative churches that pressed the referendum against the ordinance.
There's an easy way to try to explain the difference between the two events. As a rule, the well-to-do - such as those gathered in Maryland - are more liberal than others on social questions such as gay rights.
But this explanation is not satisfactory because it doesn't take into account the difference between what was being affirmed in each place. The Maryland event was unifying because it's impossible for reasonable and humane people not to agree on the horror of the Holocaust. David Ifshin, a Washington lawyer who was host to the event, argued correctly that one need not "approve of a lifestyle" to oppose bigotry against gays and lesbians - or against anyone else.
The issue in Austin was more complicated, involving the use of public money to provide insurance for unmarried partners of city employees. The gay-rights issue alone did not explain the margin of defeat, according to Tim Weltin, executive director of the Travis County Democratic Party. He told The Washington Post's Sue Anne Pressley that many voters supported repeal not because of anti-gay sentiment but because they disapproved of unmarried heterosexuals living together and didn't think the city should help support that lifestyle.
The difficulty with the gay-rights issue is that while it's easy to draw such fine distinctions in the abstract, the debate itself is rarely abstract for those in the midst of it. …