Mourning at the March for Marriage

“Deep and wide” attendance at the March for Marriage.

Human Rights Campaign twitter account.

Four of the five stages of grief—denial, anger, bargaining, and depression—were on full display today at the March for Marriage, a rally outside the U.S. Capitol organized by the National Organization for Marriage and other co-sponsors. NOM President Brian Brown had promised attendees the chance to be a part of “showing that there still exists in this country deep and wide support for the definition of marriage as the union of one man and one woman,” but, judging by photos of the event that revealed a shallow and thin crowd that seemed to gradually disperse as the two and a half hours of repetitive speeches wore on, the rally may have shown just the opposite.

Indeed, while many of the March for Marriage speakers seemed to hope the event would reinvigorate the movement against the notion that LGBTQ people are human beings deserving of the right to have their committed relationships honored by the state and treated equally under the law, the unimpressive gathering is probably more useful as a window into the psychology and coping mechanisms of those who can’t look up from their Bibles—or, perhaps, anti-gay organization paystubs—long enough to see the writing on the wall. 

Denial was the strongest of the stages being worked through at the rally, with a number of speakers joining Frank Schubert, NOM’s national political director, in cautioning that the overwhelming progress we’ve seen in recent years on marriage equality—especially since last year’s Windsor decision—has really been the result of unfair “judicial activism” and media spin and, as such, is not representative of the feelings of real Americans. “Victory [for the marriage equality movement] is not inevitable,” Schubert insisted from the podium. Various other scientific and social realities were also denied, most vehemently the fact that children of gay parents fare just as well as their straight-parented counterparts. The primary leitmotif of the day, in fact, was the argument—substantiated only by its being “self-evident”—that children simply must have a daddy and a mommy to survive.

Former Sen. Rick Santorum offered a particularly frothy mix of rhetoric on this point, suggesting that, “first and foremost in this movement, we have to reclaim marriage for what it is. Marriage is the union of a man and a woman for the purpose of making two people as one—a unity—and secondly, to have and raise children. No other union can accomplish those two purposes.” Those who have happily co-parented a child after an accidental pregnancy will be surprised to learn that their arrangement is impossible, but then their existence was not the only one to be denied entirely at the March for Marriage.

Indeed, based on the words spoken at this rally alone, you might be forgiven for understanding all the hoopla around “redefining marriage” as a rather abstract fight over the dictionary meaning of a word. Except for a particularly denial-prone out gay man who spoke, presenters studiously avoided direct references to the gays, lesbians, and other queer people who their movement, if successful, would bar from the 1,138 benefits and protections that marriage affords to couples. Apparently, when compared with defending the monolith of the Traditional Family, the impact of theocratic governance on actual individual lives is easily denied.

Also easily, if awkwardly, denied: Brian Brown’s utter inability to get a chant going.

Moving on to anger, one couldn’t help but notice how many of the pastors and religious figures—Jesus’  supposed representatives on earth—were virtually rabid in their disgust at the idea of marriage equality. The Rev. Bill Owens, the founder and president of the Coalition of African-American Pastors, fumed, “This is no civil rights movement; this is a bully movement,” concluding that “we will stand for right—PUT US IN JAIL!” The irony of Owens’ call for civil disobedience—presumably in the realm of cake-baking and flower-arranging—was apparently lost on him and the other speakers who took up similar exhortations, given that they would hopefully criticize business owners who refused to serve interracial or black couples based on their deeply held bigoted feelings. In any case, it will take a student of rhetoric far more skilled than I to explain the ideological prism that civil rights, as a concept, was passed through in Washington today: Suffrage, check. Racial discrimination, check. Next battle? Nonviolent resistance of the gay mafia.

It’s in the constant invocation of persecution, which positively soaked the day’s proceedings, that bargaining comes into play. Many of the speakers seem to be wagering that if they can just convince people—specifically, the conservative Hispanics that appeared to make up the majority of the audience and who were pandered to shamelessly throughout—that, in the most religious First World country in the world, Christians are more oppressed than LGBTQ people, they will finally see how mean and hurtful this marriage equality stuff really is. According to Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone of San Francisco, things are basically as bad now as they were for the early Christians in pagan Rome. Caitlin La Ruffa of the Love and Fidelity Network spoke of young Christians on college campuses inviting “great risk to their social lives” in order to express their love of traditional marriage to their peers. She offered them her support with this transfixing geometrical koan: “History doesn’t have sides; but the truth does have sides.” And at another point, Bishop Harry Jackson noted, in what seemed to be an unwitting moment of lucidity, that this conflict represented “one group trying to impose their issue, their agenda, on another group of Americans. That’s not right and that’s not fair.”

But despite the peppy transition music and voice-cracking excitement of the Spanish translator, a mood of depression suffused the proceedings. There was much nervous talk of a “truth about marriage” that America would rediscover or learn or feel sorry it had forgotten or something, and the general persuasion strategy seemed to have devolved into repeatedly explaining basic reproductive biology as if medical intervention did not exist and saying the phrase “a man and a woman” enough times to create a kind of ideological earworm. Whether such tactics will work is unclear, but Brian Brown is already looking toward the future: “We know that one day … people will look back at this time and remember those who stood up for the truth.”

That is undoubtedly correct—but it’s how that particular vision of the truth will be remembered that should have the marchers for marriage thinking long and hard about the final and most healthy step of grief: acceptance.