The New York State Senate‘s rejection of a bill that would have allowed marriage between two people who love each other — but happen to be gay — is just the most recent in a string of set-backs in the area of gay rights. Other set-backs have been occurring, or are currently looming, in women’s rights, specifically reproductive rights. One wonders about the mood of this country.
This particular one wonders if anyone else is harking back, with more than a little sadness, to the 1950s. If you weren’t around then, I can tell you it was a strange decade. Great optimism for the future — well, there’s not much of that today — while simultaneously there was terrible meanness behind the McCarthy witch hunts and the denial of women’s rights, plus a certain amount of smugness embedded into a bland, national complacency.
At ladies’ bridge parties there were small china ashtrays on each corner of the table and the conversation usually drifted toward those lovely wonder drugs emerging to give instant relief for any problem. The conversation never drifted toward back-alley abortions, unless someone had recently died and the others knew how it had happened. Those of us who had jobs — running a house, entertaining for the husband’s business, raising children; those were not considered jobs — usually had male counterparts doing the exact same thing for twice the salary. One did not complain. If one were middle class white, and involved in any sort of civil rights work, one never brought that up at the bridge table. It was a strange decade.
Today’s New York Times story quotes senators who voted against the same-sex marriage bill as saying “the public is gripped by economic anxiety and remain(s) uneasy about changing the state’s definition of marriage.” The San Francisco Chronicle article includes a comment from sponsoring Senator Thomas Duane, “I wasn’t expecting betrayal.” I’m sure those are both accurate reports. Whatever its underlying economic, political or social fears, the public seems also to harbor a degree of meanness in discounting the rights of others.
If you substitute a measure of cynicism or hopelessness about the future for the complacency of a half-century ago, and throw in the self-righteousness of those who for religious or political reasons justify the denial of rights to their fellow citizens, it’s easy to draw parallels between this decade and that one long ago.
In the fifties the groundwork was being laid for civil rights, for women’s liberation, for Roe v Wade and the upheavals that eventually led to progress, by courageous and energetic people of all sorts. I wish I could list myself in that number; I was at the bridge table trying to pretend normalcy in a life gone amok. Today there are others working just as hard for the rights of their fellow men and women.
I hope they can keep the faith.