The issue arguably cost John Kerry the presidential election, and Kansas has just become the 18th state to constitutionally ban it, yet there are reasons to feel optimistic about the granting of full civil rights to people who have chosen a life partner of the same sex.
Even as the heartland state was enshrining bigotry in its constitution, a bipartisan legislative majority in Connecticut this month approved same-sex civil unions -- and, unlike the laws allowing same-sex marriage in Massachusetts and civil unions in Vermont, this one was not in response to a court order.
More important, we continue to see public expressions of what I am calling the Finkelstein Phenomenon: the slow but inexorable societal acknowledgment that gay people are real people living real lives, not an abstraction or a subculture. And many of them are Republicans.
Arthur Finkelstein, for example, is an enormously effective right-wing GOP political operative who disclosed recently that in December he took advantage of the groundbreaking and much-maligned Massachusetts law to marry his longtime partner. When asked why, he cited "visitation rights, healthcare benefits and other human relationship contracts."
Finkelstein must have conveniently forgotten his own interests when he helped engineer the election of known conservative gay-bashers such as Jesse Helms. He represents -- along with Dick Cheney's highly regarded lesbian daughter and the Log Cabin Republicans -- yet another example of how being gay is much more fundamental than a "lifestyle choice." It is just another manifestation of the human experience.
Acknowledging this, the Connecticut Legislature granted gay couples the same tax advantages, family leave privileges, hospital visitation rights and other benefits now reserved for heterosexual married couples. And although the state's Republican governor did manage to have an amendment inserted into the bill defining marriage as a union of a man and a woman, the law's opponents were right when they said that this partial civil rights victory will ultimately lead to the legal acceptance of gay marriage.
"It's hard to believe that the train, as it rolls down the tracks, is going to stop at this station," complained state Sen. John Kissel, who voted against it. "Going down this track has a price to it."
The price might be high for bigots. But as many whites learned in the post-segregation South, there is a far greater gain in learning to respect people who are "different" and to live with them constructively.
Although racial segregation was a "traditional value" for most of this nation's existence, it was belatedly overturned as subversive of the values of a democratic society, as discrimination against gays will be.
Integration was most ardently opposed by Southern white Baptist preachers who cited the Bible, and now we hear the same Scripture-based attacks on gay marriage. Yet this is hypocritically selective because Christian writings are full of historical anachronisms, such as the acceptance of polygamy and women-as-chattel.
In any case, religious interpretations should never intrude on matters of secular law, as has occurred relentlessly in the same-sex marriage debate. But faced with a logical and long-building civil rights movement spurred by the "coming out" of millions of regular Americans, conservative politicians have fallen back on "traditional religious values" because they can find no other convincing argument for supporting repression.
As it has been for racial minorities, women and immigrants, the progressive acquisition of civil rights is marked by partial victories, regional setbacks and flare-ups of naked hostility and even violence. Yet the pattern is clear: The breakthrough Connecticut legislation eventually will be followed by other states and the nation as a whole because it is so obviously an extension of rights that all citizens in a democracy deserve.
-- Robert Scheer writes a weekly column for the Times.