‘Saturday Night’ Gets it Right

First published at 365gay.com on October 10, 2008

In the last few weeks I’ve become seriously convinced that Saturday Night Live could help sway this presidential election. For one thing, it has crystallized Sarah Palin’s foreign-policy experience in a simple phrase:

“I can see Russia from my house.”

She didn’t quite say that, of course, but it’s close enough—not to mention funny, and memorable.

Thus I was counting on SNL to neatly sum up the vice-presidential debate between Palin and Joe Biden. They didn’t disappoint.

Sure, there were the expected shots at Palin: her non-answers, her lack of experience, her winks. But SNL is an equal-opportunity parodist, and one of my favorite moments poked fun at Biden.

Queen Latifah/ Ifill: “Do you support, as they do in Alaska, granting same-sex benefits to couples?”

Sudeikis/Biden: “I do. In an Obama-Biden administration same-sex couples would be guaranteed the same property rights, rights to insurance, and rights of ownership as heterosexual couples. There will be no distinction. I repeat: NO DISTINCTION.”

Latifah/Ifill: “So to clarify, do you support gay marriage, Senator Biden?”

Sudeikis/Biden: (deadpan) “Absolutely not.”

Then, in case anyone missed the contrast, he follows up:

Sudeikis/Biden: “But I do think they should be allowed to visit one another in the hospital and in a lot of ways, that’s just as good, if not better.”

Again, this is not quite what the actual Biden said—but it’s close enough, not to mention funny, and memorable.

We’ve seen this before in the Democrats: on the one hand, trying to support full legal equality for same-sex couples, and other the other hand, trying to avoid the m-word at all costs. The result is an incoherent mess—one that gets messier when they try to explain the incoherence.

Consider, for instance, the actual Biden’s explanation of his and Obama’s opposition to full marriage equality. They don’t support same-sex marriage, Biden said, because that’s a decision “to be left to faiths and people who practice their faiths [to determine] what you call it.”

No, it isn’t. Because the question was not about religious marriage, it was about civil marriage—which in a free society is a matter for government, not religion.

I don’t mean to pick on the Democrats here. The only reason that the Republicans avoid getting into the same logical pretzel is that they don’t even try to make the argument for full equality under the law.

And while it’s true that both Obama and McCain oppose same-sex marriage at the federal level, Obama remains far ahead on gay issues: in supporting federal civil unions, in opposing “Don’t Ask/Don’t Tell,” in opposing key portions of the “Defense of Marriage Act,” and in the kinds of federal judges and Supreme Court justices he is likely to appoint. Obama also opposes anti-gay state marriage amendments that McCain supports.

The question is how long we can politely pretend that his stance of “full legal equality but not marriage” makes sense, because it doesn’t. It didn’t when John Kerry used it in the last election, it didn’t when Hillary Clinton, John Edwards, and Bill Richardson used it during the primaries, and it doesn’t now.

It doesn’t make logical sense, although I can see why some think it makes political sense.

Personally, I’m a political incrementalist. I believe in fighting for a half a loaf today and then regrouping to fight for the rest tomorrow, if the full loaf is genuinely not yet possible. That doesn’t mean I don’t find legal inequality demeaning: it just means that securing certain rights is more important to me than being an “all or nothing” purist.

So I’m willing to support the “half a loaf” politicians. I’m just not willing to pretend that they’re offering the full loaf, or to rest content when I get it. I’m not willing to settle for “separate but equal”—another oxymoron in this debate.

History teaches us what “separate but equal” does. It demeans one group by suggesting that they must be kept apart from others. But it also embodies a bigger problem: “separate but equal” never turns out really to be “equal.”

That was true during segregation, and it’s true now for civil unions—a newfangled status that, in practice, simply doesn’t grant full legal equality. We’ve learned this in case after case, as civil-union couples face legal issues with entities that don’t even understand their legal status, much less recognize it.

That’s why we need to keep fighting for full equality. Because in the end, there’s nothing funny about unequal treatment under the law.