Progress on Gay Rights Points to Strengths of the Transatlantic Relationship
"It is time, 25 years on, to discuss the Cold War again," wrote Mark Lilla last month in The New Republic. Weeks later, 298 innocent civilians, most of them from a stalwart NATO member state, were shot out of the sky over Ukraine. In Lilla's view, Europe and the United States are vulnerable today because we have abandoned ideology for a dogma of social libertarianism. An "illegible age" of "shallow and clueless" political thinking leaves the West ill-prepared to confront undemocratic adversaries like Russia, Lilla argues. He singles out tolerance of homosexuality and gay marriage as proof that Western countries no longer balance individual rights against their effects on society.
But Lilla forgets how galvanizing it has been for members of the transatlantic alliance to confront, and decisively resolve, an issue once considered beyond the bounds of debate. The Netherlands—home of almost 200 passengers on the doomed Malaysia Airlines flight—in 1974 became the first country to allow homosexuals to serve in the military. In time, most NATO members followed, including the United States in 2011. The Dutch also pioneered same-sex marriage. I recall that, in 2004, as the city coordinator for Marshall Memorial Fellows visiting Pittsburgh, I met a group at the airport, among them Dutch journalist Bart Dirks.
As we drove to the hotel, Bart phoned his boyfriend; when he said, "I love you," I secretly gritted my teeth. I had a few gay acquaintances, but this felt impetuous. Would Bart hijack my careful itinerary with nonstop arguing about gay rights? I was an idiot. Bart was no firebrand, just a dedicated journalist and a talented storyteller. Who called his boyfriend to say he loved him. Like I’d say to my wife. Two years later, Bart invited me to stay at the Brussels apartment he shared with Roeland, now his fiancé. We toured the Ypres battlefields, visited college haunts in Ghent, drank Westmalle on the Grand Place, and went to Catholic Mass together.
Each night, they kissed and said, “I love you.” For their wedding present in 2007, my wife and I bought them an antique map with New York labeled “New Amsterdam.” In 2004, when Bart made his call, two countries in the world—the Netherlands and Belgium—had legalized same-sex marriage. This past spring, Pennsylvania became the 19th state in the United States to do so. The breathtaking transformation in public acceptance of gay rights in the West came about through countless personal interactions like mine. Sweeping changes in the law follow sweeping changes in public opinion. That’s what happens when people reexamine a familiar world through new eyes. When we strengthen the transatlantic relationship, we also strengthen our own communities, and our democracies.
Mark Houser is the Marshall Memorial Fellowship City Coordinator for Pittsburgh and a University Editor at Robert Morris University.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.