As surely as summer follows spring, and the Pirates fall below .500, Pennsylvania is having another debate over same-sex marriage. This time, the boogeyman for those of us on the left is state Sen. John Eichelberger. Eichelberger is a Blair County Republican who, as far as I can tell, has sponsored only one notable bit of legislation in his career: a constitutional amendment defining marriage as consisting of one man and one woman.
A Republican proposing a stupid marriage bill? Ordinarily that'd be a dog-on-man -- errr, I mean dog-bites-man -- story from the Rick Santorum wing of the GOP. But Eichelberger has gotten some extra buzz lately, thanks to a June 1 appearance on Philadelphia radio station WHYY. In the process, he's become a poster child for intolerance -- and a symptom for how desperate social conservatives have become.
The controversy erupted as the hour-long program was winding down. Senate Democrat Daylin Leach, who has sponsored a bill to allow gay marriage, asked Eichelberger if "our only policy towards [same-sex] couples [should] be one of punishment." Eichelberger's response: "They're not being punished. We're allowing them to exist, and do what every American can do."
It's that "allowing them to exist" line that has stoked the uproar. It sounds as if Eichelberger wanted credit for, like, not advocating a Nazi-style extermination of gays. At the same time, it sort of implied that the government could change its mind about that policy whenever it wished. Bloggers and equal-rights activists across the state are urging Pennsylvanians to voice their outrage -- to Eichelberger and his Senate colleagues -- about his intolerance.
I'm not sure that will do any good. If Harrisburg politicians began condemning each other for every moronic thing they said, they'd get even less done. Plus, Eichelberger boasts of being his district's "first pro-life senator in over three decades": I doubt he's going to be shamed by the equal-rights crowd.
More importantly, I've listened to the entire broadcast. (You can hear it for yourself at www.whyy.org.) And to me, Eichelberger's remarks don't inspire fear, so much as reflect it.
To be sure, Eichelberger sounds like a nasty piece of work. Asked by host Marty Moss-Coane if "by their very nature homosexual relationships are dysfunctional," Eichelberger said, "I guess I would say that." And of course it's dishonest to claim he's not "punishing" same-sex couples: I mean, what's the difference between punishing someone and denying them benefits everyone else enjoys?
And consider the standard Eichelberger says same-sex couples would have to meet before sharing those benefits: "[U]nless these family units can prove that they're beneficial to society, then we should not recognize them." Yikes. I'm not sure how many straight couples meet this standard. Sometimes my family unit can't even remember when to put out the recyclables.
But the key moment in the debate came when Leach asked how, if Eichelberger wouldn't allow them to marry, he'd "encourage stability in gay couples."
"I wouldn't," Eichelberger said flatly. "They can practice whatever sexual activity they'd like to practice. But there's no reason to give them special consideration."
"This isn't about sex, John," Leach responded. "I'm talking about how they live their lives."
But that's the irony of the conservative position today. Court battles over gay rights will be won or lost. Ballot referendums will come and go. But the cultural trends are irreversible. Mainstream society now tolerates gay couples to the extent that even a conservative like Eichelberger has to "allow" the thing that freaks him out the most: the idea of gay sex. "They're allowed to live in a relationship like that," Eichelberger acknowledged.
So what he's trying to do instead is deny these couples the right to do things couples do when they are clothed. Things like visiting each other in the hospital, raising children in a stable home, making end-of-life decisions.
It won't work. If you say -- even with disgust -- that same-sex couples can "do what they want in their own bedrooms," it's hard to deny their equality anywhere else. After all, it was only what happened in the bedroom that set them apart in the first place.
Eichelberger's quote sounds menacing, because it implies conservatives would get rid of gays entirely if they could. But the point is: They can't.
Mainstream society has passed the point where our relationships have to meet with John Eichelberger's approval. And that's why, for all their bluster, when I hear these guys talking, I always hear the sound of retreat.