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Opinion: Durbin Invokes Lincoln In Support of Same-Sex Marriage

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Durbin Invokes Lincoln In Support of Same-Sex Marriage

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I’ve read a lot about the life of Abraham Lincoln. I’ve read Carl Sandburg’s biography, and Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals. I’ve seen "Young Mr. Lincoln," starring Henry Fonda, and "Lincoln," starring Daniel Day Lewis.

Nowhere do I recall Lincoln expressing an opinion on gay marriage. It wasn’t an issue in 19th Century America. Yet Sen. Dick Durbin invoked Lincoln’s name in a letter to members of the General Assembly, urging them to support the Freedom and Marriage Fairness Act, which would make Illinois the 10th state to allow same-sex marriages.

Wrote Durbin:

Every generation is given the chance to put an end to some form of discrimination in America. As you consider this historic vote, I hope you will reflect on those you will meet after it is cast. An affirmative vote will give you a chance to look into the eyes of those who have faced discrimination throughout their lives and tell them that you voted to affirm their rights under the law.

My own views on this issue have evolved over the years, and as I reflect on my support for marriage equality, I have concluded that ending this discrimination is consistent with the evolution of civil rights in our democracy—a process served so nobly by a former member of the Illinois General Assembly, Abraham Lincoln.

I don’t object to gay marriage. I do object to dragging Lincoln into an issue on which it’s impossible to know his feelings. One reason Lincoln is such a beloved historical figure is that both liberals and conservatives feel they can claim him as one of their own. Liberals, because he ended slavery, the great civil rights issue of his day. Conservatives, because he’s a Republican. I know an extremely conservative Alabamian whose views tend toward guns for all, in government aid for none, and who believes he carries the banner Lincoln simply because he’s a Republican.

Some gay-rights activists have even claimed Lincoln as one of their own because he shared beds with fellow circuit riding preachers -- a common practice at crowded frontier inns. Lincoln also wrote this bawdy comic poem about a man who married another man because no woman would accept his suit:

            For Reuben and Charles have married two girls,

But Billy has married a boy.

The girls he had tried on every side,

But none he could get to agree;

All was in vain, he went home again,

And since that he's married to Natty.

This suggests that Lincoln thought of same-sex marriage as a comic, ludicrous idea -- which in his society, it was. 

If Lincoln were a member of the General Assembly today, would he vote in favor of same-sex marriage? He’s not a member, so it’s impossible to know, and it cheapens his memory and real-life accomplishments to speculate.

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