Last Friday, the U.S. Supreme Court decided by 5-4 that the right to marry the person of one’s choice is fundamental and cannot be denied by the states. This was a controversial decision, obviously, but it was very important in removing a barrier to many families who are joined in love and would like to be joined in marriage. I have seen estimates that 50,000 or more children live with gay parents, and Justice Anthony Kennedy acknowledged that these children should have the security of knowing that their family is legally recognized. Some of my readers may be aware of the story I told last Friday night at New York City’s gay synagogue, Congregation Beit Simchat Torah (CBST), but not the details. Others may be shocked. I pondered whether to share my speech with you. But I decided that, since I am two days short of my 77th birthday, it is too late to hide anything.
Congregation Beit Simchat Torah (CBST), June 26, 2015
What a historic day!
I am so honored and privileged to speak here tonight and join you in celebrating.
Over the past few days, I read the history of CBST. Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum sent me a book about the founding and development of New York City’s first gay synagogue. It is a story of courage and survival.
Who would have believed, when that first minyan of 10 men met in 1973 that, 42 years later, the US Supreme Court would affirm marriage equality for all?
When I read the history, I discovered that Sharon Kleinbaum is truly “The One.” I read that the CBST search committee conducted a national search; they interviewed many candidates. Rabbi Sharon did not apply, but they heard about her. When they met Rabbi Sharon in 1992, they all agreed: She is The One. Hers was the only name they forwarded to the board.
I knew she was The One when she invited me to speak tonight–somehow she knew, in her great depth of wisdom and foresight, that this would be a great day in gay history. And of course exactly the right time for me to come out in public for the first time.
Some of you may know my writings about education. I was for many years a prominent advocate of testing, choice, and accountability. Five years ago, I renounced my long-held views and declared myself an opponent of high-stakes testing, vouchers, and privately managed charters, in a book called “The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education.” In 2013, I wrote another book, Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privation Movement and the Danger to America’s Schools. I have written, blogged, and spoken out across the nation about the menace of privatization. The privatization movement is funded by billionaires, hedge fund managers, and rightwing governors (of both parties), and its goal is to destroy public education, to bust teachers unions, and to undermine the teaching profession. They call themselves reformers but they are just trying to confuse the public about their real goals, which the public would reject. This movement is a threat not only to public education but to the future of our democracy.
But my change of mind about education issues was dwarfed by my life change. I was married to a very fine man for 25 years. We had three children, one of whom died of leukemia.
Thirty years ago, at a conference in Minneapolis sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities–the best thing Bill Bennett ever did–I met the love of my life. I decided I wanted to spend the rest of my life with her.
Over the past three decades, we have made a wonderful life together. She has taken care of me in sickness and health, through a pulmonary embolism, deep vein thrombosis, total knee replacement, and more. In the presence of our immediate family and close friends, we were married by Rabbi Kleinbaum at our home in Brooklyn on December 12, 2012.
My wife, Mary Butz, was born in Brooklyn. She is Roman Catholic and of German descent. She spent 35 years as a teacher, assistant principal, principal, and executive director for leadership in the NYC Board of Education. Some people think I learned everything I know about education from her, but I did know a few things before I met her.
She is the funniest, kindest person I know, also the most honest and ethical.
Just two anecdotes.
Soon after we started living together, Mary realized that I became depressed around the time of major Jewish holidays. One Yom Kippur, she insisted that we go to the CBST services at the Javits Center, where thousands of LGBT people gathered. I was happy but nervous, because I was still closeted. Would anyone see me? What would they say?
Well, Mary went to the ladies’ room, and ran into many NYC school teachers. No one expressed surprise that she was a lesbian. Instead, everyone said, “Mary, I didn’t know you were Jewish.”
Then there was the time in 2006 when I was invited to speak at Davos, the World Economic Forum in Switzerland. This was a very big deal. They were paying my way and I asked them to pay the way for my domestic partner. They adamantly refused. I insisted. They still refused. Finally, I realized that we had a language problem, when they explained that no one was allowed to bring their domestics with them. When they finally understood that we were a gay couple, all was well.
So here we are in a new world. We no longer have to find circumlocutions for our husbands and wives. We enjoy the same marriage rights as others.
It has been a long struggle and it will no doubt continue on other fronts to protect the rights of people who are LGBT.
I would be remiss if I did not urge you to engage in social and political activism on a broader front. Our nation is beset by growing income inequality and wealth inequality. The Citizens United decision of the Supreme Court struck a blow against our democracy by allowing the super-rich to spend obscene amounts of money on political campaigns, supporting candidates who will protect the privileges of the rich and powerful.
Our victory in the courts today must summon us to fight for all those who are marginalized and who are deemed losers in our harshly competitive society.
We can’t have a great society unless we have a good society. It can be neither good nor great unless it is good for all Americans.