Gay marriage, changing demographics, and Maurice Sendak

Any time I think of Maurice Sendak, I have vivid memories — quick, sharp ones — of our house on Knollwood Street in Frankfort, Kentucky.

As with so many childhood memories, I wonder about the integrity of mine — are they even true? Did we have a copy of Where the Wild Things Are as I remember?

Did I really look at the wonderfully strange and evocative pictures in my room with the blue bedspread or on the shag carpet of our den? Did our dachshund Duchess fittingly chew the corners of the book?

It wasn’t until a few days ago, while listening to letters being read on NPR’s All Things Considered, that I found out that Maurice Sendak was gay. I’ve always tried to maintain a line between the public and the private, and I wouldn’t even be remarking about Sendak’s sexuality now if I hadn’t read the following in the NYT’s Concerns Beyond Just Where the Wild Things Are from 2008:

His fascination with the [Lindbergh] kidnapping, like many of the other details of his life, has been repeated endlessly over the years in the hundreds of interviews he has given. Was there anything he had never been asked? He paused for a few moments and answered, “Well, that I’m gay.”

“I just didn’t think it was anybody’s business,” Mr. Sendak added. He lived with Eugene Glynn, a psychoanalyst, for 50 years before Dr. Glynn’s death in May 2007. He never told his parents: “All I wanted was to be straight so my parents could be happy. They never, never, never knew.”

Children protect their parents, Mr. Sendak said. It was like the time he had a heart attack at 39. His mother was dying from cancer in the hospital, and he decided to keep the news to himself, something he now regrets.

A gay artist in New York is not exactly uncommon, but Mr. Sendak said that the idea of a gay man writing children books would have hurt his career when he was in his 20s and 30s.

50 years!

Now let me digress for a moment.

My Facebook feed was flooded with posts after Sendak’s death earlier this week.

A painting by Panhandle Slim

And then it was flooded again when North Carolina voters approved a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage by a 3-2 margin. No surprise in that vote, which made NC join the rest of the South in having such amendments. I’ll confess to being surprised by the online anger expressed by so many of my friends and contacts — did anyone really think the vote would go another way?

And then my feed was flooded later that same day when President Obama came out publicly in support of gay marriage.

I suspect Obama has been privately in favor of gay marriage for a long time, but it’s hardly a winning issue in terms of electoral politics — or at least it hasn’t been. Clearly, there were political risks in making his stand public, but it looks increasingly like there are political advantages. I’ve been really surprised by the relatively quiet response from the Republican leadership since Obama’s announcement.

The demographics are pretty clear on the issue of gay marriage. A Gallup poll in 2011 found the following:

We’re seeing two trends: individual Americans are finding there own positions “evolve”, probably because of their regular interactions with gay people, and an older cohort that still opposes gay marriage by about 2 to 1 is being replaced in the electorate by a younger cohort who support it by about 2 to 1.

The differences are more extreme at the edges, with the youngest voters even more overwhelmingly in favor of legal gay marriage.

Interestingly, there is considerable opposition to gay marriage among African Americans, but it seems unlikely that they will desert Obama this fall. And I wonder how Obama’s endorsement will impact prevailing attitudes among blacks, especially down here in the South — I’m sure it will change a few minds or at least prompt some reconsiderations.

No matter how all this plays out, it seems inevitable that gay marriage will be broadly legal across the United States, even if it takes a generation or two in some states.

I have no idea whether Maurice Sendak would have wanted to marry Eugene Glynn, his partner of 50 years.

I’d kind of like to think that a master artist so aware of the strangeness of the world would be cynical about an institution like marriage.

But it’s inconceivable at this point to think that couples like Sendak and Glynn should be denied the right to make their decades-long commitments legal and public.