Comic relief helps explain the success of Broadway’s revival of "The Odd Couple." Peggy Drexler says two straight men quarreling over dust balls relieve the strain of the national dust-up over same-sex marriage.

Peggy Drexler

(WOMENSENEWS)–Maybe battle fatigue explains why the Broadway revival of Neil Simon’s 1965 hit, "The Odd Couple," is sold out through next April.

For a couple of hours in a dark theater, we get to call the troops home from the culture wars and indulge in the hilarity of a couple of domesticated straight men whose biggest problem is dust balls under the bed. For the moment, the uproar over real male couples demanding real marriages retreats to the closet. We laugh at the heterosexual marital problems we had well before we began fighting over whether gays and lesbians should be allowed to have them, too.

When the lights return so does the reality of today’s sexual politics, and it’s nothing to laugh about. In the current debate over legalizing same-sex relationships, those for and against are digging in and firing multiple rounds of invective.

Even Barbie is having to explain herself to both sides. Mattel’s got into trouble with the conservative Concerned Women for America when an online questionnaire offered the gender choices "Girl," "Boy" and "I don’t know." With the third option now reading, "I don’t want to say," the Gender Public Advocacy Coalition accuses the company of caving in to the far right.

Recent elections only highlight the troubled state of America’s uneasy marriage of red and blue states.

Take Texas, for example. Texans like to do everything big. The Lone Star state has two–count ’em two–laws saying "You can’t" to gays who want to say "I do."

First is a state law specifically prohibiting same sex couples to marry. Second, following the Bush Administration’s lead in last year’s election, is an amendment to the state constitution passed last November that forbids gay marriage, just in case some "activist" judge challenges the law or, God forbid, the state legislature decides to repeal it some day.

New England, the Bush ancestral home, weighs in on the other end of the scale. There, Vermont is famous for being the first state to legalize civil unions and Massachusetts for allowing gay marriage. Now civil unions are legal in Connecticut as well, and Maine voters have just defeated opposition to gay rights by ratifying legislation banning discrimination against gay and lesbian people.

Banned in 43 States

Extremes aside, when it comes to gay marriage, most of us are unsure of ourselves, whether we live in red states or blue ones. George Bush, the so-called compassionate conservative, appealed well beyond his conservative base when he called for an amendment to the U.S. Constitution banning gay marriage during last year’s election. Liberal politicians who proudly tout their commitment to civil rights remain squeamish about gay marriage. After all, it’s been banned in 43 states, including a number of the bluest. That’s a statistic candidates ignore at their peril. It’s why one Democrat quietly told his colleagues last year that he thanks God for civil unions. It’s a lot safer in the middle of the road.

Democrats with the best of intentions have been side-swiped by conservatism on gay issues in their own party. Even Bill Clinton, traumatized by a Democratic insurgency over gays in the military, became willing to sign the Defense of Marriage Act.

While seeing gays as a terrible threat to marriage, heterosexuals have done a fine job of weakening the institution all by themselves.

Half our marriages end in divorce, in red states as well as blue. Marriage is so fractured that since 1970, when Jack Klugman and Tony Randall turned "The Odd Couple" into a hit TV show, families headed by single mothers have more than tripled.

Blaming Single Moms

Meanwhile, we hold single moms responsible for everything from homosexuality to crime in the streets. Columnist George Will recently voiced this widely held assumption in an article relating post-Katrina looting to "lightly parented adolescent males" growing up without fathers.

Ideology aside, families led by women can and do succeed. In my book, "Raising Boys Without Men: How Maverick Moms Are Creating the Next Generation of Exceptional Men," I demonstrate that single mothers or two-mom couples are not inherently more or less equipped to raise healthy sons. My own long-term studies of actual families headed by women show that success is not based on gender, but on parents who are caring and supportive, spend time with their children and nurture their independence.

While gay marriage remains a political non-starter, attitudes toward homosexuality are undergoing a sea change, driven in part by the gay characters television brings into our living rooms and, at its best, into our hearts. Newsweek calls this the "Will and Grace Effect." Now in its eighth and last season, "Will and Grace" hit Nielsen’s top 10 early on and remains one of television’s most popular shows. You don’t get there with blue state viewers alone. Jerry Falwell doesn’t stand a chance against Will’s friend Jack.

"Will and Grace" has generated predictable harrumphing, including a thumbs down from some conservative Web sites. "The Christian Spotlight on Entertainment," published by Eden Communications in Gilbert, Ariz., gives the show a moral rating of "A" for "Avoid." But even there, humor trumps righteousness as a reviewer comments, "I must be totally hypocritical here: I’ve watched the show; I am a Christian; and I’ve laughed and laughed."

TV Changing Attitudes

Gays on television have a particularly salutary effect among those who still think they don’t know gay people. In a study of students with few or no gay acquaintances, among those who watched 10 episodes of "Six Feet Under" featuring a gay character in a leading role, levels of anti-gay prejudice dropped by 12 percent.

Television may be powerful, but real life is more so. It’s hard to remain horrified by two men living together (and I don’t mean Oscar and Felix!) once we know gays at the office, in church and in our own families. Women’s rights gained traction as fathers saw their daughters capable of being bank presidents, not just tellers. Now parents of the daughter who loves Jackie see that she is just as capable of successful marriage and motherhood as the daughter who loves Jack. She’s also just as capable of a successful public life, including a political career, as leaders like Christine Quinn, New York City’s openly gay city council speaker, are proving.

If "The Odd Couple" reflected our battered marriages in a time when everyone was assumed to be straight, "Will and Grace" helps us see that relationships are dicey for everyone. Some work; some don’t. Gay relationships are harder to sustain because the world doesn’t rally around with showers and bachelor parties, wedding ceremonies and receptions, and more important, tax breaks, inheritance rights and the assumption of long-term family and social support.

When we laugh at Oscar and Felix, we recognize that marriage is fragile. When we laugh at Will and Grace, we acknowledge that longings for intimacy and the difficulty of achieving it aren’t heterosexual. They are human.

Peggy Drexler, Ph.D., author of "Raising Boys Without Men: How Maverick Moms Are Creating the Next Generation of Exceptional Men," (2005, Rodale) is an assistant professor of psychology in psychiatry at the Weil Medical College of Cornell University and a former gender scholar at Stanford University. Peggy and her husband of many years have two children, ages 13 and 27. They live in New York with their teen daughter and two yellow Labrador retrievers, Polly and Stuart.

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