In March, the cabaret critic Stephen Holden penned a lovely obituary of the American songwriter Bart Howard in The New York Times. In it, Holden reported that Howard, who died on Feb. 21 at the age of 88, was survived by “his companion of 58 years, Thomas Fowler.”
I wonder how many wedding receptions in the half-century since Howard’s “Fly Me to the Moon,” also known as “In Other Words,” was introduced have featured this marvelous paean to love and commitment? How many married heterosexual couples have spoken of this classic composition as “our song”?
The recent debates over what is rather clumsily called “gay marriage” have done a service to the wider world by demonstrating that, just like straight people, very many gay people think that it is not right for man – or woman – to live alone. And the world of the arts is no different in this respect. For a long time the arts seemed to provide a safe haven for gay men and lesbians and others who thought themselves – or were thought by others – to be different from mainstream society. But this ostensible acceptance came at a price: an individual artist or performer could be gay, but the idea that that person might actually have a home and a family was better left unspoken. Painters Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns were occasional room- or studio-mates. Arthur Gold and Robert Fizdale were duo-pianists and co-authors. Merce Cunningham and John Cage were artistic colleagues. And for those opera singers, choreographers, composers, conductors, and pianists whose life partners were not themselves artists, that other person hanging around the dressing room or carrying the bags and flowers for Virgil Thomson or Aaron Copland, Stephen Sondheim or Leonard Bernstein, must be a “secretary.”
But those lines of thousands of couples on the steps of City Hall in San Francisco, at town halls in Upstate New York and in the Pacific Northwest, were reminders that a society that has increasingly come to accept that it has sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers, friends and neighbors who are gay, has also to reckon with the fact that such people are very often neither solitaries nor sybarites, confirmed bachelors nor spinsters. Those of us who are coupled gay people are familiar voices here on WFMT, faces on WTTW/Channel 11, players in the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and singers at Lyric Opera of Chicago. An increasing number of us have children after we have come out and for those of us who lived through the worst years of the AIDS crisis, we know quite a bit more about the bedside vigils and needs of people who live with people with serious and terminal illness than we would ever wish on the population as a whole.
I can absolutely understand that when it comes to religious ceremonies and recognitions that there can be many different views on what should or should not constitute a marriage. As a religious person myself, I have faced both internal struggles and participated in respectful discussions and debates within my congregation and my faith on these matters. But when it comes to civil society’s role in affirming the value of two people pledging to each other to “be true” or to see what it might be like to together “play among the stars,” I have a modest proposal: Perhaps there could be a moratorium on the performance of “Fly Me to the Moon” at wedding and engagement parties until the Bart Howards and Thomas Fowlers of our country – couples who spend 60 or 50 or 40 or 30 years together perhaps with even a lower divorce rate than the general population – can enjoy the same rights and privileges as their heterosexual counterparts.
This commentary was originally broadcast the week of March 19 on 98.7 WFMT radio in Chicago, where Andrew Patner is critic-at-large, and posted at wfmt.com. Andrew Patner can be reached at Rentap@aol.com.