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A few days ago, a U.S. Marine returned to the States after six months in Afghanistan. Spotting his new honey among the people waiting, he rushed forward and planted an enthusiastic kiss — their first kiss, as it turns out. A friend snapped a picture and posted it on Facebook.

And all heck broke loose.

Under other circumstances, it would have been an event noteworthy only for being ordinary, a scene we’ve seen played out a million times. But we’ve never seen it like this. That’s because Sgt. Brandon Morgan’s “honey” is a guy named Dalan Wells and that photo of them playing same-sex tonsil hockey thus manages to simultaneously affirm and subvert a cherished bit of patriotic iconography: the returning serviceman being greeted by the one he loves.

The image forces us to see an old thing in a new way. It is a sign of the times — jarringly so for some.

That’s why it went viral, why it has made international headlines and sparked thousands of comments on message boards. You can probably predict the contents without bothering to read them. On the one hand are best wishes for the happy couple and gratitude for Morgan’s service. On the other, claims that the picture induces nausea or proves the country is going to hell at warp 9.

One individual phrased it thusly on a Miami Herald message board: “Sick, degrading, and deviant behavior. these low life’s (sic) need to be dishonorably discharged from the Marines.”

And so it goes.

As it happens, there is serendipity in the timing of this controversy. It comes, after all, just months after the mortifying episode wherein a gay soldier serving in Iraq was booed by the audience at a GOP debate while the presidential contenders stood by and said nothing.

Indeed, at least one GOP candidate — the reliably entertaining Rick Santorum — has promised, if elected, to reinstate the military’s demeaning “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, under which gay people were considered good enough to risk their lives for this country, but not good enough to be open about their sexual identities while so doing.

That promise is part of a breathtaking Republican lurch — not just to the right, as a number of pundits have framed it, but to the past. On issue after issue — gay rights, contraception, labor rights — the goal seems to be to return the nation to the supposed tranquility of its Beaver Cleaver years, before Martin Luther King had his dream, before Betty Friedan wrote her book, before Rock Hudson was gay, before everything changed.

And while it’s doubtful Morgan and Wells set out to make any particular point, the sheer joyousness of their reunion makes one, nonetheless — the same point a similar kiss between two Navy petty officers, both women, made just two months ago. Namely, that you cannot put the toothpaste back in the tube.

Or, as Fleetwood Mac once put it, “yesterday’s gone, yesterday’s gone.” And the sooner the Grand Old Party concedes that and stops pandering to the bitterness and fear of dead-enders and hardliners still desperately clinging to the broken remains of Beaver Cleaver’s white picket fence, the better off we all will be.

Their fear is that pretty soon, no one will fear, that we are approaching a day when a kiss like this will make no news, merit no attention, because it will be normal. They are right, of course. That is entirely the point.

There is something bracing in the very publicness and unselfconsciousness of that lip lock. Coming after years of government imposed silence and government mandated lies of omission, it feels not unlike sunlight and fresh air blasting into a room that has been dark and stuffy for years. And it suggests four words of advice to those discomfited by this newborn change.

Get used to it.

(Leonard Pitts is a columnist for the Miami Herald, 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, Fla., 33132. Readers may contact him via e-mail at lpitts@miamiherald.com.)

(c) 2012 The Miami Herald Distributed by Tribune Media Services, Inc.

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