ONE DAY IN MAY, virtually every political reporter in America- or so it seemed-sat intently waiting for President Barack Obama to confirm his opinion on a subject where most of them assumed his mind was already made up. Obama had previously expressed what the Windy City Times described as "unequivocal support for gay marriage" all the way back in 1996. As a candidate for the Illinois state senate, Obama told the Outlines newspaper, "I favor legalizing same-sex marriages, and would fight efforts to prohibit such marriages."
"If you actually go back and look, that questionnaire was actually filled out by someone else, not the president," White House communications director Dan Pfeiffer later explained. While the media was more accepting of this disavowal than authorship questions concerning the Ron Paul newsletters, that didn't end speculation that Obama really supported same-sex marriage. His oft-stated belief that marriage was between a man and a woman seemed limited to campaign pronouncements, utterly devoid of substance.
After all, there is no record of Obama voicing support for any state ballot initiatives attempting to codify the definition of marriage in which he professed to believe. His administration withdrew support for the bipartisan Defense of Marriage Act, Declaring it discriminatory and unconstitutional. He opposed the federal marriage amendment and comparable legislation. If Obama was really against same-sex marriage, he had a funny way of showing it. And he probably would have been the only person in America who was for gay marriage in 1996 but against it at the beginning of 2012.
So after a little bit of prodding from Vice President Joe Biden, who went off-message on marriage during a Sunday talk show appearance, Obama finally came out to ABC News. Following some throat-clearing too lengthy to reproduce here, Obama declared, "at a certain point I've just concluded that for me personally it is important for me to go ahead and affirm that I think same-sex couples should be able to get married."
The phrasing was awfully equivocal and the timing suspicious. Obama waited to make this announcement until after North Carolina-a state he carried in 2008 and the site of this year's Democratic national convention-had voted to reject same-sex marriage. But conveniently, he managed to grant this interview the day before he was due to appear at a Hollywood left fundraiser at the home of George Clooney. Obama allowed that he thought the issue should still be left up to the states, leaving the door open to ballot initiatives like North Carolina's.
Yet the hosannas came. Joan Walsh enthused in Salon, "Make no mistake: President Obama's decision to publicly endorse gay marriage carries serious political risk, though also moral reward." Note the word "publicly." Walsh concluded that the president "must be relieved to be able to say publicly what we've known he's believed privately for a long time."
ANY TIME A SITTING PRESIDENT of the United States endorses a social cause for the first time, however tepidly, that cause undeniably benefits. John F. Kennedy was a very lukewarm supporter of the civil rights movement, but his statements on its behalf of equal rights are more remembered today than his failure to get legislation enacted. In Congress, Lyndon Johnson had frequently sided with the Democratic Party's Southern racist wing before signing the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 into law. Supporters of same-sex marriage and gay rights more generally see their cause in the same moral terms as Martin Luther King, Jr.'s.
In many respects, however, Obama is simply ratifying a change in public opinion that was already happening without him. Back when people were filling out his questionnaires in 1996, Gallup found that 68 percent of Americans opposed same-sex marriage, while only 27 percent supported it. It was not yet a partisan issue. When the Defense of Marriage Act passed that year by votes of 342 to 67 in the House and 85 to 14 in the Senate, every Republican except one was in favor. But so were overwhelming majorities of Democrats, who backed the bill 188 to 65 in the House and 32 to 14 in the Senate. President Bill Clinton promptly signed the bill into law. He denounced the legislation as "gay-baiting" but also ran radio ads claiming credit for it on Christian stations during his reelection campaign.
"I remain opposed to same-sex marriage," Clinton told the Advocate in June 1996. "I believe marriage is an institution for the union of a man and a woman. This has been my long-standing position, and it is not being reviewed or reconsidered." Senator Paul Wellstone of Minnesota, then the most liberal member of the upper chamber, opposed same-sex marriage. So did Walter Fauntroy, the co-founder of the Congressional Black Caucus who would go on to march with Al Sharpton in protest of George W. Bush's election in 2000. John Kerry opposed gay marriage. As late as 2008, the three main Democratic presidential candidates- Obama, Hillary Clinton, and that noted defender of marriage John Edwards-all said they believe marriage is between a man and a woman.
But by 2007, support for same-sex marriage had risen all the way to 46 percent. (It has since fluctuated.) In May 2011, a year before Obama's evolution on the issue was complete, Gallup for the first time found a majority-53 percent-in favor of gay marriage. Support was especially strong among the young. In just a single year, the share of Americans aged 18 to 34 saying same-sex marriage "should be legal" exploded from 53 percent to 70 percent. "More broadly," pollster Frank Newport wrote, "support is highest among younger women and lowest among older men."
It's possible that young people will begin to hold more socially conservative views once they are married and have children themselves. But this trend in favor of same-sex marriage has proved remarkably durable, and there is no evidence to suggest past supporters of gay marriage are becoming opponents over time. At the very least, support for a unisex definition of marriage is now a perfectly mainstream Democratic position; Obama and Biden were simply lagging indicators (leading once again from behind.)
IF OBAMA DID ANYTHING to accelerate rather than simply follow the trend toward gay marriage, it may be among black voters. According to the Democratic firm Public Policy Polling, black support for North Carolina's pro-traditional marriage Amendment One-once a 59 percent majority-fell 11 points after Obama's flip-flop. (All the more reason gay rights activists should be angry that Obama didn't make his announcement before the Tarheel State vote.) The pollsters found an even more dramatic shift in Maryland, where 56 percent of blacks had planned to vote against gay marriage this November, but now 55 percent say they will vote for it. A Washington Post/ABC News poll found that black support for gay marriage nationally spiked 18 points, from 41 percent all the way up to 59 percent. The NAACP has also since endorsed gay marriage.
Of course, the pollsters may be understating black opposition to same-sex marriage. According to exit polls, 70 percent of African-American voters supported California's Proposition 8, defining marriage as between a man and a woman, in 2008, while 77 percent backed a similar ballot initiative in Mississippi in 2004. Majority-black counties in North Carolina generally voted for Amendment One by larger margins than Public Policy Polling's surveys of black voters would suggest, and in some cases by bigger margins than they went for Obama. Black opposition was a major reason for Obama's reluctance to change his position.
The polls may also understate opposition to samesex marriage more generally. In all 32 states where the issue has been on the ballot, voters have agreed that marriage is between a man and a woman. (Arizona rejected one amendment as too broadly worded, but easily passed a revised version the second time around.) In the six states that have redefined marriage to include same-sex couples, every effort has been made to avoid any popular vote. Whether gay marriage is approved by unelected judges or democratic state legislatures, voters have overturned it when given the opportunity.
Most of these votes took place between 2004 and 2008, when public opposition to same-sex marriage was higher. The margins have also declined: 61 percent of Californians voted for pro-traditional marriage Proposition 22 in 2000-the same percentage as North Carolina's defense-of-marriage vote this year-compared to just 52 percent for Proposition 8 eight years later. Maine exercised its "People's Veto" of same-sex matrimony in 2009 with a 52 percent majority. So far, the final result has always been the same. Gay marriage will be on the ballot in Maine, Maryland, Minnesota, and Washington state this November.
Researchers Lazar Berman of the American Enterprise Institute and Daniel Berman of the London School of Economics have raised questions about whether even young voters are an unquestioned gay marriage juggernaut. They examined North Carolina's Amendment One vote in the pages of the American. "What is more surprising is the behavior of young voters, who, according to the adjusted numbers, only narrowly opposed the amendment," they wrote, concluding: "In fact, even if nobody over age 45 had voted Tuesday, the amendment still would have passed by around 8 percentage points."
NEVERTHELESS, THE TREND LINES seem clear enough that few marital traditionalists are optimistic over the long term. What happened to transform support for same-sex marriage from a fringe position in the 1990s to, at least arguably, the majority viewpoint today? First it seems that a lot of secular opposition to the idea was based on either custom or revulsion against homosexuality. The unarticulated premises of those customs were not strong enough to survive a sustained assault by supporters of gay marriage, while anti-homosexual sentiment has declined generally.
The strongest and most enduring visceral opposition to same-sex marriage has been religious. (That partly explains why black Americans are so much more opposed to the idea than their more secular Counterparts in the Democratic coalition.) But this has proved a double-edged sword: The fact that so many evangelicals, Catholics, and Mormons believe marriage is between a man and a woman has reinforced the liberal argument that this definition is simply a matter of religious dogma. Preserving the meaning of marriage favored across civilizations for thousands of years therefore violates separation of church and state.
Nor is the religious opposition to same-sex marriage entirely immune to other trends. An August 2011 survey by the Public Religion Research Institute found that 44 percent of evangelicals between the ages of 18 and 29 are in favor of gay marriage. In fact, the poll found "at least a 20-point generation gap between millennials (age 18-29) and seniors (65 and over) on every public policy measure in the survey concerning rights for gay and lesbian people." Among older mainline evangelicals, there is at least some anecdotal evidence that having spent decades fighting these issues in their churches has weakened their appetite for gay rights consuming their politics.
Changes in the gay community have also influenced this debate. Large numbers of gays and lesbians have come out of the closet. This has made them more familiar — and sympathetic — to heterosexuals while raising the issue of how the government should recognize, or at least accommodate, their relationships. At the same time, the mainstream gay rights movement shed its more radical accoutrements in favor of more bourgeois aspirations: becoming scoutmasters, joining the military, gaining employment nondiscrimination, and, yes, getting married.
Homosexuality, writes Daniel McCarthy in the American Conservative, "had come to be seen as an innate desire about which individuals have little choice." McCarthy continues, "as these strange new beings emerged from their hiding places they didn't look so frightening-indeed, they looked a lot like everybody else." He concludes that the new assimilationist gay rights movement triumphed as it moved from the "militancy of ACT-UP to the banality of Will and Grace."
Social conservatives were slow to react to all of these developments. Many of them hoped to restore the taboos and stigmas against homosexuality that had been accepted by nearly all Americans as recently as the early 1970s. This campaign has failed manifestly. It has also distorted the marriage debate.
WHEN SAME-SEX MARRIAGE first burst onto the national scene in 1993, thanks to a lawsuit before Hawaii's state supreme court, most people intuitively agreed with social conservatives on the issue, but many of them didn't know why. That was the time to make a positive case for traditional marriage, which many conservatives did. But many more relied on habit and moral objections to homosexual acts. When those habits died and the morality of the country began to change, the poll numbers swung in favor of gay marriage.
Social conservatives hoped that homosexuals would either go back in the closet or become "ex-gays" by changing their sexual orientation. I remember a Nightline segment at the time when Andrew Sullivan debated the religious right activist Janet Folger. The exchange largely consisted of Sullivan insisting that Folger wanted to put him in jail, while Folger repeatedly told him "the truth in love is that change is possible."
Possible, perhaps, but not likely in large enough numbers to make the marriage issue go away. For a time, it appeared a compromise was possible by decoupling the "incidents of marriage" -- many of the benefits that derive from being married -- from the institution itself. This would take care of property sharing, joint checking accounts, hospital visitation rights, power of attorney, and other points of contention. States and municipalities experimented with "domestic partnerships" and "civil unions" as a means to that end.
This compromise remains popular with those who are a crucial swing vote on gay marriage, but it was rejected by activists on both sides. Gay rights groups increasingly saw civil unions as a "separate but equal" institution that was inherently discriminatory. Consider that California already affords same-sex domestic partners all the rights of married couples in their state. This did not stop a federal appeals court from deciding that the state had discriminated against same-sex couples by passing Proposition 8.
Social conservatives rejected civil unions for two reasons. First, they did not want to grant any government recognition to homosexual couples (although there was a version of the idea that would have extended to friends and roommates not in a sexual relationship of any kind). Second, they feared the consequences of creating a parallel "marriage lite" institution. It is possible that inflexibility on this point -- which also prevented Republicans from uniting around a single version of the federal marriage amendment -- will in the end prove to be a miscalculation.
Even if social conservatives had stressed the positives of traditional marriage without appearing to single out gay people, they would have run into a problem: a lot of heterosexuals behave in ways that undermine the marriage ideal. The logic of the conservative position precludes, or at least casts some doubt on, no-fault divorce, in vitro fertilization, surrogacy, and many popular practices that, if left unchecked, could lead to the commodification of children. Needless to say, a lot of heterosexual voters don't want to hear any of this.
Moreover, people can agree with the merits of traditional marriage without supporting any policies that promote it. Consider out-of-wedlock births. Very few people today dispute that Dan Quayle was right, as the Atlantic memorably put it during the flap over Murphy Brown's fictional illegitimate child. But aside from a family cap on mothers receiving welfare -- which actually divided social conservatives, since many feared it would lead to an increase in the number of abortions -- there hasn't been much of an effort to do anything about it. Illegitimacy is as much a problem in the America of Charles Murray's recent book Coming Apart as it was when he published Losing Ground in 1984.
ROD DREHERE SUMS UP THE BIGGEST, and perhaps insurmountable, obstacle social conservatives face: "As long as the traditionalist position on same-sex marriage, almost universally held only 25 years ago, is treated as irrational hatred and nothing but by the media, business, and social elites, there will be powerful social and psychological pressure to shun it." To that list, one can add the judiciary: Justice Antonin Scalia warned that by dismissing traditionalist beliefs as irrational "animus" in its 1996 Romer v. Evans decision, the Supreme Court was setting the precedent for a constitutional right to same-sex marriage. It is entirely possible that today's Republican majority court could hand down a Roe v. Wade of gay marriage in response to the Proposition 8 appeals.
The courts are already gutting the Defense of Marriage Act. At the end of the month when Obama made his gay marriage announcement, the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston ruled that the law discriminated against same-sex couples by denying them federal benefits. The judges ruled that "it prevents same-sex married couples from filing joint federal tax returns, which can lessen tax burdens" and "prevents the surviving spouse of a same-sex marriage from collecting Social Security survivor benefits." They continue: "DOMA also leaves federal employees unable to share their health insurance and certain other medical benefits with same-sex spouses."
The weight of elite opinion doesn't just make the enactment of same-sex marriage more likely. It makes the reality of same-sex marriage, as it becomes law in various jurisdictions, more problematic for social conservatives. By the numbers, allowing gay people to call their unions marriages and file joint tax returns shouldn't impact the institution of marriage all that much. According to the Census Bureau, only 150,000 same-sex couples are considered married. Based on the experience of countries and states with gay marriage, marriage is likely to remain an overwhelmingly heterosexual practice even if the laws change.
Same-sex marriage could become like married priests in the Catholic Church: an exception to the rule for people living in a unique set of circumstances, which doesn't affect the character of the larger institution. That might be the most desirable outcome for everyone involved. But if the idea is to stamp out traditionalist concepts of sex and marriage, making them as marginal as racism is today, the rules will be rewritten for everybody. It will be hard for marriage to do the things society needs it to do -- make parents responsible for the children that their sexual intercourse inevitably creates, make fathers responsible for the mothers they impregnate, and connect successive generations to one another -- if that is the case. The ideal will be gone, and so will the way back.
IN MANY RESPECTS, the problem with gay marriage isn't gay marriage -- that is, the act of gays and lesbians holding wedding ceremonies and receiving marriage licenses from the state. The larger problem is the belief that the tradition of marriage being between a man and a woman is hateful, that it is indistinct from prohibitions on interracial marriage.
Obama, Hillary Clinton, and that noted defender of marriage John Edwards all said they believe marriage is between a man and a woman.
The problem with gay marriage isn't gay marriage. The larger problem is the belief that the tradition of marriage being between a man and a woman is hateful and indistinct from prohbition on interracial marriage.
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