For years, David Frum was one of the most eloquent voices for the sober case against same-sex marriage. He now says he was wrong because the hysterical case against same-sex marriage has not been borne out by the facts. For it was only the hysterical opponents of same-sex marriage who believed that the mere sight of gays standing before a Unitarian minister or a justice of the peace would cause heterosexuals to divorce their spouses en masse.
Just six states plus the District of Columbia have same-sex marriage, none for more than seven years. With minor variations, those marriages are not recognized by the other 44 states or the federal government. Until fairly recently, same-sex marriage looked reversible either by federal action or popular vote in every one of those jurisdictions (it still might be reversed in Iowa, as it was in California and Maine). Same-sex marriage has yet to prevail on any state ballot. Only about 100,000 official same-sex weddings had taken place by 2008, according to the Census Bureau. Even Vermont, which has been experimenting with unisex marriage the longest, has only had full same-sex marriage — as opposed to civil unions — for two years.
These numbers are really a sufficient test case for what would happen with same-sex marriage throughout the United States? Are they a powerful enough force to overwhelm every other trend in American family life during the 2000s? Does anyone really suppose that the concept of marriage that has existed for the majority of Western civilization would immediately be undone by a few unisex wedding ceremonies and “Party A meets Party B” marriage license applications over a decade? Is this really conclusive evidence?
All these questions answer themselves. However unfair this may be, the larger problems associated with gay marriage were never very likely to have much to do with gays themselves. The biggest damage was always bound to come from the rules being rewritten for everyone else: the rigid enforcement of gender-neutral language erasing faterhood and motherhood from our shared language; public school curricula that teaches children that marriage was once between a man and a woman for motives not much dissimilar from those of the Ku Klux Klan; the erosion of the government’s expectation that people are responsible for the children they create.
Under a unisex definition of marriage, adoption and reproductive technology must play a larger role in family formation than the humane reaction to unfortunate personal circumstances they have traditionally been. Marriage will no longer be premised on parents not abandoning their children at will. Marriage will be redefined to accomodate at least one biological parent relinquishing their child as a matter of design. The consequences of this will take years to play out, not just from 2004 or even 1999 to now.
If Frum is right that “Most conservatives have reacted with calm — if not outright approval — to New York’s dramatic decision,” it’s not because all these concerns have been shown to be overblown. It’s because most conservatives, myself included, now believe we are probably on the losing side of this debate. That probability makes vocally opposing same-sex marriage seem less worth the price of wounding the feelings of one’s gay friends on the one hand and being viewed as morally equivalent to a white supremacist on the other. Certainly, it won’t advance a conservative writer’s career to be penning op-eds and blog posts that will one day be brandished like National Review‘s 1950s editorials in defense of Jim Crow.
Supporters of same-sex marriage have always insisted that inclusion for 3 percent of the population is all that is at stake here. The other 97 percent can continue to reap all the social stability provided by traditional marriage. In 1997, David Frum said this view was likely wrong and I suspect he was right back then. Based on what New York has set in motion, however, we had better hope he is right now.