Editors' Note: Guest blogger Tyrion Lannister is a Bilerico-Indiana blogger. This post ran yesterday on B-IN, but it's good enough it deserved more attention here on the main site.
As I've written before, I generally place anti-gay marriage arguments into one of two camps. The first camp starts with the assumption that gay sex is sinful. Therefore, this line of reasoning continues, the state is justified in doing whatever it can to discourage and punish gay sex, any and all practices that might lead to gay sex, and especially any practice that might normalize the "gay lifestyle" -- which is imagined to be composed exclusively of non-stop, sweaty gay sex. From this perspective, gay marriages are problematic largely because they are intrinsically evil -- unions built around a fundamentally immoral act. Their practical or empirical effect is irrelevant.
In other words, this argument is not premised on the idea that gay marriage is bad because bad things will happen if gays marry. Rather, it believes that gay marriage is, in and of itself, a bad thing. This argument is often buried in a naturalistic fallacy of some sort -- usually "marriage is definitionally between a man and a woman, therefore same-sex couples can't be married" -- but at its core it takes issue with fundamental moral qualities of gay sex. Given that core, one cannot rebut this argument by discussing the empirical consequences of gay marriage, since it is utterly indifferent to those consequences.
More after the jump.
The other camp is a bit more thoughtful and nuanced, though it still relies upon the idea that same-sex relationships are inherently inferior to different-sex relationships. In general, it posits that there is unique social value in monogamous different-sex marriages and that the broadening of "marriage" diminishes that value -- if anyone can get married for any reason, marriage will soon be meaningless. The deterioration of marriage, furthermore, will herald a series of other catastrophic social consequences: increasing delinquency, crime, and poverty.
This argument is usually indifferent to gay sex itself. People are entitled to privacy and freedom in the bedroom, it reasons. Gay relationships are only problematic when they move from the bedroom to the town hall -- when gay people seek wider social acceptance and protection for their relationships in ways that may harm or weaken society in a broader sense. This argument, thus, has a predictive quality which allows it -- at least hypothetically -- to be falsified. It predicts that heterosexuals will perceive marriage to be a less attractive and meaningful arrangement because of the of gay marriages. Fewer straight people will want to get married and, once married, they will be more likely to get divorced because gay people can also marry.
In practice, these camps are not entirely distinct, but its important to understand that they function differently and are, thus, rebutted differently. Most opponents of gay marriage argue variations of both, or mix and match components of each. Nor do either of these arguments suggest much about the intellectual honesty or animating experiences of the particular advocate: some people have deep personal animosity towards all gay people and the argument they deploy is little more than a pretext to justify that hostility. They cannot be convinced or persuaded. In general, if pushed, they collapse back on the first argument, which, by resorting to a fundamental moral truth, cannot be contested except by sticky theological jousting.
My sense is, however, that most people who oppose gay marriage argue in good-faith and can be persuaded. Most Americans, as public opinion shows, aren't as obsessed with gay sex as the folks over at the American Family Association. They are simply anxious about possible consequences for what they feel is a substantial change to an important social institution and they are, by and large, ignorant of the serious harm that denying marriage rights does to queer families.
This a long and somewhat circuitous route to getting to the main topic of this post: namely, predictions of a so-called "backlash" against GLBT rights as a result of judicial actions like the recent California Supreme Court holding in In re Marriage Cases. The ink on the decision was barely dry before Jeff Rosen, The New Republic's legal correspondent and Professor of Law at George Washington University, was already declaring that the California Supreme Court was too far ahead of public opinion and had handed down a needlessly inflammatory decision. Rosen has memorably encouraged fellow leftists to abandon Roe v. Wade, under the analysis that courts were ineffective vehicles for social change and that defending Roe had been too costly for the left.
In the very short-term, Rosen is undoubtedly correct. Opponents of gay marriage will mobilize around the California decision. Already anti-marriage activists in Arizona are doing just that and our own home grown Hoosier homophobes are reportedly "re-energized" by the development. It's entirely possible that this agitation will result in the passage of ballot initiatives and constitutional amendments that otherwise would not have passed and will prove difficult to undo in the coming years. That was certainly the case after the Massachusetts and Vermont decisions.
In addition, critics like Rosen contend that such ballot initiatives are particularly harmful to Democratic electoral ambitions because they tend to mobilize solidly Republican constituencies. Such critics argue that the presence of ballot initiatives in response to Goodridge helped Bush cruise to victory in 2004 (though that argument appears quite dubious given public opinion polling).
One can help but notice that with each additional pro-gay marriage decision the kerfuffle smaller, the opponents more shrill, and the electorate more indifferent. New Jersey' s October 2006 marriage bomb may have played a role in the passage of Virginia's 2006 constitutional amendment, but its effect on the larger electoral map was entirely negligible. It did nothing to save the GOP from a ballot-box blowout, even in districts like IN-02, IN-08, and IN-09 where Republican candidates attempted to make gay marriage an issue in districts usually receptive to socially conservative wedge issues. Rosen may be correct that there is a short-term rallying effect for anti-marriage forces, but it's not clear that gay marriage will be a particularly salient issue in any larger sense for conservative forces.
Part of the problem is that the experience of living in a "post-gay marriage" world simply does not match well with the predictive elements of anti-marriage advocacy. Straight folks are beginning to notice that their own marriages look pretty much the same now that gay folks can marry too. The country isn't falling apart because gays can marry; it's falling apart because the folks who rail against gay marriage appear to be incapable of managing the economy, guiding our foreign policy, and governing effectively.
In other words, the most powerful rebuttal to the second anti-marriage argument I outline above is simply the experience of living in a world in which large, populous states have legalized gay marriage and have not collapsed under the weight of ensuing anarchy and bacchanalian orgies. Good-faith critics of gay marriage will revise their opinions when faced with that empirical data. Bad faith critics masquerading as good-faith critics will try to pretend like that data doesn't exist or they will abandon the argument.
In either case, the presence of actual gay marriages serves an incredibly important purpose for pro-marriage advocates precisely because it rebuts arguments based on erroneous predictions. And I don't mean rebuts in some sort of cheap rhetorical sense, where its just another tool in the gay activist's handbag to-be-deployed-in-case-of-blog-war. I mean rebuts as in every morning Micah Clark wakes up and notices that California hasn't fallen into the Pacific, it makes his job harder and his arguments more divorced from reality. The presence of actual gay marriages strips anti-marriage forces of their most useful argument, an argument that presents itself as more than mere animosity to homosexuals.
In that sense, Jeffrey Rosen's argument is more than a little bit silly. Every dime the right spends on fighting the gay marriage tide is wasted. Let conservatives build their houses on the sand of opposition to gay marriage and it will only mean that in ten years they will be homeless. Gay marriage is infectious in one very real sense: its presence in any state allows gay people to performatively rebut the worst slurs against them, turns living openly and happily into the best response to homophobia, and it thus makes it just that much easier to win marriage rights in other states. The California Supreme Court is helping thousands of queer families show that gay marriage is not a threat to straight marriage, but an ally. Good for them.
Tyrion's home blog is Tyrion's Point.