Redefinition Revolution

by Maggie Gallagher

Gay marriage is about more than Adam and Steve.

Today, California same-sex couples are rushing to the altar. But this November, California voters will have their chance to say “I do” or “I do not” to gay marriage.

In the meantime, what have we learned about what gay marriage will mean for gays, for marriage, and for the wider society? In just the last few months, a newly confident same-sex-marriage movement is becoming more open and revealing about the answers.

The New York Times, of all places, gave us a glimpse in its front-page story this past Sunday, “Gay Couples Find Marriage Is a Mixed Bag.” What can we tentatively conclude? First, the conservative case for same-sex marriage is looking pretty tattered.

Same-sex marriages are tailing off rapidly, after what the New York Times describes as “an initial euphoric rush to the altar.” In Massachusetts, that rush included residents of other states — as indicated by the New York Times headline of May 18, 2004: “Despite Uncertainties, Out-of-Staters Line Up to Marry.” The latest data indicate that 867 gay weddings took place in Massachusetts in the first eight months of 2007, down from 6,121 gay weddings in the first six months of 2004.

This is the same pattern seen in other jurisdictions where same-sex marriage has been allowed. A 2006 report The Demand for Same-Sex Marriage, released by the Institute for Marriage and Public Policy (where I am president), looked at every nation and Canadian province that had same-sex marriage and concluded: “Trend data is extremely limited, but the available data suggest that the number of gay marriages tends to decrease after an initial burst (reflecting pent up demand).”

Second, many gay married couples reject “heteronormative” assumptions about marriage, and they (as well as the New York Times) are becoming remarkably more open about this.

When Andrew Sullivan tentatively suggested in the early Nineties that gay couples have a thing or two to teach heterosexuals about the rigid presumption of sexual fidelity, the public outcry lead him to recant (and today, he gets mad at you if you point out that he actually did say it).

Less than a decade later, Eric Erbelding from the perch of his legally recognized Massachusetts gay marriage, is quite comfortable explaining to the New York Times that “Our rule is you can play around because, you know, you have to be practical.”

Eric elaborates why he think it works for gay men: “I think men view sex very differently than women. Men are pigs, they know that each other are pigs, so they can operate accordingly. It doesn’t mean anything.”

Still, Mr. Erbelding said, in what to the old-fashioned ear is the most astonishing single sentence in the whole piece: most married gay couples he knows are “for the most part monogamous, but for maybe a casual three-way.”

For the most part . . . except for the casual three-way?

But hey, if the word “marriage” can be redefined as a civil-rights imperative, why balk at lesser ideas like “monogamy” or “fidelity”?

I am in no position to confirm or deny Mr. Erbelding’s judgment about what the men he knows in gay marriages do. But David Benkof, a gay columnist who gave up sex with men when he adopted a Torah-observant lifestyle, recently made the same point in his intellectually fecund new website Gays Defend Marriage.

Problematic kinds of relationships that are “commonly found in the LGBT community but virtually unheard of among opposite-sex couples” Benkof warns, “will have every right to use the word marriage.”

He goes on to point out these differences: “I have never been at a soiree with multiple straight “committed” couples in which someone suggests we take off our clothes and see what happens, but I’m sad to say it’s happened with gay friends in long-term relationships. Of course, I know, many men cheat on their wives. But they almost never define their marriage as something that accommodates adultery.”

What about polygamy? Is that the natural next step? When people ask me this, my stock answer has become, “I don’t know, go ask the guys in the Harvard Law School faculty lounge.” Because if the California decision stands, there simply is no longer any case to be made we have begun to win the war for judicial restraint. If a court can rule that same-sex marriage is a fundamental right (i.e., one deeply rooted in our nation’s traditions) then it can make up anything. Elite legal minds get to figure out what they think and break it to the rest of us once they’ve decided.

The Washington Blade, one of the nation’s leading gay newspapers, took up this question more thoughtfully than I do in its June 6 issue. The experts they consulted are somewhat divided on the question. But Prof. Jonathan Turley, for one, calls on gay-marriage advocates to make a clean breast of what the new “right-to-marry” principle means: Adult polygamists who “do not believe in child brides,” he told the paper, should be allowed to formalize their relationships.

“I don’t like polygamy but that’s not what’s important here,” Prof. Turley said. “[T]here will have to be a new definition of marriage because it’s disingenuous to say that gays and lesbians should be included in marriage but then for them to exclude others.”

I don’t know how the polygamy debate will end up. But if fidelity in marriage is culturally optional, and we’ve now got a fundamental human right to have the government confer dignity on all our family choices (which is what California supreme court ruled), the case for monogamy will surely be weakened as well.

But don’t worry: By the time it happens, culture will have shifted far enough that you won’t care anymore. That’s the progressives’ promise.

And the newly resurgent cultural liberalism we face has no compunctions about using the law to impose its morality on the rest of us.

When I first raised the question of what same-sex marriage will mean for traditional faith groups in The Weekly Standard cover story “Banned in Boston: The New Threats to Religious Liberties” in 2006, many people were shocked and astonished. Surely this was just hysteria?

For no dogma has been more thoroughly promoted by same-sex marriage advocates than the idea that gay marriage is harmless; there’s no real reason to oppose it, even if you don’t exactly agree, because it will only affect Adam and Steve — so why should you care?

That was a good line for a few years, but with the California court victory, it is being replaced in gay newspapers with more open acknowledgements of what Adam and Steve’s right to gay marriage will really mean for the rest of us.

For example, a May 30 Washington Blade story asked, “what about religious adoption agencies or daycare centers? Will they be forced to accommodate gays?”

“Experts say organizations that receive state and federal funding will not be allowed to oppose working with gays for religious reasons,” the Blade forthrightly reports, “Some, most notably Catholic Charities of Boston (gay marriage is legal in Massachusetts), have opted to get out of the adoption business rather than be forced to allow gays to adopt.”

What about the next step: “Could churches in time risk their tax-exempt status by refusing to marry gays?”

Here’s the official answer from a leading gay paper, “That remains to be seen and will likely result in a steady stream of court battles.” Are those the same courts that decided same-sex marriage is a constitutional right?

This week National Public Radio similarly highlighted the coming religious-liberty conflicts, opening with a remarkably frank and open admission of how serious the implications are: “As gay couples in California head to the courthouse starting Monday to get legally married, there are signs of a coming storm” — as NPR put it in their written version — “Two titanic legal principles are crashing on the steps of the church, synagogue and mosque: equal treatment for same-sex couples on the one hand, and the freedom to exercise religious beliefs on the other.”

“The collision that will play out over the next few years will be filled with pathos on both sides,” NPR says. But the story also acknowledges: “So far, the religious groups are losing.”

Here’s the conclusion I’ve come to after four-plus years of active participation in the same-sex-marriage debate: Gay marriage is not primarily about marriage. It’s also not about Adam and Steve and their personal practical legal needs. It is about inserting into the law the principle that “gay is the new black” — that sexual orientation should be treated exactly the same way we treat race in law and culture.

Gay-marriage advocates say it all the time: People who think marriage is the union of husband and wife are like bigots who opposed interracial marriage. Believe them. They say it because they mean it.

The architects of this strategy have targeted marriage because it stands in the way of the America they want to create: They hope to use the law to reshape the culture in exactly the same way that the law was used to reshape the culture of the old racist south.

Gay-marriage advocates are willing to use a variety of arguments to allay fears and reduce opposition to getting this new “equality” principle inserted in the law; these voices may even believe what they are saying. But once the principle is in the law, the next step will be to use the law to stigmatize, marginalize, and repress those who disagree with the government’s new views on marriage and sexual orientation.

Many of the harshest legal conflicts could be alleviated with religious-exemption legislation. But gay-marriage advocates will fight those religious exemptions tooth and nail (as they did in Massachusetts when the Catholic Church asked for one for Catholic Charities) because, they will say, it’s the principle of the thing: We wouldn’t give a religious-liberty exemption to a racist, so why should someone who opposes gay marriage get one?

Conservative gay-marriage advocates like Andrew Sullivan may well tut tut that they don’t really agree with, say, kicking Catholic Charities out of the adoption business. If it were left it up to guys like them, they probably would not do it. But it won’t be left up to them (and they can hardly be expected to fall on their swords to prevent it either.)

Ideas have consequences. This is what “marriage equality” means.

This November, voters in California will have a chance in the privacy of the voting booth to either affirm or repudiate California’s supreme court decision.

What is at stake in the California marriage debate now taking place? The meaning of marriage, the idea of judicial restraint, and the official harassment and repression (by our own government) of traditional religious faiths.

Failure in California not an option. Conservatives and other people of good will need to recognize the battle we are in. We didn’t choose it, but for better or worse it is here.

– Maggie Gallagher is president of the National Organization for Marriage, which through helped put a marriage amendment on the ballot in California this November (working with lead sponsors Protect Marriage).