Because of the sexual revolution among heterosexuals, social conservatives may have lost on gay marriage as soon as they started debating it. In the 1990s, as liberal journalist E. J. Graff has written in the Boston Globe, “the religious right barnstormed the nation warning against ‘gay marriage’ — with an odd result. For both straight and gay folks, the phrase was transformed from an oxymoron into a real possibility.”
Again, most people continue to agree with social conservatives that marriage should be reserved for heterosexual couples. But they do not agree with the premises that underlie that conclusion. The traditional moral argument against homosexual sex has been part of a larger critique of non-marital sex — and, classically, of sex that is not oriented toward procreation within marriage. Social conservatives need no instruction on how the links among sex, procreation, and marriage have been weakened among heterosexuals. They know that many people have adopted what might be called a privatized view of marriage, as an institution whose contours are plastic, whose purpose is to provide emotional satisfaction to the persons concerned, and whose terms are negotiable (and revocable). But they have been slow to see some of the political effects of these social changes.
The logic of the argument against homosexuality now implicates the behavior of a lot of heterosexuals. If the argument is made openly, and cast as a case for traditional sexual morals in general, a large part of the public will flinch. If the argument is made so as to single out gays, the logic vanishes. Social conservatives begin to look as though they are motivated not by principle but by the desire to persecute a minority. If no effective public argument can be made, the prohibition on gay marriage must survive based on tradition and unarticulated reasons. These are weak defenses in a rationalistic and sexually liberated era.
By the mid 1990s, social conservatives increasingly relied on the dialectical argument against gay marriage: the claim that acceptance of it logically requires acceptance of polygamy as well. That argument, as far as I can tell, is sound, and it may be effective in the short run. (In the long run it is as likely to increase support for polygamy as it is to decrease support for gay marriage.) But whatever its effectiveness, resorting to the dialectical argument was a sign of political weakness. It meant that gay marriage was not self-evidently objectionable, but had to be condemned because it would lead to other, more objectionable things. It meant that the argument from definition no longer worked.
At the same time that social conservatives were reaching this dead end, the agenda of gay-rights organizations was changing, too. What, after all, have been gays’ great demands in recent years? They have asked for the opportunity to serve in the armed forces, to lead Boy Scout troops, to marry and adopt. Social-conservative rhetoric on homosexuality remained stuck in the 1970s, presenting gays as sexual radicals. Gays were really the last squares.
Homosexual groups also embraced the quintessential conservative idea of a fixed human nature. Indeed, they pushed an exaggerated form of that idea: genetic determinism. Many people who would otherwise be disposed to object to homosexuality came to believe that gays and lesbians were “born that way.” Gay activists had to be ambivalent about this development, given the subtext: Who would choose to be that way? A mildly “homophobic” sentiment was recruited to the side of gay rights.
It has been a powerful ally. Genetic determinism has erased the distinction between being and doing — between, that is, identity and behavior. No space has been left in which to love the sinner and hate the sin; objection is discrimination. Justice Scalia’s recent attempt to maintain the distinction, to say that a ban on gays’ sexual behavior does not discriminate against people on the basis of their (putatively innate) desires, was widely regarded as both hair-splitting and demeaning.