Editor’s Note: This piece originally appeared in the July 28, 2003, issue of National Review.
For social conservatives, it seems that the battle over gay rights is nearing an end before it has even fairly begun. It is true that a small majority of the American public continues to believe, as the poll question puts it, that “sexual relations between two adults of the same sex” are “always wrong.” It is true, as well, that a slightly larger majority believes that persons of the same sex should not be allowed to marry.
But public opinion has been moving with stunning rapidity. In the 1970s and ’80s, the percentage of Americans who believed gay sex was “always wrong” barely budged. The National Opinion Research Center found that 73 percent held that belief in 1973, and 76 percent did in 1990. By 2000, that number had fallen by 16 points. It fell another 6 in the next two years. In 1996, Gallup found that 26 percent of the public supported same-sex marriage. In late June of this year, 39 percent did. Young people support it more than their elders. The trend lines favor gay marriage.
So do legal developments. Elite, including legal-elite, opinion favors gay rights more than public opinion does. Still, public opinion influences the courts. If courts had imposed gay marriage in 1990, there would have been a substantial public backlash. Now the idea looks less radical. If the courts move this year, or two years from now, there may yet be a backlash — but perhaps not one large enough to be effective. Three decades after Roe, almost three years after Bush v. Gore, no one is shocked when the courts make the weightiest political decisions.
Another shift in public sentiment is less easily captured in poll numbers: the rise of what one might call an “anti-anti-gay” bloc. People in this group may have qualms about homosexuality and may not support gay marriage. But they are at least as uncomfortable with anything that strikes them as hostile to gay people, with rhetoric that singles them out for criticism, with political figures who seem to spend too much time worrying about them. It is this group — more than gays themselves or even unequivocal supporters of gay rights — that has caused the Bush White House to take a moderate line on gay issues.
President Bush opposes gay marriage, “hate crimes” legislation, and even the Employment Non-Discrimination Act. But he has also appointed openly gay officials, refrained from picking fights with the gay lobby, and generally frustrated social-conservative groups. In March, Marc Racicot, then-leader of the Republican National Committee, met with a liberal gay organization and assured them that bigotry in his party was fading. In April, when Senator Rick Santorum was being pilloried, Bush expressed support for him — but too tepidly for social conservatives. Some of them warned that traditionalist voters would stay home in 2004. But Bush is responding to political circumstances that run far deeper than today’s tactical jockeying and that social conservatives, thus far, have been powerless to change.
The change in public attitudes toward homosexuality has several causes, but three in particular bear mentioning: the effects of the sexual revolution, the changed focus of gay activism in the 1990s, and the ineffectiveness of social-conservative organizations.
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.
The most effective gay strategy was not a political strategy at all. It was the choice of individuals to identify themselves openly as homosexuals. Scores of millions of Americans now have friends and relatives whom they know are gay. Perhaps as a strict matter of logic, that should not have affected their views on sexual morality. But logic and eros have never been easy bedfellows, have they?
It was perhaps impossible for social conservatives to resist a tide so strong. But their failure was partly of their own making. They were simultaneously too loving and too hateful. The second point is familiar enough to everyone. For the reasons outlined above, persuasive social-conservative rhetoric on gay rights is difficult to devise. But the rhetoric the social Right actually adopted had the additional burden of lending itself to easy caricature as spiteful, harsh, and obsessive — in part because it was not infrequently all of those things. The Religious Right’s love for gays, meanwhile, was not the sort that homosexuals could recognize. It took the form of wanting to save their souls. What religious conservatives wanted was for gays to become ex-gays. The unspoken wish of many other conservatives was for gays to re-closet themselves. Neither had any chance of happening in large numbers.
The proposed marriage amendment to the Constitution nicely illustrates the folly and weakness of organized social conservatism. The amendment will probably fail — most proposed constitutional amendments do. But it may very well be the only way to prevent the incremental judicial imposition of gay marriage. One would think that social-conservative groups would be working as hard as they could to enact it. Yet the Catholic bishops’ conference is divided about the amendment. The Family Research Council came out against it, and then declared itself neutral. The council objects to the amendment because, among other things, it would not bar a state legislature from creating same-sex civil unions. The failure of judgment here should be an object lesson for students of politics for ages to come.
When the Massachusetts supreme court brings full-fledged gay marriage to an American state for the first time, the issue will heat up. Anyone who expects President Bush’s storied quest for the Catholic vote to strengthen the hand of social conservatives has not been looking at the survey data. Catholic World Report recently commissioned a survey that suggested that students at Catholic colleges became more liberal during their time on campus. The freshmen were pro-life, and the seniors pro-choice. What was even more interesting was that a majority of Catholic-college freshmen already favored gay marriage when they got to campus. I suspect that even conservative Catholics who oppose gay marriage are especially sensitive to rhetoric that seems intolerant toward gays as persons.
After Massachusetts, will Republicans find a way to object forcefully to gay marriage and to push for the marriage amendment, without looking intolerant? That would be a tall order even for people who thought deeply about these matters. Social conservatives have not yet lost this battle, and their defeat is not quite inevitable. But that is the way to bet.
— This article first appeared in the July 28, 2003, issue of National Review.