Two events in the past few days have gotten me thinking, again, about the arguments for gay marriage. On the one hand, there was the statement by GOProud on its support of gay marriage as an issue nationwide. And on the other, there was a recent article in The Atlantic on “The High Price of Being Single in America.” The Atlantic article intrigues me because, in my reading of the article, it indirectly undermines some arguments for gay marriage by making the case that, for single people, at least, policy makers and other institutions haven’t necessarily been “fair” in granting special status to heterosexual marriage. The “marriage isn’t fair to singles” argument, however, if fully unleashed, could have the potential to derail the case for gay marriage: after all, there are more singles (both straight and gay) than there are gays and lesbians in committed partnerships.
The Atlantic article is seriously flawed in both its methodology and its conclusions, but that is not why it interests me. It interests me because, by making the “marriage isn’t fair to singles” argument, it unintentionally illustrates how far the “mainstream” case for gay marriage has deviated in recent years from the more thoughtful and high-minded case that was made for the issue at the time the first serious arguments for gay marriage began to appear widely in the popular press. And the evolution (though perhaps devolution is the more apt term) of the argument in this way is completely apparent from the way in which those on the gay left greeted the GOProud announcement.
I believe that the push for gay marriage comes partly from two different places philosophically: one is the desire by gay couples to have the same sorts of legal and financial privileges as straight, married couples, which is a consequence of having written laws and policies designed to provide special status to married couples; but the second place it comes from is what has been called “the politics of recognition,” i.e., the desire of gay people to have their worth recognized or validated in some sense through public policy. The second push comes more from a psychological need which might be emotionally appealing, but which doesn’t necessarily qualify it as good policy. The first comes from a more legitimate grievance against a government with an interest in deciding which sorts of relationships are “more equal than others.” (The first motive–and kind of argument–is also, incidentally, key to winning over more conservative and libertarian kinds of voters.) The two different strands of the argument can exist together in a kind of symbiosis, but separated, they are potentially at odds with each other.
The early arguments made by people like Bruce Bawer, Andrew Sullivan, and later Jonathan Rauch (and by many others at places like the Independent Gay Forum) are usually noteworthy in taking a multi-pronged approach, arguing for gay marriage on a number of fronts, as a matter which deserved serious attention as a matter of policy.
This multi-pronged approach seems like the most pragmatic way to win wide-spread approval for the idea; some people might be persuaded by the idea that it was or should be a matter of equal rights, but others might be persuaded by the potential social good offered through an expansion of the idea of marriage; others, still, might be persuaded by the more libertarian idea that it isn’t the role of government to define or proscribe the validity of certain types of relationships or to give some kinds of relationships favored status. In other words, a diverse approach seems to me to offer the best chance for success, plus a diverse approach reflected the diverse reality of gay identity, and the diversity of thought about the issue itself.
But in recent years, it is hard not to escape the belief that the gay left has hijacked the argument for gay marriage, turning it into all emotional whining about rights, lawsuits, court-cases, slogans about “H8” and name-calling of the sort that is fully on display in the predictable leftist reactions to the GOProud announcement at Buzzfeed and elsewhere. While the gay left has long harbored those angry and reactionary elements, it is a little ironic that, back in the 90s, many of them scorned the idea of gay marriage as a pathetic, bourgeois, heteronormative fantasy, yet now they uphold and defend the idea as doctrine and call out anyone who disagrees with them in the nastiest of terms.
There are many reasons for the change in the nature of the popular versions of the argument–not the least being the ease of relying on slogans or assertions more than substantive explanations of the issue–but I would point to the year 2004 as the time when the most public version of the gay marriage argument really began to change.
Shortly after the February speech when George W. Bush stated his support for “traditional marriage,” Andrew Sullivan published an essay in Time which represented a significant shift in the nature of his own arguments. (Hat tip to Dan for referring me to the correct Sullivan piece, which I remembered reading, but hadn’t yet located.) Instead of arguing the public policy position in dispassionate terms, Sullivan’s piece was nearly sentimental in its recounting of Sullivan’s personal need for validation throughout his life. The essay ends with what could be called its “If I can stop one heart from breaking” moment:
But I want above everything else to remember a young kid out there who may even be reading this now. I want to let him know that he doesn’t have to choose between himself and his family anymore. I want him to know that his love has dignity, that he does indeed have a future as a full and equal part of the human race. Only marriage will do that. Only marriage can bring him home.
That essay marked a turning point when people like me started reading him less and less, but that moment, and the response to the 2004 presidential campaign generally, also marked a point when the loudest voices from the gay activist class making the case for gay marriage began to sound more and more like Rosie O’Donnell, and less like thoughtful and responsible citizens. It became increasingly a demand for rights and for recognition of “worth” that could only be accomplished by ceding to their latest demands. It became, in other words, a quest for validation and approval.
And that brings me back to my point about the reactions to GOProud’s announcement. Readers of GayPatriot are all too familiar with the invective and scorn heaped upon gay conservatives by the gay left. I’ve long felt that if the movement were really about gay rights and not about leftist dogma, the leaders of gay groups would recognize that gay conservatives are a necessary part of their “rainbow.” The movement needs a familiarity with both conservative and libertarian arguments about the appropriate uses of state power, it needs people willing to put forward a different example of responsible citizenship by engaging with opponents, rather than demonizing them.