The Economist | October 11, 2014
IN SEPTEMBER 1995 eBay was founded, the Unabomber’s manifesto was published, and a memo crossed the desk of the editor of The Economist asking him which of a handful of article ideas were worth pursuing. He circled “gay marriage”.
At the time his choice seemed idiosyncratic, to say the least. In Hawaii, on the far fringe of the United States, a court had caused a kerfuffle a few years before with a decision that some people thought might lead to same-sex weddings, but the topic still seemed utterly fanciful. At best, putting “Let Them Wed” on the paper’s cover in January 1996 felt like laying down a marker for some future generation. As if in confirmation, the image of two male figurines holding hands on a wedding cake generated more hostile correspondence than any cover had before, overshadowing even the paper’s call for the abolition of the British monarchy. Which seemed, at that time, equally likely to come to pass.
Less than 20 years on, the landscape is transformed. The Netherlands adopted same-sex marriage in 2001 and a number of other European countries have since followed suit, with the issue often provoking only mild controversy. Same-sex weddings are now performed in 19 countries, and same-sex partners enjoy protections short of marriage in many other places. England and Wales approved same-sex marriage, by resounding margins, in 2013.
The icing on the cake
On October 6th America’s Supreme Court decided not to hear a number of appeals against previous rulings in various lower courts, all of which had upheld the right of gay men and lesbians to marry in the face of state rules trying to stop them. The Supreme Court thus made the rulings of the lower courts permanent in five states and opened the way to similarly irrevocable marriage rights in other states—beginning, the next day, with Idaho and Nevada. Legal scholars expect several more to follow soon. In the light of this a successful challenge to gay marriage in any of the other 19 states which had already made it legal now looks next to impossible. Over half of America’s citizens now enjoy the right to marry as they choose.
The change since 2004, when Massachusetts pioneered the recognition of gay marriage, is remarkable. Massachusetts’ move ignited a national backlash as other states tumbled over one another to enact legal bans on gay marriage, often by constitutional decree, as quickly as they could. Though it took two tries in Arizona, these prohibitions passed everywhere they were offered, reaching 30 states in all and handing the marriage-equality movement one of the most impressive losing streaks in American political history.
Marriage traditionalists crowed that the people would never accept a hare-brained idea foisted upon them by homosexual activists and their elitist friends. Rare and brave was the politician who supported gay marriage. Barack Obama opposed it in his 2008 presidential campaign, despite what he promised would be his “fierce advocacy” of gay and lesbian equality.
Yet today gay marriage enjoys solid majority support, a change in popular opinion unforeseen by equality supporters and opponents alike. In a country where public opinion on controversial social issues usually changes slowly (not until the mid-1990s did more than half of Americans approve of interracial marriage, according to Gallup, a pollster), one is hard pressed to think of any precedent.
Public policy has swung just as sharply. In 2012, after Mr Obama renounced his own opposition, gay marriage was approved by plebiscite in three states, and the one attempt to ban it failed. After the Supreme Court ordered the federal government to recognise these marriages in 2013, a series of lower-court decisions brought gay marriage to state after state like a string of firecrackers. No one doubts that, in due course, the entire country will join them. Opponents, feeling what had seemed like the most stable ground fall away beneath them, are scrambling for ways to change the subject. For homosexual Americans, it is not just a new era. It is a new country.
What happened? Social change so marked and rapid can come only from a confluence of causes, but the most important was probably a change in moral judgment. Moral disapproval underlay not just opposition to same-sex marriage, but also support for the whole panoply of laws and customs that have historically discriminated against gay people. As it waned, support for same-sex marriage waxed. By 2013, nearly 60% had no moral problem with same-sex relations. Given that America, like most places, has viewed homosexuality as wicked since more or less the beginning of time, approval by a wide majority represents a watershed not just in contemporary politics but also in cultural history. This reversal, even more than sentiment about marriage as such, was the seminal change in public opinion. No anti-gay policy is likely to withstand it.
But why, then, the change in public morality? One reason is demographic replacement: the deaths of anti-gay traditionalists and the emergence of a generation that grew up accepting homosexuality as a normal human variation. Their nonchalance is founded upon broadening acceptance of the proposition that homosexuality, like heterosexuality, is generally innate and not inherently harmful. Yet a third reason, underlying both of the others, is that sexual minorities have emerged from the shadows into full public view.
The fight for civil rights in the 1950s and 1960s broadened American views of social justice. So did the growth of feminism. It was against this background that gay activists started to fight for their rights in the 1970s, creating a climate where more and more gay men and lesbians felt able to take the brave step of coming out. Their unhidden presence was to prove crucial.
In 1985, fewer than 25% of Americans told Gallup they had any friends, relatives or colleagues who were gay. The proportion rose steadily, to nearly 60%, through most of the 2000s—then it leapt in 2013 to 75%. The world of 1985 had been turned upside down. Today, it is odd not to have a gay person in your life; and what you know, you are unlikely to hate or fear. Given this, who would not want her friends and family members to enjoy the comfort and security of matrimony?
On those words, “comfort” and “security”, hangs another tale. In the country’s mind, gay marriage has crossed a line that separates the radical from the restorative. Over the past several years, the heterosexual public has begun to see same-sex marriage more as gay couples see it, and as the country sees marriage itself: as an effort to protect rather than threaten children, to build rather than erode families, and to support rather than undermine the institution of marriage itself.
Horses and carriages
To be sure, not all Americans see same-sex marriage as a pro-family proposition: three out of four white evangelical Protestants remain opposed. So do most conservatives and Republicans, which means some states have majorities against gay marriage. But opposition on the right is softening pretty quickly. Few Republicans running for governor in states that have passed marriage equality laws are promising to overturn them. In America, the emergence of a conservative narrative supporting gay marriage and families is a game-changer. It domesticates, quite literally, what was once seen as a threat.
Precisely the fear of being domesticated led many gay activists, at the time of The Economist’s cover, to support the idea of marriage equality warily, if at all. The author found himself facing much of his most sceptical questioning from gay people of the Stonewall generation: those who experienced first-hand the gay-rights revolution of the 1970s. They were often keener on marriage equality than on marriage itself. “Yes”, they would say, “we should have the right to marry, but that doesn’t mean we should embrace the institution. Our movement is supposed to be about liberation from stifling sexual and social norms. And why would gay people want to emulate straights for whom marriage is so often a failure or disappointment?”
And now they have
But gay America, too, has undergone a transformation. Younger gay and lesbian people, if they are lucky enough to have grown up in contentedly married households, want the same for themselves and their children. Older gay men remember lacking the social and legal protections of marriage while caring for sick and dying partners during the AIDS plague, when it was common for caregivers to be excluded from the hospital rooms of those they had tended lovingly through years of suffering and decline. Gay people, ironically, have done exactly what religious conservatives long begged them to do: they have embraced “family values”.
And so same-sex marriage, not long ago the most divisive social topic in the country, is becoming a meeting-ground instead. Indeed, even the gay-straight dichotomy, so long defined by antipodal identities and oppositional politics, is being blurred. Gay men and lesbians are becoming just another tile in the mosaic.
This is not to say that the culture war is over, or that same-sex marriage enjoys universal acclaim. Neither is true. Religious orthodoxies about homosexuality and marriage are slow to change (though most Catholics support same-sex marriage). The scales have tipped, however. Increasingly, equality’s opponents are the ones who seem antisocial and out of touch. None of this could have been remotely foreseen those short 18 years ago.
A bit longer ago, in the late 1960s, a young American boy came to a jarring realisation. “I am sitting at the piano daydreaming one afternoon, and it occurs to me that I will never get married,” he wrote in a later book. “So baldly clear is this realisation that I might as well be acknowledging that I will never have eight legs and spin a web.” This was a discovery at first merely puzzling, but later, with adolescence and then into early adulthood, sickening. It pointed ahead to a life in which furtive sex and fleeting assignations might be attainable, but the enduring security and companionship of marriage would be forever out of reach. No wonder he fought desperately, for many years, to deny his knowledge that he might be gay.
Neither as a child in the 1960s nor as an Economist writer in 1996 did that boy ever expect that he would stand before a public magistrate in Washington, DC, and marry the man he loved.
At the public celebration of his marriage, in the presence of his husband and family and friends, he recited two vows. The first was the promise that newlyweds through the ages have made to each other: To have and to hold from this day forward.
The other was a promise that a band of men made long ago, pledging their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honour to a proposition: All men are created equal. Though they could not have imagined same-sex marriage, its advent is a tribute to the revolutionary incrementalism of their liberal idea.