WASHINGTON, April 4, 2013 - A recurring theme of discussions between many (young) social conservatives and their gay friends is that the fight for cultural acceptance of gay relationships is more or less over; the allies of gay Americans have won.
Regardless of how long the legal marriage fight drags out, almost nobody denies that gay unions have dignity and deserve some legal accommodation. Talk on the street is that eventual recognition of civil marriage equality is now inevitable.
Yet curiously enough, all these declarations of victory eerily recall the premature jubilation of “Mission Accomplished,” circa 2003. In reality, there is a winding, messy road of nation-building ahead in the ongoing task of integrating gay people into mainstream America and determining the relationship between the family and the state.
Skeptics of gay marriage—from Mona Charen to Mark Steyn—have observed that social conservatives are losing the battle for the definition of marriage because American culture rejected the premises of their traditionalism long ago. Too many children are born out of wedlock. The “starter marriage” has already entrenched its role in media and social expectations. Notions of “sexual complementarity” went the way of pre-60s gender roles. Parents today are as likely to seek dating wisdom from their children as to offer advice. Is it any small wonder that mutual inscrutability now unites social policy opponents in reflexive hostility?
Some people have argued for years that if conservatives had at the outset embraced domestic partnerships or civil unions—as President Bush implored in 2004—much of this conflict might have been avoided. Traditionalists have countered that wherever civil unions emerged, gay marriage soon followed. The truth, perhaps, is a bit of both.
There is a touching scene in the British television drama, Being Human, where troubled protagonist John Mitchell intimates to his most devoted friend, George Sands, “Anything that happened would have happened a lot sooner, and a lot worse, if it wasn’t for you.” The aggrieved resignation of that scene—where the protagonist is finally caught by the unyielding reality of his circumstances—is an expedient analogue for the fierce but fading resistance to recognizing gay unions.
The underlying cultural forces that have now brought marriage equality to the brink of inevitability would exist regardless of legislated compromises. The long shadow of sexual revolution that triumphantly abjured the quaint (and homogenous) familial idealism of the 1950s cannot be uncast, and its effects will continue to change society in ways yet to be seen or understood.
There, the social conservatives have a point.
Civil unions likely would have placated most sides well enough for a time, only to have gay marriage eventually show up at the party to find that most people had long ago forgotten what all the fuss was about. When gay marriage is eventually recognized in Britain, France, Colorado, New Jersey, and, yes, California, it will be on such terms.
On the other hand, the roots of every push for rights and recognition grow from some history of animus. In viciously rejecting supposed threats to social order, the would-be gatekeepers of civilization wind up breaking down the very gates they held. Put simply, there would never have been a gay rights movement had not the old traditionalists forged the need for expansive gay identity through denunciations, persecutions, and occasionally violent contempt. Likewise, the history of “blackness” might have emerged very differently—and less divergently—had black soldiers returned from Europe and the Pacific Theater to find sincere gratitude and G.I benefits rather than lynch mobs and legislated poverty. Identity is a response to trauma. Conceived in passion, we are born into this world, screaming and flailing, and we are given a name. Such is the story of men.
As the fight over gay unions recedes from prominence, new fault lines over social laws and mores will break open. Indeed, they are already cracking through the surface. A college friend, Hilary O’Connell, recently took to the Yale Herald to push for what might fairly be described as freedom from marriage, which institution she condemns as “problematic and marginalizing”. Her article proliferated through my Facebook feed as a manifesto for the many profiles displaying the red “greater than” sign instead of the Human Rights Campaign’s “equality” logo for the Supreme Court marriage cases. O’Connell’s is not yet the dominant view among Millennials, either on marriage or society, but it could become so if traditionalists fail to entirely rethink the approach to our generation’s values.
The advent of gay marriage may yet be an opportunity for selling anew the benefits of civil and holy matrimony to a disaffected society. Early data on marriage and divorce in jurisdictions where gays marry are encouraging, and what better time to talk up the benefits of marriage than when everybody is already talking about the benefits of marriage? For those committed to the enduring institution of the family, it will be an interesting and rewarding project to integrate Megan McArdle’s gay suburbanites into the fight for marriage against the revolutionary salvos of O’Connell, Dan Savage, and others.
Even if gay marriage is inevitable, victory in that next fight is not.
About the Author: Anthony “Rek” LeCounte graduated from Yale with a degree in Political Science and expects any future husband to love politics and college football at least half as much as he does. He blogs about conservative policy, principles, and political philosophy at Token Dissonance. Tweet him @RekLeCounte
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