Gay Integration

In a NYT op-ed, Andrew Sullivan [RSS] notes the symbolic serendipity that the first legally sanctioned gay marriages in U.S. history are occurring on the 50th anniversary date of Brown v. Board of Education.

We should be wary of facile comparisons. The long march of African-Americans to civil equality was and is deeply different from the experience and legacy of gay Americans. But in one respect, the date is fitting, for both Brown and this new day revolve around a single, simple and yet deeply elusive idea: integration.

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You might think from some of the discussion of marriage rights for same-sex couples that homosexuals emerge fully grown from under a gooseberry bush in San Francisco. But we don’t. We are born into families across the country in every shape and form imaginable. Allowing gay people to marry is therefore less like admitting a group of citizens into an institution from which they have been banned than it is simply allowing them to stay in the very families in which they grew up.

Andrew makes a powerful point. I wish this had happened pursuant to an inevitable and rapidly-approaching national consensus, and thus via the legislature, than by judicial fiat. The same could be said of racial desegregation. In both cases, as in the abortion struggle, the fact that the majority’s will was overridden by unelected judges inflames already deep passions.

Andrew wonders why so many of his fellow conservatives are against what he sees as a perfectly natural process.

It is the most pro-family measure imaginable — keeping families together, building new ones, strengthening the ties between generations. And it is a profound rebuke to identity politics of a reductionist kind, to the separatism that divides our society into categories of gender and color and faith. This is why some elements of the old left once opposed such a measure, after all. How much more striking, then, that the left has been able to shed its prejudices more successfully than the right.

I cannot think of another minority whom conservatives would seek to exclude from family life and personal responsibility. But here is a minority actually begging for a chance to contribute on equal terms, to live up to exactly the same responsibilities as everyone else, to refuse to accept what President Bush calls the “soft bigotry of low expectations.” And, so far, with some exceptions, gay citizens have been told no. Conservatives, with the president chief among them, have said to these people that they are beneath the dignity of equality and the promises of American life. They alone are beneath the fold of family.

Conservatives who oppose gay marriage aren’t necessarily living the contradiction that Andrew ascribes to them. Their view of “family” is based on both religious teaching and longstanding tradition, both hallmarks of conservative thinking. Indeed, the idea the same-sex couples constitute a “family” is, to say the least, incredibly novel at this stage of the game.

I’m rather confident Andrew’s view will be the consensus in time, probably no more than a decade from now, at least partly because of today’s events. Right now, the public image of homosexuals–especially in the vast rural areas of the country where they aren’t as visible as they are in the urban centers–is of the leather clad miscreants who show up at queer pride rallies. This will soon be displaced by gay couples who appear more “normal.”

Update: Newsweek is dubbing this the “Will and Grace Effect.”

The debate isn’t just dividing Americans by state—in many families it’s the cause of friction at the dinner table. Polls show a sizeable generation gap when it comes to supporting same-sex marriage. In a NEWSWEEK Poll, 41 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds back gay marriage, compared with 28 percent of Americans overall. Generation Y is more tolerant than its elders, says pollster Celinda Lake. Christine Dinnino, 17, has regular fights about the marriage issue with her father, Samuel, a 43-year-old retired Army sergeant in Inverness, Fla. Though Samuel bases his objections on the Bible, Christine sees gay marriage as a civil-rights issue. “It used to be illegal to marry someone of a different race,” she says. “That sounds pretty foreign to the typical 15-year-old today.” While baby boomers tend to view homosexuality as anti-establishment, young people often see same-sex marriage as a way of integrating gays into society, says demographer Neil Howe, who has written about differences among the generations. “They see it,” he says, “as domesticating something that might be threatening to society and making it mainstream.”

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Younger people may also be more accepting because they’ve had greater exposure to gay people than previous generations had. Fewer gays are closeted, and the average age for “coming out” is now 16, down from the mid-20s in the 1970s. Knowing someone who is openly gay or lesbian is the single biggest predictor of tolerance on same-sex marriage, says Wolfson. And if you don’t personally know someone who’s gay, you’ll find plenty of gay characters and culture on TV. Recent research by Edward Schiappa, a professor of communications at the University of Minnesota, found that seeing likable gay characters on shows like “Will Grace” had similar effects to knowing gays in real life. In one study, students with few or no gay acquaintances were shown 10 episodes of HBO’s “Six Feet Under.” Afterward, their levels of anti-gay prejudice dropped by 12 percent.

Cultural conservatives are all too aware that such sympathetic portrayals of gay life can only hurt their efforts to portray same-sex marriage as a threat to American culture. “This generation has been subjected to an enormous amount of pro-gay propaganda,” says Robert Knight, director of the Culture and Family Institute at Concerned Women for America.

FILED UNDER: Law and the Courts
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. cj says:

    What I’d really like to see is a debate regarding the fact that state/gov’t recognition of marriage as a social construct that benefits society. (And I haven’t, personally, come to a decision on this issue.)

    Is it in the best interest of the state (representing the voluntary cohesion of a group of people) to recognize “marriage” as a unit that, IN TOTO, represents procreation and a reduction on the burden of the state of rearing future citizens?

    For example, the “nuclear family” arguably represents the ideological “best unit” for raising children and economic stability of such, and the breakdown of the traditional marriage and its family-rearing component represents an additional burden on the state? i.e., it is better to have a mom and dad raising (a) kid(s), then to have the state take over that primary responsibility?

    Let me say, I categorically discount the “individual example” arguments of infertile couples, older adults that are past their child-bearing years, etc. Those DO NOT represent the IN TOTO argument for the basis of institutional recognition of marriage.

    I.e., one can certainly argue that times have changed to the extent that the traditional view of marriage is no longer relevant. But I’d like to see some long-term DATA on that (excluding anecdotal evidence). I’d also like to see some relevant arguments that the govt-at-large accepting the responsibility of child-rearing is better than the tradition biological unit, and I’d especially like to hear from libertarians who otherwise decry the state’s involvement.

    My argument is that in order to have “gay marriage” or “single motherhood” or whatever, the state has to provide a greater welfare net for the raising of children — more medicare, more unemployment, more employee benefits, more educational resources, more state-supported social resources, etc. Is this a handing off of individual rights (and responsibilities) to the state nanny gov’t — in the guise of *more* individual rights?

    As I said, this is an aspect I don’t see widely debated. I haven’t made up my mind (although I am leaning con). To me, it is seeming to be an argument that the state can do a better job of raising children/future citizens than the “traditional parent”-recognized unit. I see a real threat for the opportunity of indoctrination in this philosophy. I think the opponents of “gay marriage” are pilloried for intolerance, when, in fact, they are simply inarticulate in espousing this position (and I admit I haven’t done a very good job myself). But I am not homophobic, or callous to the argument of homosexuals’ desire to be afforded a basic acknowledgement of their individual civil rights (or recognition that theirs isn’t a life-style choice).

    I’d just like to clarify the debate in the context of the ramifications for state-controlled child rearing. Which I think is a sincere, fundamental — and legitimate — issue for “traditional marriage advocates,” including those representated by the much-denigrated homeschooling/fundamentalist segment of society (of which I am neither). But I acknowledge that they may have legitimate points — many of which are otherwise defended by self-proclaimed “libertarians.”

  2. Attila Girl says:

    I see no connection between gay marriage and state involvement in child-rearing. If anything, having kids adopted by gay couples rather than by single people would seem to reduce the odds of the family ever needing government assistance, as the family has a (real or potential) second income to fall back on.