Thursday, August 31, 2006

Same-sex marriage: the atmosphere changes

Looking over a decade or so of the gay-marriage movement, its contours are coming to form a discenable triadic sequence. In Phase One there was division, with some favoring gay marriage, while others were indifferent or opposed. In Phase Two the cause triumphed, among lesbians and gay men (though not in the society in general). Now we have entered Phase Three, where there is doubt and division again.

During Phase One, which began in the mid-nineties, the issue rose quickly to prominence It had been broached twice before, in California at the end of the fifties and then again, from several quarters, in the first phase of high-gear gay liberation, the early seventies. But the issue had faded away.

This time it didn’t. That same-sex marriage became a major, perhaps the major, issue for gay men and lesbians is due to the forthrightness of a few thoughtful writers, including Evan Wolfson, Andrew Sullivan, and Jonathan Rauch. At first, the mainstream gay movement, represented by such organizations as the Human Rights Campaign and several groups of lawyers, sought to ignore the issue. Some, who were on the left, were scornful of all marriage as an instrument of “bourgeois oppression.” A more valid objection is that there were two pieces of unfinished business that needed to take precedence: sodomy-law reform and the policy of excluding gays and lesbians from military service. Advocates of gay marriage were trying to jump the queue. Fortunately, the US Supreme Court demolished the sodomy laws. Yet the military situation continues to fester.

Yet the doubts and divisions of Phase One quickly morphed into the triumphalism of Phase Two. What caused the change? In my view it was the grass roots--all sorts of “ordinary” lesbians and gay men who insisted that same-sex marriage was important to them. It was significant not solely for the benefits (indeed a significant concern) but as a matter of symbolism and equality. Why shouldn’t gays get married like everyone else?

So the major doubters, many of them at least, seemed to lose their voices. The leadership had to stop dragging its feet. After a first, unsuccessful attempt in Hawaii, the main strategy was to proceed through the courts, following the example of Massachusetts.

Those were the heady, though ultimately inconclusive days of Phase Two.

Now Phase Three is upon us. It has been signaled by two developments. In the first those who had thrown themselves into the struggle for gay marriage were compelled to admit that the legal-activist strategy of obtaining results by court order wasn’t working. In my view this was always bad strategy, as it was undemocratic. As we have seen with the civil rights and the women’s movements, the American people will accept major change. If they sense that it is coerced, though, they will rebel. At all events, it is increasingly clear that in a number of states we must settle (at least pro tempore) for civil unions, in the hope of upgrading them later.

The second major development is the appearance this summer of a manifesto, “Beyond Same-Sex Marriage” (BSSM), written and circulated by a group headed by Joseph DeFilippis of New York City. The manifesto complicates the matter by citing a number of side issues. Nonetheless, the main contention, that gay marriage needs to be implemented in tandem with a number of other options—including domestic partnership and civil unions-—seems sound to me. As a general rule, it is better to have several options instead of just one. After all, homosexuality and bisexuality are options that we have struggled for decades to gain recognition as equal in dignity to heterosexuality. By the same token, why should marriage be the only alternative to bachelor status?

The answer given by some who favor same-sex marriage is that the institution of marriage is in deadly peril in the Western world. It must be strengthened. One way of doing this is by adding gays and lesbians to the constituency. In order to achieve this strengthening, homosexual persons must not be allowed to stray towards other options. Such “easy outs” would only compound the erosion of marriage that is rampant.

Supporters of this view of same-sex marriage call it a conservative solution. Few heterosexual conservatives agree. Such champions as Andrew Sullivan and Jonathan Rauch have indeed been associated with the gay conservative movement. This label may be unfair, as their views on many matters are more nuanced. They have, however, promoted same-sex marriage as a conservative step, which will help restore the foundations of society. In keeping with this principle, they are Exclusivists, insisting that marriage be the only option for gays and lesbians.

Understandably, members of this group are concerned about the fallout that may result from the Beyond Same-Sex Marriage manifesto. Still, there seems to be some overreaction. At first Jonathan Rauch asserted that the BSSMers were opposed to gay marriage. Yet the manifesto explicitly includes marriage as one of the options. I am wearily familiar with this argument, for when I took exception to the Exclusivist position, I was repeatedly accused of being against gay marriage or somehow seeking to undermine the campaign for it. Let me say for the hundredth time: I favor gay marriage. And as for me undermining some major social movement, I don’t think that there is much to worry about there.

Then it is said that the signers of the manifesto tend to be on the left. So what? The left has made many important contributions to the gay and lesbian movement, starting with launching it in Southern California in 1950-52. Moreover, if gay conservatives are entitled to promote a particular concept of same-sex marriage that is aligned with their other beliefs, why shouldn’t progressive gays have the same privilege?

Finally, it is asserted that elements of the Christian Right will take advantage of the manifesto to attack gays. To me this is reminiscent of the claim that voting for Lamont instead of Lieberman will give aid and comfort to Al Qaeda. Such scare tactics must be resisted.

At all events there has been a major change in climate. The hopeful days of Phase Two are over. Now there is doubt and division, in some ways recalling the atmosphere during Phase One, where many gay and lesbian leaders were indifferent or hostile to same-sex marriage. That may not describe the situation now accurately, but things are complex. The advantage of this complexity is that it calls for thought, and not just endorsing slogans.

The downside is that the timetable for attaining same-sex marriage, as a national policy, will now be further delayed. That is unfortunate. Still, that is often the way social progress occurs in America--it shows many twists and turns. And that is how it should be. Gay marriage will come when enough people have been educated to see that it is right and just. As we move slowly toward that goal we must not allow any particular group to have a monopoly on the terms of the debate. That was the case in Phase Two. We are beyond that now.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Very nice post and summary. I disagree with BBSM's means, but agree with their objective. For further comments, see:

3:43 PM  

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