Friday, March 02, 2007

Demography rules, or does it?

I am now in the seventy-third year of my unnatural life. For almost half of this time I was sexually repressed. Yet what a change the 1970s meant! When I got over the astonishment I realized that I was truly in my element. I welcomed free access to pornography, together with the new sex shops. I eagerly embraced sexual freedom in all (or almost all) of the many venues where it was on offer. It seemed that it was only a question of time—until the old fogies died out—to the realization of that happy world when these things would be standard features of our society. Henceforth, in all its many-splendored forms sexual freedom would enjoy universal approval as part of our inherent right to self-realization.

Of course things did not quite work out that way. For one thing, HIV/AIDS came along. Some of the other sexual-freedom components, such as pornography and sex shops, have come to seem shopworn, almost pathetic. “Intergenerational sex,” as it was coyly termed, is now thoroughly reviled, and special sting operations are thriving (if that is the word) in several states.

Yes, things are better now. But it is not the case that all the barriers have fallen. Compromise seems to be the American way

Hope has broken out on another front. Now we are told that it is just a matter of time—until the old fogies die out—that we are blessed with same-sex marriage (SSM). In every American state this advance will be fully integrated into the institution of marriage.

Some support for this belief stems from a recent survey of college students. I owe the following information to Paul Varnell, the astute columnist who keeps track of these things. In a recent piece he states:

“More than six out of 10 college freshmen say they support the concept of ‘legal marital status’ for gays and lesbians, according to a newly-released survey of freshmen conducted each fall by the Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles.

“The freshmen's support for ‘legal marital status’ for same-sex couples rose in 2006 to an all time high of 61.2 percent, a 3.3 percentage point increase over fall 2005 when support stood at 57.9 percent. The increase continues a relatively steady upward trend since the question was first asked in 1997 when support stood at 50.9 percent.

“The survey was based on responses from more than 271,000 freshmen at 393 colleges and universities, statistically adjusted to reflect responses of 1.3 million freshmen in 2006.”

Several comments seem appropriate. College students get involved in some things that later they renounce. The word “fickle” comes to mind. One aspect of such temporary allegiances finds recognition in the current acronyms BUG (bisexual until graduation) and LUG (lesbian until graduation).

But let’s assume that all these pro-gay-marriage students polled in the survey keep the views they have now. Will this mean the automatic triumph of same-sex marriage? That would be wonderful, but the optimistic forecast remains moot. That is so for this reason. Most of these college graduates will end up settling in the blue states, especially such populous ones as Massachusetts, New York, and California, where same-sex marriage, or something similar to it, is either legal or in the cards. Not too many collegians will settle in the heartland, the “flyover territory” familiarly derided by bicoastal sophisticates. Attitudes in the heartland may well remain what they are now—hostile to same-sex marriage.

Moreover, true same-sex marriage requires access to more than 1000 federal benefits. By definition, these are not available in Massachusetts, which has full same-sex marriage in name only. As a friend points out, it is possible to secure the federal benefits by changes in federal laws—a great many, I suspect would have to be handled individually. This would mean that states with Massachusetts-type same-sex marriage would enjoy full marriage. But states in the obdurate red zone would remain unreformed.

Then there is the matter of portability. The recalcitrant states are unlikely to give recognition to the SSM ones.

Yes, our population as a whole may be on the way to becoming more enlightened in this matter. But that advance won’t translate automatically into same-sex marriage as a nationally recognized institution. That happy outcome would require either a consensus in all the states or a favorable Supreme Court decision. For the foreseeable future, neither seems likely.

Some proponents of gay marriage extol federalism. By this they mean that individual states—in this instance, Massachusetts—can serve as laboratories for new social arrangements. In this way, the local implementation of same-sex marriage will provide a positive example that will calm fears elsewhere. To some extent, this is happening with regard to the Massachusetts experiment. But the favorable effect has not been felt everywhere, witness the fact that in the most recent general election six out of seven initiatives to ban gay marriage were adopted.

The implicit understanding on the part of the same-sex marriage supporters of federalism is that it is transitional. One day, not too far in the future, gay marriage will prevail in all of the fifty states. Would that this were so.

Abortion remains controversial in the United States. Its legality is guaranteed by a US Supreme Court decision. Consider what might be the case, though, if Roe v. Wade had not been stipulated. Or if it is overturned. Contrary to the dire visions of many pro-choice persons, abortion would continue to be legal in our most populous states, which trend towards liberalism. The resulting patchwork would pose an inconvenience, and perhaps more than that for those who live in states that cling to older views on this matter. Still, the states that keep abortion would not be affected.

That is not the case with same-sex marriage. It must be secured in every state; otherwise only a truncated version will prevail in those states that nominally adopt it. Like it or not—and I don’t welcome the prospect—we may in the end have to accept a “house divided” on this matter.

A bitter pill? Perhaps. When all is said and done, though, realism is preferable to comforting illusions.


While I am skeptical of too much extrapolation from the college survey cited by Varnell, a variety of polls indicate that support for SSM is increasing. Let us look, though, a little more closely at this groundswell. It consists of hard and soft support. The hard support comes mainly from the GLBT community, now solidly behind marriage expansion. Fifteen years ago, that was not so, as many (especially in the leadership cadres) considered other priorities more significant. Nowadays most informed gay men and lesbians consider SSM as simply an entitlement—a must-have.

Amongst the mass of the people, however—the heterosexual majority--support is different. In these majoritarian circles acquiescence is the rule, not fervor. This passive support means that these folks will not go to bat for the change. But if it is done, they will go along—depending on how the change is accomplished.

This contrast between fervor and acquiescence creates a paradox. For advocates of SSM now seems the time to press forward, using any means available. However aggressive tactics risk alienating the mass of soft support. These people are turned off by what they view as coercion, securing of gay marriage by judicial fiat. That, after all is what is what happened in Massachusetts.

So success will depend on the appropriate combination of diligence with caution. Most supporters of SSM now realize this. But can they control the enthusiasts who are still devoted to judicial activism?

A friend with legal training holds that the problem of securing federal benefits for those states that have legal marriage would be solved by repealing DOMA, the Defense of Marriage Act. The act is cleverly titled and repealing it may be harder than it seems. Moreover, things being as they are, a number of states will probably go the way of New Jersey, with all the (state) benefits of marriage, but not the name. This absence may prove a stumbling block in securing the federal benefits, even sans DOMA.

In short the matter is maddeningly complex. For the foreseeable future it promises much frustration for those who believe that gay marriage is an entitlement—something that equality simply requires. Alas, nothing is guaranteed on that basis.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

The irrepressible joys of the Seventies returned with Sullivan's enconium of Sacramento's Has-Bob, an individual I did not know personally, but knew in spades others just like him. It was a scary, promising, unscripted, freedom-loving, free-loving, and exuberant time, which unfortunately AIDS has colored far more darkly than I could have imagined.

On SSM, I'm one of those who demands access, but repudiates the entire institution (for gays and straights). I love my partner and our relationship is the height of my life, but only because it's ours, we made it, we crafted only a couple of terms and conditions, and then set attorneys loose to protect it from assult by outside forces. But relationships that form themselves, rather than are codified by tax codes, divorce settlements, child-support, and just cluelessness about what a relationship takes to work, cannot be gotten of the shelf of the state.

Another mixed blessing is a California opinion poll in 2005 that showed half the state's voters would approve inclusive marriage, half not, with 10% undecided. It will come. I hope we choose to secure it, but then avoid it. Relationships are worth their weight in gold, but only when their crafted by those who live them, not by bureaucrats and politicians who define, regulate, and tax it.

11:11 AM  

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