Since most Americans now support same-sex marriage, it’s become a question of when same-sex marriage will be the law of the land, not if. I think that’s great, and a rapidly growing majority agree. The progressive narrative on gay marriage has been around equal rights, as the red equal signs on my facebook feed show. Again, quite true, legalizing gay marriage is obviously a victory for equality. But there’s another aspect of same-sex marriage that’s gotten less press, which is how it’s also a victory for conservative culture as well. Let me explain.
Andrew Sullivan is a gay, Catholic (self described) conservative who championed gay marriage in his 1995 book Virtually Normal. He’s best known for his blog The Daily Dish, which was one of the first major blog successes. This is where I first heard the conservative argument for gay marriage, and it still strikes me as deeply insightful and true. In 1997 Sullivan had a debate with David Frum (also a conservative) about supporting gay marriage in Slate. Frum against, Sullivan for. Let me quote Sullivan:
Everyone should be radically free to choose the person he or she marries. But the marriage itself should carry with it all the responsibilities and obligations it traditionally has. Why do you—as a conservative who allegedly upholds equal opportunity for all Americans—have a problem with that?….
Let me propose a deal: I will join you in a campaign to restigmatize adultery and tighten no-fault divorce, if you will join with me in fighting for the right of lesbian and gay citizens to marry on just those terms. That way we can both do our bit to rescue marriage, and homosexuals can stop being the scapegoats for any other social decline you wish to mention. What could be fairer than that?
This seems exactly right. While opening up marriage to gays is a progressive victory for equality, the actual act of getting married is a conservative one.
Once gays can marry, they’ll be expected to marry. And to buy sensible, boring cars that are good for car seats. You thought the fifties were conformist? Wait until all those fabulous “confirmed bachelors” and maiden schoolteachers are expected to ditch their cute little one-bedrooms and join the rest of America in whining about crab grass, HOA restrictions, and the outrageous fees that schools want to charge for overnight soccer trips.
[A]ffluent urbanites are now quite conservative in their personal marital habits. They’ve just been reluctant to shame those who don’t follow suit. But with marriage freed from the culture-war baggage, we now have an opening for change. Think it can’t happen? Consider the cigarette. It was shocking for a woman to smoke on in public in 1880, nearly mandatory in 1940, and increasingly shocking in 2013 (for either gender). I wouldn’t be surprised to see out-of-wedlock childbearing follow a similar course.
Ironically the conservative cultural cycle away from free love since the 1970’s may be accelerated by legalizing gay marriage. Marriage is a conservative act, and gay marriage is no exception. Strong conservatives of course decry this change since they want a standard of marriage from 100 years ago, when marriage was more exclusively about raising children. But as practiced today by heterosexuals, marriage is defined as much by the moral and legal commitment to another as it is raising children. So including gays will merely allow those who want to settle down in a conservative fashion to do so, and perhaps nudge those who don’t in a conservative monogamous direction. Exactly as it does heterosexuals. Anyway, McArdle’s piece quoted above is a fun read on how this may play out. Also see her second post clarifying some points after she got comments on the first.
What about Frum and Sullivan’s debate from 1997? Well, moderate conservative David Frum recently reversed his position to come out in support of gay marriage. As for Sullivan, well, he to his own surprise eventually got married of course. Let me give him the last word:
The wedding occurred last August in Massachusetts in front of a small group of family and close friends. And in that group, I suddenly realized, it was the heterosexuals who knew what to do, who guided the gay couple and our friends into the rituals and rites of family. Ours was not, we realized, a different institution, after all, and we were not different kinds of people. In the doing of it, it was the same as my sister’s wedding and we were the same as my sister and brother-in-law. The strange, bewildering emotions of the moment, the cake and reception, the distracted children and weeping mothers, the morning’s butterflies and the night’s drunkenness: this was not a gay marriage; it was a marriage.