I seem to have made an unexpected midlife career move, and no, it isn’t lucrative. After almost 20 years of standing on a soapbox for gay marriage, I am standing on another soapbox making the case for tolerating people who oppose same-sex marriage.
The other day, I joined 57 other supporters of gay marriage in a public statement called “Freedom to Marry, Freedom to Dissent: Why We Must Have Both.” You can read it here. You can even sign it here. I won’t repeat that argument. But I want to add something to it—something about race.
One objection to socially tolerating opposition to gay marriage comes up again and again. For many people, it seems to be the only way they can think about the issue. It’s this:
Isn’t opposition to gay marriage just like opposition to interracial marriage? We don’t tolerate racism. So we shouldn’t tolerate this.
Until the Supreme Court’s 1967 decision in Loving v. Virginia, some states banned interracial marriage—just as most states today ban same-sex marriage. Then, as now, defenders of the iniquitous status quo made arguments based on religion, the nature of marriage, and the welfare of children and society. Today, of course, there is no excuse for supporting anti-miscegenation laws; such support would be beyond the pale of reasonable discussion in mainstream American life. And similarly there’s no excuse for opposing marriage equality. Someone like former Mozilla CEO Brendan Eich, who was forced out over his support for California’s ban on gay marriage, deserves no different treatment than the complete ostracism he would receive if he had said, “It’s just my personal belief, but blacks and whites shouldn’t be allowed to intermarry.”
So the argument goes. But it’s wrong.
Not entirely wrong, to be sure. There are important parallels between the Loving case and the gay marriage cases today. And there are also important parallels between the gay civil rights movement and its African-American predecessor. Gays were systematically excluded from jobs and careers, terrorized by thugs in order to keep us in our place, sometimes killed if we looked at someone the wrong way. Instead of protecting us, the police hounded and harassed us. Our churches were burned, our young people humiliated. Of course, our government systematically and openly discriminated against us. I could go on, but suffice to say this: People who deny any kinship between racism and homophobia are ignorant, malicious, or both.
But it is also a mistake to overlook some important differences. Differences which, in the context of the marriage debate, matter—and which gay marriage proponents ignore at our own peril.
1. Marriage has always been gendered.
Virtually all human societies, including our own until practically the day before yesterday, took as a given that combining the two sexes was part of the essence of marriage. Indeed, the very idea of a same-sex marriage seemed to most people a contradiction in terms. In 1995, not so very long ago, my father warned me not to become a public advocate of gay marriage. He had nothing against gay people or same-sex unions, so what was the problem? “This idea is so far-fetched,” he said, “people will think you’re a nut. You won’t be taken seriously as a journalist anymore.” At the time, it seemed a very real prospect.
By contrast, marriage has not always been racist. Quite the contrary. People have married across racial (and ethnic, tribal, and religious) lines for eons, often quite deliberately to cement familial or political alliances. Assuredly, racist norms have been imposed upon marriage in many times and places, but as an extraneous limitation. Everyone understood that people of different races could intermarry, in principle. Indeed, that was exactly why racists wanted to stop it, much as they wanted to stop the mixing of races in schools. In both intent and application, the anti-miscegenation laws were about race, not marriage.
Why should this distinction matter today, if both kinds of discrimination are wrong? Because asking people to give up history’s traditional understanding of marriage is a big ask. You don’t expect thousands of years of unquestioned moral and social tradition to be relinquished overnight. And you don’t claim that holding to a venerable idea about marriage’s fundamental nature is morally the same as yoking marriage forcibly to a racist ideology which has nothing to do with it.
I wish more people would change their minds faster—though I am amazed, truth be told, at how fast they are changing their minds right now. (Here’s a startling comparison. Guess which was the first year when a majority of Americans told Gallup they approved of marriage between whites and blacks? Answer: 1997, 30 years after Loving.).
2. Religion, unlike racism, is constitutionally protected, and opposition to gay marriage has deep religious roots.
The religious basis of the fiercest opposition to same-sex marriage is a truism. The anti-gay “clobber texts” in the Bible, though overemphasized by homophobes, are really there. To their discredit, all three of the Abrahamic faith traditions condemn homosexual love, and all of them have theologies that see marriage as intrinsically heterosexual. Believe me, no one regrets this more than I do. Religious-based homophobia is every bit as harmful as the secular varieties, and often worse. (Very few other forces could lead parents to reject their own kids.) But gay-rights advocates cannot wish away the deep and abiding religious roots of anti-gay ideology.
Here again, racism is a different story. The defenders of anti-miscegenation laws in the 1960s claimed to have God on their side, but it was evident that they were distorting and abusing the tenets of their faith, not exercising them. Racism was not a core doctrine of mainstream Christianity or Judaism; rather, religion offered a powerful moral critique of racism (and religious leaders played a critical role in fighting it).
The First Amendment carves out special protections for religious belief and expression. That does not mean, of course, that Christian homophobes can discriminate as much as they want provided they quote the Bible. It does mean, at least for a while, courts and legislatures will strike compromises balancing gay rights and religious liberty, something they did not have to do with black civil rights. This makes gay marriage more complicated—legally, socially, and even ethically—than interracial marriage. And it means gay-marriage supporters will hit a constitutional brick wall if we try to condemn our opponents to immediate and total perdition.
And meanwhile? As the days tick by and the balancers balance, real-world gay people will suffer. Isn’t that unfair and burdensome? Indeed it is. But here I come to one more important difference from race:
3. There is no political emergency.
By the early 1960s, black Americans had experienced two centuries of slavery, another century of Jim Crow, and a Southern campaign of “massive resistance” to all ordinary political steps toward integration. It was painfully clear that ordinary politics was blocked by a regime of systematic violence, intimidation, and corruption. The racists who loosed dogs and fire hoses on children were capable of anything; nothing short of a full-scale national assault on racism could work. We would put troops on the streets if we had to.
Today gay Americans’ situation could not be more different. As was true for women’s rights advocates two generations ago, politics and persuasion are working, and working well. Already, in fact, a majority of American Catholics support gay marriage. Opposition is increasingly concentrated, and isolated, among white Protestant evangelicals, and even among them, the young are coming around.
Gay-rights advocates thus do not need or want emergency measures. We need time and voice to finish making our case. There are no dogs or fire hoses in our way. In that respect, the race analogy is not only misleading, it is counterproductive.
I recently talked to a gay-rights organizer whose job includes building support for marriage equality and anti-discrimination laws in conservative states, where gay people (especially kids) are most in need of such protections. She is not some internet activist posting comments; she deals with the daily realities of bringing about social change on the ground. When I asked if the analogy to racism was helpful, she groaned. No analogies are helpful, she replied, but this one is especially counterproductive. People snap into a defensive crouch and shut down. No one will trust or talk to someone who calls them, in effect, a racist, the worst thing you can be in America. Winning converts, finishing the fight, she said, requires taking people on a journey toward seeing marriage and homosexuality in a new light. It’s a process, and an accusatory approach aborts it.
The cause of gay equality, I believe, is as noble as the black civil rights movement was, and it shares the same creed: All men are created equal. But it moves in a different way, and in a different time. When marriage-equality advocates look in the mirror and see Mildred Loving or Martin Luther King, they see, thank goodness, another world, not our own.