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April 10, 2013 10:46 AM Conservatives on Gay Marriage: How Will They Continue to Oppose it?

By Andrew Sabl

I’ve been thinking, since he posted it, about Jonathan Chait’s piece several days back regarding the anti-marriage-equality movement’s swan song. Alertly noting the tone of elegy and self-pity in Maggie Gallagher’s latest musings on her political activity, Chait wrote:

The surest sign of resignation is that Gallagher has redirected her focus from stopping gay marriage to preserving the dignity of her reputation and those of her fellow believers. She now presents her cause as a kind of civil rights movement to protect her fellow believers from the stigma of advocating bigotry and discrimination. “I worry when I get an email from a woman who’s a nurse in a hospital,” she told NPR, “who wrote a letter to the editor opposing gay marriage, and finds that she fears her job is in jeopardy.”

Jumping off of this: I can imagine two models for how opponents of gay marriage might be regarded in several years—say ten to thirty, depending on whether public opinion on this issue shifts as fast as it has recently or whether it hits a wall at some point. One would be more comfortable for gay marriage opponents. The other is more apt and more likely.

The first model would be that of sexual prudes: those who, consistent with (for instance) orthodox Catholicism, opine that premarital sex is wrong—or, yet a bit more ridiculously, that masturbation is wrong. (As I’ve blogged before, the former opinion is uncommon among the public but common among old Republicans; the latter is now pretty much restricted to comical Senate candidates and one noisy Supreme Court justice.) A belief that certain sexual practices (“sodomy”) are wrong, whatever the orientation of those practicing them, is, I guess, somewhere in between. Given that such prudery is unlikely, and decreasingly likely, to have much effect on law and policy, people who quietly hold such beliefs are pretty much tolerated, even in company where they’re considered eccentric, as long as they express those beliefs fairly quietly and respectfully. Their prudery is considered the natural result of being unusually religious and, probably, somewhat older. People who think this way are considered relatively unthreatening—and, crucially, relatively unbigoted in that their beliefs commit them, at least in theory, to placing constraints on themselves and people like themselves, not just on others. (Hypocrisy on this score is, rightly, socially censured.) And the lack of social support for their views has a salutary knock-on effect: outside backward areas of the South and Midwest—which I realize means about forty senators, but still—the sexual prudes pretty much resign themselves to private persuasion among those already sympathetic, rather than obtruding their opinions on those who have no interest in them.

A second model would be people morally opposed to so-called miscegenation: sexual relations or marriage between people of different “races.” That opinion, once dominant, is now marginal, and no more likely to result in legal penalties than sexual prudery is. Yet it’s not considered harmless or amusing. One reason is the persistence of non-legal penalties: in less enlightened parts of the country, as well as in the wrong neighborhoods in the enlightened parts, couples who scan as interracial are still met with taunts, or scowls, or sometimes violence. That’s not true of unmarried heterosexuals seen kissing too avidly, but it is still true of gay couples. Another is the inherent hatred involved. Thinking sex outside of marriage is icky makes you quaint and old-fashioned. Thinking sex across your favorite color boundary involves some sort of contamination makes you a racist.

Clearly, Gallagher et al. are hoping that opposition to gay marriage will end up like the first model, i.e. a minority opinion but one that the majority culture regards as outdated and silly rather than morally loathsome. But I think Andrew Sullivan has been right all along: it’s much more like the second model. While I grant that for people of a certain generation gay marriage was long unthinkable, the same used to be true of interracial marriage—and we don’t forgive people who continue to openly and aggressively flaunt their old prejudices on that. In a generation or so, people who think that their gay friends’ marriages are disgusting and that the children of those marriages will be scarred and tainted by them will be considered akin to those who think the same about marriages between whites and nonwhites.

Ms. Gallagher and those who think like her cannot be forced to give up their personal, private aversion to certain other people’s love and attachment. But they’ll eventually have to learn to keep their unwelcome and offensive opinions to themselves. I realize that this will be a slow and difficult process, but they’ve still got a little time before the norms change completely. So I advise them to start now.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-based Community]

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Andrew Sabl is a professor of public policy and political science at the University of California, Los Angeles.
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