Tom Keane

Game over

Gay marriage will eventually be the law of the land

By Tom Keane
July 12, 2011

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THE FIGHT over same-sex marriage - a topic undiscussed 20 years ago, a shocking proposition a decade ago - will soon be over. It will take some years more, and battles remain, but the outcome of the war is clear.

This may seem a remarkable claim, given the federal Defense Of Marriage Act, the 2008 rejection of same-sex marriage by California voters, and the laws of a majority of states, all of which aim to preserve traditional, heterosexual marriage. And there are still more than a few politicians who indulge in homophobia, most notably Michele Bachmann, who recently became the first presidential candidate to sign an anti-gay-marriage pledge.

Moreover, same-sex marriage is legal in just six states and Washington, D.C., representing a scant 11 percent of the country’s population. So why the optimism?

Gay marriage is no longer working as a wedge issue.

For a long while, conservatives liked to think of gay marriage and abortion as related - if you opposed abortion, then you’d also oppose gay marriage. As with abortion, gay marriage was used effectively as a club against any variety of politicians, often with tremendous electoral success.

But the two issues are quite different. It’s been nearly four decades since Roe v. Wade, but abortion continues to leave people uncomfortable. “Americans are at once pro-life and pro-choice’’ concluded a 2011 analysis of opinion polls by the American Enterprise Institute. That ambivalence was underscored by former President Bill Clinton’s line about making abortion “safe, legal and rare.’’ “Rare,’’ of course, was an acknowledgement that even the pro-choice crowd recognizes abortion has real costs.

Not so with same-sex marriage. While the argued harm of abortion is ending a potential life, it’s hard to see what damage might be caused by gays getting married. If anything, gay marriage - like all marriage - discourages promiscuity in favor of building long-term monogamous relationships. This, of course, is a state of affairs that conservatives should want.

Then too, the one-time fears that homosexual marriages would somehow undermine heterosexual relationships have not been borne out. In Massachusetts, the divorce rate has actually dropped since the introduction of same-sex marriage. Same-sex marriages themselves are, like all marriages, pretty noncontroversial - you’ll find pickets at abortion clinics but not outside a gay couple’s home. The result has been a dramatic change in attitudes. A Gallup survey from May found a majority of Americans now support same-sex marriage. A year ago, the figure was only 44 percent.

One can see this change occurring, almost perversely, in the reaction of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie to New York’s recent legalization. Christie denounced the law, saying, “I’m not a fan of gay marriage.’’ On the other hand, New Jersey does have a civil union law which offers up essentially the same collection of rights and obligations of traditional marriage. Christie is OK with that. His objection, when you get down to it, is one of terminology: civil unions aren’t called “marriage.’’ That’s a meaningful difference, a sort of separate but equal status that gays rightly believe implies some inferiority to their relationships. Still, it’s only a word - and if Christie’s only objection is the word itself, one suspects over time that will fade.

Underlying this change has been an explicit strategy by gay activists to encourage gays to be “out.’’ Back in the days when they were closeted, gays were easy targets for fear or mockery. But today, and especially for younger Americans, things are far different. Those now in high school and college have gay classmates, they are exposed to gay role models (from Ellen to Professor Dumbledore) and they see gays in almost all walks of life. It’s no big deal and they find it hard to credit the notion that these people - often their friends - should be treated differently. Thus surveys find that, while older Americans still resist gay marriage, younger Americans easily give it their support.

And as those younger Americans age, they will increasingly represent a majority of the voting population. Laws against gays marrying will seem as wrong to them as anti-miscegenation laws now seem to us. Gay marriage will eventually be the law of the land.

Tom Keane writes regularly for the Globe.