Is 'Gay Marriage' Really Newer Than Cellphones or the Internet?

As we await word from the Supreme Court about the future of same-sex marriage, it's increasingly common to hear how allegedly "swift," "unprecedented," and "accelerated" the advance of gay rights has been. Even as stalwart an LGBTQ ally as Frank Rich, in an article in the last issue of New York Magazine entitled "Ancient Gay History," claims that "the rapidity of change has been stunning" and "happened with a speed of a fever dream."

However, this line of argument does an injustice to the depth of LGBTQ history -- and can easily be turned into an argument for delay. Most notably, during oral arguments on the Proposition 8 same-sex marriage case, Justice Samuel Alito argued against "making an assessment of the effects of this institution, which is newer than cellphones or the Internet." Yet is the recognition of same-sex unions really such a radically new innovation?

The Stonewall riots of 1969 are usually singled out as the start of the LGBTQ movement. But another compelling starting point is July 4, 1965, at Liberty Hall in Philadelphia, the first time that LGBTQ activists publicly picketed for their rights. So consider what else was happening politically during that summer of 1965. The Voting Rights Act was enacted, and Affirmative Action was codified, accelerating the rollback of racial segregation. The Immigration and Nationality Act made possible the multiethnic and multicultural character of contemporary American society by opening immigration to a far broader range of countries. Plans were finalized for the launch of the National Organization for Women (NOW), which would begin to chip away at patriarchal institutions. And the Supreme Court, in Griswold v. Connecticut, enunciated the concept of a right to personal privacy that today protects access to contraception and abortion rights.

All of these issues -- gay liberation, racial desegregation, multiculturalism, women's rights, and personal privacy -- have evolved in tandem for the past half century. Yet only LGBTQ issues are today still routinely regarded as new, innovative, challenging, and even "dangerous." Undoubtedly much of this impression, as Frank Rich notes in his compassionate article, derives from the hidden quality of most LGBTQ lives until the AIDS epidemic forced a society-wide recognition in the 1980s that homosexuality is a common human characteristic, not the rare or obscure trait once believed.

A major intellectual project of the last half-century has been the effort to reclaim earlier LGBTQ history. Perhaps the single most influential tomes are two by late Yale historian John Boswell about the European Middle Ages: Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality and Same -Sex Unions in Pre-Modern Europe. But many other works stretch back to Western antiquity, contextualizing homosexuality in the world of the Greeks, the Romans, and the Hebrews. Another ever-growing body of literature documents the history of LGBTQ people on this continent, including Jonathan Ned Katz's Gay American History, Lillian Faderman's Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers, John D'Emilio's Sexual Politics, Sexual Communities, and Joanne Meyerowitz's How Sex Changed: A History of Transsexuality in the United States.

Thus it's clearly not the existence of same-sex unions that is the true novelty. The real innovation, the one that truly is newer than cellphones and the Internet, is widespread opposition to discrimination in marriage.

This deprivation of equality has already persisted for decades. Stonewall and the first calls for same-sex marriage were over four decades ago. The Mattachine Society and the Daughters of Bilitis, the prototypes of today's gay and lesbian organizations, were founded nearly five decades ago -- about the same time that Edith Windsor, the plaintiff in the current DOMA case, met her partner, Thea Speyer. In Germany, Magnus Hirschfeld founded the world's first "gay-rights" organization, the Scientific-Humanitarian Committee, in 1897.

That's more than eleven decades ago, and more than long enough for LGBTQ people to have to wait for their relationships to be recognized as equal to those of other citizens. Arguments to the contrary need to be identified as the delaying tactic they very often are.