Straight people who support same-sex marriage rights frequently identify themselves as "allies." Many mention gay friends, family members, and acquaintances on whose behalf they advocate and say things like, "This doesn't really affect me personally" and, "This isn't really my cause." "But I support you."
I get this all the time from acquaintances, who commiserated with my wife and me over the passage of Proposition 8, California's gay marriage ban, and who express sympathy over other setbacks to marriage equality around the country. As grateful as I am for support and allegiance -- and for the hard work of those who promote gay rights as part of a broader program of social justice -- I worry that my straight friends may be missing the big picture and that if we don't collectively pay attention, we could all suffer in the end. The marriage equality debate is not just about gays and lesbians; it's about the freedom of everyone to set the terms of their own life.
The ongoing federal trial to challenge the constitutionality of Proposition 8 is offering a detailed view of the anti-gay marriage movement that goes beyond their campaign slogan -- marriage is between a man and a woman -- to show exactly what they mean by "traditional" marriage. What's becoming clear is that gay marriage is the wedge they use to advance an even more ambitious conservative social agenda. On the most basic level, they're fighting the Gender Wars 2.0.
Defenders of the ban on same-sex marriage believe that husbands and wives have specific roles, determined by their sex, and that without role models of two opposite-sex parents, children will grow up to think they can do whatever they want. As they see it, same-sex marriage is the outcome of individual liberty and the right to pursue happiness -- gone too far. They target all who resist the idea that biology is destiny. No matter that the bulk of academic research shows that gays and lesbians make good parents. To the so-called marriage defenders, science is no match for sacred texts and the way things once were and are supposed to be.
There's a reason the pro-Prop. 8 defense team fought to keep this trial from being broadcast on the internet. They prefer the ballot box to the witness stand because their message is far more persuasive and well cloaked when it's delivered in carefully crafted sound bytes about defining marriage and protecting the family. In a trial, however, the reasoning behind their pitch must stand up to legal scrutiny. If one man and one woman are necessary because procreation is the "central or defining purpose" of marriage, as the lawyers defending the constitutional ban have argued, then what do they really think about straight couples who choose not to have children? Should unwed mothers be forced into wedlock? This is where it gets scary -- for everyone!
Such questions didn't come up much during the 2008 campaign because the anti-gay marriage forces largely succeeded in controlling the terms of the debate. Frank Schubert, head of the PR firm that ran the Yes on 8 campaign, in a recap panel presentation to the 2009 American Association of Political Consultants Pollie Award Conference last year, explained how they crafted the message. Schubert noted that since most voters are moved primarily by self-interest, and since, in preliminary focus groups, most heterosexual subjects indicated that this issue had nothing to do with them and that they didn't see how same-sex marriage affected their own lives (sound familiar?), the best approach to move such voters was to appeal to unknown scary consequences, fabricated or not. As his associate Jeff Flint put it, "Something could happen that you may not like so you need to vote yes [on Prop. 8] to stop that from happening." In the arena of political advertising, outright lies are deemed completely acceptable as long as the message excites your base and frightens the middle 'undecided' voter over to your side. We've seen it happen over and over again.
At the outset of the struggle over the gay marriage ban ballot measure in the summer of 2008, the Yes on 8 leadership found that "a campaign that was simply an affirmation of traditional marriage" -- Schubert's phrasing -- would fail. So they turned the debate around, spinning yarns about a world in which gays bullied straight people. Even if, their line of reasoning went, you don't think your own marriage would be jeopardized by same-sex marriage, you need to worry that your way of life will be threatened and your children will be harmed. Roll out the commercials. Gay marriage will be taught in schools! Churches will be shut down! Little Susie will want to marry a princess! Their scare tactics worked, and Proposition 8 passed.
In court, inflammatory statements must be backed up, and the Prop. 8 defenders must explain what harm will come from legalizing of gay marriage. When defense attorney Charles Cooper was asked point blank by the judge in a pre-trial hearing to say how same-sex marriage would harm what's been called throughout the proceedings "opposite-sex marriage," he couldn't have been more clear: "My answer is: I don't know. I don't know."
Most Americans won't see the anti-gay marriage movement with its mask off and may not realize just how radically out of step its views are with the culture at large. George Skelton, writing in the Los Angeles Times during the first week of the Prop. 8 trial expressed surprise at the defense team's emphasis on procreation as the defining feature of marriage: "In the heated Prop. 8 campaign, I don't recall proponents pushing the idea that gay people don't qualify for marriage licenses because the main purpose of wedlock is child production. If they had, I suspect some straight voters would have been offended." He acknowledged that "admittedly I didn't pay much attention to the Proposition 8 campaign in 2008. I figured it was a gut vote for most people."
It's time for straight voters to see that they're being had. The enforcement of "traditional" marriage -- one primary goal of the anti-gay marriage movement -- would affect the entire population, not just because marriage is a basic civil right, which of course it is, but because Americans should be free decide how to build their own family life. While many thrive in conventional roles as fathers out in the workplace and mothers in the home, not everyone wants -- or is even financially able -- to live that way, and no one should force them to do so.
On the website set up by the Courage Campaign, a progressive advocacy group, to liveblog the Prop. 8 trial, in a thread for discussion participants to introduce themselves, "Ryn" posted the following instructive story of how she, a young straight evangelical Christian, came to support same-sex marriage:
[W]hen you realize that you've spent your childhood having religious authority figures telling you that listening to certain kinds of music or watching certain movies was of the devil, when you figure out that's bunk you tend to wonder what other things they've been taking out of context in scripture. You're also less likely to listen to organizations who claim they want to protect traditional family when you've spent your childhood hearing those same organizations being cited as the authority for why you, as a woman, should aspire to be nothing more than a housewife because that's what God designed the traditional family to be. By their definitions, my desire to continue a career after I get married means I'm threatening the institution of the family too, so I don't see why I'm supposed to get worked up about their claim that same-sex marriage is going to threaten the institution of the family.
She concludes with the reflexive disclaimer, "I'm straight, Prop 8 doesn't directly effect me," but her own account points to the slippery slope the same-sex marriage ban and other anti-gay marriage initiatives could send us down.
Straight people, listen up! When marriage "protectors" point to scripture and tradition to justify their antagonism to same-sex marriage, you need to ask yourselves whether you want to turn back the clock on centuries of reforms that have brought about a rich array of possible roles for women and for men. If your answer is no, then you need to embrace same-sex marriage as a benefit to society as a whole -- a continuation and expansion of American ideals. Next time someone asks where you stand, say that marriage equality is for everyone. And tell them you take this personally.