Let’s be honest: The gay marriage debate is nearly over, and nothing the Supreme Court does when it delivers its opinions on the federal Defense of Marriage Act and on the fate of California’s Proposition 8 is likely to change that astonishing fact.
A very few years ago, most Americans (including me) viewed the idea of gay marriage as both undesirable and wildly improbable. Today, most Americans (including me) believe that permitting gay and lesbian couples to marry is the right thing to do, a matter of simple justice.
Let us pause in wonder at the speed and moral meaning of this change. As recently as a decade ago, homosexual conduct itself was a crime in many U.S. states. That world has vanished. Gay rights of all kinds are increasingly protected. Gay marriage is legal in 12 states and counting. Gay families are a part of our social fabric. Whatever the Supreme Court decides about the two cases now before it won’t be nearly as important as what has already happened in the country.
And yet these court decisions will affect the lives of millions of Americans. At stake in the DOMA case is whether the federal government can deny benefits to legally married same-sex couples that it extends to legally married opposite-sex couples. At stake in the Proposition 8 case is whether, or in what circumstances, a state can withhold marriage rights from same-sex couples.
So if you can’t sponsor your spouse for a green card simply because you’re both gay, the court’s view of DOMA matters a lot. And if you are a gay couple living in, say, my home state of Mississippi, or in one of the other Sunbelt states in which opposition to gay rights is strong, you care very much about whether your state can prohibit same-sex marriage.
For those reasons and more, I have every hope the Supreme Court will craft decisions that will move the country in the direction it is already headed: toward marriage equality.
And yet arriving at that position has for me been a difficult and painful journey. Until June 2012, I was a vocal opponent of gay marriage. I wrote a book about it and spoke against it across the country; I was an expert witness in support of Proposition 8.
I did all of that not because I condemned homosexuality or objected to gay civil unions — I didn’t. But I believed gay marriage would weaken the traditional institution of marriage, the institution that binds mothers, fathers and their children together.
A wealth of social science evidence about child poverty, mental and emotional distress, educational failure, crime and other problems suggests that when marriage breaks down — when fathers are absent and mothers are left alone to raise children — society breaks down too. Gay marriage and families, which by their nature involve the loosening of biological family ties, seemed to pose one more threat to an already beleaguered institution.
In the end, I didn’t change my mind on gay marriage because I stopped believing in the importance of intact biological families. Nor was it because of new studies or additional facts. (Gay marriage still strains biological family bonds, although research also points to the potential stability of gay marriage and family structures.) And I didn’t change my mind because I got tired of being criticized. I changed my opposition to gay marriage because of personal relationships.
In my case, it began with the writer Jonathan Rauch, who I’d been publicly debating on the gay marriage issue. But at some point we stopped debating and started talking about our lives, including about my wife, Raina, and his husband, Michael. Did Jonathan’s marriage threaten the idea of marriage? Perhaps in theory. But in real life, was I able to see it? No. In fact, quite the opposite.
It may sound trite, but for me the key was the gradual breakthrough of empathy. I found that as friendships develop, empathy becomes at least possible, no longer kept at bay by a wall of fixed belief. Put simply, becoming friends with gay people who were married or wanted to get married led me to realize that I couldn’t in good conscience continue to oppose it.
But another reality was also becoming clear. At the same time that gay and lesbian couples and their supporters are struggling for the right to marry, millions of straight couples are abandoning marriage entirely, with tragic consequences for them and their children. Further, this abandonment is occurring among our once heavily married middle and working class.
Upscale Americans are still enjoying marriage’s economic and social advantages. For example, only about 6% of children born to college-educated women are born outside marriage. Among women with a high school degree but not a four-year-college degree, though, it’s 44%, and among poorly educated women, it’s 54%. Many other numbers tell the same story.
This class-based marriage divide is not only large, it’s constantly getting larger. Scholarship shows that it’s contributing significantly to the rise of economic inequality. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that it’s threatening the American dream.
So this is where I found myself a year ago: Fighting gay marriage was wrong because it was denying real people access to a status and an institution we all have a stake in. Moreover, that battle was doing nothing to strengthen the institution overall.
And this is where I find myself now: The goal of marriage equality is to make marriage available and achievable for all who seek it — gay and straight, the upscale minority and the non-upscale majority. And the strategy for achieving full marriage equality is a strategy of strange bedfellows: social conservatives and gay rights liberals, a coalition that could put an end forever to the conflict between gay rights and family values.
That coalition is waiting to be born, no matter what the Supreme Court decides.
David Blankenhorn is founder and president of the New York-based Institute for American Values and a signatory to “A Call for a New Conversation on Marriage.”