Oppositional Gay Culture and the Future of Marriage

Peter Wood

These are banner days for the gay-rights movement. "Banner Days" is in fact the front page headline in The New York Times Book Review for a review of Linda Hirshman's new book, Victory: The Triumphant Gay Revolution. The reviewer, Rich Benjamin, praises Hirshman's work but feels the need to chasten her on the extent of the "victory"--

There are no federal protections against anti-gay employment discrimination. Same-sex marriage is explicitly forbidden in 38 states. Most Southern states have passed constitutional amendments banning same-sex marriage. Gay families face codified and implicit discrimination when adopting children. Gay youth across the country are stigmatized by their peers.

Benjamin is surely right that these are fairly large discrepancies to accommodate to a thesis that the gay-rights movement has achieved unalloyed victory. Gays and lesbians are a lot more mainstream than at any earlier time in American history, but they nonetheless remain divided from American culture and society in significant ways.

Today, as I write this (Sunday), is the culmination of Gay Pride Week in New York City. I caught a bit of it yesterday, the Dyke March, on Fifth Avenue, with the usual insignia. One woman carried a "Queer Sex Now" placard; a contingent pumped up and down in unison their huge puppet vaginas on sticks; there was lots of drumming. The organizers of the Dyke March made clear that theirs was "a protest march, not a parade - we don't ask for a permit, because we have the right to protest."

Only it was far from clear what was being protested. Clearly not the violation of the right to free expression, which was being exercised without hindrance.

Gay Culture

The New York Times has been running at least one gay-themed story a day for the last several months, often on the front page. Last week the op-ed section featured a complaint, Normal as Folk, by University of Michigan professor of "history and theory of sexuality" David Halperin. His issue is that the growing acceptance of gays into mainstream society has not been accompanied by a robust acceptance of the styles and modes of expression favored by (some) gay men:

Gay men who play by the rules of straight society and conventional masculinity, and who don't aspire to belong to any other way of life, are more acceptable, to themselves and to others. The last obstacle to complete social integration is no longer gay sex or gay identity, but gay culture.

Halperin would like to see success in "carving out space in opposition to straight society." Presumably that's what the participants in the Dyke March thought they were doing.

Halperin's analysis strikes me as cogent, though I would draw a different conclusion. A movement that expects a society not just to accept its members as different but to welcome an "oppositional" subculture is bound to be disappointed. Opposition by its nature breeds opposition. A gay culture that engages in mockery, parody, and demeaning attacks on mainstream culture may well thrive on the margins but it won't gain the sort of acceptance Halperin seems to have in mind. Or, rather, it can win acceptance as a sideshow: a lifestyle for people who center their lives in the West Village but who are out of sight and out of mind in other venues.

Halperin inveighs against the "many people, straight and gay, [who] are so overeager to declare [the] death" of gay culture, which he values for its "sly and profound critique of what passes for normal." The slyness is surely open to question. It is not so sly that mainstream Americans fail to see it, or so sly that it has escaped being turned into standard fare for television sitcoms. Gay parody of the norms of mostly heterosexual society is tolerated because it is often wickedly funny, but subtlety isn't its main characteristic.

Marriage Equality

Which brings us to gay marriage. Those 38 states that forbid gay marriage have not been persuaded by a decade of comparing the gay demand for "marriage equality" to the civil-rights movement. The Supreme Court precedent in Loving v. Virginia, which struck down one of the last miscegenation laws, has so far not been accepted by most Americans as a close parallel to the plight of matrimonially minded gays and lesbians. Why?

One possible answer--the answer favored by most same-sex marriage advocates--is that the refusal to cede to the civil-rights argument is grounded in bigotry against gays.

Another kind of answer that can be made consistent with the first is that the opposition arises from religious groups that teach their members that homosexuality is immoral and that gay marriage would be a further cultural validation of sinful relationships.

A third reason the public in those 38 states has so far bucked the trend is that they are convinced that gay marriage harms the best interests of children, who deserve to be raised if possible by their biological parents in a long-term, committed, and ideally married relationship.

There are other arguments against gay marriage, but probably none that have won a large hearing or swayed many voters in states like North Carolina, which passed a ballot measure in May banning both gay marriage and civil unions.

So let's stick for the moment to the three reasons that virtually everyone acknowledges are in play: bigotry, religion, and child welfare. The accusation of bigotry against opponents of same-sex marriage clearly has some warrant. But it is a complicated warrant. Heterosexual aversion to homosexuals is a deeply rooted thing expressed in the great majority of the world's cultures and typically linked to the normal maturation of children. Gay rejection of "conventional" masculinity and femininity is bound to produce its own reaction, and to the extent that gays and lesbian organize an "oppositional" culture, it too fosters a reciprocal hostility. None of this justifies acts of bigotry or violence, but it is folly to think that labeling any and all resistance to gay marriage as "bigotry" will persuade those who feel a genuine aversion to homosexuality.

The religious argument is likewise complicated. Some churches have made their peace with the marriage-equality movement; others stand in rooted opposition. In the latter case, the religious views are grounded in both authoritative texts (e.g. biblical scripture) and in definitions of what it means to be a man or a woman. The "rights" talk of same-sex marriage advocates flies right past these concerns and tends to lead the advocates to collapse the church teachings back into the category of mere bigotry. I can't say this hasn't worked. Clearly numerous denominations and individual churches have fallen in line with the gay agenda. But those that continue to resist at this point are probably impervious to further accusations of this sort. For one thing, the churches opposed to same-sex marriage ground their opposition in the idea that any kind of sex outside marriage, including heterosexual sex, is sinful. They aren't singling gays out. And they understand clearly enough that "monogamy" for many gays refers to emotional fidelity, not sexual exclusivity. These are irreconcilable differences.

David Blankenhorn Changes His Mind

The last argument, on the welfare of children, is most conspicuously associated with David Blankenhorn, president of the Institute for American Values. And a few days ago he repudiated it. In an op-ed in The New York Times"How My View on Gay Marriage Changed," he declared, "the time has come for me to accept gay marriage and emphasize the good that it can do." He elaborated his points in an hour-long interview on NPR broadcast the day of the op-ed but recorded seven weeks earlier.

David and I have been friends for many years. He consulted with me about his 2007 book, The Future of Marriage, and I have participated in several of the meetings he has set up with scholars on both sides of the debate. I've admired his courage in standing against the tide. His reversal on gay marriage disappoints, but doesn't entirely surprise me. In his testimony in the Proposition 8 trial in California, he tried to draw a careful and principled line between recognizing the legitimacy of the movement for "marriage equality" and the need (he judged it greater) to preserve marriage as an institution primarily directed to creating the conditions in which children can thrive and grow to maturity.

It was a difficult balancing act, depicting two goods in conflict, and urging the greater importance of the second--and it was open to precisely the kind of mockery, "sly" subversion, and oppositional irony that "gay culture" often traffics in. Blankenhorn's testimony in the Prop. 8 trial was turned into grist for public readings, and Hollywood celebrities lined up for the opportunity to portray him as a poltroon. A centrist Democrat, a lifelong liberal, and a secular advocate of a policy that carried very little favor with his friends and neighbors, he was under unremitting pressure to change his views and conform. President Obama's declaration on May 9 that he had undergone an "evolution on this issue" solidified the liberal political consensus in favor of gay marriage--the same day that Blankenhorn was recording his NPR interview.

This is background, none of which appears in Blankenhorn's statements on why he changed his mind--and it may be, in a strict sense, irrelevant. His stated position is that he is still holds to the view that "Marriage is the planet's only institution whose core purpose is to unite the biological, social and legal components of parenthood into one lasting bond," and that "Marriage is a gift that society bestows on its children." But he now allows that marriage has become so "deinstitutionalized" in the direction of "private relationships privately defined" that there is no point in opposing the gay appropriation of it. Add to this, "the time for denigrating or stigmatizing same-sex relationships is over." And that this change is "a victory for fairness."

Blankenhorn believes his switch will help bring about "mutual acceptance" and "conciliation," and that he joins an "emerging consensus" of our "national elites, as well as most younger Americans." Now instead of "fighting gay marriage," he'd like to "build new coalitions" that will "strengthen marriage" overall.

In the NPR interview, his interlocutor, Mark Oppenheimer, paraphrases Blankenhorn to the effect that he now believes "the interests of same-sex couples take precedence over [the] abstract objection" that "marriage is our best institution for keeping children with [their] parents." That's an astonishing reversal, but then I haven't seen David himself put it quite that baldly. He does say in his own voice that if gay marriage were on the ballot today, "I'd vote in favor."

Blankenhorn's change of position is a major gain for same-sex marriage advocates, not so much in adding a significant ally as in silencing an important critic. I don't expect his reversal will convert many other same-sex marriage skeptics. It may well complicate the appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court of Judge Vaughan Walker's decision overturning Proposition 8--but that's because so much of the trial record involved Blankenhorn's testimony.

Same-Sex Marriage--a Campus Project

Has marriage been deinstitutionalized to the point where all that people can see in it is "private relationships privately defined?" If true, it is a frightening prospect. The recklessness of adults in the contemporary world is still restrained to some extent by the institution of marriage, which still has enough heft that most people think long and hard before making the commitment. The make-it-up-as-you-go-along approach hasn't proven to be a conduit of human flourishing. Children are always at the mercy of their parents for love and attention; a further deinstitutionalization of marriage means far less security for the most insecure among us.

As for the battle against stigma and in favor of "fairness," neither has much to do with same-sex marriage. If same-sex marriage were the law of the land in all 50 states, gays and lesbians would still feel like outsiders in many circumstances. This is something existential, not a matter that will be fixed by amending the law.

I haven't said much here about the higher-education side of these controversies. What there is to say can be said briefly. Higher education has provided a great deal of the institutional base from which the same-sex marriage movement sprung. The idea was developed and nurtured in law schools and was an academic project before it became a mass movement. I traced some of that history last year in "Debating Same-Sex Marriage." And higher education has been one of the leading forces in establishing gay culture as a legitimate topic of study--Professor Halperin's academic position being one of thousands. All of this goes a fair way toward explaining why "most younger Americans" are on board with the movement. In educational settings, they seldom hear or read anything on the other side of the issue. Should we assume that as they grow older they will stick with their enthusiasm for gay marriage? Has any generation ever stuck to its youthful enthusiasms as it encounters the hard edges of the world?

David Blankenhorn, I believe, mistakes the general direction of this controversy. The proponents of same-sex marriage may secure judicial triumphs or even carry their "Victory" all the way, but it is bound to be a pretty hollow victory. That's because redefining marriage will change a lot of things but "mutual acceptance" won't be among them. Gay culture is inherently oppositional; same-sex marriage is a tactical goal for one side in a conflict that is profoundly without resolution. Creating a new "right" won't bestow equal dignity on gays. Mostly it will advance the cause of diminishing marriage as an institution that orders the relationships between men and women and channels their development as parents.

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Peter Wood is the president of the National Association of Scholars and author of  "Diversity: the Invention of a Concept" and other books.

This article originally appeared on Minding the Campus.

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