The Arc of History

A rainbow flag outside the U.K. Houses of Parliament in support of same-sex marriage, June 3, 2013.

Photo by Leon Neal/AFP/Getty Images

For the last couple of weeks, I’ve been defending people who oppose gay marriage. That feels pretty strange, since I’ve advocated gay marriage for more than 20 years. My defense of the other side has put me at odds with friends and colleagues—most recently, Nathaniel Frank, who took issue with me yesterday in Slate’s LGBT blog, Outward. I wish I could say that we’re all on the same team, and that’s all that matters. But I don’t believe that. The rhetoric I’m hearing from the left worries me. We’re in danger of shutting down a cultural conversation that’s going our way.

Frank’s essay raises several good questions. Let me try to address them.

1. Procreation. The strongest argument against gay marriage is that no matter how loving and committed a same-sex relationship is, it can’t be a marriage, because marriage has always revolved around the idea of procreation, and same-sex couples can’t produce biological children together. This rule is full of loopholes: infertility or age for opposite-sex couples; adoption, sperm donors, or surrogates for same-sex couples.

Frank says the loopholes discredit the rule. On balance, I agree. I’ve made that argument to opponents of gay marriage. But it’s not a no-brainer. Interrogating every marriage applicant about his or her intention to procreate would be an intrusive nightmare. In contrast, it’s common to ask about the applicant’s sex.

I wouldn’t yield to that rebuttal. I’d argue that if we’re serious about enforcing the procreation rule, age, too, is a relatively simple line to draw. If you apply for a marriage license, we could ask your age just as easily as we ask your sex, and rule you out if you were too old to procreate. But then the other side could protest that we don’t revoke the marriages of people who married young and are now old, so it seems odd to prohibit other old people from marrying.

The exchange would go on and on. And that’s the point. I believe my side has the better arguments. But when we conclude from this that our adversaries are so irrational or bigoted that they can’t be tolerated, we’re pushing the definition of irrationality too far. We’re shutting down the conversation prematurely.

2. Religion. As opponents of gay marriage dwindle to a minority, they increasingly invoke religious freedom. Frank notes that this argument is untethered by evidence or logic—it holds that people are simply “entitled to their beliefs”—and therefore, in theory, it would protect the right to discriminate on the basis race as well as sexual orientation. He’s right to raise that concern. We shouldn’t accept such blanket exemptions. People accused of discrimination must produce a rational defense, not a purely religious one.

3. History. Frank refuses to be cowed by the argument that marriage has traditionally been heterosexual. “The fact that something has ‘historically’ been defined in a particular way is not an argument that it should remain that way,” he writes. That’s true. History alone doesn’t prove an institution’s merit. But when we’re talking about reinterpreting an institution to include a new class of relationships, the history of that institution is relevant. In the case of marriage, concerns such as tribalism and property, which used to saturate the institution, have lost some of their power. For that, we should be grateful. But no premise has been more central to marriage than heterosexuality. If we’re going to scrap that premise—and I agree that we should—let’s be honest about what we’re doing. We’re profoundly changing the institution.

4. Discrimination. Frank says court rulings show “there is no rational basis for sexual orientation discrimination—including in marriage.” I’m not so sure that reserving marriage for opposite-sex couples is just another kind of discrimination. Why, for the last 50 years, has it been illegal to discriminate on the basis of sex (under the Civil Rights Act) but perfectly legal to insist that a woman’s spouse has to be a man? The reason seems to be that we treat marriage differently from education and employment. The idea that nondiscrimination in matters of gender ought to extend to marriage is quite recent. Is anyone who hasn’t reached that conclusion in 2014 irrational?

5. Progress. Frank concludes with these thoughts:

Gay marriage is a more recent conceptual possibility because gay identity is a newer development than the construction of race. In a sense, since views on this issue have changed so rapidly, it seems only fair to, as Andrew Sullivan puts it, give people “space” to come along, or even to hold bigoted views in peace. But calling these views today “rational” or “defensible,” or saying they can be “accommodated in a decent society,” as Saletan does, is another matter. Moral positions evolve as new information and possibilities become available. And for all the incessant moralizing of the right wing over the last 50 years, the sin of current opponents of gay marriage is an unwillingness to open their minds to change. There comes a time when there’s only one morally correct answer, and the space for having the wrong answer has dried up. I’d argue that time has come.

This is a beautiful paragraph. I agree with most of it, right up to the point where Frank says opponents of gay marriage haven’t changed. In fact, they’ve changed enormously. On every question, from sodomy laws to job discrimination to marriage, anti-gay politicians and activists have lost public support. The fact that they’re now fighting over same-sex marriage, an idea that was once politically absurd, underscores their retreat. People who would have equated homosexuality with pedophilia 50 years ago have come to accept domestic partnerships or civil unions. Too many gay people have come out. The myths and fears have lost too much credibility. The culture is changing.

We’re not the losers in this fight anymore. We’re the winners. Our task now is to win the right way, not by dismissing our opponents as bigots and haters, but by persuading them that marriage is just as good for gays as it is for straights. We don’t have to shove our answer down their throats. They will come around to it—they’re coming around to it already—because it’s true.