Whether to denounce it as a step down the path to unspeakable decadence or to exalt it as self-evidently right and just, everyone in public life today has a position on gay marriage. All the presidential candidates in the current electoral cycle have been asked about it, and all have had responses carefully packaged to ingratiate themselves with their constituencies. If the past few years may serve as a guide, it is likely that in the coming elections the subtle middle will be thoroughly excluded, as candidates and voters alike flock to one of two opposite poles: either holding that “marriage is between a man and a woman,” or, on the contrary, that everyone has an equal right to marriage. These are thought-arresting platitudes; they are not articulate positions, nor even the rudiments of arguments for such positions. The greatest problem with both is their brash confidence in the moral abhorrence or necessity of gay marriage, absent any historical or critical interest in the nature of marriage itself.
The rise of gay marriage, I believe, has played an important role in reinforcing naturalism about marriage, and thus in buttressing the conservative cause, at just that moment in history—the decades following the sexual revolution—when the contingency of marriage began to show through and its role as the basic building block of society came to be called into question. Pervading the arguments for marriage equality made by eloquent defenders such as Andrew Sullivan is the idea that gay marriage will not, as the conservatives fear, cause us to lose our moral bearings, so much as it will bring gays into the fold of a single gay-straight community of shared moral values. Over the past fifteen years, the liberal mainstream has begun to move toward this view. But Sullivan is, in the end, a conservative himself, and it is one of the great wonders of the past few decades of public debate that his conservative argument has won over so many who otherwise despise this political orientation. The same people who claim to dislike talk of family values will defend gay marriage on the grounds that it contributes to the strengthening of those values.
I came of age after the so-called sexual revolution. In 1972, the year I was born, lemminglike followers of popular trends were lining up in front of mainstream cinemas, not to see La Dolce Vita as they would have just a decade earlier, but rather Deep Throat. When I was seven or so, I struggled to make sense out of adult chatter, on visits to nearby San Francisco, about openly gay politician Harvey Milk, and about the goings-on on Polk Street (the prospect of getting “poked” on Polk Street was a stupid running joke of my cohort of Central Valley children). The year my parents’ marriage failed, in 1981, two decades or so after the debut of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique and nearly a decade after Deep Throat, represented the statistical peak of the U.S. divorce rate. So unlike, say, my coevals in the communist world, I was well aware by the early 1980s of both the existence of same-sex sex, as well as of a severe crisis in the history of marriage. But it would be a long while yet before I would be able to think about these two things in connection with one another.
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