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Last week, the California Supreme Court voted 4-3 to recognize same-sex marriage. The decision makes the state the second in the country after Massachusetts to allow the practice. The Court justified its ruling by the constitutional right to marry and the right to equal protection.
The debate over same-sex marriage, like the one that rages over abortion, is a testament to the judicial branch’s ability to shape societal institutions. As commentators have frequently noted, both sides have embraced the power of the court as a last resort in their struggles for desired outcomes—advocates of gay marriage hope courts will uphold their rights to the practice, while opponents hope courts will agree it is unconstitutional. But in all likelihood, last week’s decision in California will be overturned at the ballot box come fall, since the prevailing sentiments among voters is still one of opposition to the practice. A recent Gallup Poll found that 56 percent of Americans oppose legalizing gay marriage, a statistic that has stayed fairly constant for the last several years. For proponents of same-sex marriage, the debate has become so wrapped up in the question of whether or not same-sex marriage can be justified by the Constitution that most engaged in it have ceased to consider how to make decisions like last week’s permanent.
If advocates of gay marriage want it to become a reality—and, more importantly, if they want it to last—they need to find new allies. Far-fetched as this may seem, social conservatives may be worth wooing. Of the institutions potentially available to regulate the lives of individual gays, marriage is the most socially conservative institution possible. Many proponents of same-sex marriage apparently believe that, since social conservatives are unlikely to be won over, they will simply have to be strong-armed into putting up with the institution when enough Democrats and enough states have shown their commitment. So advocates of gay marriage have mistakenly abandoned attempts to appeal to a base whose values may not be so far off from their own. Marriage is associated with long-term commitment, sexual monogamy, and other healthy lifestyle choices that are in line with socially conservative values.
Fewer and fewer Americans believe that gay Americans are gay out of lifestyle choice only. Presidential candidates John McCain and Barack Obama chalk sexual orientation up to some combination of biological and environmental factors. If they are right, then to oppose same-sex marriage is to oppose a societal avenue toward commitment, toward monogamy, and toward maintaining social structures that are in line with mainstream society. Given that a prevailing criticism of gay Americans is that their lifestyles are licentious, then encouraging them to pursue more conservative ends is an appropriate measure to make homosexuality less “objectionable.” Social conservatives ought to get behind the right to same-sex marriage in their commitment to family values and traditional (albeit adapted) societal structures.
Similar arguments have been set forth by a handful of conservatives, chief among them Andrew Sullivan. Yet Sullivan falls down when he resorts to the argument that gay marriage should be legalized because it will make a great number of gay Americans much happier. Sullivan calls the pursuit of happiness “the birthright of every American.” While this allusion to the Declaration of Independence’s preamble is sweetly sentimental, there is no guaranteed right to happiness in the Constitution (and for good reason). By giving credit to this argument, Sullivan opens up the door to all sorts of claims of happiness and unhappiness that are completely relative. An opponent of gay marriage, for instance, could claim that the existence of the practice would make him personally miserable. Sullivan would do better to stay true to the conservative-values arguments that he makes elsewhere. Probably the strongest of these is that, given heterosexual couples’ rocketing divorce rates, it is difficult to imagine that allowing gays to marry would greatly erode marriage success rates on the whole.
While a collective conservative conversion to this pro-gay marriage position may seem far off, it may not be, given how recently gay issues have even entered the political agenda. In 1984, then-presidential hopeful Walter Mondale was said to be courting the “homosexual vote,” as though acknowledging gay Americans as a voting bloc was an innovative strategy. Furthermore, even Mondale, a Democrat, felt he had to straddle the line between opposing gay lifestyles and approving of them, telling his political allies, “The trick is to say you’re against discrimination without endorsing their lifestyle.” Most mainstream candidates today would not dream of condemning gay voters. That a Democratic candidate could have said this as recently as twenty-five years ago serves to show the degree this struggle has advanced and what vast numbers of people can be won over.
Proponents of gay marriage will be most effective when they stop alienating social conservatives and opt to highlight the ways in which their own aims are consistent with the latter’s values. It is not an adaptation of aims that is necessary, but rather an adoption of a strategy that privileges consensus over paranoid dogmatism. When this adoption comes to be, the country as a whole will benefit.
Lucy M. Caldwell ’09 is a history and literature concentrator in Adams House. Her column appears on alternate Fridays.
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