When you’re a gay conservative, as I am, there’s always a strong incentive to take an excessively moderate and equivocating position on gay marriage. For one thing, it gives a reason for otherwise skeptical conservatives to like you, but it also helps solidify your mystique as this interesting, edgy contrarian, which is obviously a public persona anyone who goes around self-identifying as a “gay conservative” values quite highly in the first place. As recently as last week, in fact, I found myself hemming and hawing over my stance on the matter when confronted. I could see “both sides,” I said, there were a lot of “legitimate concerns,” I didn’t want to be taking a predetermined, cliched position just because of sexuality, etc.
But seeing Barack Obama endorse gay marriage on Monday moved me more than I thought it would. When the President of the United States, the leader of the greatest, most important country in the world, takes a definitive stance on a matter like this, its hard to escape the feeling that the arc of history is now bending decisively in one direction.
Such lofty sentiment remains true even when — or perhaps especially when — we acknowledge the extraordinarily calculated and cynical nature of the President’s surprise endorsement. I don’t think any reasonable person who knows anything about Obama’s background and temperament honestly believed that same-sex marriage was ever something he genuinely “opposed” in any actual emotional, philosophical sense. (The Chicago Tribune, for its part, has repeatedly reminded everyone that State Legislator Obama was perfectly open about his support for the idea as early as 1996). His supposed “evolution” on the matter is thus much better read as an intelligent man’s increasing unease in being forced to defend a fundamentally irrational position that can only be justified in the hyper-emotionalized, reactionary realm of democratic politics.
And I think it should be fairly clear by now that emotion and reactionary sentiment are truly the only sources of opposition to gay marriage at this point.
Everyone knows, for instance, that homosexuality is an inescapable, permanent fact of life, present in some form or another in every society that has ever existed. We also know that there’s no reliable science suggesting homosexuality can be treated, cured, or extinguished, nor is there any obvious social benefit to be incurred from doing so. We also know that there are many homosexuals who would very much like to be married, and that this benefit can — and has — been successfully granted many times in many different jurisdictions without causing any significant legal or procedural hassles, let alone negative social consequences.
To oppose gay marriage is thus to spitefully deny a group of people a basic privilege of civilization simply because one feels vaguely uneasy with the symbolism of two men or two women getting married. And a blind love of symbols is almost never the root of good things in politics.
A blind love of symbols is what has made several southern states cling to the Confederate Flag, and deny the racist history of the country it was designed for. A blind love of symbols is what inspired Afghan fanatics to slaughter indiscriminately because a few copies of their holy book were accidentally burned. A blind love of symbols is what ensures the survival of pointless, wasteful anachronisms like tax-subsidized royal families in otherwise modern societies.
In all cases, the dominant emotion is one of mindless instinct. Something is right or wrong because of personal feelings, and not any larger, measurable, utilitarian truth or falsehood. And vote-hungry politicians encourage us to revel in this sort of mindlessness simply because it gets us to the polls, and nothing much of importance seems to be at stake — at least from their perspective.
I give Obama kudos for opting-out of this obvious charlatanism, and it’s very unfortunate the GOP will not be following suit. I know we’re supposed to say it’s “not surprising” they remain opposed, but on some level it really is.
I honestly don’t think any of the last three GOP presidential candidates have “opposed” gay marriage with any more honest passion than Obama did in 2008. George W. Bush, John McCain and Mitt Romney all have had homosexuals and same-sex couples as close friends or confidants, and their wives have been relatively outspoken outspoken in the defence of gay rights. Indeed, one simply cannot be a successful, well-connected, wealthy, high-ranking politico in the modern era and not know gay people as anything other than perfectly ordinary co-workers, friends, and spouses, if for no other reason than comfortably open homosexuals tend to be over-represented in large urban centers, the halls of academia, big business, the entertainment industry and other cores of domestic power and importance.
An elite Republican who opposes gay marriage is almost certainly engaging in a kind of dishonest, self-loathing theatre in order to pander to a certain kind of sheltered ignorance in the GOP base. More liberals should be willing to call them out on it, rather than indulging in the cornball left-wing fantasy that all Republicans are religious fanatics, or whatever.
The key question that conservatives have to address is how exactly should gay people live, if not in married couples? If marriage is truly an institution worth venerating, as all anti-gay marriage arguments presume, then there’s really no acceptable or moral alternate arrangement in which to reside with your life partner. Certainly all of the most stereotypically grotesque traits of the homosexual community —the philandering, the promiscuity, the fetishes, the exhibitionism — can be easily attributed to a lack of monogamy and bourgeois values of the sort marriage has proven itself quite good at providing. And indeed, though now largely forgotten, it was actually a rejection of these same values that made hard-left gay activists reject marriage in earlier decades.
Republicans have never provided a good answer to the above question because they simply can’t be bothered. “Defence of traditional marriage” has become a symbol of conservatism more than an actual policy. And a party of symbols will never be a party of true principle.