No one likes to be a party pooper. But as the champagne corks rocket through the air and politicians slog it out to see who can be the most effusive in their celebration of the legalisation of gay marriage in Britain, there remains one awkward question about the whole thing, an elephant in the fabulously decorated room. And it’s this: how did this all happen so quickly? How did we go at such speed from a situation where gay marriage was a rather eccentric concern of small numbers of professional activists and lawyers to a situation where to oppose gay marriage is treated as an eccentricity, and a wicked one at that? How did saying ‘Let gays get hitched’ go from being fairly outré to utterly orthodox in about the same amount of time - I’m saying around five years - that it takes most modern campaign groups to design their headed paper?
It isn’t surprising people are reluctant to ask this question. For to do so, to give this conundrum some serious consideration, might just reveal that our society is not quite as tolerant, or as free, as the gay-marriage campaigners and their influential backers would have us believe. It might just show that the true driver of gay marriage up the political agenda, at a pace unprecedented in the modern social-issues arena, has been less a new civil-rights vibe and more a kind of soft authoritarianism - a largely media-driven momentum that has turned gay marriage into social demarcator par excellence, where those who accept it are Good, and those who oppose it are Bad, bigoted, ripe for being mauled and ideally silenced by the strangely intolerant promoters of tolerance for same-sex unions.
The coming into force of the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act at the weekend has been talked up as the latest stage in the civil-rights revolutions of the 1960s and 70s. Politicians, when they’re done with patting themselves on the back (‘I’m incredibly proud to have been the first party leader to have supported equal marriage’, said deputy prime minister Nick Clegg), talk about gay marriage as an issue of liberty and tolerance. According to PM David Cameron, the legalisation of gay marriage shows that Britain’s ‘proud traditions of respect, tolerance and equal worth’ are alive and kicking. But this doesn’t feel true; it doesn’t gel with the tenor of the advocacy for gay marriage in recent years, which has frequently been ugly and censorious, and, in the words of one American observer who supports gay marriage, has displayed a ‘stunning lack of charity, magnanimity and tolerance’.
Easily the most noteworthy thing about the gay-marriage issue has been the speed with which media, political and public opinion has fallen in line behind it. So in Britain, an ICM poll in March 2012 found that 45 per cent of Brits supported the legalisation of gay marriage; nine months later, another ICM poll, asking the same question, found that 62 per cent supported it; in 2013 it rose to 68 per cent. That’s a leap of nearly 25 percentage points in the space of a year, which, to say the least, is unusual. It’s a similar story in America, where in the space of a few years public support for gay marriage has risen from 37 per cent to 60 per cent. Since 2009, there has been a four-point rise in support for gay marriage every year in America, which just doesn’t happen on major social issues that touch upon tradition, faith, family and culture. The conservative commentator Christopher Caldwell has a point when he says: ‘Public opinion does not change this fast in free societies. Either opinion is not changing as fast as it appears to be, or society is not as free.’
To put the speedy shift from opposition to support for gay marriage into historical perspective, consider this: In the UK, the Wolfenden Report suggesting that some homosexual acts should be decriminalised was published in 1957; it wasn’t until 1967 that consensual sex between two men in private was actually decriminalised; and it wasn’t until 2000 that the age of consent for gay men was made equal to that for heterosexuals. So it took 40 years to secure the right of all gay men over the age of 16 simply to sleep with each other. Yet somehow, the idea of gay marriage - which touches upon far more than what happens in private, pertaining to the institutions of marriage, the family and traditional forms of commitment - has turned from a lightbulb moment over a few activists’ heads into actual law in less than a decade. What’s going on?