Reading the marriage bans

Why does President Bush think a constitutional ban on gay marriage will solve his domestic problems?

Helen Searls

Topics Politics

On Monday 17 May Massachusetts became the first US state legally to sanction same-sex marriages. On that day, as the newlyweds emerged from city halls, hugging, kissing and waving marriage licences, they were greeted by cheering crowds, rainbow flags, rice, confetti and general merriment.

The crowds were not the only ones to show support. The media also bestowed their approval on events. Evening news broadcasts brimmed with sympathetic stories about loyal partners finally granted their lifelong wish to wed. The press called it the ‘Dawn of a New Era’ (1). Others noted that this was ‘a landmark date in the struggle for equal rights’. (2)

This was not quite the scene that opponents of gay marriage had either anticipated or hoped for. Yes, a few bedraggled protesters held banners outside the City Hall in Boston – but their numbers were few and their message was all but ignored by the gathered national and international press corps.

The happy scenes and the sympathetic coverage is in stark contrast to repeated opinion polls indicating that a significant majority of Americans are opposed to gay marriage. When the issue was thrown into the limelight earlier this year, conservatives assumed they were on to a winner. Opposing gay marriage was a safe electoral bet. Four months later, reaction to gay marriage is not panning out in quite the way that conservative pundits anticipated.

The gay marriage issue hit the headlines in February when the mayor of San Francisco agreed to issue same-sex marriage licences. Lesbian and gay couples rushed to tie the knot. More than 4000 same-sex couples were married before the California Supreme Court ordered the city to stop the practice. Elsewhere, other jurisdictions followed the San Francisco initiative. Weddings took place in New Mexico, New York and Oregon before superior courts shut them down.

But unlike past efforts at gay marriage, ceremonies in Massachusetts have the blessing of the state’s Supreme Court. It was a Supreme Court decision that made the ceremonies legal in the state. There can now be no legal challenge to gay marriage in Massachusetts before 2006 – the earliest opportunity for a constitutional amendment to challenge the ruling of the state’s Supreme Court.

With all the current celebratory talk around gay marriage, it is easy to forget that the push for gay marriage never came from public pressure or a genuine grassroots movement. In recent years, national surveys consistently show that about six in 10 Americans don’t think gays and lesbians should be able to marry legally. Even among gay activists, the demand for marriage was hardly deafening – indeed, many find the whole notion of conformity and marriage quite repulsive. As veteran activist William Dobbs explained:

‘Some gay activists in California called for mass civil disobedience until we get the right to marry. God! What could be more dreary? … Our movement has become about lusting for weddings and lavender picket fences. It’s so embarrassing – I feel like turning in my gay card.’ (3)

President Bush was not altogether wrong when he stated that the impetus behind gay marriage came first and foremost from a few activist judges and local politicians. But his firm opposition to gay marriage has failed to galvanise either any support for the president or any meaningful opposition to gay marriage.

Bush went so far as to announce, on 24 February, his support for a constitutional amendment ‘defining and protecting marriage as a union of a man and woman as husband and wife’. Amending the US Constitution has historically been a very big deal – think of the First Amendment, on free speech, or the Thirteenth, on the abolition of slavery. Why has he taken things so far?

Clearly many of the president’s difficulties lie outside the issue of gay marriage. With events in Iraq spiralling every day more and more out of control, it is hard to imagine that any issue could help presidential approval ratings. But it is less easy to explain why opposition to gay marriage is not more vocal.

Bush endorsed the idea of a constitutional amendment because he and his advisers imagined that it was one of the few battles in the Culture War that they could win. Americans can be especially prudish about sex. All the numbers on the gay marriage issue seemed to point in favour of conservatives.

But while his conservative supporters were excited by his announcement, mainstream Republicans have been more wary of the issue. They understand that while the American public are not especially enamoured by the gay lifestyle, the move to amend the constitution is likely to stir up more hostility than support. By supporting an amendment to enshrine discrimination against gays in the constitution, the president risks appearing bigoted and intolerant.

Bigotry and intolerance are big negatives in modern American culture. America prides itself on celebrating diversity and difference. Only about one in five Americans can bring themselves to give outright support for gay marriage, but a thumping majority of Americans see themselves as tolerant and culturally inclusive.

What is more, the issue of gay marriage has thrown up all kinds of difficulties and expressions of ambivalence. Meaningful opposition to gay marriage can only come from those who feel passionately that there is something special and unique to defend in the marriage between a man and a woman. But outside of the religious right, nobody these days holds such a passion.

In fact, marriage in America is seen as a failing institution. With one in two American marriages ending in divorce, and more and more people putting off marriage until their thirties or even forties, there is not much in marriage that seems to be worth defending. Rather, some feel that by opening the institution up to ‘new blood’, marriage could be strengthened or rejuvenated in some way. They reason that if the old forms of commitment are failing, then maybe we could learn something from lesbians and gays.

Most people, however, really don’t care enough about marriage to make a stand either way. Conservatives are wrong to imagine that significant public opinion could be really fired up by the issue. Tony Perkins, of the conservative Family Research Council, predicts that we will see ‘galvanising opposition to the whole idea of same-sex marriage and the realization that marriage as we know it is under attack.’ (4)

But why would people be galvanised to defend marriage when they themselves feel so ambivalent about it? Activists on either side will get excited, but everyone else is likely to have a ‘whatever’ attitude towards the question. It might look like the public are becoming more broadminded, but this is indifference and disengagement masquerading as tolerance.

(1) Boston Herald, 18 May 2004

(2) Letters to the Editor, Washington Post, 19 May 2004

(3) Washington Post, 31 March 2004

(4) New York Times, 16 May 2004

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Topics Politics


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