Commentary

How Long Can Conservatives Oppose Gay Marriage?

By Will Wilkinson
This article appeared in The Week on November 6, 2009.

My new dog groomer has a husband. He told me so Tuesday afternoon. We live in Iowa where, since April of this year, a man can legally marry a man. Since May, it has been possible in Maine to do the same. Or it was until Tuesday, when a slim majority of Maine voters chose to repeal their state’s new same-sex marriage law. Some conservatives are elated. Over at National Review, Maggie Gallagher was dancing a jig. “The People have exercized [sic] their veto. This is huge. I am so happy,” she gushed. But traditionalists shouldn’t be so happy. Because this is not so huge.

My dog groomer still has a husband. And marriage equality is coming back to Maine. It’s only a matter of time. In fact, it’s likely that gay marriage is coming soon to your state, if it hasn’t already. This week’s vote in Maine merely allowed the moribund spirit of yesteryear to sit up for a last gasp. It was just a small hitch in the zeitgeist’s stride.

“Times have changed,” said Maine Gov. John Baldacci when he signed the bill legalizing same-sex marriage last spring. Well, times have not changed back because of Tuesday’s vote. The fight over marriage equality is in part a fight between secular and religious Americans. But, more than anything else, it is a fight between generations. Younger voters overwhelmingly support the right of same-sex couples to marry. As long as the old continue to die at a greater rate than the young, nationwide gay marriage is practically inevitable.

According to Columbia University political scientists Jeffrey Lax and Justin Phillips, there is a 35 percentage point opinion gap on the issue between those under 30 and those over 65 years. The implications are striking. “If policy were set by state-by-state majorities of those 65 or older, none would allow same-sex marriage,” Lax reported in a blog post in June. However, “[i]f policy were set by those under 30, only 12 states would not allow-same-sex marriage.” Progressive strategist Adam Bink says an overwhelming majority of student voters at the University of Maine, 81 percent of them, chose to protect the right of gays and lesbians to marry. Next time around, they’ll win for good.

It’s true as a rule that people grow slightly more conservative with age. But this tendency is more than offset by the fact that American culture has become, and continues to become, much more tolerant and inclusive over time. Opposition to interracial marriage was all but universal in late 1950s; it declined to about 70 percent by the late 1960s, and finally became a minority position in the early 1990s. Today, opposition to interracial marriage is no longer a conservative position—it’s simply beyond the pale.

According to the Pew Research Center, opposition to civil unions has declined from 47 percent in 2003 to 37 percent today, while support has risen from 45 percent to 57 percent. That’s a big change in a mere six years. Indeed, the idea that civil unions are okay as long as they’re not called “marriage” is now fairly common among self-described conservatives.

While many conservatives remain athwart history yelling, “Stop!” others have clearly lost the fighting spirit. When asked about gay marriage at a panel discussion last month in Manhattan, Ross Douthat, the conservative New York Times columnist, said, “I am someone opposed to gay marriage who is deeply uncomfortable arguing the issue in public.” He’s not alone. During CNN’s Tuesday night election colloquy, former George W. Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer considered the trajectory of public opinion on homosexuality. “Our society has really changed,” he said. But the way he said it—not at all ruefully, almost proudly—seemed awfully close to an endorsement. When Fleischer added his conservative caveat—“Now, I don’t believe in gay marriage for individuals”—he did so awkwardly, almost apologetically.

A culture in which conservative columnists and elite Republican operatives find it hard to oppose marriage equality without squirming is a culture in which the future of marriage equality is bright indeed—a culture in which defenders of traditional marriage don’t have much to cheer about.

Maybe Maggie Gallagher will be buoyed by the fact that it took me by surprise when my dog groomer mentioned his husband. My first reaction was to feel as though he had shared with me, a relative stranger, some kind of transgressive secret. My second reaction was to feel ashamed for having felt that way. I wanted the reality of men with husbands to seem as unremarkable as he wanted it to seem, but it didn’t. I’ll get the hang of it. Soon enough, we all will.

Will Wilkinson is a research fellow at the Cato Institute and editor of Cato Unbound.