How did a country, whose citizens strongly disapproved of same-sex marriage only a decade ago, go from marriage being understood as union between one man and one woman in nearly every state in the union to having it be redefined to include same-sex unions nationwide?
A decade ago, leaders in both major political parties embraced the traditional definition of marriage, even among the most liberal Democrats. Many politicians across the political spectrum, including George W. Bush in 2004, supported civil unions, but most in office holders and office seekers rejected the idea of changing the marriage definition, at least publically.
How did attitudes on this issue change so rapidly?
There is no easy answer to this question but here are a few items to ponder.
No sustained and articulate pushback
When this issue came up in the late 1990s, it was largely dismissed. Few could imagine that any state would issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. This was especially true after Congress passed the Defense of Marriage Act in 1996.
The debates that took place during the following decade would focus on what the historical definition of marriage had always been and whether that definition was fair to homosexuals. There were never (or rarely) discussions about why the government had an interest in the institution. Proponents of the traditional definition were often left trying to explain something obvious to them, but which did not seem to be very convincing and did not seem to address the arguments as to why the historical understanding of marriage was not discriminatory against homosexuals. It was as if someone was asking: why does two plus two equal four? As obvious as this result is, we effectively see it as axiomatic and the words to articulate a coherent response can be elusive.
Civil Rights Issue
“This is the civil rights issue of our time.” Many on the Left (and a few who are supposedly on the Right) repeat this quote with respect to the recognition of same-sex marriage. Though it is utter nonsense, it has some appeal due to the apparent similarity to the public’s widespread disapproval of interracial relationships decades ago. The fact that the Civil Rights Movement of a half-century ago had nothing to do with the push for legal recognition of interracial marriage does not stop those who want legal recognition of same-sex unions to wrap themselves in the memory of Martin Luther King and to see their quest as a continuation of his work.
The Relentless Left
The Left never gives up. They have a goal in mind and like a laser beam, they focus on accomplishing it. This is especially true if they can frame a goal as correcting some injustice or denying someone civil rights. Even after the presidential election of 2004, where George W. Bush defeated John Kerry, in part, due to the country’s non-acceptance of the idea of same-sex marriage, the Left did not concede defeat on that issue. They got up, licked their wounds, and moved forward with their agenda.
The Left is quite adept at changing the language to their advantage on various issues. Asking people to prove who they are prior to voting with photo identification is now called Voter Suppression. Abortion is now called Reproductive Rights. Similarly, same-sex marriage is now referred to as Marriage Equality. Marriage Equality, which rhymes with Racial Equality. Even the word “gay” took on a new meaning decades ago. By changing our language, the Left has claimed the moral high ground. Again, linking this battle to the quest for racial equality decades ago, they have placed those on the other side of this issue on the defensive. Also, referring same-sex marriage as gay marriage and referring to laws that explicitly limit marriage to the traditional definition as banning such unions, it appears that the those who are proposing such laws are trying to do away with homosexuality altogether. The language simply sounds mean. The white middle class in America is uncomfortable with being seen as racially bigoted. Linking the same-sex marriage issue to civil rights makes many Americans uncomfortable in opposing such recognition without a clearly articulated good reason. Since no good (enough) reason has been offered to the public, the forces of the Left have won by default.
Leadership from the top
The President came out in favor of same-sex marriage in May 2012 in the run up to the election. He was the first sitting president to embrace this view. He won re-election. A number of elected officials in the Democratic Party after the 2012 election changed their stated positions on the issue; it was clear at that point that it was no longer political suicide to embrace same-sex marriage. Public opinion also moved in this direction.
It appears that, despite the strong views of those on the other side, this issue is settled. This writer believes that it may not be as settled as the Left would like us to believe. If a new president takes office and has a different view, he or she may be able to sway public opinion, but only if the president can clearly explain why the current view is flawed. Also, the Supreme Court, with a possibly different makeup, may take up this issue again in a few years and could possibly overrule the decision it made in June, which nationalized the recognition of same-sex marriage.
Elections matter. The people will follow a leader, especially if there is no good argument challenging the leader’s position. In 2016, we must elect a good and articulate leader.