First published November 22, 2004, in The New Republic.
It would be hard to understate the pervasive despair that gripped gay Americans as the results of Nov. 2 began to trickle and then flood into their consciousness. With the victory of 11 state amendments banning relationship rights, and with the religious right exultant that its opposition to homosexuality had brought an already anti-gay administration to power with a new mandate, the mood tipped close to dread. The playwright Larry Kramer, with his usual gift for moderation, told a packed house in downtown Manhattan, "I hope we all realize that, as of Nov. 2, gay rights are officially dead. And that, from here on, we are going to be led even closer to the guillotine." He was not the only one feeling that way.
For their part, the Democrats also seemed poised to blame their small but decisive loss on the push for equal marriage rights. Sen. Dianne Feinstein proclaimed that the movement had gone "too far too fast." Rep.Barney Frank pinned responsibility on the shoulders of San Francisco's Mayor Gavin Newsom, arguing that his extralegal sanctioning of marriages for gay couples had unleashed a backlash that had swept George W. Bush back to power. That was the sentiment, and that was the spin. In the immediate aftermath of the election, with Bill Bennett calling the result a mandate for a new culture war, it was very difficult to resist.
But resist it we should, not least because it is morally cowardly. We should also resist it because it is untrue. By any objective measure, the civil rights movement of this generation has accomplished more in a short time than any civil rights movement before it. Yes, fear of homosexuality and the apocalyptic rhetoric of some religious right leaders propelled some rural and suburban voters to the polls. Yes, the way in which homosexuality was deployed as an issue by a whole array of Republican candidates was obvious and, at times, repulsive. In Ohio, the critical state, that may have made a difference. But, nationally, the trend is toward approval of gay unions, not away from it - and that can help Democrats, provided they don't shy away from their convictions.
To be sure, 22 percent of the electorate said moral values was their prime concern. But "moral values" encompass not only marriage rights, but also abortion rights, divorce rates, presidential faith, and the powerful symbolism of tradition in a time of great danger and insecurity. The category has long been picked by voters in exit polls. In 1992, if you add the issues of abortion and family values together, the percentage claiming their vote was based on "moral values" was 27 percent. In 1996, when voters could pick two categories of concern to them, it soared to 49 percent. In 2000, it was again 49 percent, in part a reflection of Bill Clinton's character.
Broad moral issues have long been salient in U.S. elections. This year was no different. There were anti-gay union ballots in three swing states. Kerry won two of them. In eight out of 11 states with gay-union amendments, the increase in Bush's share of the vote compared with 2000 lagged behind the increase in his share of the national vote. Moreover, the broader climate showed remarkable acceptance of the union rights of gay couples. According to the exit polls, a full 62 percent of Americans favor either full marriage rights or civil unions for gay couples. Only 35 percent want what eight state amendments and the Federal Marriage Amendment (FMA) promise: no legal protections whatsoever. In the week before the election, the president himself came out in favor of civil unions.
When you look at the context, what is striking is how weak the backlash was, not how strong. Marriage rights for gays were unheard of two decades ago. Only an 11-year span marks the length of time since the first court decision for marriage equality came down in Hawaii. That effort failed, of course. Actual marriage equality in America has been around for a mere six months. Six months.
Backlash is not a rarity in civil rights movements. It is the norm. If the backlash against equal marriage rights extends to only 11 state bans a mere six months after the critical breakthrough, then the real story is how quickly those rights have become a part of the landscape, not the reverse. In Congress, the FMA fizzled. In Massachusetts, the epicenter of the struggle, the legislature tilted on November 2 toward those who favored marriage equality, rather than toward those who voted against it. In California, the civil unions that will come into effect next year as a result of legislation will carry with them almost all the rights that the state can apply to same-sex relationships, and the Republican governor has endorsed them.
Not only is the movement for marriage equality not on the brink of reversal, it is poised to grow stronger. The younger generation supports gay unions in far higher numbers than any other age group - and is more likely to vote Democratic. Gay rights, in other words, (as opposed to, say, Social Security) is one issue on which Democrats actually have a position that will become more popular in the years ahead. Bush understands this. And that is why the ugly appeal to homophobia was conducted at the grassroots level and under the national radar and why Bush's own rhetoric rarely diverged from positive comments about marriage to negative ones about gays or gay couples.
How do Democrats successfully deal with this issue? First, they must assert the federalist nature of the problem. In a country where San Francisco exists as well as Mobile, Alabama, a single national rule on this contentious issue can only provoke social conflict of the deepest kind. That means Democrats should oppose legalizing marriage rights nationally as strongly as they oppose banning them nationally. Let each state decide. That means opposing the FMA as an abuse of the U.S. Constitution and an infringement on states' rights (the FMA would void Massachusetts' marriages and Vermont's civil unions). This federalist point is not a liberal argument. It's a conservative one - and it will divide Republicans as effectively as it will unite Democrats.
Secondly, the Democrats should be relentless in exposing the real agenda of the religious right. That agenda is not about marriage. It is about stripping gay couples of all legal protections for their relationships. Eight of the state amendments that just passed do exactly that. So does the FMA, in banning not just marriage for gay couples but all of the "legal incidents" that go with it. That agenda is a national loser for the Republicans, which is why they never mention it, and even deny it outright. They must not be allowed to get away with it any longer. The extremism of the FMA needs to be broadcast from the rooftops. If it is, it will fail.
Lastly, the Democrats need to get over their squeamishness and defensiveness on this issue. The movement for equal marriage rights is, in fact, a centrist issue, and should be framed as such. Instead of speaking of it nervously as a matter of ending discrimination and implying that all opponents are somehow prejudiced, Democrats need to use the positive language of faith and family to defend the reform. It should be framed as a way to bring all members of the family into the unifying institution of marriage; it must be spoken of as an issue that upholds responsibility and fidelity. The very existence of gay people in every state and every city and every family in this country should always be mentioned. Bush is able to get away with his policies precisely because he never mentions the actual human beings they wound and marginalize. Democrats and inclusive Republicans must keep mentioning these people - their sons and daughters, brothers and sisters. If they do, the inherent decency of the American people will win out.
This country is not a repository of bigotry. At its heart, America is a compassionate, inclusive place. But Americans need to hear the case for gay inclusion clearly and calmly and with conviction. That means resisting the easy option of proclaiming the heartland a bunch of rubes and morons, and it must mean a greater commitment by gay people and their families to explaining their own lives. It means less reliance on courts and more reliance on democratic persuasion. Every movement that has fought for those goals in this manner has won in the end in America. It will happen again. And it will happen sooner than anyone now thinks.