A CNN poll released earlier this month has received considerable attention because it is the first national survey showing that a majority of Americans believe that same-sex couples should have the right to marry, a rate of support for gay marriage that is double what it was in 1996. The poll was released a few days after federal Judge Vaughn Walker, in striking down California's Proposition 8, concluded that defenders of that law had failed to introduce any evidence in court that same-sex marriages harm either society or individuals.
Now that opponents of same-sex marriage appear to be in the minority and that their allegations about the purported negative consequences of same-sex marriages have been discredited in federal court, it is fair to ask whether it is possible to oppose marriage equality without at some level, whether consciously or unconsciously, being prejudiced against gay people.
My view is that fifteen or twenty years ago it was indeed possible to oppose gay marriages without being homophobic. Back then, the idea that marriage could be anything other than a union between a woman and a man had simply not crossed the minds of most Americans. Indeed, as I tell in my book "From The Closet to the Courtroom," when the plaintiffs in the Hawaii same-sex marriage case in 1991 first asked the Honolulu civil rights lawyer who eventually represented them to take their case, the attorney had never before considered the possibility that two people of the same gender could ever be married.
What has happened during the last two decades is that the marriage equality movement has patiently and methodically questioned every plausible objection raised by conservative opponents. Unlike what those opponents have claimed, marriage is not a static institution, but is instead one which has changed significantly through the decades. In addition, reproduction is not an essential part of marriage because many heterosexuals marry without the intent (or ability) to have children. Furthermore, as data from Massachusetts shows, neither the marriage nor divorce rates of heterosexuals change after a state recognizes same-sex marriages. And finally, as Judge Walker concluded following the Proposition 8 trial, there is no credible evidence that children are harmed when they are raised by gay or lesbian parents.
Without factual support for their arguments, it is becoming less and less tenable for opponents of same-sex marriage to argue that their positions are not influenced by a dislike of gay people and their intimate relationships.
Some supporters of marriage equality take issue with this view. In a letter to the New York Times published in June, the gay writer (and same-sex marriage supporter) Jonathan Rauch came to the defense of David Blankenhorn, the President of the Institute for American Values, after the latter was criticized by Frank Rich in several columns for his court testimony on behalf of Proposition 8. Rauch argues that gay rights supporters should not alienate "centrists" like Blankenhorn who, while opposed to gay marriage, support civil unions and adoption by gay people.
I have always believed that gay rights supporters must keep centrists in mind when making arguments for the equal citizenship rights of LGBT people. The difficulty for those who like to think of themselves as open minded on issues of sexual orientation but who continue to oppose same-sex marriage is that "the center" on gay marriage is shifting rapidly, especially among younger people. (The CNN poll found that almost 6 in 10 Americans under 50 believe that the Constitution affords gay people the right to marry.)
It is impossible for anyone to know for sure why others take the positions that they do on controversial social issues. In fact, because prejudice and discrimination can have deeply psychological explanations, we often may not even know why we (much less others) hold certain positions on matters of race, gender, and sexual orientation. Nonetheless, after marriage equality opponents have failed for twenty years to articulate rational arguments for their opposition to gay marriages, it is becoming less plausible to contend that such an opposition is not, at some level, grounded in homophobia.
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