05/09/2012 04:27 pm ET Updated Feb 02, 2016

We Have Met the Enemy, and the Enemy Is Us

As predicted, North Carolina voters approved an amendment to the state's constitution declaring that "marriage between one man and one woman is the only domestic legal union that shall be valid or recognized in this state." On the surface, this is just another vote to prohibit same-sex marriage. Most of those who voted for Amendment 1 were motivated by the fear that their own marriages would be demeaned if we let same-sex couples into the club. They're incensed that gays and lesbians enjoy more legal protections and greater visibility nationally than ever before.

But the battle in North Carolina also indicates that conservative strategists are beginning to shift gears, casting a wider net, and targeting unrepentant, unmarried heterosexual couples, too. In a state that already prohibits same-sex marriage, it adds prohibitions against civil unions and domestic partnerships, which are theoretically open to heterosexual couples who choose to live together outside marriage, as well as to gays and lesbians. More than 150,000 straight, unmarried couples live in the state, some of whom could certainly benefit from those protections. Now, that's unlikely to happen.

What is so scary to social conservatives is the fact that as gays and lesbians are becoming just like us (they even have families now!), we straight people are becoming more and more like them. That what's behind the attack on domestic partnerships in North Carolina. It's an attempt to draw a line in the sand between us and them. We ("real" men and women) commit to one another for the long haul, they declare. They (gays and lesbians, and straights who live together without a marriage license) are only playing at marriage. They're diminishing that sacred institution, they say.

Today, as divorce rates rise and more and more people come to live alone, increasingly, it seems, "all of our families are queer," as sociologist Judith Stacey has put it. Gays and lesbians have long argued that "love makes a family," that family should not be based narrowly on blood, nor on assumptions of permanence, but on our capacity for caring, and on the quality of relationships.

For better and for worse, more and more families are looking precisely like that. Intimate relationships are becoming more individually oriented, and more fluid. The "till death do us part" model of marriage is weaker than ever. For many people, of all sexual orientations, this is a welcome change, bringing greater personal freedom, the end of shotgun marriages, and less stigma for those who remain single, or who shack up.

But for others it's scary stuff. They see marriage as our best hope for getting people out of poverty, guaranteeing emotional security, and keeping the nation strong. By supporting Amendment 1, they are trying to draw a line in the sand and declare that marriage should be the powerful institution it once was.

Anti-gay campaigners in North Carolina successfully capitalized on the unease that many people feel. They tapped into fears that people have about losing economic security and a family structure that once seemed relatively stable. And they've convinced people that changes in family life are causing their insecurities.

But by denying protections to those who choose not to marry members of the opposite sex, or those who choose not to marry altogether, they're failing to attack the problem at its core. The only way to effectively address the root causes of family insecurity is to guarantee social supports such as child care and jobs that provide a living wage. If conservatives truly want to save the family, that's what they should be pushing for.