A "tricklish" issue?

Public opinion on the gay marriage issue fascinates me as it never has before. There's been such a rapid shift recently that I am forced to wonder what's at the bottom of it.

Glenn Reynolds is a law professor in a pretty conservative state, and when he reports broad support for same sex marriage (more here), and when I see evidence of the numbers changing elsewhere, my restless curiosity is piqued, and so I must look for an explanation. Considering that homosexuals number in the single digits, the sea change in public opinion must be analyzed from a mainstream, heterosexual perspective, so I will attempt to do that.

People generally do not support a cause unless one of the following factors is present:

  • they love the proponents or the beneficiaries of the cause
  • they hate the opponents of the cause; or
  • there's something in it for them.
  • Homosexuals are not particularly loved, and most average Americans, while they wouldn't mistreat homosexuals, neither would they want to be seen as going out of their way to advance their "agenda." In fact, many heterosexuals are uncomfortable around the whole issue, and see it along the lines of "the less said the better."

    To a certain extent, this discomfort sets them up to be equally uneasy with either the shrill pro-homosexual crowd or the anti-homosexual moral conservatives. It's common sense that if you're uncomfortable about something, then you don't want to hear about it pro or con. (Even less do you want your face rubbed in it.) Whatever makes the issue go away would therefore be something to support. Might gay marriage, by ending the rancorous debate once and for all, assist in making the issue go away? I think that's definitely part of it, but I think the sea change in support indicates something more than a desire to make an uncomfortable issue go away.

    In any case, I don't think any broad-based love for homosexuals is at the heart of this shift in public opinion.

    How about hatred of the moral conservative scolds who refuse to stop yelling about homosexuals? To illustrate (and to add a little color and flavor) let's take a choice recent quote from Dr. James Dobson, a leading foe of same sex marriage:

    Barring a miracle, the family as it has been known for more than five millennia will crumble, presaging the fall of Western civilization itself. This is a time for concerted prayer, divine wisdom and greater courage than we have ever been called upon to exercise. For more than 40 years, the homosexual activist movement has sought to implement a master plan that has had as its centerpiece the utter destruction of the family. The institution of marriage, along with an often weakened and impotent Church, is all that stands in the way of its achievement of every coveted aspiration. Those goals include universal acceptance of the gay lifestyle, discrediting of Scriptures that condemn homosexuality, muzzling of the clergy and Christian media, granting of special privileges and rights in the law, overturning laws prohibiting pedophilia, indoctrinating children and future generations through public education, and securing all the legal benefits of marriage for any two or more people who claim to have homosexual tendencies. (Via Andrew Sullivan.)
    Sullivan characterizes Dobson as "unhinged" and I think many would agree with him. Whether that annoyance would translate into active support for gay marriage, I don't know. I do think it contributes heavily to it, and I have long believed that where it comes to the real "heavy lifting" it takes to effect a major change in public opinion, the work is being done for the gay activists by their mortal moral enemies. This is not new; when I was a student at UC Berkeley I saw singer Anita Bryant doing the same thing, and I used to wonder whether she was crazy.

    I have zero tolerance for intolerance, and the contradictory nature of that drives me crazy sometimes. While I'm on record as opposing the government intrusion aspect of gay marriage (more here, here, here, here, and in countless other posts too numerous to list), I fail to see -- assuming for the sake of argument that gay marriage is "bad" -- how "good" (heterosexual) marriages are harmed by bad ones. It's really like saying that allowing people to eat what you don't eat harms your own dietary habits! If I eat pork, does that harm Muslims? If I eat McDonalds, does that harm the health nuts?

    But I digress. I still must address the third possibility: Is there is something to be found in gay marriage which might be perceived -- whether consciously or unconsciously -- as conferring a benefit upon the straight majority? What might that be?

    The more I think about it, the more I'm inclined to lean towards a trickle-down effect on freedom. Americans are over-regulated as it is, often feeling constrained, harassed, and hemmed-in at every turn. (More odious is the growing invasion of privacy in almost every area of personal life.) Homosexuality, while only directly affecting a small minority of the population, represents a quantum leap forward in the sum total of human freedom, because it's been so taboo for so long, and people are so traditionally uncomfortable with it, so that this loosening up inevitably must bring with it a corresponding sense of general tolerance -- of the kind that spills over in ways felt more than directly perceived. If privacy is invaded and freedom threatened, I think people naturally find it relieving to see a taboo cast aside. For who does not have something to hide? Something of which he might be ashamed? Something that he might not want the world to know about? And with homosexuals allowed to live openly as married couples, doesn't that take some of the heat off everyone else?

    I can't be sure, but I suspect something of the kind. If I am right, we can expect more and more increased tolerance from sources generally not thought of or stereotyped as the tolerant sort.

    Even "rightish outdoorsmen"?

    Once the trickle-down effect gets started, it's rather tough to stop.

    posted by Eric on 05.18.04 at 02:56 PM


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    The gay marriage issue as it's being played out is, imnsho, a blown opportunity. It could've been an excellent chance to publicly examine what the heck marriage is, is supposed to be, what duties and responsibilities as well as benefits should be attached to it and why, and under what circumstances.

    Instead, it's just another opportunity to piss on the checks and balances of our governmental system.

    Sorry. I know I sound bitter and mean, but I am mightily discouraged by the lack of foresight and concern.

    After all these precedents of judges creating laws and humpty-dumptying the language - is there any law left in this land? Or just the rule of might + feel-good?

    I would have enjoyed seeing a bill written and proposed by the gay community, defining gay marriage requirements and contractual terms. Something with teeth, and thought, in it. The Gay community (whatever that is) could have really shaken things up in a meaningful way, and helped the badly confused heterosexual community examine its idea of marriage. Yeah, heteros could/should be doing that anyway, its just that the incentive was there for the gays to make the change. If somebody wants to make a change, why not a good one, a thought-out one? Why just buy into the same crap that another group has already screwed up, and trash our governmental system at the same time?

    & I think I even know the answer - there's no such thing as an anything 'community.' There's just a lot of whackjobs that happen to share various traits. The loud-mouthed whackjobs get the attention and the money, and lord it over the rest of us. It's like some sort of horror movie, where small gangs of insufferable attention-getters roam the landscape, trashing whoever tries to quietly go about their own business. Not just gay 'groups' - anything 'groups.'

    I just wish I lived someplace with citizens that thought about the long-term consequences a little bit harder. But there - I didn't exactly go down to the gay bar last month with a sheaf of papers in my hand, saying "Here's a proposal we all can live with!" Is it too late now?

    Persnickety   ·  May 19, 2004 6:09 PM

    "Roark took the oath. He stood by the steps of the witness stand. The audience looked at him. They felt he had no chance. They could drop the nameless resentment, the sense of insecurity which he aroused in most people. And, so, for the first time, they could see him as he was: a man totally innocent of fear

    "The fear of which they thought was not the normal kind, not a response to a tangible danger, but the chronic, unconfessed fear in which they all lived. They remembered the misery of the moments when, in loneliness, a man thinks of the bright words he could have said, but had not found, and hates those who robbed him of his courage. The misery of knowing how strong and able one is in one's own mind, the radiant picture never to be made real. Dreams? Self-delusion? Or a murdered reality, unborn, killed by that corroding emotion without name -- fear -- need -- dependence -- hatred?

    "Roark stood before them as each man stands in the innocence of his own mind. But Roark stood like that before a hostile crowd -- and they knew suddenly that no hatred was possible to him. For the flash of an instant, they grasped the manner of his consciousness. Each man asked himself: do I need anyone's approval? -- does it matter? -- am I tied? And for that instant, each man was free -- free enough to feel benevolence for every other man in the room."

    -Ayn Rand, "The Fountainhead"

    Steven: Bingo. Also, ouch.

    Persnickety   ·  May 20, 2004 3:17 PM

    Dear Persnickety:

    Thank you! "Ouch"? I didn't want to make you feel any "ouch". I quoted that passage because it came to my mind as soon as I read Eric's splendid post. I liked your comment also.

    I believe it is wrong to assume that all homosexuals are in support of gay marriage. I don't believe that any studies have been done that would support this. If there have been, let me know.

    I remember the pre-AIDS era in which many gay and lesbian people believed that it was wrong to try to emulate the straight lifestyle. It was thought that a legitimate gay culture had developed (under a blanket of oppression) in which marriage and traditional moral and religious values did not apply.

    I have to believe that many still feel that way. They just don't speak out about it for fear of seeming unsympathetic toward those who want to get married.

    So, perhaps only a small minority of that small minority are actually being served by the benefit of gay marriage. If that is the case, is it still worth the effort. How large does a group have to be in order to receive protection and rights under our laws? Three percent? One percent? One half of one percent? Where do we draw the line and say, "There aren't enough of you to matter?"

    Carson   ·  May 21, 2004 2:32 PM

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