How Gay Marriage Changed America

How Gay Marriage Changed America

Obergefell was supposed to tame homosexuality, but it has precip­itated a regime of more radical queerness. From “Marriage is a human right” to “Marriage is deeply flawed and fundamentally violent”: The sexual left’s long-running dispute about the nature of marriage and its relation to gayness seems to be getting resolved in the direction of the marriage skeptics.

In November 2022, the ACLU’s deputy director for transgender justice came out against gay marriage. “I find it disappointing how much time and resources went into fighting for inclusion in the deeply flawed and fundamentally violent institution of civil marriage,” Chase Strangio wrote on Instagram. Two months later, Taylor Silverman, a female skateboarder who gained prominence after objecting to the inclusion of biological males in women’s athletic competitions, criticized gay marriage from the opposite direction: “I used to think gay marriage was ok until all of the things that conservatives warned us would happen next actually happened. Now it seems it really was the beginning of the dangerous slippery slope.” With the passage of the Respect for Marriage Act in 2022, the legal status of same-sex marriage has never been more secure. Public opinion is strongly in its favor, even as, not so long ago, it was overwhelmingly opposed. Yet the ideological case for same-sex marriage seems strangely fragile, subject to challenge on both the left and the right.

It has been eight years since the White House was lit with rainbow colors in celebration of the Supreme Court’s ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges. Hailed as the enshrinement of a new consensus, the national recognition of same-sex marriage can also be understood as an event that accelerated polarization—leading some on the left to press for ever more changes, and some on the right to doubt the very possibility of liberal governance.

Not all of the effects of gay marriage are obvious, or were anticipated. In the runup to the national recognition of gay marriage, much attention was paid on both sides to such questions as whether children raised in same-sex households could thrive as did those raised by a mother and father. Important as they were, these discussions distracted from another way in which gay marriage would affect national life. Its recognition changed the makeup of the American elite by causing more conservative and religious actors to lose standing while left-wing activists gained power and prestige. For thoroughgoing progressives, there is nothing to lament in these developments. But for figures on the center-left, gay marriage has had an ambiguous legacy.

Gay marriage was the first great triumph of cancel culture. Sasha Issenberg, a historian of gay marriage, has observed that by deploying the novel weapons of “shaming and shunning,” activists “changed the economic terrain on which cultural conflict was waged.” One of the early breakthroughs occurred when appeared online. The site used information gathered under financial disclosure laws to list the names and locations of people who had donated to California’s Proposition 8, a referendum that stated marriage could take place only between a man and a woman. Suddenly American citizens came under pressure for their political views—not just from their friends and families, but potentially from anyone with an internet connection. Some reported receiving envelopes with powder and death threats.

Donors to Proposition 8 were ­also targeted through their employers. Scott Eckern, the artistic director of the California Musical Theatre in Sacramento, was forced to resign after his colleagues learned that he had backed the referendum. ­Brendan Eich was forced to step down as the CEO of Mozilla in 2014, when his past support of Proposition 8 was publicized.

Those who denounce cancel culture often speak as though it was hatched by radical activists and intolerant students, and see the contest as pitting liberal tolerance against illiberal denunciation. But as the history of gay marriage shows, the reality is more complicated. Cancel culture was pioneered in part by veteran political activists such as the lifelong Republican Fred Karger, who organized demonstrations outside commercial properties owned by backers of Proposition 8. And it arose in alliance with corporate power, as seen when corporations declared “capital strikes” by threatening to pull out of states that guaranteed religious freedom to those who rejected gay marriage.

In recent years, figures such as ­Andrew Sullivan have emerged as brave and eloquent critics of wokeness. They have opposed its particular injustices while exploring its deep origins. They have tied wokeness to the flowering of “illiberalism” on the left and the right. But they have failed to examine how these forms of illiberalism were encouraged by the campaign for a policy they support.

Gay marriage changed the character of important institutions in ways that its moderate supporters have not yet recognized. Through the operation of cancel culture, high-profile opponents of same-sex marriage were silenced, fired, or forced out of important institutions. In 2011, Paul Clement, the distinguished appellate lawyer and former solicitor general, was compelled to leave his law firm in order to continue his legal work on behalf of the Defense of Marriage Act, a case that his firm had been pressured to drop by the Human Rights Campaign. In 2015, Kelvin Cochran, the chief of the Atlanta fire department, was fired after writing a book that expressed opposition to homosexuality. In 2023, Jacob Kersey, a police officer in Georgia, was placed on leave after writing on Facebook: “God designed marriage. Marriage refers to Christ and the church. That’s why there is no such thing as homosexual marriage.”

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