Connubial bliss in America
Behind the politics of gay marriage, a widening social acceptance
Jul 30th 2011 | from the print edition
AMERICA is the country, said Alexis de Tocqueville, where the bonds of marriage are most respected and the concept of connubial bliss “has its highest and truest expression.” If the French aristocrat were to revisit America’s capital today, he might at first glance think his observation had withstood the test of time remarkably well. Not content with having in 1996 put a Defence of Marriage Act (DOMA) on the statute book, Congress has now begun to hold hearings on a Respect for Marriage Act. Defended, respected: what could possibly ail marriage in America?
Plenty. As the revisiting Norman would swiftly discover, Americans today are better at quarrelling about what marriage is and who should be allowed to enjoy its benefits than they are at the more demanding work of getting and staying married themselves. The National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia points to a widening “marriage gap”. Traditional family values are enjoying a revival among better-educated Americans, but are fraying in the lower middle class and have collapsed among the poor. As for laws “defending” and “respecting” marriage, these are merely weapons in a battle that has rolled back and forth for more than a decade between those who say that same-sex couples should be allowed to marry and those who abhor the idea.
So far neither side has scored a decisive victory, though each will occasionally claim one. When it was passed, DOMA looked like a solid victory for enemies of gay marriage. Its aim was to nip moves towards same-sex marriage in the bud by defining marriage as a legal union “between one man and one woman as husband and wife”. It also stipulated that in the event of an individual state making same-sex marriage lawful, no other state needed to respect the rights or claims arising from such a marriage. To buttress this apparently formidable firewall, three dozen states have imposed constitutional or other legal bans.
And yet gay marriage marches on, scoring its own victories along the way. Among the greatest and most recent was New York’s decision last month to become the sixth and most-populous state to allow same-sex marriage. If the Respect for Marriage Act were to become law (though this will need to await a more sympathetic Congress), this would defang DOMA and mark another victory for gay marriage. But DOMA is anyway not the deterrent it once seemed. The ever-cautious Barack Obama, who favours civil unions but says his views on gay marriage are still “evolving”, has ordered the Justice Department to stop defending the law, which is under challenge in the courts.
The relentless back-and-forth in Congress, the courts and state legislatures transfixes the minority of Americans who feel strongly about this issue. And yet the cycle of victories and defeats may in the end matter less than one startling underlying fact, which is that America’s attitudes to homosexuality appear in recent years to have undergone a dramatic change.
Gallup reported in May that for the first time ever a majority (53% to 45%) of Americans said that same-sex couples should have the same marriage rights as straight couples. In 1996, the time of DOMA, the majority leant 68% to 27% the other way. The controversial policy of “don’t ask, don’t tell”, which banned gays from serving openly in the armed forces, is meanwhile due to expire in September with surprisingly little hue and cry. And when National Journal polled political “insiders” this month, it found a majority of Democratic politicos, lobbyists and strategists in favour of making gay marriage legal. No less telling, a majority of their Republican counterparts, while continuing to oppose gay marriage, thought their party should just ignore the issue.
That might make electoral sense. Since it is the young who are most relaxed about gay marriage, standing in its path might cost the Republicans dear in the future. The notion of denying gays the spousal rights available to others makes little sense to a generation that sees marriage at least as much as a union of soul-mates as a formal structure for child-rearing.
To crusaders against gay marriage, however, the issue transcends electoral calculation. They say they are defending both God’s will and a vital child-centred institution that is already beleaguered enough. In this election cycle, Michele Bachmann, the Minnesota congresswoman pursuing the Republican presidential nomination, has become a lightning-conductor on gay issues. In spite of having a gay stepsister, she has long put opposition to same-sex marriage at the centre of her politics. In 2004 she likened the gay lifestyle to “personal bondage, personal despair and personal enslavement”. The fact that her husband runs a clinic offering to cure gays of their supposed affliction has caused both indignation and merriment among metropolitan types.
Attitudes like Mrs Bachmann’s may do her little harm with the Republican base, but strike parts of the wider electorate as antiquated or downright bigoted. That may be why Rudy Giuliani, the former mayor of New York who ran for the presidency in 2008 and may yet do so again, has warned fellow Republicans to “get the heck out of people’s bedrooms”. It could also explain why Rick Perry, the governor of Texas now pondering a presidential run of his own, says that he has no quarrel with New York’s new law. Pleading the tenth (states’ rights) amendment, he argues that New York’s stand on gay marriage is its own business.
In point of fact, neither Mr Giuliani nor Mr Perry favours gay marriage. Mr Giuliani says civil unions are good enough for gays. Mr Perry has not only been a vehement opponent of gay marriage but also gone so far as to defend Texas’s anti-sodomy law, which the Supreme Court has ruled to be unconstitutional. Such men have their beliefs, but they are also seasoned politicians. They can see which way the national mood is blowing.