Conservatives and Gay Marriage: A Guide for the Perplexed

Dear Belladonna Rogers,

My step-son, Tom, is a dedicated physician who spends his vacations providing free medical services to the poor, and is a devoted son and step-son. He’s planning to marry his same-sex partner in a ceremony in New York City in September.  I want to accept his invitation, but my 71-year-old husband, his father, is opposed to gay marriage and refuses to attend.  “Jim” is all riled up over this.  He says that gay marriage is contrary to the teachings of all religions (we’re Protestants) and that it’s part of a gay political agenda. Although like Jim, I’m a conservative Republican, I disagree with him on gay marriage and disagree with his desire to boycott Tom’s wedding, where Tom's younger sisters will be bridesmaids.

What can I do?

Conflicted in Kansas

Dear Conflicted,

Your letter raises three questions: (1) Why are Jim's feelings so powerful that they're overpowering his ability to show his love for his son by attending his wedding? (2) What are Jim’s arguments against gay marriage and what are some rebuttals? and (3) How can you get Jim to the wedding?

(1) Why is Jim so emotionally wrought up over homosexuality and gay marriage?  You provided part of the answer by mentioning that Tom is Jim’s only son.  When a son is born, his father often hopes that he will grow up to be, if not an exact replica of, then at least something like his father.  It's not for nothing that men enjoy hearing a son described as a "chip off the old block,” or that men name their sons “Jr.” “III,” and so on, all the way to Louis XVI.

Jim harbors powerful feelings toward his son because Tom performs sexual acts of which Jim disapproves.  Jim’s reactions may be partly generational: his age cohort was raised to believe  -- as the American Psychiatric Association no longer does -- that homosexuality was a psychiatric disorder and, for many, a sin against God and nature. Jim also belongs to two of the groups with the lowest levels of support for gay marriage.  A Gallup Poll in May, 2011 found only 28 percent of Republicans favor it, compared with 69% of Democrats and 59% of independents.  And while a 53% majority of all Americans approve of same-sex marriages, among 18-to-34-year-olds, support is 70%: that is, the older people are, the less they tend to support gay marriage.  But as Texas Governor Rick Perry saw last week, even major Republican donors applauded when he said that gay marriage should be left up to each state to decide.

Another source of the intensity of Jim’s feelings is that for most people there is nothing more fraught with emotion than sexuality.  This is highly emotional terrain for everyone.  It is the part of our lives addressed by two of the Ten Commandments -- a whopping 20 percent.

Although heterosexual marriages that take place in any of the 50 states and the District of Columbia are recognized by all other states under Article IV, Section 1 of the Constitution, the “Full Faith And Credit Clause,” gay marriages are exempt from this because of the 1996 bill signed into law by President Bill Clinton, the Defense of Marriage Act. Six states permit gay marriage: New York, Connecticut, Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Iowa, as well as the District of Columbia and the Coquille Indian Tribe of Oregon.

States that have legalized gay marriage tend to have strong public support for it. A good discussion of the impact of opinion polling on gay marriage policy is here, in a 2009 article in the American Political Science Review, “Gay Rights: Public Opinion and Policy Responsiveness” by Jeffrey A. Lax and Justin H. Phillips.

(2)  What are the conservative arguments against and in favor of gay marriage?

Opponents advance three major arguments:

(a) Tradition: Throughout history, most societies and religions stigmatized homosexuality and none has sanctioned marriage between members of the same sex.

While appeals to traditional wisdom are valid, they rarely settle an argument.  After all, slavery has been a traditional part of all major civilizations. Yet this hardly amounts to a persuasive case for a return to slave-holding.  Why, then, should "tradition" alone prevail with respect to homosexuality?

(b) It shouldn’t, which is why opponents then evoke the "slippery slope:”  "If gay marriage is acceptable, why can't I marry my dog?” they ask, “Or my sister, my daughter, or under legalized polygamy, all three?”

The libertarian UCLA law professor Eugene Volokh, who has extensively analyzed the slippery slope argument, discussed its workings in a 2003 article he wrote with David Newman, describing it vividly: "A frog that’s dropped into boiling water will jump out, but a frog that’s put into cold water which is gradually warmed supposedly won’t notice the temperature change — and will get cooked."

In some areas this may be true, but not with gay marriage. The public will scarcely fail to notice, and to respond forcefully against, new proposals to change marriage laws even more dramatically than permitting gay marriages.  The public, unlike the frog, will notice when the temperature is turned up.  If human-animal, polygamous and bigamous marriages are proposed as the logical steps to follow the precedent of gay marriage, people will pay attention.  They won’t “get cooked,” a self-serving New York Times op-ed on Sunday to the contrary notwithstanding.

All legislative enactments, public referenda, and judicial rulings that produce even minor changes are open to the criticism that each additional step could make later changes easier to enact.  A law permitting gay marriage will not ipso facto lead to the passage of all imaginable laws permitting marriages between human beings and every conceivable other person or with animals, vegetables, or minerals. The way to avoid sliding down the slippery slope is to go no further: to draw the line where it has been drawn and to move the goal posts no further.  This is not only possible, it is overwhelmingly likely. Changes in the law, as in life, are inevitable.  Were they not, we’d be living under the laws and customs of 1776, complete with slave-owning, putting criminals in pillories, and corporal punishment in our public schools.

Another concern of opponents of gay marriage is that it’s only one part of an entire "gay agenda." A recent example occurred on July 5, 2011, when, voting along party lines, the California legislature sent the governor a bill to make the state the first to require public schools to include the contributions of gays and lesbians [and the transgendered and people with disabilities] in social studies textbooks. On July 14, 2011, Governor Jerry Brown signed it into law. This is a perfect example of dysnomy (a great word, rarely used but frequently needed, meaning a bad law, from “dys”--- Greek for “bad”--- and “nomos,” Greek for law.)

There have been many more developments at the intersection of primary education and the gay agenda.  As early as 1992, the New York Times reported, of New York City schools, “It was to be simply a guide to teaching first graders tolerance and respect for all. Instead, the Board of Education's ‘Children of the Rainbow’ curriculum, with its teaching of respect and appreciation for gay and lesbian families, has become the latest battleground for liberals and conservatives in the city's cultural wars.”