Just Married

The Supreme Court ruling reflects a historic union of liberal notions of equality and a conservative emphasis on the sanctity of marriage

Progressives who are appropriately celebrating the gay marriage ruling, and conservatives who view it as an abomination, might both remember some history:
The drive for gay marriage was originally not embraced by gay progressives.
The intellectual firepower for the idea much reviled by many liberals today.

And the final articulation — and deciding vote this past Friday — came from a Supreme Court Justice appointed by Ronald Reagan.

This triumph occurred in part because progressive ideals of equality merged with the conservative emphasis on the sanctity of marriage.

Back in the 1980s, many gay activists were ambivalent about the idea of endorsing an institution as bourgeois as matrimony. In part they deemed it bad strategy but many also viewed themselves as outsiders, uninterested in embracing this most traditional of institutions. Other parts of The Left shared this ambivalence. Some feminists argued that matrimony had been used to oppress women. Advocates for the poor bristled at the Reagan-era emphasis on “family values,” viewing it as hostile to the poor, who had higher rates of out-of-wedlock birth or “non-traditional families.”

It was in this context that Andrew Sullivan wrote his historic piece in The New Republic in 1989, “Here Comes the Groom: The (Conservative) Case for Gay Marriage.” Sullivan, who should be considered the Frederick Douglass of the gay marriage movement, was editing a liberal-ish magazine but counted Margaret Thatcher and Reagan as his heroes.

Gay marriage, he wrote, would “foster social cohesion, emotional security, and economic prudence…. It is not, in short, a denial of family values. It’s an extension of them.”

Of course, the political and religious right ignored the centrality of these traditional ideas — marriage, monogamy, fidelity — in the gay marriage drive. Blinded or distracted by their aversion to homosexuality, they could not see that gays were wanting to join the family values movement. So they fought gay marriage for the next 25 years.

Meanwhile, early liberal ambivalence quickly evaporated when the idea started to get traction. Soon, the abstract progressive impulse toward equality was given life by the reality of gay couples joining PTAs, raising kids, caring for dying partners and demanding inclusion in the most mainstream institutions of society. Most progressives (in reality, plenty “pro-family” to begin with) happily embraced the cause with gusto.

Even though Friday’s historic decision was, in political terms, a victory for progressives and a defeat for conservatives, in intellectual terms the ruling reflected an inspiring blend of ideals.

Anthony Kennedy drew them together in an argument that started with a celebration of marriage. “From their beginning to their most recent page, the annals of human history reveal the transcendent importance of marriage…. Rising from the most basic human needs, marriage is essential to our most profound hopes and aspirations.”

Kennedy is often thought to have “moved to the left” on gay issues but it is not hard in these paragraphs to hear the language of the man who appointed Kennedy. “Marriage remains a building block of our national community,” Kennedy wrote. “No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice and family.”

Fidelity. Devotion. Sacrifice. Family. Not usually the rallying cries of revolution.
From there the argument unfolded easily. Because marriage is a “keystone,” the Court has long held that “the right to marry is protected by the Constitution” — and therefore no state can deny it to one class of people.

The merger of these two concepts did not go over well with everyone. Writing in TalkingPointsMemo, Peter Moskowitz complained that “One (rich, powerful, largely white, cisgender, super-problematic) segment of LGBTQ rights movement has unfortunately but quite intentionally conflated marriage with equality,” which is a tragedy since “marriage is an institution based on outmoded and harmful ideals about monogamy, patriarchy and property ownership.”

But it is this conflation — the articulation of gay rights in the context of traditional American values — that led to its success. It is no accident that this monumental gay-rights decision was also one of the most ringing defenses of traditional marriage that the Court has ever issued. Gay nuptials became a protected right — not in spite of the sanctity of marriage, but because of it.

Steven Waldman

Steven Waldman is founder of LifePosts.com, a platform for online memorials and life milestones. He's a Washington Monthly contributing editor, journalist and author.