November 04, 2004

More on Politics, Religion, and Gay Rights

If someone held a gun to my head and asked me to name my favorite blogger, there's a high probability that I'd choose Mark Schmitt. Schmitt is a former speechwriter for Bill Bradley who now works for the Open Society Institute. I tend to agree with his political analysis, and he writes with a prose style that sits really well with me.

Earlier today, Schmitt wrote an essay on "closet tolerants" for his blog, The Decembrist. Schmitt begins with an argument that I think is crucially important:

Two points came to my mind thinking about this today. The first is that I don't know many straight progressives who were particularly concerned about these initiatives or the issue generally. I can't think of a progressive organization that was particularly involved in the fight against them. I happened to be involved in a small way in putting together a fund for the opposition to the initiatives in the various states, and quickly became quite passionate about the meaning of this assault on rights but that was almost accidental. (I'm on the board of the foundation that was managing the allocation of funds.)

For the most part, I think straight liberals had the attitude that it was a gay issue and gay people are responsible for their issues. (Perhaps also assuming that gays had chosen to force this issue on the agenda.) We all have the correct views, of course, and may even care passionately about marriage and civil unions as it affects people we love. But we needed a wake-up call that "it's our fight too." Because the issue is not just gay marriage. The issue is the manipulation of hate, discomfort, resentment, displaced anxiety, etc. for political power, which will be used for all sorts of purposes. Let's put it simply: our country will have the foreign policy it does, the economic policy it does, in part because of the skillful manipulation of the gay marriage issue by people who are probably indifferent to the issue.

Schmitt then goes on to talk about "closet tolerants"--people, like Bush and the Cheneys, who probably have no problem with gay people but who are happy to use anti-gay bigotry to win elections. ("Hypocrisy," he says, is "too forgiving a word" for the behavior of people like this.) His analysis as a whole is compelling, and I'd strongly recommend reading it. The most sobering part, however, is the conclusion--which suggests that we still don't understand exactly what happened at the polls this week, and that finding the ideal response would be a challenge even if we did.

I find that conclusion really depressing, but there are ways--I believe--to start thinking about the issue. Here are some thoughts inspired by Schmitt's essay, either directly or indirectly:

  • Early in his blog entry, Schmitt makes the following point: "I'm not surprised that the anti-marriage initiative that came closest to defeat was in Oregon -- 46% no -- because they have had endless experience with vicious anti-gay amendments and groups there have figured out how to reach into rural Oregon and find ways to talk to people about what they mean."

    If I were George Soros, and I were willing to spend as much money on American politics over the next four years as I did in the last election, I'd look into the strategies used in Oregon to try to figure out how best to respond to the political use of anti-gay bigotry. The state's politics are well worth looking at: there's a big (and conservative) rural population, with periodic anti-gay and anti-tax ballot initiatives. Nevertheless, the governor and both senators are Democrats, both Gore and Kerry carried the state, and Democrats just made big gains in the state legislature. (Kerry even outpolled Gore by 5 points--receiving 52% of the vote to Gore's 47%--though part of that differential may have resulted from Nader's 2004 absence from the ballot.)

  • One of the keys to handling this issue, I think, will be to address it head-on, without treating conservatives as thoughtless bigots or acting as if their concerns about the country's values are completely ungrounded. As compelling as I found Schmitt's analysis, I was a little disturbed by the first two comments left on the site by readers. The first declared that "Gay marriage is a dilemma because there is no non-homophobic reasons to oppose it," and the second made a reference to Nazi Germany (noting that "we're at 1933, and if we don't watch it we'll be at 1937.") I don't completely disagree with the viewpoint of either comment--I really worry that the country's government is about to take a dramatic jump rightward--but I don't think this is the way to convince anyone of the rightness of our views.

    It's important to remember, I think, that opposition to gay marriage can't be equated with anti-gay bigotry. (The two are often connected, and there are plenty of gay marriage foes who are bigots, but there are also reasonable people who are uncomfortable with homosexuality but who are generally in favor of treating everyone in our society fairly.) I'm quite liberal on most issues, after all, and I only became a firm supporter of gay marriage over the last year or two: until recently, I supported civil unions and opposed any effort to deny gay couples the rights that married couples receive, but I was wary of the issue of gay marriage itself. For one thing, I don't tend to think of marriage as a state issue--I think of it as a private matter and a religious issue. (Civil marriages don't seem especially real to me.) For another, I was inclined to say that marriage itself wasn't all that important: I know plenty of unmarried couples who live together in supporting, committed, and loving relationships, and I didn't see why calling a gay couple a "married" couple made much difference as long as they were given certain basic rights we afford to married couples. I can also see legitimate reasons to avoid tampering with long-standing social institutions, even though--as a historian-in-training--I'm skeptical of the view that marriage has been a static and unchanging institution for centuries. Finally, and most shamefully, I worried that the issue would hurt progressivism in America.

    Two things changed my mind. First, I saw TV coverage of gay couples in San Francisco and Massachusetts, which made the issue seem more real and more human. Second, I've become more conservative as I've aged and I'm now more likely to see the benefits of marriage as an institution. Right-wingers love to complain that marriage is on the decline in America, due to divorce and cohabitation, but when a group comes along that really wants to get married, social conservatives turn them away. Does that make sense to you?

    I think there are two conclusions to draw from this. First, one of the best ways to win on this issue is to humanize gay marriage and make it seem real. Second, I'm from a liberal background, but I've only lately become a firm supporter of gay marriage, so should we be surprised if people less familiar with gays are less comfortable with gay marriage?

    There are people out there who hate gays, who would never vote for a Democrat who supported gay marriage or civil unions, and who are completely intractable on the issue. There's nothing to do about them: they'll vote Republican no matter what we do. There's another demographic, however, that's potentially reachable. These people might well vote against gay marriage itself, if that were the only issue on the table. You might be able to persuade them, eventually, to support civil unions--and, in the short run, you could probably convince them that it's unfair to deny a gay man or woman the right to visit his or her partner in the hospital. And if you can do that, you might be able to stop the most extreme ballot initiatives, like Ohio's, that would outlaw any state recognition of gay relationships whatsoever.

    The other key, I think, is to make the issue seem less threatening: on the most basic level, marriage has far more to do with religious and personal matters than with the state, and Democrats need to say that publicly. (Most Democrats just try to avoid talking about gay rights--saying they oppose gay marriage, but also oppose efforts to ban it as divisive and unnecessary. That sounds like a cop-out to people who worry that gay marriage will be imposed from above.) One key to this issue is framing: I think it's important for Democrats to make it clear that we support the recognition of gay marriage, but not the imposition of gay marriage. If I were running for president, what I'd say is this: "We will never force any religion to expand the institution of marriage to gay couples, but if your church marries a gay couple, we'll give them the same rights to inheritance, hospital visitation rights, and health insurance that straight couples have. It's not up to the government to decide these questions--it's up to you and your church. We will, however, make sure that gay couples have certain basic rights that straight couples have, whether we call their relationships 'marriages,' 'civil unions,' or something else altogether." That seems a lot less threatening to me, and will also seem far more direct and honest than the current approach. Some people will never be convinced; some people will be won over with time; some people who disagree will at least feel that their concerns are being addressed, and might see supporters of gay marriage as a little less alien.

  • More broadly, I think it's crucial for liberals to humanize the issue of gay rights. If I were a billionaire interested in reshaping the public debate in America today, I'd team up with a group like PFLAG to make it clear that you don't have to be completely comfortable with homosexuality to support gay rights. With time, we can work to make people more accepting of homosexuality in general, but for now, we need both to keep it from becoming a political weapon for the right and to win whatever small victories we can.

  • I'm still feeling shaken that so-called "moral" issues played such a big role in the campaign. One sign of just how low-key the whole "moral values" issue was: according to CNN, 23% of gays voted for Bush. (That's down 2 points from 2000, but it's still higher than it would have been if the anti-gay side of the Bush campaign had been more visible.) Check out the site I just linked to for lots of other fascinating tidbits on the campaign.

    One such tidbit: if I'm reading the poll results correctly, 60% of the population supports some form of legal recognition for gay relationships. 25% of the country supports the recognition of gay marriage, and Kerry won this demographic 77-23; another 35% supports civil unions, and Bush actually beat Kerry 52-47 among these voters. Add these two groups together and you get a majority. I don't know exactly what this means for the debate, since the 37% who oppose any form of recognition of gay relationships seems to have a disproportionate influence on the debate, but I think this finding supports my hunch that a Democrat can address gay rights more directly without suffering a backlash if he or she generally seems to share the values of the country's voters. A candidate who seems too elitist, and who can't connect with the moral concerns of voters, will lose even if he opposes gay rights.

  • Finally, as I've said before, it's crucial for Democrats to make headway on cultural issues in the years ahead, but we need to avoid the temptation either to depart from our core values or to just toss religious phraseology into our standard stump speeches. It's tempting to say that Democrats should just talk about their faith more often, but consider this: after Ralph Nader, the most secular presidential candidate of the last twenty years was probably Ross Perot. (I'm not counting more frivolous third-party candidates or Democrats who never had a shot at the nomination.) Did anyone worry that Perot didn't share their traditional values?

The points I've made above are a little random and underdeveloped, but I hope that a lot of prominent Democrats are thinking along similar lines.

Posted by Ed at November 4, 2004 06:43 PM


Shouldn't defenders of marriage really be against gay adultery and gay divorce?

(Ironically, one of the first married gay couples in Canada needed to wait for a new law to be passed to allow them to divorce, as the marriage statute originally made no provision for it.)

Posted by: aj at November 5, 2004 02:13 AM
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