OK, the gay marriage debate isn't going away entirely. After all, there are still debates going on in this country about creationism. And I'm not just saying that polls show rapidly changing public opinion - everyone knows that. What is happening now that is new is the realignment of the politics of family issues, with same-sex marriage taken as a given. It's about time.
The social conservative realignment became public on Thursday with the publication of David Blankenhorn's op-ed in the NY Times on why he is dropping his opposition to gay marriage. Blankenhorn has been one of the leading opponents, and testified in support of Prop 8 in the Perry trial. He has argued that heterosexual marriage is the best environment for children, in part because of its expressive function in communicating a social norm that procreation should occur within male-female marriage. He says he hasn't changed on this point, but that he now he sees allowing gay couples to marry as "basic fairness."
The op-ed states the central issue over the politics of marriage as "marriage’s continuing deinstitutionalization, by which I mean marriage’s steady transformation in both law and custom from a structured institution with clear public purposes to the state’s licensing of private relationships that are privately defined."
I would frame it somewhat differently, but what sociologists call the deinstitutionalization of marriage is a dominant development of the last 50 years. The reality of American family life is no longer a simple progression from unmarried to almost certainly married to divorced or widowed, but a much more diverse set of patterns in which cohabitation plays an increasingly important role. And the most rapidly increasing segment of cohabiting couples consists of (straight) individuals who have been previously married. [Conservatives argue that children are harmed by the freedom of adults to divorce; there are a massive number of studies on this point, but most suggest that happy adult partnerships are more important to children than the marital status of the partners.]
What will come next? The deep political division between those who favor greater individual freedom (coupled with responsible parenting) and those who want to re-establish marriage as the litmus test for everything from procreation to respectability will continue -- just without an irrational diversion on the question of gay marriage. The fundies who continue to obsess about gay marriage will become more and more marginalized, as better educated conservatives take control of a newly ecumenical pro-marriage movement.
I welcome this stage, and only wish it could arrive even faster than it is already. These seem to me to be the truly important questions. I hope that the cultural experience of lgbt people will create valuable contributions, from, for example, non-monogamous married gay dads and a visible cluster of married women (two of them!) who decide not to have children. But mostly I welcome moving the discussion to the disagreements that truly matter, including the debate between prioritizing support for a diverse range of relationships and families over support for what the conservatives call "marriage culture."
Thanks, David, for dropping your opposition to gay marriage. Too bad I still can't agree with you.