One reason the idea of gay marriage, or “marriage equality,” spread so fast is that it seems obvious once you think about it. It was a genuinely new idea when it first appeared in this publication in 1989. As was not the case with civil rights for African Americans, feminism, or for that matter gay rights themselves, there was no long history of opposition to be overcome. The challenge was simply getting people to think about it a bit.
Not everyone was immediately persuaded. In March, Ben Carson appeared on Fox News’ “Hannity” show to talk about gay marriage. Carson is the latest Great Black Hope for the Republican Party, which is quickly running out of African American conservatives to make famous. But Carson’s appearance was not a success. He should have left bestiality out of it. And any reference to NAMBLA—the “North American Man / Boy Love Association”—is pretty good evidence that we have left the realm of rational discussion and entered radio talk-show territory. This alleged organization exists—if indeed it exists at all—for the sole purpose of being attacked by Republicans and conservatives on talk radio and television.
Well, we all get our kicks in different ways, and if yours is watching someone being verbally flogged by Sean Hannity, I’m cool with that. Unwisely, though, Carson went on Andrea Mitchell’s msnbc show three days later. There, he tried to clarify his position. He said: “If you ask me for an apple, and I give you an orange, you would say, ‘That’s not an orange.’ And then I say, ‘That’s a banana.’ And that’s not an apple, either. Or there’s a peach, that’s not an apple, either. But it doesn’t mean that I’m equating the banana and the orange and the peach.”
Carson may qualify as a homophobe by today’s standards. But then they don’t make homophobes like they used to. Carson denies hating gay people, while your classic homophobe revels in it. He has apologized publicly “if I offended anyone.” He supports civil unions that would include all or almost all of the legal rights of marriage. In other words, he has views on gay rights somewhat more progressive than those of the average Democratic senator ten years ago. But as a devout Seventh Day Adventist, he just won’t give up the word “marriage.” And he has some kind of weird thing going on about fruit.
But none of this matters. All you need to know is that Carson opposes same-sex marriage. Case closed. Carson was supposed to be the graduation speaker at Johns Hopkins Medical School. There was a fuss, and Carson decided to withdraw as speaker. The obviously relieved dean nevertheless criticized Carson for being “hurtful.” His analysis of the situation was that “the fundamental principle of freedom of expression has been placed in conflict with our core values of diversity, inclusion and respect.” My analysis is that, at a crucial moment, the dean failed to defend a real core value of the university: tolerance.
The university’s response was wrong for a variety of reasons. First, Carson isn’t just another gasbag. He is director of pediatric neurosurgery at Hopkins. Pediatric neurosurgery! He fixes children’s brains. How terrible can a person be who does that for a living? Yes, I know the flaw in this thinking: There is no necessary connection. As a character says in Mel Brooks’s movie The Producers: “der Führer vas a terrific dancer.” But Carson didn’t murder millions of people. All he did was say on television that he opposes same-sex marriage—an idea that even its biggest current supporters had never even heard of a couple of decades ago. Does that automatically make you a homophobe and cast you into the outer darkness? It shouldn’t. But in some American subcultures—Hollywood, academia, Democratic politics—it apparently does. You may favor raising taxes on the rich, increasing support for the poor, nurturing the planet, and repealing Section 14(b) of the Taft-Hartley Act, but if you don’t support gay marriage, you’re out of the club.
Hopkins, as a private institution, may not have been constitutionally required to let Carson speak. But it was wrong for the university, once the invitation had been extended, to make Carson feel unwanted to the point of withdrawing. (In fact, it was wrong of Carson to let Hopkins off the hook in this way.) Behind the First Amendment is the notion that good ideas have a natural buoyancy that bad ideas do not. In fact, the very short (as these things go) debate about marriage equality demonstrates this. Denying Carson the right to speak was not just unprincipled. It was unnecessary. The proponents of marriage equality have not just won. They have routed the opposition. It’s a moment to be gracious, not vindictive.
There are those who would have you think that gays and liberals are conducting some sort of jihad against organized Christianity and that gay marriage is one of the battlefields. That is a tremendous exaggeration. But it’s not a complete fantasy. And for every mouth that opens, a dozen stay clamped shut. In the state of Washington, a florist refused to do the wedding of a long-time customer “because of my relationship with Jesus Christ.” Note that “long-time customer.” This woman had been happily selling flowers to the groom. She just didn’t want to be associated with the wedding. Now she is being sued by the state attorney general. DC Comics dropped writer Orson Scott Card’s planned Superman book when thousands signed a petition demanding it because of his many homophobic remarks.
Thought experiment: If you were up for tenure at a top university, or up for a starring role in a big movie, or running for office in large swaths of the country, would it hurt your chances more to announce that you are gay or to announce that you’ve become head of an anti-gay organization? The answer seems obvious. So the good guys have won. Why do they now want to become the bad guys?
The decision of gay leaders to concentrate on the right to marry was brilliant. This wasn’t an inevitable choice. They might have chosen some other strategy, such as getting sexual preference under the protection of the civil rights laws, along with race, gender, and so on. Choosing marriage totally undercut the argument of opponents that gay men and women were demanding “special” rights. All they wanted, supporters could say truthfully, was a right (to marry someone you love) that every other American already enjoys. But the focus of gay rights on marriage is a historical accident, and to make support for marriage equality the test of right thinking on gay issues is absurd. In fact, the very idea of a “test of right thinking on gay issues” or any other kind of issues, is absurd. Gays, who know a thing or two about repression, ought to be the last people to want to destroy someone’s career because they disagree. In their moment of triumph, why can’t they laugh off nutty comments like Carson’s, rather than sending in the drones to take him out?
One early seminal article on gay marriage (“Here Comes the Groom” by Andrew Sullivan) was commissioned by me and published in this magazine in 1989.* And I would bet that there is no one born before 1989, gay or straight, who didn’t, when he or she first heard the idea, go, whaaa? Many on reflection got used to the idea, and a majority of Americans now support it. The day will come, probably next Tuesday at the rate things are going, when previous opposition to the idea of same-sex marriage will seem bizarre and require explaining, like membership in the Ku Klux Klan in the youths of some old Southerners—are there any left?—on Capitol Hill. But we’re not quite there yet. At the moment, simply opposing gay marriage doesn’t make you a homophobe, any more than opposing affirmative action makes you a racist or opposition to settlements on the West Bank makes you an anti-Semite.
The dean calls Carson’s remarks “hurtful.” They weren’t hurtful to him, unless he’s hopelessly oversensitive. The dean was just making a move in the great game of umbrage that has clogged American politics, where points are awarded for taking offense at something the other guy said. No one, when confronted with some opponent’s faux pas, or some stray remark that can be misrepresented as a faux pas, ever reacts anymore with: “Who cares?” Instead, it’s: “I am deeply, deeply offended by this person’s remarks. She should drop out of the race immediately, or quit her job, and move into a nunnery to contemplate her sins. And we certainly can’t let her speak at commencement because ...”
Michael Kinsley is editor-at-large at The New Republic.
*Correction: This piece originally stated that the first known mention of gay marriage was the article, "Here Comes the Groom." We regret the error.