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Good News All Around

Why Democrats are wrong to fear the political fallout from the California gay marriage ruling.

Also on today: Benjamin Wittes argues that the California court made a critical error, and one that goes against democratic principles, by coming down so hard against civil unions.

I wish I had clocked the minutes between the time that the California marriage decision was announced, and the time that the liberal punditocracy began whining about it. Yikes, those commitment-crazy gay people are going to lose the election for the Democrats yet again!

This knee-jerk complaint is more than a little annoying, for several reasons. First, in its sheer cynicism. Let’s remember, please, that we are discussing real people’s family lives. Would any Democrat complain out loud (or in print) about a win for some other presumptively Democratic constituency--labor, poor people, African Americans, Jews--without even pretending to be glad their lives are better and that the world is now more fair? According to UCLA’s Williams Institute analysis of U.S. census numbers , more than 100,000 same-sex couples live in California, raising more than 70,000 children. These families have now been told that they are full citizens, entirely equal to their neighbors. Within its own borders, California’s registered domestic partnership was almost (not quite) legally equivalent to marriage--and yet being told you’re not good enough for the M-word still has an effect. Separate but equal isn’t, as the court pointed out. For those 70,000 children especially, knowing their parents can marry has tremendous power, on the playground and in the psyche. That’s even more true for the adolescents and pre-adolescents who are just (aaaiiieeee!) realizing that they want to kiss girls instead of boys, or vice versa--and who have now been told that when they grow up they will still be treated as full human beings with dignity and civil rights, no matter how cruelly their parents or fellow students may treat them today. Before bemoaning what Democrats may or may not lose or gain as a result of the California court’s decision, can we at least genuflect in the general direction of being happy for the real people involved?

Second is the simple, factual falseness of this concern. Political scientists’ analyses of the 2004 election found no evidence that states with anti-marriage initiatives had higher conservative turnout. For instance, MIT political scientists Stephen Ansolabehere and Charles Stewart III’s county-by-county vote analysis in the March/April 2005 Boston Review concluded, “Marriage referenda mobilized voters on both sides, not just the conservatives, and the net result may have been to John Kerry’s benefit.” Yes, many non-gay journalists and pundits were shocked by the vehemence of anti-gay sentiment, which many had not seen in the public square before. But lesbians and gay men have heard that nastiness all our lives--and know viscerally how much less hateful the climate is than five, ten, 20, or (for some of us aged folks) 30 years ago, and how quickly it’s improved and continues to improve. Remember that while LGBT folks may be only a few percentage points of the electorate, we have families, friends, and communities, all of whom are influenced by our equality or lack thereof. Thanksgiving-day activism (“Jane and I are getting married, please pass the cranberry sauce”) has a wide ripple effect. My own family--including my stepmother and stepsisters in Florida; my mother and stepfather in Ohio; and my brothers, sister-in-law, sister, aunts, uncles, and cousins in Texas, Colorado, Maryland, Hawaii, and Pennsylvania-- now favor my freedom to marry, and increasingly say so at their construction sites, Air Force bases, offices, and kids’ schools. And though my family may be unusually dispersed (in region, religion, and class), those webs of transformed attitudes are common. (I have one friend who grew up in conservative rural Maine and whose mother keeps asking her, ‘When are you going to find a nice girl and get married?’)

That brings us to the third point: global warming. As Al Gore showed us so well, climate change can hit a “tipping point” at which warming abruptly accelerates. Similarly, attitudes towards LGBT people have warmed in every state in our fractious union--quickly in some areas, slower but still steadily elsewhere. Wherever we win on partnership recognition, by whatever term, that warming increases dramatically. Richard Just very kindly mentioned my prediction that Massachusetts would embrace its same-sex married couples; I’ve been startled at how much more that has been true than I expected. California has watched that transformation with its domestic partnerships, which is why it’s possible--though far from guaranteed--that Golden State voters will uphold the new marriage decision at the ballot box in November.

And outside the wacky liberal Northeast and West, who cares any longer about Massachusetts marriages? Dozens of states passed their anti-marriage referenda, and are as protected as they can be from crazed married ladies descending like locusts. (Fun fact: in every jurisdiction in the world that’s recognized same-sex partnership so far, roughly twice as many female couples have married as have male couples.) Whatever moral contagion was feared four years ago has not spread. The red states care less and less about married same-sex couples. Young Christian evangelicals, raised on MTV like everyone else in their generation, increasingly favor tolerance toward lesbians and gay men. The new generation of megachurch preachers are stepping away from the antigay bazookas and turning toward other issues instead. I honestly believe that this particular witch hunt has worn itself out.

Then there’s the final point: the larger political climate. People have very real things to worry about this year: gas prices, food prices, foreclosures, stagnating incomes, maybe-it’s-a-recession, and of course, the war. And they’re not pushing these things out of their minds, the way they did last election. Would it be a winning distraction tactic to shout about the dangers of rampantly marrying brides? I don’t think so. Even if it would be, John McCain voted against the Federal Marriage Amendment--and, so far, he does not appear inclined to gin up a culture war. And though Obama hasn’t struck me as especially well-informed about LGBT issues, he is to be commended for saying he respects California’s decision. It seems unlikely that he’d toss us under the bus to gain a percentage point or two, as Kerry did when, in 2004, he gratuitously supported the anti-marriage amendment in Massachusetts, to the unforgiving fury of the LGBT community and friends--which, let’s not forget, includes some major Democratic donors.

This year, smart Democrats should stress that: (a) California judges are elected, and thus democratically accountable; (b) the elected legislature has twice passed a marriage equality bill, which Arnold vetoed--saying the courts should decide, as they now have; and (c) the California justices, like everyone else in the California political system, knew perfectly well that voters will get the final word this fall. This is hardly a rogue decision from an unaccountable court.

I’m not a pollyanna. Yes, there will be some backlash, although I honestly think it will be far less than some imagine. Human beings just can’t stay hysterical about the same nonexistent threat forever. But could the liberal intelligentsia at least pretend, for a minute or two, to be glad that I am now a full citizen in two whole American states?

E.J. Graff is a Brandeis Women’s Studies Research Center resident scholar, and author of What Is Marriage For? The Strange Social History of Our Most Intimate Institution (Beacon Press 1999, 2004).

By E.J. Graff