Just a few moments ago, Judge Vaughn Walker of the Northern California district court lifted a stay on his judgment overturning Prop 8—which means that as of August 18, gays and lesbians in California are free to marry once again and that Gavin Newsom will have a very busy schedule. Of course centrist Democrats will throw themselves into a professional swivet over the sight of big pink nuptials and the possible drag on vulnerable candidates in the midterm elections. But that kind of thinking is so very 2004. The new reality is that gay marriage is so mainstream, it’s banal.
When Judge Walker’s decision came down last week, I was on vacation in Provincetown. It was "family week," and the place was packed with gay and lesbian parents and their black and brown children with politically-cute names like Langston and Ella. I thought P-town would erupt in celebration, but in fact, aside from a few obligatory toasts, vacation-life went on as usual: grilling, drinking, dancing to Lady Gaga–at some point, little Langston was scolded for chasing a squirrel into the street.
Of course, there are reasons why gays in Massachusetts would accept the Prop 8 decision with equanimity. Same-sex marriage has been legal in the state for the past six years, and gay marriage advocates here scored their own victory recently in a pair of federal court decisions that struck down a part of the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) because it violated the state’s rights and equal protection clauses of the Constitution. Also, everyone knows that the ultimate reckoning will take place in the Supreme Court, where Justice Kennedy’s vote is crucial and uncertain.
But if these factors mitigated the elation one might have expected, also missing from the emotional stew was a sense of dread: that this decision had happened too soon, that the backlash was coming and that gays would once again be blamed for the Democratic party’s failures, as they were in 2004. Since then, something has undeniably changed in the political culture: gay rights have moved ahead, but also—to the side.
Broadly speaking, opposition to same-sex marriage has been supported by four interlocking legs: cultural consensus, political opportunism, bureaucratic inertia and religiously-motivated animus. What the past two years and especially the recent marriage decisions reveal is that the last leg is the only one left intact.
Public opinion has been swinging towards same-sex marriage for some time; a recent CBS/NYT poll found gay marriage winning a 33 percent plurality, with 30 percent for civil unions and 32 percent for no legal recognition, with younger voters concentrated in the pro-gay marriage camp. Polls like this underscore a more significant development: gay marriage has cornered the market on positive vibes. Far from being demoralizing, the passage of Prop 8 revitalized the gay marriage movement, motivating apathetic gays and lesbians while also drawing straight allies. Gay marriage has the cute-factor and the hot-factor; for heterosexuals in particular it manages to signal tolerance and open-mindedness, even a whiff of rebellion, while also thoroughly appealing to bourgeois sentimentality.
These long-term electoral and emotional calculations are reason enough for the GOP to duck the chance to run on homophobia in 2010, but there are more immediate factors in play. First, there just aren’t any anti-gay marriage initiatives on the ballots—the only attempt at one, in Maine, failed to collect enough signatures. Without these mechanisms, the only tangible electoral benefit of anti-gay politics to the GOP—increased turnout and share of the white evangelical vote—just doesn’t materialize.