(AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
It’s Game On in the culture war. Those defending California’s Proposition 8 and the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) have filed the initial set of Supreme Court briefs in the cases that will be argued in late March. Reading these briefs leads you to a surprising conclusion: the gay marriage debate is really all about heterosexuals.
The briefs argue that the single most compelling reason either to prohibit same-sex marriage (Prop 8) or to forbid any federal agency from recognizing a same-sex marriage that is valid under a state’s law (DOMA) is to bribe heterosexuals who engage in “accidental procreation” to get married. That’s right—you might think you remember that Congress’s debate over DOMA in 1996 and the Prop 8 campaign in 2008 focused on vilifying gay people, but you’d be wrong.
Actually, you’re right. The Prop 8 campaign relied heavily on ads suggesting that same-sex marriage made it more likely that homosexuality, like an insidious communicable disease, could infect innocent children. DOMA had an additional and openly partisan twist: it was introduced and enacted in the summer of 1996 as a Republican tactic to force every incumbent Democrat to condemn or endorse gay marriage, the latter amounting to political suicide for all but those in the most liberal districts. Even more delicious to the GOP, the legislation forced President Clinton to antagonize either his gay supporters or what was then the overwhelming majority of Americans who opposed same-sex marriage, just before the election. Enter the last big wedge issue of the twentieth century and a win-win for conservative Republicans. That’s who we have to thank for DOMA and why it was enacted.
The hope and gamble of those now defending Prop 8 and DOMA in the courts is that they can reframe this history into one of policymaking grounded in rational economic choices. In this version, denying same-sex couples the option to marry is actually a backhanded shout-out to the gays: because same-sex couples are so deliberative and dedicated when they decide to become parents (after all, they have to be), they don’t need the enticements associated with marriage as incentives to follow through on commitments to their children. Reserving the status of marriage for different-sex couples, on the other hand, simply limits the incentives to those who procreate unthinkingly (read straight men) and who can’t be trusted to make the same commitments. Their argument as an equation: "Natural" gender roles + Biblical command to procreate = Marriage.
The funny thing is that there’s grain of truth in this. Not in the assertion that these laws grew out of neutral, well-intentioned responses to the needs of children or that what women need most is a reliable state of dependency on the father of their children rather than economic self-sufficiency. No, the grain of truth is that the material benefits and the cultural aura of respectability associated with marriage do encourage people to marry and reward them if they do. The conservatives’ big problem is not that some gays want to marry but that this effect seems to be working less and less on heterosexuals, who increasingly delay getting married or don’t get married at all. But does preventing gay people from marrying mean that straight people will be more attracted to the institution? It is silly to imagine that it would, and mean spirited to foreclose gay couples and their children from access to the social insurance programs that all our taxes support.