Onetime gay marriage foe David Blankenhorn has decided to take this year’s gay pride weekend as an opportunity to issue a weird, tetchy recantation of his views in the New York Times, along with an hour-long documentary on NPR chronicling his conversion (disclosure: the documentary was produced by my friend and sometime Nation writer Mark Oppenheimer). I suppose Blankenhorn’s very public surrender is reason to celebrate. It’s yet another sign that it is increasingly untenable for anyone bidding for mainstream credibility to remain opposed to same-sex marriage—and he admits as much in his op-ed. Among the motives he cites for his shift are the desire to maintain “comity” and a “respect for an emerging consensus,” which he backhandedly allows “may be wrong on the merits,” but to which he concedes anyway. So much for being gracious in defeat.
But in a way, I get Blankenhorn’s surliness. It’s a mirror to my own agitation on the subject. Blankenhorn sees two frames for understanding the issue of same-sex marriage. One is about the equality of gays and lesbians under the law and the concomitant “dignity” that gay and lesbian relationships are accorded in society at large. The other is about the institution of marriage itself—its purpose, legal definition and social status. It’s because the battle over same-sex marriage has come to be largely defined by the equality/dignity framework that Blankenhorn, a self-described liberal and Obama voter, claims he has changed his mind. “To my deep regret, much of the opposition to gay marriage seems to stem, at least in part, from an underlying anti-gay animus,” he writes.
Well, duh. Blankenhorn has been at the forefront, if somewhat reluctantly at times, of the movement against same-sex marriage since 2004. While he has avoided the explicit denigration of gays and lesbians that characterizes the talking points of his former allies, he has certainly shared the stage with them—and even the witness stand; Blankenhorn testified on behalf of gay marriage opponents in the Proposition 8 trial (Perry v. Schwarzenegger) in 2009. Whatever else he might be, Blankenhorn is no idiot—which makes it inconceivable that he just realized he’s been partying with a bunch of homophobes for the better part of the last decade. So what’s changed?
Everything—and also not much. Blankenhorn is right that the debate over same-sex marriage could have become a referendum on the status of marriage itself. The emphasis is on could have become. The kernel of Blankenhorn’s onetime opposition to same-sex marriage that has most infuriated and befuddled critics has been his assertion that legalizing same-sex marriage would damage heterosexual marriages (notably, a claim he does not fully recant in his most recent remarks). When Blankenhorn took the stand in Perry v. Schwarzenegger, he argued that legalizing same-sex marriage would lead to less straight marriages, more straight divorces and more children born out of wedlock. While he presented no data to support this hypothesis, he did make a case that same-sex marriage is part and parcel of what he called the “deinstitutionalization” of marriage. I don’t agree, of course, with his magical thinking that gay marriage necessarily undermines the appeal of straight marriages, but he’s right, in part. Or at least he could have been right.
Back in 2005, in the wake of a rash of state constitutional bans on same-sex marriage, Lisa Duggan and I argued that the gay movement—and progressives at large—should focus on advocating for a range of household recognitions, for “decentering” marriage as an institution even while fighting for legal equality. Here’s what we wrote: