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:
For gay activists, and indeed for all progressive activists, it would be far more productive to stress support for household diversity—both cultural and economic support, recognition and resources for a changing population as it actually lives—than to focus solely on gay marriage. By treating marriage as one form of household recognition among others, progressives can generate a broad vision of social justice that resonates on many fronts. If we connect this democratization of household recognition with advocacy of material support for caretaking, as well as for good jobs and adequate benefits (like universal healthcare), then what we all have in common will come into sharper relief.
Of course, Lisa and I lost that argument, at least when it came to setting the strategies of gay and progressive organizations. The fight for same-sex marriage has scored some significant victories in the intervening years, including Obama’s recent “evolution,” but those wins have come within the framework of same-sex marriage as an isolated right granted to a minority group—the equality/dignity line that Blankenhorn acknowledges has become the dominant framing of the issue. In some cases, the passage of gay marriage has actually eliminated alternative forms of household recognition, such as domestic partnerships and reciprocal beneficiary statuses. And despite our perhaps outlandish wishes, no progressive movement has risen up to champion the recognition of the diverse forms of households proliferating today, despite the fact that Americans increasingly continue to live outside of marriage (see Eric Klinenberg’s excellent new book, Going Solo, for example, in which he documents the rise of living alone as the predominant residential pattern). Indeed, in the years since we wrote that article, I’ve often felt as if the debate over same-sex marriage has raged on the national stage while queer radicals like myself and marriage advocates like David Blankenhorn were off to the side, hosting our own tangential debate. The queer radicals lost the war over issue framing—and, in a way, so did Blankenhorn.
The primary difference, of course, is that Blankenhorn and I fundamentally disagree about what marriage should mean—for gays and straights alike. As the founder of the Institute for American Values, Blankenhorn has attacked single mothers, championed federal marriage promotion as welfare policy, railed against cohabitation and no-fault divorce, and opposed access to new reproductive technologies. One of his institute’s latest crusades has been against anonymous sperm donors (because they lead to “fatherless” children, an abiding preoccupation of his). Suffice it to say, I don’t agree with any of this. I think divorce can be a great thing—as anyone leaving an abusive marriage might confirm. And I think all the debates over which type of family produces the best outcomes for children ought to be meaningless as a matter of state policy. Gay or straight, single or married, let’s try to create the conditions in which all families can succeed. Blankenhorn sees an inner circle of honor and benefits that should be attached to marriage, and he’s now extended that circle to include gays and lesbians. I want to erase that circle.
But there’s another difference between Blankenhorn and myself. Even as I hoped that gay advocates would take a more expansive view of household recognition, and even as I criticized the amount of resources that were spent on same-sex marriage at the expense of other issues like transgender rights or employment nondiscrimination, I never sought to hold marriage-minded gays hostage to my cause. I tried to convince them—and mostly failed. But I always supported full legal equality (I just have a different vision of what that might mean). Blankenhorn did not. He was more than willing to use the issue of same-sex marriage as a cudgel to force his vision of marriage on the American public—and that included the craven strategy of denying legal equality to gays and lesbians. If he has recanted that path, he hasn’t shed an ounce of his conservative views on marriage tout court. Indeed, he concludes his New York Times op-ed by calling for a new coalition of gays and straights who want to strengthen marriage as an institution over other types of households. He asks:
Once we accept gay marriage, might we also agree that marrying before having children is a vital cultural value that all of us should do more to embrace? Can we agree that, for all lovers who want their love to last, marriage is preferable to cohabitation? Can we discuss whether both gays and straight people should think twice before denying children born through artificial reproductive technology the right to know and be known by their biological parents?
In other words, Blankenhorn once thought gay marriage could be a useful instrument to instill his regressive, archaic and punitive views on marriage in the public and in the law. He still thinks that. He’s just made a political calculation that gays are more valuable now as recruits than as scapegoats.