A few hours after watching this tearjerking ad run by the Maine marriage equality campaign—in which an elderly man, arm around his gay granddaughter, says “It takes a lot of bravery to be a lesbian”—I read an oddly deflating Slate piece about how the gay marriage battles in Minnesota, Maryland, Maine and Washington (yes, all four) were won. Spoiler: it’s not because a majority of voters in those states witnessed a particularly persuasive kiss-in at the local mall. Instead:
For decades, gay advocates had framed their arguments in terms of equal rights and government benefits, often using rhetoric that was confrontational (“We’re here, we’re queer, get used to it”) and demanding (“We deserve equal rights now!”). Third Way, a centrist think tank working in the coalition with Freedom To Marry, began to unpack exactly how straight people reacted to such tactics. The group found that when straight people were asked what marriage meant to them, they spoke of love, commitment and responsibility. But when asked why they thought gay people wanted to marry, they cited rights and benefits. Tapping into anti-gay stereotypes, they suggested gay people wanted marriage for selfish reasons while they themselves wanted to express love and commitment.
So this time around, the pro–marriage equality contingent emphasized ““love, commitment, family,” with no mention of rights or benefits.” In response to research finding that parents worried about ceding control over their children’s values education to schools, the Maine campaign created an ad in which a teacher and her husband reassert that “No law is going to change the core values we teach our kids here at home.”
Why was this so disappointing to read? Election Day seemed to herald the arrival of a new America—Liberal America, as Ben Smith and Zeke Miller deemed it. Not only was Obama back in office, but Elizabeth Warren and Tammy Baldwin were going to Washington! Californians voted to raise taxes! Marylanders voted for a state DREAM Act! Here, though, was an indication that support for marriage equality dovetailed uncomfortably with appeals to conservative values.
Marriage, family, and community don’t have to be conservative values, of course, but when all brewed together, they can be. Pro–marriage equality messages can veer dangerously close to implying that marriage is the only, or best, way for people to show commitment or protect their families. When people argue that same-sex marriage is necessary to access survivor benefits, private health insurance and housing, they are making a claim about fairness under the law. But they aren’t challenging the biggest assumptions about those laws: that private households, rather than an expanded welfare state, should be the main vehicle for guaranteeing a minimum level of security.