Outside of the Supreme Court this week—where the nine justices were hearing oral arguments about the constitutionality of California's ban on same-sex marriage—a young woman and an old woman were arguing.
"If you put all the gay people on an island," began the older woman, who looked to be in her fifties.
"See, this is why people think you guys are like the KKK!" interjected the young woman. "You're talking about rounding us all up—"
"Let me finish! If you put all the gay people on an island, in a generation there would be no gay people. They would die out."
"That's not a realistic scenario. We all live in this country together."
The older woman was nonplussed. After fielding a few more hypotheticals—How would you feel if your son or daughter were gay? What about the separation of church and state?—it became clear she was not going home convinced, and the two parted ways. America, on the other hand, has gone home convinced. The about-face in public opinion on same-sex marriage over the last ten years has elated supporters of gay rights and electrified the movement. But it has left opponents of gay marriage, who only recently stood in the broad, comfortable majority, dumbstruck and disoriented. It's as if, overnight, the winds of social change gusted forward and the other side stepped out of the house the next morning to find pieces of the old order strewn across the lawn.
This dichotomy was on clear display at the Supreme Court. At the foot of the Court steps, where Freedom to Marry had set up a small platform and speakers for its public-relations push, the scene had the air of a carnival—a visual completed by a scrim printed with the façade of the building, which covered the restoration work behind and made the structure look like a pop-up. People darted around excitedly, laughing and shouting slogans. Dance music played over the loudspeakers. Next to a small group from the Westboro Baptist Church carrying "God hates fags" signs, a gay-rights supporter in a rainbow-colored tutu and devil horns danced around wildly. "Hell must be fabulous," his sign proclaimed. In spite of himself, one of the "God hates fags" people held back a grin.
The swarm spread along First Street, where people lined the curb with homemade signs—No straights injured in the making of this marriage; Protect all marriages from right-wing nutjobs; Don't be on the wrong side of history again—and chanted intermittently: "This is what democracy looks like!" While there were a few older gay couples sprinkled throughout, most of the crowd looked to be in their twenties and thirties. Young professionals, recent college grads, minorities—this is the Obama electorate. Just over a week shy of my 30th birthday, it's also my cohort; I felt as though I could approach any of them and strike up a conversation about this week's episode of Girls or reminisce about watching Nickelodeon as a tween.
Across the street, the scene in the other camp couldn't have been more different. Buttressed up against Constitution Avenue at the northern edge of the crowd, even the physical location of the traditional marriage folks seemed to suggest they were being squeezed out, pushed to the margins. The scattered participants—mostly older with a few families with young children—milled about idly. Some sat on the ledges that separate the sidewalk from the landscaping, staring at the commotion beyond. Most carried signs printed by the National Organization for Marriage (NOM), the country's largest and fiercest opponent of same-sex marriage: "Every child deserves a mother and father." People made quiet conversation, but mostly what one could hear were the shouts of gay-rights supporters—political bullying leads to real-life bullying! You're taking away our civil rights!
Someday, it will be hard to find people willing to take a public stand against same-sex marriage; the next time the Supreme Court hears a gay-marriage case, it will most likely be to bring the last few holdouts into line. But for now, there are some people willing to demonstrate against gay marriage, and I was curious what they thought. I headed across the street.
It is hard not to feel sorry for opponents of marriage equality; until last November—when voters in Washington state, Maryland, and Maine approved marriage equality and rejected a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage in Minnesota—those of us in the gay-rights movement had watched, defeated, on election night after election night as voters in states across the country wrote our exclusion into their constitutions. I remember the look of disappointment on people's faces; it was the same look Maggie Gallagher, co-founder and former president of NOM, had when she spoke to the Prospect's E.J. Graff the day after the 2012 election. Acknowledging that the four-state win was a turning point in the marriage fight, Gallagher said she hoped that in the future, opposition to same-sex marriage would be an opinion respectable people could hold. Suddenly, that—not preserving marriage for straight people—was the loftiest goal for the movement’s leading spokesperson.
Gallagher's worst fears will be realized. In the future, gay marriage will not be a question but a given. Gay people deserve to get married and raise a family. In the future, questioning this assumption will be the moral equivalent of racism. Like racism, it will be banished from polite discourse and relegated to online comment sections where the postings are anonymous.
You could clearly sense the fear of being labeled a bigot in many opponents of same-sex marriage. Carolyn, who declined to provide her last name, was hesitant to express her views, though perhaps it was just speaking to the media that made her nervous. With her blond hair pulled back in a scrunchie and a large puffy jacket, she looked like a typical mom. She had come with her daughter from Maryland. When I asked what brought her out to the Supreme Court, she said curtly, "The rally, the rally for marriage." I chuckled, trying to disarm her, and rephrased the question: What has your involvement been with the marriage debate?
"I haven't been all that involved until now," Carolyn said. "I signed the petition in Maryland to have it put on the ballot. But it passed anyway."
I asked whether she felt her side was losing the fight.
"I worry that sometimes we are, yes," she said.
I spoke to two young women who had come with a group from the Franciscan University of Steubenville, a conservative Catholic institution in Ohio. They are the holdouts—between 70 percent and 80 percent of people between the ages of 19 and 32 support gay marriage—and seemed to be conscious of this. They were careful about how they phrased their views, not even mentioning same-sex marriage in explaining their position.
"Me personally, I've never been to anything like this. I have a lot of homosexual friends back home," said Ginny Spies, who is 20 and studies theology. Her friends must not be that close, I thought; no one with gay friends would use "homosexual" outside of a medical setting. "I think the most important message is one of love. But I think, politically, I needed to come because democracy fails if we don't vote our conscience."
"It's interesting to see both sides of what's going on. Just to be part of this moment in history is big," chimed in Rachel Patrino, who is 19 and studies social work.
I asked the pair whether it was difficult to talk about opposing same-sex marriage with people their age.
"It's definitely a challenge," Ginny said. "Coming here was intimidating."
The most vocal opponent of same-sex marriage I spoke to was Martha Marsh, a 55-year-old mother of seven from Woodbine, Maryland. She is feisty and self-possessed, but also conceded that the tide runs against them.
"Overall, I think gay marriage is going to be the trend in the world, but I have higher visions—because I have religious convictions—that eventually all is going to be all right," Marsh said.
I asked how she responds when she is accused of being hateful.
"If someone's willing to listen, I try to explain that it isn't out of hate, but most of them when they do that they're not willing to listen. They have it set in their mind that 'you're fighting against me' so you must hate me. But it has nothing to do with that," Marsh said. "I believe that a strong family makes a strong community, a strong community makes a strong society. I see this movement as the degeneration of the family."
I thought back to the family Freedom to Marry had brought to speak earlier in the day: an older gay couple with matching red scarves, each holding one of their children, a boy and a girl who looked to be around five. As her father spoke, the little girl began to hit the microphone with a small American flag, interrupting her dad and eliciting chuckles from the audience. It seems inconceivable that anyone would think of this as anything but the picture of normalcy.
I asked Marsh if she personally knew any gay people, which studies show is the best indicator—even better than religiosity—of whether someone supports same-sex marriage.
"Yes, I do. The son of some close friends is gay."
Sure, and I also know someone who knows someone who opposes marriage equality.
As I walked toward the Capitol to leave, I took a last look at the Court. A sea of colors spread across the front of the building, and I could still hear the faint din of the pro-marriage crowd. Tomorrow the plaza would be empty, and it struck me that the days of these marriage rallies are numbered. In Massachusetts, there are no longer rallies for traditional marriage. Unlike abortion, where public opinion sways back and forth and high-school classrooms set up mock debates, same-sex marriage is headed in one direction. Not tomorrow, but sometime in my lifetime this will be settled, a matter of public consensus. I imagine a picture of the scene as I saw it, black and white, like one of the stills from the civil-rights era. I imagine it blown up and hung in an exhibit, or printed in a textbook.
Yes, this is history, I think, and it's fleeting.
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