LAST NOVEMBER, the most commented upon result of the election, aside from Barack Obama’s victory, was the approval of California’s Proposition 8: “Only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California.” Interest centered on it because of an apparent paradox: Voters who had overwhelmingly supported the liberal Obama with his slogan of “change” also voted to overturn a real, existing social change.
Attempts to resolve this paradox usually stressed the role of religion, as in a fairly typical early comment by Lillian B. Rubin, “Equality Deferred: What Happened in the Proposition 8 Vote.” She mentioned the well-organized campaign by the Mormon Church and the Roman Catholic San Francisco Diocese and concluded that “when it came to homosexuality religion validates ancient prejudice.”
It is obviously true that strong religious beliefs played an important role in the success of Proposition 8. It is equally obvious, though, that many churchgoers don’t always necessarily follow their churches’ doctrines. Catholics’ use of contraceptives, for example, is no different from that of other Americans. This suggests that “religion”—which means in this context the belief that homosexuality is immoral and a sin—may obscure more than it clarifies. I want to argue that responses in the voting booth were motivated less by “religion” than by the uncertainties and ambiguities stirred up by reading Proposition 8.
In all societies, there is an initial conservative reaction to change when it is perceived as threatening a familiar and predictable way of life. This resistance can be overcome when a proposed or actual change becomes a more attractive option than, say, the current economic situation; the election of a liberal black American as president is a case in point.
But Proposition 8 implied an apparently more fearsome danger; one made explicit by the campaign for the proposition, which emphasized same-sex marriage as a major threat to marriage and family. Although Americans today are more aware of the presence of homosexuality than ever before, homosexuality as a matter of deep social concern exists, at best, only peripherally in everyday consciousness. But after weeks of the Mormon and Catholic churches campaign against same-sex marriage, many voters–when faced with the simple declarative sentence of Proposition 8–came to see same-sex marriage as an inescapable challenge demanding a response.
The very notion itself evokes an emotional response. Consider, for example, a letter to the editor of the New York Times from a resident of a predominantly white, middle-class neighborhood in Queens. “‘Gay marriage’ is an oxymoron plain and simple. One doesn’t have to be from the religious right to be offended by the concept. The tradition [sic] of marriage…and a number of other factors not directly related to religion stand against the idea of gay marriage.”
“Tradition” is the conservative reaction at work; it links present and past and looks (often nostalgically) to the future as a continuation of the past. The substance of any tradition—the actual patterns of behavior and thought it embodies—is accepted as being part of the taken-for-granted natural order of the world. Many smile benignly at a young man and woman embracing on a park bench but frown when they catch sight of a gay couple unguardedly holding hands. People resist perceiving the latter as natural as the former because that would question, and make problematic, their understanding of the world–it would mean that they would live with uncertainty. Living with uncertainty, however, is very disquieting: it is a source of fears and anxieties. Proposition 8 represented a way of coping with those fears and anxieties, since it promised to restore the disturbed natural order.
A tradition also instructs us about what to expect of others and ourselves now and in the future. So men and women expect to find a person of the opposite gender to love, to eventually marry, and to raise a family with. The Mormon campaign focused on this traditional understanding of marriage rather than attacking homosexuality and the “homosexual lifestyle” directly. To move people to action you must frame the issue at hand as having a direct personal relevance. In general, people live in families; it is the location of their most intimate, meaningful relationships. Gay men and lesbian women exist as a socially distant group with no direct impact on them and their families. In contrast, the video the campaign sponsored was described by the Times, as “about a school trip to a same-sex wedding in San Francisco to reinforce the idea that same-sex marriage would be taught to young children.”
The video, along with what was probably actually said in the field, conjures up an alternative reality with expectations of one’s own and others’ behavior radically different from those in today’s world. It is a reality where people are brought up to believe that it is acceptable to find the same love with others of the same gender as they now find with the opposite gender. The alternate reality erases this distinction between the genders and makes traditional conceptions of gender roles highly ambiguous.
WHERE, THEN, does all this leave the role of “religion” in the vote on Proposition 8? First, as I said at the outset: religious belief in the conventional sense—which holds that gay marriage is immoral and sinful—is an important part of the explanation of the vote. An analysis of post and pre-election polls by Patrick J. Egan and Kenneth Sherrill found that among the variables that accounted for the Yes vote was frequency of church attendance (the others being party affiliation, ideology, age—and not, incidentally, race).
At the same time, the proposition created fears and anxieties of the kind that I have pointed to above. It is highly unlikely, though, that apprehension of living in an uncertain world and the threat to the meaning of gender roles were of a kind that very few voters were conscious of or could articulate. Indeed, to characterize them as “anxieties” implies that they were subliminal responses, yet capable of influencing behavior. The campaign in support of the proposition used the language of religion, but for those who voted for the proposition that language may simply have been a way of accounting to themselves and others including pollsters for the emotional disquietude the proposition aroused. “Religion,” in short, can mask other powerful sources of resistance to same-sex marriage.
This conclusion has some implications for the political agenda of the gay and lesbian movement. The short-term goal of the movement should be civil unions not marriage. Gay civil unions would place homosexuals in a separate social category and so maintain the social distance between the “normal” population and the homosexual population. Since a civil union is not the same as “marriage,” it may trigger less resistance and political demagoguery than Proposition 8 generated and, thus, more likely to be achieved long before gay marriage is approved.
The advantages of this agenda outweigh its major disadvantage: the seeming acceptance of the inferior status of civil unions to marriages. On the other hand, civil union can produce immediate material rewards like participation in the job related health benefits of a partner. At perhaps a more important level, civil unions would probably lead to more gay and lesbian couples to “out” themselves and make them a more familiar, less threatening sight to others. That, in turn, could further weaken the resistance within the foreseeable future to the acceptance of gay marriage.
Murray Hausknecht, a member of Dissent’s editorial board, has previously written on the issues civil unions and same-sex marriage.