By David M. Shribman
WDRB Contributor from the Pittsburgh-Post Gazette
The movement of same-sex marriage from a fringe notion to accepted law was one of the swiftest progressions in American social history. The female vote, racial integration, the rights of the disabled -- all took decades to win. In contrast, same-sex marriage won acceptance in a relative flash.
Less than a half-decade ago, Americans by a substantial margin opposed same-sex marriage. Today an overwhelming majority of Americans support it. Then again, three decades ago Americans, by a 10-to-1 margin, said they would be upset if their child told them that he or she were gay or lesbian. Today nearly three-fifths of Americans say they would not be upset.
The passage of what used to be called the gay-liberation movement into the mainstream is one of the signature social markers of the era. But the irony -- and perhaps the lesson -- is that its progression to wide acceptance came by embracing traditional values, symbols and institutions, not by hovering on the extremes of American culture.
On the one hand, that is the message of the movement itself, that its members are mainstream Americans whose identity was hidden by outmoded, unfair stigmas. On the other hand, the movement's triumph -- though formidable barriers remain -- came from the drive to win access to conventional aspects of American life: the military and marriage.
Indeed, the last two things that New Left activists or American progressives wanted to do in the late 1960s and early 1970s were to join the military and to get married.
Feminist writer Gloria Steinem had a brisk explanation for her opposition to marriage: "I can't mate in captivity." One of the popular bumper stickers of the 1960s was: "Smash monogamy."
Opposition to marriage was one of the symbolic elements of radical protest, a frontal attack on a bedrock middle-American institution that conservatives argued was the foundation of civil society. So much so, says Michael Kazin, a Georgetown historian who was expelled from Harvard, where he was the chairman of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) in 1969, that, as he put it, "When I got married my friends couldn't believe I was doing it."
It was in that period that Mary Wollstonecraft, the late 18th-century writer and feminist theorist, received a new burst of prominence. Every feminist of the period could quote her definition of marriage. The author of "A Vindication of the Rights of Woman" called it "legalized prostitution."
But the opposition to marriage among people regarded as radicals in that era was nothing compared to their revulsion of the military.
"During the first couple of years of the movement, after the big Vietnam escalations, there was a lot of suspicion of the military," says Todd Gitlin, a Columbia sociologist who was the third president of SDS (following Tom Hayden) and who, in 1965, organized the first mass protest against the war. "Movement people were not exactly flocking to the military."
They were not. Jerry Rubin spoke of a "corrupt system" supporting a "military budget to kill Asians." He recruited Abbie Hoffman to "exorcise" the military and was arrested for urinating on the Pentagon, which he described as a "profound moral statement."
John McAuliff, a prominent anti-war activist arrested several times, reminds us there was little attention at the time to issues of sexual identity. "The military was engaged in a war the movement was built around opposing," he says. "It would never have occurred to people to see anti-gay discrimination as something to be addressed. It just wasn't part of the consciousness at that point."
Nor did homosexuality possess broad acceptance. In September 1965, about the time the anti-war movement was building early momentum, a Harris poll showed that 70 percent of Americans believed homosexuals were harmful to American life. As late as 1976, a Cambridge Reports National Omnibus Survey indicated that half of Americans wouldn't even go to a comedy film that featured gay characters "humorously in good taste."
Why the dramatic change in attitudes? Part of it grows out of the sexual revolution, which separated procreation from pleasure, opened the door to sexual experimentation and put all conventional ideas about sexuality under scrutiny, and eventually under siege. Part of it is what we might call the Good Neighbor phenomenon; as more people became comfortable with their sexual identity they lost the impulse to hide it, and the more people who discovered their neighbors or children were gays or lesbians, the less the stigma stuck.
But the great victories came when the focus of the movement was placed on conventional, everyday elements of life and when same-sex couples began to blend in rather than stick out.
Susan and Deb Whitewood, lead plaintiffs in a challenge to the constitutionality of Pennsylvania's Defense of Marriage Act, for example, are unremarkable members of their community in South Fayette, Pennsylvania. Deb Whitewood is active in the PTA. She takes cupcakes to school. She's more conventional than many moms.
Same-sex marriage was at once radical and conventional, a notion that was inconceivable only a generation ago, but one that helped the movement win friends in unlikely places, including among conservatives who saw that gay activists were promoting family values and stability.
Writing in the National Review less than a year ago, conservative economist Lawrence Kudlow argued that "marriage is a key element of a stronger economy," adding: "While restoring economic growth may be the great challenge of our time, this goal will never be realized until we restore marriage."
Kudlow was not commenting on the same-sex marriage debate. But the stability and the family values that Kudlow celebrated were the very elements that helped the same-sex marriage movement prevail.
Amid all the celebrating, some voices in the LGBT community regretted how mainstream the movement had become and felt that the victory on marriage equity stripped away the distinction of their lives and outlook. Some believe marriage equity was a tarnished goal.
"Marriage by and large is not a useful, productive institution," says Frank Browning, who writes on sex and gender from Paris and is the author of "The Culture of Desire: Paradox and Perversity in Gay Lives Today" and "A Queer Geography: Journeys Toward a Sexual Self." But, he adds, "Everybody should have the same right to a painful, terrible divorce."
(David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Post-Gazette (firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1890). Follow him on Twitter at ShribmanPG.)
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