Is There a Line to be Crossed?

We seem to be at an interesting point in our history where same sex marriage – once virtually unthinkable – is becoming not only widely accepted but a legal fact. Iowa and New Hampshire have just legitimized it, and other states seem to be on the same path.

Obviously there are arguments on both sides: gays claim that denying them the right to marriage is a form of discrimination; traditionalists argue that marriage has always been between a man and a woman. Can one reconcile these arguments? Is there a middle course? Can a line to be drawn that is not at one pole or the other?

I don’t think so. People do argue, of course, and occasionally an argument will change someone’s mind. But the change we are going through now amounts to a vast, unpredictable and uncontrollable cultural change of heart, a tectonic shift in social attitudes, and many factors have contributed to that. It is not a matter of logic, and it is not grounded in law. It is a matter of what people don’t know they have come to know about themselves and others over the past several years, irreversible because it is grounded in unconscious knowledge and thought.

Over recent years, a thousand invisible threads have been snapped: gay children have come out to their families, TV shows and movies illustrating gay lives have become popular, gay politicians have been elected to office. Slowly, steadily, the categories that organize our minds have been changed. Communities have risen in protest against hate crimes, gay communities have stood up to demonstrate their political and economic muscle, knee-jerk prejudices have been challenged, hundreds of marches have been held, thousands of anti-discrimination suits have been filed and won. Activist groups on college campuses provoked debates and discussions, magazines and ads routinely came to show gay couples leading ordinary lives, famous athletes came out, gay couples moved in next door, planting gardens and raising real estate values, gays volunteered in soup kitchens and cleaned up parks. In a 2004 ABC/Washington Post poll of Americans, just 32 percent favored gay marriage, with 62 percent opposed. In a poll done this week, 49 percent support gay marriage versus 46 percent opposed.

Potter Stewart, the Supreme Court justice, is famous for having observed that hardcore pornography is hard to define: “but I know it when I see it.” It announces its presence viscerally – and that is the same with many other issues that arouse strong emotions and underlie fixed opinions. In this case, the opposite is happening: visceral reactions are being calmed, revelations no longer shock, and surprises are smoothed out. Slowly, inexorably same sex marriage has come to seem normal.

And once it is normal it takes its place as an unremarkable part of life – and, eventually, there will no longer be polls on the subject.


I want to thank Anthony Brown for correcting my facts:  Vermont and Iowa have approved gay marriage, and it remains to be seen if the New Hampshire Senate’s action will be signed by the governor.  I also appreciate his endorsement of my analysis.