Linda Greenhouse, the Times’ former Supreme Court correspondent, recently wrote about the shifting views of the public on gay marriage and the prospect of the Supreme Court deciding once and for all whether the Constitution confers a right on gays to marry. In her piece, Greenhouse made the observation that where once it was taboo for one to come out in support of gay marriage, now that sentiment is almost de rigueur. In Greenhouse’s words:
Twenty years ago, even many well intentioned straight people found same-sex marriage a challenging concept to grasp, if they thought about it at all. Today, it would take an act of will to ignore the fact that as barriers fall, the sum total of human happiness increases and any theoretical downside remains — as the states have found — impossible to articulate convincingly.
Greenhouse seemed to include herself among the “well intentioned straight people” for whom gay marriage was until recently an afterthought, which is admirable, if only because she tried to level with her intended audience, which most other writers today would never do.
But Greenhouse breaks no new ground in her piece. She is mostly preaching to the choir when she reveals that even “well-intentioned straight people” may have at one time denied gays the right to marry. Discriminatory attitudes are not exclusive to born and bred bigots. They are held by everyone, and can be shed by them. But to say that one’s neighbor down the street in left-leaning Park Slope, Brooklyn, might have at one time disliked gays is to say nothing at all.
The more interesting question is what has caused the widespread shift in attitudes toward a greater acceptance of gays and their right to marry and why a similar shift hasn’t taken hold with respect to other groups and their ability to exercise fundamental rights. Certainly lowering the “barriers” for the poor or even the middle class to affordable housing would increase the “sum total of human happiness”. But why hasn’t such a change taken place, and with the kind of momentum and fanfare that has accompanied the gay marriage movement?
The answer perhaps lies in the fact that the process of conferring a right upon a group once denied to it to the exclusion of equally deserving groups is itself an exercise in discrimination. The unspoken truth is that society is making a judgment that one group is more deserving or of greater worth than another. Nothing has changed in the past few decades for gays or for the poor in terms of each group’s defining characteristics; if anything the destitution that has come to characterize the condition of being poor is even more pronounced today than it was ten, twenty years ago. What has changed, however, is that the gay community has, as a whole, become more influential and affluent, even before it started winning in the courts to solidify its status as an equal with heterosexuals. It didn’t hurt that government officials pursued their anti-gay agenda with a kind of ferocity once reserved for blacks in the Jim Crow south. Other groups that have not been able to remove the “barriers” to “happiness” that the gay marriage movement has been so effective in removing have failed in their efforts mostly because they remain an afterthought for most people. The public might sympathize with their condition and their causes but by and large it will ignore these groups just as it once did with gays.
Recognizing that gays have a right to marry is a positive development. But it shouldn’t be done in a kind of vacuum where the motivation for change is generated by the same kind of hysterics that prompted the government to ban gay marriage in the first place. This is especially true for those who once rejected gay marriage as a fundamental right. For persons who fall into that category, and I imagine there are a lot of them, it is just as important to figure out why they decided to switch positions. The answer may not be a pleasant one but it is worth knowing nonetheless, if anything so that we can understand the true character of the society in which we live.