Amid the welter of red “marriage equality” signs popping up on Facebook (and practically everywhere else) last week, an interesting article appeared on the digital pages of the Huffington Post. Derrick Clifton, a supporter of same-sex marriage (SSM), dared to criticize that leviathan of gay activism, the Human Rights Campaign (HRC). Clifton’s complaint is the HRC has ignored a host of other issues of importance to gays and lesbians, including some that are of greater importance than marriage. What was most surprising was his conclusion about why this is happening: elitism.
“Some people,” wrote Clifton, “have reservations, that a large number of people – especially economically well-off, able-bodied, gender conforming, non-immigrant and white (read: relatively privileged) gay and lesbian Americans – will disengage from the many other institutional and social changes necessary for full inclusion of LGBT communities. … [W]ho comprises the majority of the Human Rights Campaign’s staff and donor base? The same white, gay and lesbian people previously described. For many of these folks and some others, marriage equality is the last major step to becoming ‘fully privileged’ citizens relative to their heterosexual peers …” In other words, the HRC’s monomania in pursuit of SSM isn’t so much about genuine equality. Rather, it is about achieving bourgeois respectability for the politically liberal, privileged, white, largely urban and bicoastal cream of the gay crop, all at the expense of other, more pressing issues within that community.
Clearly, there are a host of things that have a far greater impact on the lives of gay and lesbian people than SSM: employment and housing discrimination, teen violence, healthcare, and homelessness, to name a few. If a significant fraction of the money the HRC has spent on SSM had been directed to those causes, more on-the-ground progress for gays and lesbians might have been secured. What’s more, the HRC may have found ready allies in those causes, including many Catholics. But by choosing instead to focus on a redefinition of marriage, the HRC not only alienated potential collaborators, but ensured that the battles over those issues would be as contentious as SSM has been.
HRC’s close association with the political left has also been problematic even for many supporters of SSM. Conservative gay blogger Andrew Sullivan once called the organization “a patronage wing of the Democratic Party.” What rankles is the assumption that all gay and lesbian persons think alike on the important issues facing American society, or that their concerns are somehow best represented by Washington power brokers, the Hollywood glitterati, or the New York cognoscenti.
Still, even if the HRC’s priorities were grounded in elitism, one must admit that support for SSM is now widespread, even among Catholics. A Quinnipiac University poll conducted last December found that 54 percent of Catholic respondents favored SSM. Of course, a lot of people identify themselves as Catholics, including many who haven’t darkened the door of a church in years. But a poll conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute in mid-2011 showed that 64 percent of weekly Mass-goers then favored legal recognition of same-sex unions, while 26 percent were in favor of calling those unions “marriage.” Given the acceleration of acceptance of SSM during the past 18 months, those numbers are now likely higher across the board. The upshot is that although our political and cultural elite class may have driven advocacy for SSM, support for the practice is now a mass movement in the United States.
And yet, from a global perspective, the push for SSM is still a movement among elites. The Netherlands became the first nation to legalize the practice in 2001; since then, ten additional nations and parts of three others have done likewise. With the exception of South Africa and certain regions of Mexico and Brazil, all of those nations are Western, developed, and largely secular. The fact is that for most of the international community, SSM isn’t even on the radar. Poverty, access to clean water and healthcare, religious and civil conflict, war and terrorism, the effects of climate change, industrialization and trade, and even human trafficking are just some of the issues that the rest of the world finds compelling. It is only in the wealthy, consumerist and secular West – in other words, the global elite – that one can find people seriously debating whether the reservation of marriage to a man and a woman constitutes fundamental violation of human rights.
But the elitism and hubris of the SSM movement goes even deeper still, extending across even history itself, implicitly indicting every human culture and social arrangement that has gone before as backward and bigoted. We moderns hold our own rational powers in very high regard, of course. We believe that everything – including the elemental powers of nature and the very substance of reality – is infinitely fungible according to our infallible calculations. And, of course, we believe ourselves to be morally superior to any people who has gone before. Smarter and better – that’s us.
But we – all of us – ought to be very careful about tinkering with the fundamental structures of human anthropology, and especially with a chunk of bedrock like marriage, which reflects the biological differentiation of the sexes, and which has been the building block of human civilizations everywhere and at all times. In changing the definition of marriage, we are toying with the basic operating system of culture. The problem is that, despite the many wonders of the modern world, the thing we do best is create disasters: ecological, social, political, and economic. We could use a little epistemic humility in the SSM debate, particularly since redefining something as anthropologically significant as marriage could lead yet again to disaster.