There is a conflict of values for Americans on this issue. On the one hand, we want things to be fair and equal for everyone, at least at law. We have bound ourselves to a constitution under which we may not agree with what someone does, but “people have a right to do what they have a right to do,” a tautology that actually does have meaning in an American context, because in most places it isn’t true.
OTOH, every culture gets to define marriage – that’s Social Anthropology 101 – and Americans tend to believe that our culture has been part of our success, and don’t like to mess with it unnecessarily. At the loudest places of argument, in fact, we could break the conflict into those two groups, those who believe we have a great culture, dammit, and you’re trying to screw it up versus those who believe we have a deeply flawed culture which we’re determined to fix.
That said; let’s look at two basic facts about the conduct of the discussion. Gay marriage was not even on the radar 20 years ago. Ten years ago, it was still considered a radical idea even among most liberals, and five years ago, was considered too hot to touch publicly even by liberal Democratic politicians. Because, you may note, their black, ethnic Catholic, and trade union constituents were still (and largely are still) opposed to it. For those already formulating their argument against my little rant here, you must at least cast your mind back to 1992 and the candidacy of Bill Clinton. Thousands were dying of AIDS, and research funding took up most of the energy of gay advocacy. Civil unions were not a topic of discussion, let alone gay marriage. Not so very long ago.
Secondly, the history of every tribe and race until very recently is that marriage was between males and females. The main difference was whether multiple wives were allowed. Bending of historical and anthropological data in select times and places to suggest that some same-sex relationships that sometimes had cultural sanction could therefore be described as marriage is just stretching the truth beyond what it can bear. It ain’t so. Similarly, comparing the forbidding of same-sex marriage to the forbidding of inter-racial marriage is also not accurate. Many cultures discourage or even forbid marriage to members of other groups, and the penalties can be ostracism, exile, symbolic death, or even actual death. This includes the period in the American South when some localities, some of the time, had laws against what they called “miscegenation.” But in no instance I know, and certainly not in any American context, was it ever stated that such marriages were a fiction. They were possible but forbidden, like murder or theft, not impossible at their root, like flying or breathing water. Some, at least, of those opposed to SSM are so on the basis of its impossibility, not its distastefulness to them. They believe the thing does not occur, no matter what the laws of the nation say.
These are powerful facts, but they are not necessarily determining facts. That an idea is new may not mean it is wrong, and the fact that all of history is against it doesn’t mean that history is right. Most of history counted men as more valuable than women, or allowed for slavery in some form, and we’ve been pretty comfortable with discarding those. Americans, in fact, have something of a tradition of embracing rights that other cultures don’t. Yet both the newness and universality are important to keep in mind in the current rhetoric of debate. The wrist-to-forehead horror, the eye-rolling and condescension displayed by SSM advocates of how impossibly ignorant and bigoted those yahoos are, in this day and age, to be against gay marriage, is rather astonishing. Over at Tigerhawk, it immediately made one young person think of Matthew Shepard. Because that’s what this being opposed to gay marriage leads to, apparently, murdering gay men in bars. And you social conservatives should be ashamed of yourselves for contributing to murders in that way. Murders like Robert Eric Wone (which I only heard of because of the W&M connection) , lead to no social and political conclusions, whatsoever, apparently. (FRT, I believe neither has much to tell us about social legislation; but if anything, approximately equal.)
So, really? A right which you did not recognise yourself ten years ago and would have considered ridiculous twenty years ago you now consider obvious? And you think it is your opponents who haven’t really thought this through and are reacting tribally? That’s a red flag for me.
I still might be convinced to go along with allowing same-sex marriage, BTW. Civil unions, certainly. It’s not going to involve that many people - the percentage of people who are gay and lesbian is usually inflated, and many of them have no interest in marriage anyway. I think that in America, even if your judgement is absolutely correct that something will cause harm to others, you have to be able to demonstate it conclusively, not merely opine. (Yeah, I know, that’s the exact opposite of what we say about environmental and safety legislation, but that’s liberals for you.) Opponents of SSM are rather hampered in what they might prove, as they have little data to draw from on something so new, but it remains true that they have not submitted good evidence that gay marriage will be damaging, only a lot of co-occurrence and it-stands-to-reason stuff. In America, that’s usually not enough.