Former Bush speechwriter David Frum has just done a remarkable thing: Admitted he was wrong in public. It’s a rare enough thing to do privately.
I was a strong opponent of same-sex marriage. Fourteen years ago, Andrew Sullivan and I forcefully debated the issue at length online (at a time when online debate was a brand new thing).
Yet I find myself strangely untroubled by New York state’s vote to authorize same-sex marriage — a vote that probably signals that most of “blue” states will follow within the next 10 years.
And he explains why:
Since 1997, same-sex marriage has moved from theory to reality.
If people like me had been right, we should have seen the American family become radically more unstable over the subsequent decade and a half.
Instead — while American family stability has continued to deteriorate — it has deteriorated much more slowly than it did in the 1970s and 1980s before same-sex marriage was ever seriously thought of.
By the numbers, in fact, the 2000s were the least bad decade for American family stability since the fabled 1950s. And when you take a closer look at the American family, the facts have become even tougher for the anti-gay marriage position.
I think it’s important to recognize that there are many different types of opposition to gay marriage and that the rapid change in public opinion on this issue is quite normal and reflects those different types of opposition. Those types of opposition vary in the degree to which genuine bigotry is involved.
People like Frum were initially opposed to the idea not because they hate gay people but because it seemed like such a radical change and they are generally opposed to radical change. They are conservative in the Burkean tradition of thinking that change should be slow and difficult, if not in ideology than at least in temperament. Any sudden and major change is one they are going to oppose initially.
Because bigotry doesn’t play a major role in their reaction, this may be the easiest group to convert. Give them a little time to get used to the concept and they slowly but surely change their minds. Probably half of this group has already changed their minds, if not to supporters of gay marriage then at least to a neutral “ah, it’s not that big a deal” position.
The second layer are the casual bigots, those who are bigoted against gays more out of ignorance than anything else. They just don’t know any gay people, or at least don’t know that they know any, and that makes it easy for them to accept society’s most base stereotypes. These are people whose minds will be changed by getting to know gay people that they like, even if they don’t really know them.
For the casual bigot, finding Ellen Degeneres funny may be enough to break down their views on gays, or at least start the process. Having someone they really like personally come out of the closet is far more powerful. Like the first group, this group is fairly easily converted to supporters. And we’ve probably already got about half that group convinced at this point.
Finally you have the serious bigots. These are the hardcore religious anti-gay folks, the ones who believe that God wants gays to suffer and therefore so should they and so should the laws impose such suffering as much as possible. These people are very difficult to convert because their views are based on something that they firmly believe is eternal and unchanging. But even among this group, there’s a split. A good number of them don’t think all that deeply about it in the first place. They only really think this way because the larger culture has trained them do to so, but once the larger culture changes the dominant view, as is quickly happening, many of them will find that the issue just loses its power for them. They’ll never support it, but they’ll at least come to some grudging acceptance of it.
The rest of them, the ones who are bigoted to the core, will never give up and never change their minds. And that’s fine. I see little reason to even try to convince them otherwise. You’d have better luck teaching your dog to do card tricks.
But make no mistake, what we are seeing here is a similar dynamic to that of every other civil rights movement in this nation’s history. Those basic groups reacted the same way to the push for equality for blacks and for women, and the same pattern was seen in how the opposition got whittled down to only the hardcore bigots after a while.