Three Ways Not to Fight Gay Marriage

I recently spoke with a number of friends on the subject of gay marriage. The most striking thing I noticed: the central tactics of pro-family organizations had, and will continue to have, no effect on the way my friends view the issue.

I recently spoke with a number of friends on the subject of gay marriage. I wanted to gain a better grasp of how they viewed the issue and why. The most striking thing I noticed: the central tactics of pro-family organizations had, and will continue to have, no effect on the way my friends view the issue.

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Of course, I only had a few conversations, with only people from a specific demographic. My friends were in their 20s, were college educated, valued community, and were not moral relativists (several were self-described Christians). Most were left-leaning to some degree, and all favored gay marriage.

But I was struck by the factors that had influenced their views–the factors are increasingly common, unlikely to reach only liberals, and unlikely not to reach their younger siblings and their kids. With that in mind, it seemed worth thinking about why social conservatives’ best efforts hadn’t affected them–and what had.

Here are the three tactics that didn’t work on them:

(1) Arguments.

Most people I talked to described two kinds of experiences that defined their views on marriage. Principles of what marriage was were not a significant factor, and few were able to articulate what marriage was—except to say that today it is first and foremost about love (as opposed to, say, social standing or procreation or money). When presented with conservative arguments about the nature of marriage, they shrugged. Ultimately, arguments, statistics, and principles were far less significant than their own experiences and senses of what was normal.

The first kind of experience involved friends. One woman watched her lesbian and transgender youth group leaders struggle with being accepted; another saw her lesbian aunt unhappy in a marriage (and eventually happy in a same-sex relationship)—and both felt compassion for their friends and wanted to see them find fulfillment.

The other experience was with (heterosexual) marriages. Few had experienced what they would describe as healthy marriages. Those that had still cited divorce and single motherhood statistics. All said they were skeptical of the unique value of “traditional marriage;” even if the ideal of such a marriage were optimal, in practice, there was little unique benefit they could see to society compared with a long-term homosexual relationship.

(2) Appeals to sexual norms or morality.

While all the people I spoke with acknowledged—theoretically—some value to sexual norms (e.g. they didn’t like incest or pedophilia), their conception of them was wholly individualistic, directed mainly by the harm principle. If a behavior didn’t directly harm another person to a greater degree than (say) broken heterosexual relationships, it was legally wrong for the government to restrict it and morally wrong for religious people to condemn it. Notably, while the “ick” factor still existed for respondents with some forms of deviant sex, it (in contrast to prior generations) did not exist in the case of homosexuality.

Several respondents suggested that social conservatives are fighting the tenth step of a ten-step process having already lost the other nine (and carrying the weight of those losses). When marriage is mainly about love, they argued, when cohabitation is normal, gay dating is far from unusual, and heterosexual marriage is in a sad state, arguing against homosexuality (let alone gay marriage) on any moral grounds sounded silly to them—there was simply no point of comparison that (in practice) sounded morally or socially superior.

(3) Claims that gay marriage will be bad for society.

Respondents were unimpressed with conservative attempts to demonstrate a social harm in gay marriage. They pointed out that without legalizing gay marriage, it’s difficult to see the full harm or benefit of it—especially in the case of kids, when so many heterosexual parents are struggling to raise them well. Granting that many homosexuals do not choose long-term relationships, they pointed out that this is true of heterosexuals as well. But more importantly, since they saw gay marriage as a human right, arguing about its social harm was a moot point—freedom of speech causes some social harm too, but that is no reason to ban it.


Pro-family organizations have repeatedly retreated from one argument to another further back—first from moral arguments (gay marriage is intrinsically wrong) to instrumental arguments (gay marriage is bad for kids or for society), then to slippery slope arguments (gay marriage will lead to legalizing incest or polygamy). With the people I talked to, there was little evidence that any of these arguments had had an effect.

In contrast, the gay marriage movement had focused its efforts, not on arguments, but on shaping these young people’s experiences and their sense of what was normal—perhaps agreeing with Berkeley professor George Lakoff’s argument that people vote based on who they identify with far more than on preferred policy.

If I could borrow from David Brooks: social conservatives approached my friends with a rationalist strategy, and social liberals approached them with a more subconscious-based strategy, shaping experiences and norms. The results were striking. In a nutshell, one friend told me, when she saw few healthy marriages around her and 40-year committed gay couples under attack by intolerant evangelicals for ruining marriage, she was going to vote to support those couples.


  • June 10, 2011

    Kevin Vance

    Brian, what do you think a “subconscious-based strategy” should look like from the right?

  • June 10, 2011

    Brian Brown

    I don’t have a full answer for you, but in general I think social breakdown and unsustainable social developments are less likely when people are involved in their own local self-government. Individualistic morality tends to break down in the face of having to work together to make a community function over the long haul. You don’t reverse long-term social trends with a simple policy or argument shift–you do it by reshaping the institutions that teach us (by habituation) what is good, useful, and normal.

  • June 10, 2011

    Kathleen Worthington

    You mention that the people with whom you spoke leaned Left. Liberalism is mostly based on examining the outer peel of the onion: what appears best, what feels best, sounds best. Digging into the onion is conservatism. Your examination of these people’s feelings on gay marriage support this differentiation. Directly, few people are harmed when others are involved in a homosexual relationship. Happiness abounds.

    However, as I’m sure you know, the “happy” European countries that have legalized gay marriage are dying out. Costs exist, but we have to dig past “feelings.” Like all arguments, ones where conservatives try to change liberal minds by “going into the weeds” rarely succeed. I believe you make an important point in showing that our traditional arguments don’t work. I also think that the nature of political differences mean that, possibly, no argument at all will work.

    One thing you seem to say that I consider core is that heteros, especially Christians, don’t provide a positive example to society of happy marriages. Heartbreaking, isn’t it? We cannot fix our failing overnight, but “getting our own house in order” is an excellent suggestion. When we can show the success of traditional marriage, Lefties who rely on feelings to shape their politics will understand our position better.

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