200 Million Americans Can Be Wrong

First published September 9, 2004, in Between the Lines.

Gay-rights opponents are fond of noting that the majority of Americans are against same-sex marriage.

This is a reasonable claim for them to make. For one thing, it’s true (although by increasingly narrow margins). Furthermore, it’s rhetorically effective. America is, in spirit if not always in practice, a staunchly democratic society.

So what’s the problem? The problem is that, when it comes to minority rights, the majority has historically been an unreliable moral guide.

Forget the debate about whether gays and lesbians are a “minority” in the same sense that ethnic minorities are. The point is that we’re a relatively small segment of the population (indeed, exceedingly small, if you believe our opponents’ numbers). Small, often invisible, and largely misunderstood.

And so it should come as little surprise that the straight majority often doesn’t “get it.” That’s changing as more of us come out of the closet — hence the improving statistics on gay-marriage support. But we’ve still got a ways to go.

Return, then, to the claim that the majority of Americans oppose gay marriage. President Bush often sounds this theme, complaining about “activist judges” subverting “the will of the American people.” (Notice that the will of the American people appears irrelevant when it comes to abortion, stem cell research, and other issues on which the American majority is more progressive than the president. He doesn’t govern by consulting polls, you know.)

The president’s inconsistencies aside, the fact that the majority of Americans oppose gay marriage isn’t an argument against gay marriage. It’s backdrop.

After all, no one on either side denies that most Americans currently oppose gay marriage. The question is not whether they do, but whether they should. Pointing to the “will of the people” doesn’t answer that question, it begs it.

But doesn’t majority support for an idea lend credence to the idea? Sure it does. As the old saying goes, 50 million Frenchmen can’t be wrong.

Except that the French are a lot more relaxed in their attitudes toward homosexuality than Americans. Bad example.

See the point? Suppose we’re debating whether to adopt X or Y, and we both agree that most people favor X. In arguing whether to adopt Y, it does no good to repeat that most people favor X (or for that matter, that most people somewhere else favor Y). One must put forth reasons for favoring X or Y.

So our opponents should stop grumbling about gay-rights activists “foisting” their “agenda” on an unsuspecting public, and start explaining why people should prefer their moral vision to ours. (Apropos, why is it that when they voice their values, it’s a “moral vision,” whereas when we do it, it’s an “agenda”? Funny, that.)

This November many states will offer ballot initiatives to prohibit recognition of same-sex marriages. In Michigan, for example, voters will be able to decide whether to add the following amendment to the state constitution:

“To secure and preserve the benefits of marriage for our society and for future generations of children, the union of one man and one woman in marriage shall be the only agreement recognized as a marriage or similar union for any purpose.”

Ballot initiatives seem very democratic and fair — until you remember what history teaches us about the majority’s handling of minority rights.

The Michigan amendment is especially worrisome. It precludes not only gay marriage but also “similar union[s] for any purpose.” It would thus strike down existing domestic-partnership benefits.

In talking about the amendment, we should emphasize the latter point. We shouldn’t call it “the amendment to ban gay marriage.” We should call it “the amendment to roll back domestic-partner benefits” — for that will be its primary practical effect. Gay marriage is already illegal in Michigan.

Such subterfuge is part of our opponents’ strategy. They lead with a call to “secure and preserve the benefits of marriage” — and who can argue with that? It isn’t until the end of the amendment that they slip in language that quietly rolls back existing benefits.

Imagine an amendment that banned the use of marijuana — already illegal in Michigan — and then slipped in ambiguous language that also outlawed tobacco without ever mentioning the word. Sneaky, huh? Well, that’s what we’re up against.

Now, fair or not, we’ve got to make our case to the majority. And just as we’d have a better chance at garnering majority opposition the “anti-tobacco amendment” than to the “anti- marijuana amendment,” so too we have a better chance of garnering majority opposition to the “anti-domestic-partner- benefits amendment” than to the “anti-gay-marriage amendment.” (Note to the Coalition for a Fair Michigan: remember this when deciding on slogans for lawn signs.)

The only way to stop the tyranny of the majority is for the minority to make its voice loudly heard.