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"I'm not a bigot," many people are saying these days, as the same-sex marriage debate reverberates nationwide. "Please don't label me like that. I just don't want others changing the nature of my marriage as the union of a man and a woman. Call the gay connection something else, but don't meddle with the most important role in my life."
Can we take this sentiment at face value? Can a person truly make this statement without there being any homophobia below the surface?
Advocates of same-sex marriage respond by saying: Isn't marriage all about love and commitment between two people? Isn't the desire to achieve personal and public recognition for their commitment actually enhancing the institution, not degrading it?
A majority of Americans -- at least according to the major polls -- now support marriage equality, and those in favor are disproportionately from the younger generations. But even here, there are solid ranks who don't want marriage to change.
Ryan Anderson, 31, a fellow at conservative think tank the Heritage Foundation, contends: "In redefining marriage to include a same-sex couple, what you're doing is excluding the norm of sexual complementarity. Once you exclude that norm, the three other norms -- which are monogamy, sexual exclusivity, and permanency -- become optional as well."
Adds his colleague Andrew T. Walker, 27: "I can't help but think that the uniqueness of man-woman marriage will be adjudicated over time."
Other young traditionalists, TheNew York Times reports, are "undaunted by the battle ahead." Eric Teetsel, 29, executive director of the Manhattan Declaration, says, "Even if we are doomed, and I'm totally naive, I think it's important that I do this work anyway."
Many who concur believe it's only for the time being that their anti-gay marriage campaign is handicapped. "These Republicans who are jumping ship are doing so because we have no way of messaging," says Ashley Pratte, 23, executive director of Cornerstone Policy Research and Action, another advocacy enterprise fighting same-sex marriage.
Does disapproval or thorough dislike of homosexuality enter this picture?
The most forceful presence on this circuit is Brian Brown, head of the National Organization for Marriage, who claims "civilization rises and falls on marriage." He warns that "heterosexual couples will no longer have preference in adoptions, that schoolchildren will be taught that same-sex parenting is normal." He and his group didn't campaign hard enough to defeat the impending sanction of same-sex marriage in Rhode Island, and "as a result, the homosexual activists were given a complete free pass on all this nonsense." He vows to pump more millions into the next state.
That the American Academy of Pediatrics is in favor of gay parents is not making an impact with advocates like Brown, who is obviously motivated by bone-marrow passion. The academy cited overwhelming evidence from years of research: There is no difference in the emotional and behavioral development of children in straight or gay two-parent families.
Does it still bother people that marriage, above all, is the vehicle of procreation? That pitch fell flat ages ago, with adoption and in-vitro fertilization, plus the ordinariness of second marriages and the coupling of seniors. Besides, the vast majority of Americans support cohabiting and marrying as the desire for exclusive intimacy, and privacy in so doing. Children are fine for some but by no means for all.
Leave conducting the rites of marriage a choice for the various religious denominations, but don't confuse this with civil, secular rights for everyone, regardless of faith. And yes, call it marriage not civil union, which Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg recently likened to a "skim milk" substitute.
The Nevada legislature is presently considering the repeal of its ban of same-sex marriage. State senator Kelvin Atkinson came out to his colleagues on the floor. "If this hurts your marriage," he said, "then your marriage was in trouble in the first place."
Meanwhile, money talks. Even in the wake of the Supreme Court ruling section 3 of the so-called Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional, and more or less invalidating Proposition 8, NOM is raising multiple millions. Much of it comes from just a few individuals whose wealth equals clout. A small group of people give from $1 million to $3.5 million each year to NOM.
In spite of insisting their efforts are on behalf of the sanctity of heterosexual marriage, homophobia runs deep. A training session for emerging leaders in the fight against same-sex marriage has been reported as having been drenched in disparagement of gays. "Lesbians and gay men are in rebellion against God; their relationships are inherently unstable, unhealthy, promiscuous, and unworthy of raising their own families ... homosexuality is self-degrading, inflicts immeasurable harm, is unacceptable to God, and leads to depression, substance abuse, and disease."
Whew. The voice of the majority these days? No. But it is not going to be silenced anytime soon.
Bigotry is such a savage curse because so often, its perpetrators tend to deny they're guilty of the act. Sometimes bigots know full well their hatred is wrong. And there are well-meaning folks who are just blind to gay rights and truly want to preserve marriage for heterosexuals. Those people donate big bucks to powerful advocacy groups that mask the donors' hatred of homosexuality. Either way, it's going to take a lot more time, effort, and money exposing antigay bigotry and pushing the forward momentum of marriage for all.
RICHARD ALTHER's third novel, The Scar Letters, will be published September 5 by Centaur Books, Chicago.