The Most Surprising Thing About Conservatives Embracing Gay Marriage

They're giving up on the long-held idea that men and women are different, and that this difference is worth preserving.

Pichi Chuang/Reuters

Maggie Gallagher, who more than almost anyone is the face of marriage-rights denial, is justifiably upset about the course chosen by another leading face of the cause, David Blankenhorn. Whichever side wins (and "winning" in this context may simply mean maintaining a donor base sufficient to keep their jobs), the chaos on the family right is interesting and important.

The question they face is this: Can a "marriage" movement survive on gender-neutral terms? That is, are they willing to settle for promoting stable, monogamous parental bonds even if a tiny portion of those bonds are between people of the same sex? At stake, Gallagher fears, is nothing less than the cherished view of men and women as inherently complementary in their essential oppositeness, without which society goes down the drain.

Blankenhorn now stands opposed to that view. President of the Institute for American Values, he recently stopped resisting the march of marriage rights after serving as a standard-bearer for the cause. His capitulation was stunning, as he had previously been dedicated enough to testify as an expert (until his qualifications were disqualified) in the federal case against Proposition 8 in California. In the wake of Blankenhorn's reversal, Gallagher—best known for running the National Organization for Marriage—has emerged as the purist's answer to the outbreak of tolerance (which now includes a number of former-A-list Republicans).

In a piece on her website, Gallagher compares the statement she co-signed with Blankenhorn in 2000, called "The Marriage Movement: A Statement of Principles," with his new "Call for a New Conversation." The comparison is revealing.

In 2000, the movement declared:

Marriage is a universal human institution, the way in which every known society conspires to obtain for each child the love, attention and resources of a mother and father.

Forget the erroneous reading of human history and culture that statement implies for the moment and just think about the vision it conjures for contemporary marriage politics: Marriage, man and woman, mother and father. This is what Gallagher likes—it's not gender-neutral.

In his new statement, Blankenhorn has substituted generic, almost bureaucratic language:

Because marriage is the main institution governing the link between the spousal association and the parent-child association, marriage is society's most pro-child institution.

To Gallagher, this distinction is fundamental. She wants to keep the gender of the spouses at the center of the effort to maintain a preferred family structure through public policy. Blankenhorn and his co-signers, on the other hand, are willing to ignore that issue and merely demand marriage between "spouses."

As Gallagher writes, "That is the difference gay marriage makes in how we converse about marriage." In decision after decision, appellate judges have failed to find that gay marriage hurts straight marriage—and I agree. But Gallagher has a point that the possibility of same-sex marriage (what I prefer to call homogamy) changes the linguistic frame of reference. If marriage is all about stability and well-being for children, then the gender of the parents doesn't matter and Blankenhorn is right. But if it's really about the man-woman marriage and the traditional gender dichotomy, then this change is truly cataclysmic.

The genderless marriage movement

Whether the difference between Gallagher and Blankhorn's articulations of marriage is really a big deal is the question of the day for the family right. But it is fascinating that in Blankenhorn's new statement there is no mention of men, women, fathers or mothers—or even love. That's some marriage movement.

By one interpretation, Blankenhorn sold out in the face of gay marriage's advance, waiting barely a month last summer to jump on President Obama's delayed-embrace bandwagon. He used to oppose gay marriage, Blankenhorn wrote, because it was part of the "deinstitutionalization" of marriage, its transformation from a "structured institution with a clear public purpose" to the mere "licensing of private relationships." He still believes all that, he says, but now he has "no stomach" for culture wars, and besides, "the time for denigrating or stigmatizing same-sex relationships is over."

Although he futilely promises, "I am not recanting any of it," Blankenhorn seems relieved to have abandoned the issue. He may have realized gay marriage brought what used to be called the "marriage movement" to its knees, tying up their dwindling resources in a losing battle that also cost them the support of small-government conservatives and a generation of laissez-faire young people who don't want government to legislate people's sex lives.

But maybe he was really ahead of the curve, recognizing the inherent conservativeness waiting to emerge from the marriage rights movement. Maybe it was gay rights politics—not conservatives—that were distracted by the marriage battle. So they fought for membership in a conservative institution instead of for the more ambitious agenda of destabilizing gender itself. Maybe, by explicitly coopting them at their moment of triumph, Blankenhorn's apparent fallback is actually a clever strategy to revive traditionalist moralism in the public sphere.

That's an interesting argument, and there are more positions than just these. But either way, Gallagher has a point that Blankenhorn's "new conversation" about marriage is not just a return to the good old days of the culture wars before gay marriage became an issue. It's throwing in the towel on the ideal of marriage as an institution for maintaining gender distinction.