ON ELECTION DAY, voters in Maine repealed a six-month-old state law authorizing same-sex marriage. Maine was the 31st state in which the legal definition of marriage was put to a vote, and the 31st in which voters rejected gay marriage. And once again, the response from many on the losing side was bitter.
"Bigotry trumps compassion," wrote commentator Michael Stone, calling the vote "a shameful display of ignorance, bigotry, and hate." In the Maine Campus, the newspaper of the University of Maine, columnist Samantha Hansen denounced the voters who "let hatred, confusion, misinformation, and ignorance emerge victorious over liberty." An Associated Press story on the election results quoted Cecelia Burnett, who was despondent at the voters' refusal to redefine marriage to include gay and lesbian relationships. "I don't understand what the fear is, why people are so afraid of this change," she said.
When it will occur to supporters of same-sex marriage that they do their cause no good by characterizing those who disagree with them as haters, bigots, and ignorant homophobes? It may be emotionally satisfying to despise as moral cripples the majorities who oppose gay marriage. But after going 0 for 31 -- after failing to make the case for same-sex marriage even to voters in such liberal and largely gay-friendly states as California, Wisconsin, Oregon, and now Maine -- isn't it time to stop caricaturing their opponents as the equivalent of Jim Crow-era segregationists? Wouldn't it make more sense to concede that thoughtful voters can have reasonable concerns about gay marriage, concerns that will not be allayed by describing those voters as contemptible troglodytes?
I oppose same-sex marriage for reasons I have explored in previous columns. I think it would be reckless to jettison the understanding, as old as civilization itself, that society has a deep interest in promoting families anchored by a married man and woman. It seems to me nonsensical to claim that men and women are utterly interchangeable, or to deny that children are likeliest to thrive when they are raised by both a mother and a father. I believe that timeless moral standards must not be casually overturned, and that doing so is apt to have unintended and unfortunate consequences. And I am sure that legalizing same-sex wedlock would fuel demands for further radical change -- legalizing plural marriage, for example.
But strongly opposing gay marriage doesn't mean I can't understand why many people just as strongly favor it. I can sympathize with committed gay and lesbian couples who feel demeaned by the law's rejection of same-sex marriage, or who crave the proof of societal acceptance, the cloak of normalcy, that a marriage license would provide. I don't regard the redefinition of marriage as a civil rights issue; nor do I buy the argument that laws barring same-sex marriage are comparable to the laws that once barred interracial marriage. But I recognize that many people -- sincere and decent people -- do. By my lights they are mistaken, not evil.
Why do so many same-sex marriage advocates find it so hard to see marriage traditionalists in the same light?
In a recent paper for the Heritage Foundation, Thomas Messner surveys the "naked animus" that was directed against supporters of Proposition 8, the California marriage amendment that voters approved last year. His meticulously footnoted study makes chilling reading, with example after example of the blacklisting, vandalism, intimidation, loss of employment, anti-religious hostility, and even death threats to which backers of Prop 8 were subjected.
Of course not all proponents of same-sex marriage display such vehement intolerance toward those who insist that the purpose of marriage is to unite male and female. But far too many do to shrug it off as insignificant. And voters don't have to be paranoid to wonder: If this is the kind of abuse that opponents of gay marriage can be subjected to now, how much more intolerance will dissenters face if gay marriage becomes the law of the land?
After 31 losses in 31 states, it's time for same-sex marriage activists to seriously consider a piece of advice that Barney Frank offered a few years ago. "There's something to be said for cultural respect," the nation's most prominent gay political figure said in 2004. "Showing a bit of respect for cultural values with which you disagree is not a bad thing. Don't call people bigots and fools just because you disagree with them."
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe.)
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