The Slow Death of the Anti-Gay-Marriage Movement

By
Maggie Gallagher, in happier times. (<em>Happier</em>, not actually happy.)
Photo: Dennis Cook/AP

In 2004, the campaign to prevent gay marriage was in its heyday. The Bush administration had seeded an initiative banning gay marriage in Ohio to mobilize activists and peel off traditionalist Democratic voters. Democrats nationally were running for cover, and even Howard Dean’s pro-civil-unions stance appeared risky.

Now the movement is in a state of total collapse, with every day seeming to bring new converts to the gay-marriage cause and the opposition losing all of its courage. There is no more telling sign of the opposition’s surrender than the public demoralization of Maggie Gallagher, the leading anti-gay-marriage activist and writer.

The unusual thing about the campaign to ban gay marriage is that it was dying from the moment it was born. Even at its peak, at the very outset, the portents of doom were visible on the horizon — polls showed that young voters strongly supported gay marriage. The best case for Gallagher and her allies appeared to be holding on for years, or even decades, but eventually gay-marriage opponents would age out of the electorate.

Gallagher understood from the beginning that she had to fight that sense of eventual inevitability. Here she is writing a column for National Review in December 2004 whose thesis is captured in its headline, “Not Inevitable.” In the face of clear evidence, Gallagher seized on whatever tiny glimmers of demographic hope she could find. One poll found that while young adults favored gay marriage, teens did not. Was this a statistical blip because of a tiny sample size? Not to Gallagher, who saw it as evidence that “most likely, as more adults voice firm objections to gay marriage, they appear to be having an impact on their children’s attitudes and values.”

Five years later, Gallagher continued to rage against the dying of the light, but less forcefully. A 2009 column phrased her stance as a question rather than an answer (“Is Gay Marriage Inevitable?”). Gallagher was no longer insisting that the youngest voters opposed gay marriage, but was merely hoping that the generation of voters younger than them one day would in a fit of rebellion. “Right now, it’s ‘cool’ to be pro-gay marriage. In ten years, it will be what the old folks think,” she offered hopefully.

Today, the movement has advanced far more rapidly than expected, and it is hard to find much hope at all in Gallagher. She increasingly casts those on her own side as victims. Gallagher insists, in an interview with National Review — she has given up her column — the cause is about “the core civil rights of 7 million Californians to vote on the marriage question.” The rights of a gay couple to marry cannot be allowed to trample on the rights of heterosexuals to vote to ban them from getting married.

The surest sign of resignation is that Gallagher has redirected her focus from stopping gay marriage to preserving the dignity of her reputation and those of her fellow believers. She now presents her cause as a kind of civil rights movement to protect her fellow believers from the stigma of advocating bigotry and discrimination. “I worry when I get an email from a woman who's a nurse in a hospital,” she told NPR, “who wrote a letter to the editor opposing gay marriage, and finds that she fears her job is in jeopardy.”

The pathos is fully captured in this exchange with NR, when she is asked how she will be judged in the future:

What future commentators write about me (if they write about me at all which I doubt) when I am dead won’t matter much. I will by then be in the hands of a Judge both just and (thankfully) merciful, a world where truth counts. I’m not triumphal about that fact, I suspect we will all be surprised to discover first-hand how dark the sins we justified in this world really are — when our self-imposed veils of ignorance are removed. We’ll see how much we all require mercy. In the meantime let’s love each other as best we can, but always, always in truth.

It is almost poignant that her thoughts of the future turn not to some imagined political victory but the afterlife. There is no last-minute generational twist, no reversal of the tide, lying in store to save Gallagher and the gay-marriage opponents, and she knows it full well. Regardless of any Supreme Court ruling, her movement is lying on its death bed, and she is making her peace with it.