Changes California Constitution to eliminate the right of same-sex couples to marry. Provides that only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California.
—Ballot summary, Proposition 8.
You might think that an organization that for most of the first of its not yet two centuries of existence was the world’s most notorious proponent of startlingly unconventional forms of wedded bliss would be a little reticent about issuing orders to the rest of humanity specifying exactly who should be legally entitled to marry whom. But no. The Mormon Church—as anyone can attest who has ever answered the doorbell to find a pair of polite, persistent, adolescent “elders” standing on the stoop, tracts in hand—does not count reticence among the cardinal virtues. Nor does its own history of matrimonial excess bring a blush to its cheek. The original Latter-day Saint, Joseph Smith, acquired at least twenty-eight and perhaps sixty wives, some of them in their early teens, before he was lynched, in 1844, at age thirty-eight. Brigham Young, Smith’s immediate successor, was a bridegroom twenty times over, and his successors, along with much of the male Mormon élite, kept up the mass marrying until the nineteen-thirties—decades after the Church had officially disavowed polygamy, the price of Utah’s admission to the Union, in 1896. As Richard and Joan Ostling write in “Mormon America: The Power and the Promise” (2007), “Smith and his successors in Utah managed American history’s only wide-scale experiment in multiple wives, boldly challenging the nation’s entrenched family structure and the morality of Western Judeo-Christian culture.”
“Mormons Tipped Scale In Ban On Gay Marriage,” the Times headlined the week after Election Day, reflecting the views of proponents and opponents alike. Six and a half million Californians voted for Proposition 8, and six million voted against it—a four-point margin, close enough for a single factor to make the difference. Almost all the early canvassers for the cause were Mormons, but the most important contributions were financial. The normal political pattern is for money to get raised in California and spent elsewhere. This time, Salt Lake City played the role of Hollywood, rural Utah was the new Silicon Valley, and California was cast as flyover country. Of the forty million dollars spent on behalf of Prop. 8, some twenty million came from members or organs of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Some conservative commentators, who didn’t have much else to gloat about, dwelt lingeringly on what they evidently regarded as the upside of the huge, Obama-sparked African-American turnout. “It was the black vote that voted down gay marriage,” Bill O’Reilly, of Fox News, insisted triumphantly—and, it turns out, wrongly. If exit polling is to be believed, seventy per cent of California’s African-American voters did indeed vote yes on Prop. 8, as did upward of eighty per cent of Republicans, conservatives, white evangelicals, and weekly churchgoers. But the initiative would have passed, barely, even if not a single African-American had shown up at the polls.
Video: Gay marriage protests continue Still, this was a fight that should have been won, and after the initial shock—which tempted a few gay and lesbian voices to blame blacks for what O’Reilly credited them with—California’s gay activists and their straight allies, judging from their online postmortems, have begun to direct more criticism at themselves than at their opponents. They were complacent: early polls had shown Prop. 8 losing by double digits. Their television ads were timid and ineffective, focussing on worthy abstractions like equality and fairness, while the other side’s were powerfully emotional. (Also dishonest—they implied that gay marriage would threaten churches’ tax exemptions, force church-affiliated adoption agencies to place children with gay couples, and oblige children to attend gay weddings—but that sort of thing was to be expected.) Barack Obama, like Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, had come out against Prop. 8, yet the No-on-8 forces let Obama’s popularity be used against them: a mass mailing suggesting that the Democratic nominee was for it went essentially unanswered.
The defenders of equal access to marriage, in other words, think their problem was tactical—“messaging,” not substance. They are probably right. In the days after the election, tens of thousands of people, gay and straight, took to the streets of cities and towns throughout the country in spontaneously organized protest. But the mood at these gatherings, by all accounts, was seldom angry; it was cheerful, determined, and hopeful. From 1998 to 2006, bans on same-sex marriage were put on the ballot in one state or another thirty times, and twenty-nine times the people voted for them. This year, in addition to California, Florida passed a ban; Arizona, which in 2006 had been the one exception, reversed itself and did the same; more cruelly, Arkansas approved a ballot measure depriving gay men and lesbians of the right to adopt children. But all this has about it the feel of a last stand.
Video: Prop 8 protests Four years ago, Howard Dean’s Presidential campaign worried that its undoing would be the fact that as governor of Vermont Dean had signed a bill allowing gays and lesbians to form civil unions; that turned out to be the least of his troubles. Now large majorities of Americans favor laws under which same-sex couples have all or most of the same rights as couples of opposite sexes, and five states, including California, have enacted them. Gay marriage itself is legal, and not terribly controversial, in Massachusetts and Connecticut. In 1993, most Americans thought that open homosexuals shouldn’t be permitted to serve in the military; now three-quarters think that they should. And the polls show that the younger you are the more likely you are to favor equal treatment of gays and straights in every area of public and private life. The Field Poll, one of California’s most respected, found last month that while the state’s over-sixty-fives oppose gay marriage by a thirty-point margin, the under-thirty-fives favor it by thirteen points—and it’s hard to think of a reason that getting older should change their minds.
Like a polluted swamp, anti-gay bigotry is likely to get thicker and more toxic as it dries up. Viciousness meets viscousness. “Look,” Newt Gingrich, the former House Speaker, said the other day (on the air, to Bill O’Reilly), “I think there is a gay and secular fascism in this country that wants to impose its will on the rest of us, is prepared to use violence. . . . I think that it is a very dangerous threat to anybody who believes in traditional religion. And I think if you believe in historic Christianity, you have to confront the fact.” For diversity’s sake, he added that “the historic version of Islam” and “the historic version of Judaism” are likewise menaced—which is natural, given that gay, secular, fascist values are “the opposite of what you’re taught in Sunday school.”
This sort of sludge may or may not prove to be of some slight utility in the 2012 Republican primaries, but it is, increasingly, history. A couple of days before the California vote, the San Francisco Chronicle’s John Wildermuth noticed a “No on Prop 8” sign on a front lawn. The lawn and the sign belonged to Steve Young, the football Hall of Famer and former 49er quarterback, and his wife, Barb. Steve Young is a graduate of Brigham Young University, which is named for his great-great-great-grandfather. The Youngs still belong to the Mormon Church. “We believe all families matter and we do not believe in discrimination,” Barb Young said. “Therefore, our family will vote against Prop 8.” It wasn’t enough this time. But the time is coming.