Like Democrats running for Congress, same-sex marriage supporters hoped to ride the wave of Obama-mania all the way to victory in last week's election. Instead, of course, three states, including liberal and overwhelmingly pro-Obama California, voted to ban same-sex marriage. "People don't seem to realize it's all the same thing. An African-American being elected is all part of equal rights that also apply to the gay community," said a disappointed same-sex marriage proponent in Chicago a few days after the election.
Although some political analysts speculated that the Obama-driven high turnout among black voters would also bolster initiatives to ban same-sex marriage, many believed that Obama voters of all races would see same-sex marriage as a continuation of the civil rights struggle and reject the California ban. This view went along with the belief that opponents of same-sex marriage could only be motivated by anti-gay bias: For instance, one advocate insisted that any argument against same-sex marriage "is simply code for prejudice and bigotry."
The analogy between the racism that voters overcame to elect Obama and the anti-gay sentiment that undermined support for same-sex marriage is tempting. But it has led gay marriage proponents to neglect the obvious: Same-sex marriage directly involves sex, and so popular attitudes about sex and gender—not race—are the ones that are most relevant to whether same-sex marriage bans rise or fall. Perhaps the gay rights advocates who assumed that an Obama T-shirt reflected a vote for same-sex marriage should have worried that a wisecrack about Hillary Clinton's pantsuits signaled a vote against it.
After all, traditional marriage isn't just analogous to sex discrimination—it is sex discrimination: Only men may marry women, and only women may marry men. Same-sex marriage would transform an institution that currently defines two distinctive sex roles—husband and wife—by replacing those different halves with one sex-neutral role—spouse. Sure, we could call two married men "husbands" and two married women "wives," but the specific role for each sex that now defines marriage would be lost. Widespread opposition to same-sex marriage might reflect a desire to hang on to these distinctive sex roles rather than vicious anti-gay bigotry. By wistfully invoking the analogy to racism, same-sex marriage proponents risk misreading a large (and potentially movable) group of voters who care about sex difference more than about sexual orientation.
After all, many opponents of same-sex marriage don't oppose gay rights across the board. In California, same-sex couples enjoy significant civil rights protections and legal status as domestic partners, and voters have shown no interest in changing that. National polls show that overwhelming majorities support employment-based gay rights, including equal access to careers in the military, and same-sex civil unions. It's only when it comes to marriage—the word, with its religious as well as civic connotations—that pro-gay sentiment dwindles: Recent polls show that only 30 percent to 36 percent of Americans support same-sex marriage. It's this finding, of course, that the results of last week's elections echo.
The sharp differences in the polling numbers, depending on whether the question is marriage as opposed to almost any other gay rights issue, suggest that opposition to same-sex marriage isn't simply the 21st century's form of racism. After all, whites who opposed racial miscegenation in the Jim Crow South didn't support other civil rights for blacks or civil unions for mixed-race couples. In fact anti-miscegenation laws worked hand-in-glove with laws prohibiting sex outside of marriage and intimate cohabitation of unmarried adults to effectively outlaw interracial intimacy altogether. When Mildred Loving, who was black, and Richard Loving, who was white, successfully challenged Virginia's law barring interracial marriage, they were not just fighting for social acceptance and hospital visitation rights. They were fighting a jail sentence, suspended on the condition that they leave the Virginia and never return together: effective banishment from the state. Anti-miscegenation laws were designed to prevent intimate racial mixing of any kind; by contrast, many of the people who voted to ban same-sex marriage are apparently supportive of same-sex intimacy—provided you don't call it marriage.