One of the most interesting things about people is how quickly they can change their strongly held beliefs.
Sometimes the change is trivial. How many times has a home team’s star slugger been cheered on his way to the plate, then booed and cursed on his way back to the dugout moments later after striking out?
Sometimes the change is anything but trivial. A nation that banned alcohol consumption by constitutional amendment in 1920 enthusiastically reversed course less than 15 years later. Bands played “Happy Days Are Here Again,” while those toasting the future included the rum-running crime lords who got their start selling bootlegged booze and never looked back.
If we could round up 100 American adults over age 60 at random and ask them how they feel about interracial marriage, how many would you expect might oppose it today? My guess is that hardly anyone would admit to such bigotry, except behind the most tightly closed doors in the company of the similarly small-minded. Most of us have come to accept mixed-race relationships as nothing even worth commenting about. Yet less than a half-century ago, such couples were the object of popular debate, as in the film Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?, and of a Supreme Court decision (Loving v. Virginia) that struck down 13 states’ laws banning mixed-race marriage. Every older American remembers living through the controversy, yet few would admit to having held the now-discredited views.
Opposition to gay marriage is also crumbling, with surprising speed. The president who signed the Defense of Marriage Act now disavows it. So does his wife, who once ran for president and may again. So does the current president, who began his first term by defending it. So do many Democrats and a handful of prominent Republicans, at least one of whom – Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio, who co-sponsored DOMA – still faces the prospect of running for office.
People have many reasons for changing their views and their positions. Some, like President Obama and Hillary Clinton, have transparently political motives. Others, like Bill Clinton, might be more interested in protecting themselves from being remembered badly by history. (The former president’s current contention that he signed DOMA as a way of defending gay couples from a constitutional amendment that would prohibit their marriages is laughable. By that logic, we ought to pass a law mandating that all illegal immigrants be immediately expelled and barred from the nation for life in order to prevent such harsh measures from entering the Constitution.) Some, like Portman, probably were truly so narrow-minded that they thought their bigotry was justified until personal experience broadened their horizons.
A lot of people just follow the crowd. At this point, even those clinging to their narrow-minded positions are aware of the social norms shifting underneath their feet. Joseph Backholm, the executive director of the Family Policy Institute of Washington, told The New York Times, “To the extent that the other side is able to frame this as a vote for gay people to be happy, it will be challenging for us.” The comment is tin-eared now; it’s easy to imagine that, within a few decades, it will be a symptom of an opinion as rare (and as carefully hidden) as that of those who today still disapprove of interracial marriage.
In the end, the reasons for the change of heart, or of position, matter less than the change itself. DOMA was passed when Bowers v. Hardwick was still the law of the land. The 1986 Supreme Court decision held that states could outlaw consensual gay sex between adults. It was reversed 17 years later, in Lawrence v. Texas, a decision in which Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote that Bowers was wrong when it was decided.
DOMA was wrong when it was passed – 17 years ago. By the time the high court’s term ends in June, it is quite likely, I think, that the court will say exactly that. The process is already underway. The Supreme Court will hear arguments tomorrow in Hollingsworth v. Perry, a case involving California’s Proposition 8, and Wednesday in United States v. Windsor, which challenges DOMA.
While the court’s ultimate position is not yet knowable, the ultimate outcome is perfectly clear. Same-sex marriage is here and it is not going to go away. The transition of American society’s views on this topic is likely to be complete in the near future. There will always be diehard opponents of gay marriage, but it is perfectly clear where they are going to end up.
They will be in the closet.