Though it was now almost three years ago, the Supreme Court’s Obergefell decision provides us with an opportunity to ask some important questions about our culture. How did same-sex marriage come to America? Where is an America with same-sex marriage headed next? What does it imply about us that it did?
Darel E. Paul’s From Tolerance to Equality: How Elites Brought America to Same-Sex Marriage provides a revealing, well-documented set of answers to these questions. Everyone concerned about the future of marriage and the culture wars should be familiar with this indispensable book. Same-sex marriage sits at the confluence of the sexual and managerial revolutions, affecting and reflecting profound changes in family life and the workplace.
Dispensing with the Liberal Narrative
In so arguing, Paul opposes the simple, self-congratulatory liberal narrative of the triumph of same-sex marriage through moral progress. This narrative, present in scores of books and articles, pits the ascending Children of Light against the persistent, bigoted Forces of Darkness.
The Children of Light normalize homosexuality and accept same-sex marriage because of their personal experiences with diversity and homosexuality. When a friend or relative comes out of the closet, Children of Light empathize with their plight and admire their courage. They come to see that homosexual persons are normal and quite admirable through this contact. The normalization of homosexuality and the acceptance of same-sex marriage are thus, for liberals, acts of enlightened imagination akin to a personal conversion. Our former disgust with homosexuality turns to an affirmative humanity, as Martha Nussbaum argues. This liberal morality tale applied to race relations and immigration yesterday; homosexuality today; tomorrow it will explain the acceptance of transgenderism.
Paul contradicts this liberal narrative. Personal acquaintance with homosexuals, for instance, is more an effect of political opinions than a cause: people have contact with homosexuals because they first admire them. Furthermore, liberals do not consistently tolerate or affirm all of those they come into contact with. Those who come to have favorable views of homosexuality and same-sex marriage continue to have unshakable and deep prejudices against poor whites and Christian fundamentalists, even after they come into contact with them. Such “liberals” are, Paul shows through survey data, among society’s biggest haters, in fact.
Liberal elites seek to avoid or dehumanize those with whom they disagree on these matters, even if they have contact with such dissenters. This suggests that other factors—one’s opinions about family, public justice, and the workplace most prominently—mediate the relationship with homosexuals or Christians and one’s opinions about them. Opinions shape experiences (not the other way around), so Paul points his analysis to the opinions.
Same-Sex Marriage and the Sexual Revolution
Public acceptance of same-sex marriage presupposed the normalization of homosexuality, and the normalization of homosexuality presupposed the sexual revolution. The sexual revolution—a combination of sexual liberty and second-wave feminism—remade opinions about family life that had long governed the American family. The ideology of the sexual revolution rejected the idea that sex, marriage, and procreation were connected at the heart of family life. It conceived of a family centered on the equality of adult partners ordered toward companionship instead. Individual autonomy would guide sexual behavior, aided by contraception and abortion. Careers would be a locus of meaning within a relationship, as children were soon seen as less important to family life.
This new sexually progressive model of family life endorsed the normalization of homosexuality as an expression of its commitment to sexual autonomy and embraced same-sex marriage for its equality in partnership. Yet this new model was not immediately endorsed, and it still probably does not enjoy majority support in the country.
How did this ideology gain ascendancy in American law, where government is by the consent of the governed? The short answer, for Paul, is through the influence of the learned professions and the acceptance of a new corporate ethic. Paul catalogues how learned profession after learned profession—from psychologists to social workers to lawyers to medical doctors to mainline Protestant clergy—embraced first homosexuality starting in the early 1970s and then same-sex marriage in the 1990s. The broad public did not follow quickly. As late as 1992, a large majority of Americans thought homosexual acts were always wrong; fewer than 20 percent thought it was not wrong at all. As late as 2012, most Americans opposed public recognition of same-sex marriage.
The Importance of the New Managerial Elite
Only when America’s corporate managerial elite embraced homosexuality and same-sex marriage as an essential expression of diversity did America cross the “cultural Rubicon.” Normalization of homosexuality and acceptance of same-sex marriage became class values for our new class of corporate managers—those employed as public administration officials, financial managers, computer system analysts, computer scientists, college professors, lawyers, physicians, and other high achievers. Managers gain admittance to their jobs through higher education. They then oversee corporate and governmental bureaucracies. Through affirmative action, the leverage of benefits, diversity training, consciousness raising, and the promulgation of “shared values,” managers help create a new corporate regime, in which managers value diversity as much as profits and where opinions about language, food, and sexuality are as central to one’s personal identity as earnings, capital, or one’s place in the labor market. By translating society’s pluralism into productivity and social harmony, the new American diversity became a corporate strength and a key to their self-understanding.
Before they could vote in public to make pro-homosexual policies official governmental policy, America’s corporations, Paul shows, imposed nondiscrimination policies on themselves. They also extended benefits to same-sex partners without coercion. The first US employer extended benefits to same-sex partners in 1982. By 1996, 500 employers had done so; by 2004, the number was over 8,200. Twenty-eight Fortune 500 companies offered such benefits in 1996; 216 did by 2004. Many global companies signed amicus briefs to affirm same-sex marriage in Obergefell, while none opposed it.
Corporations built diversity-centered human resources departments to spearhead these and other celebrations of cultural diversity. They won approval from the Human Rights Campaign, a gay-rights activist group. These corporations marketed to America an acceptance of homosexuality. Gay was more than OK. Many managers left religion, patriotism, and the pursuit of family life behind. Instead, their lives were given meaning by their devotion to careers celebrating cultural diversity, and celebrating homosexuality is the key expression of that diversity. Homosexuality symbolized, in Paul’s words, “creativity, cosmopolitanism, authenticity, toleration, and the reward of merit.” In homosexuals, America’s corporate, coastal elites found a minority that looked like them: well-educated, creative, successful, white, and safe. According to Paul, and the various studies he cites, this corporate elite actively avoids living near the poor or near ethnic minorities. Celebrating diversity by celebrating homosexuality thus became the way corporate managers lived with what would otherwise have been an astounding cognitive dissonance.
What could not be gained thoroughly through the learned professions, education, and the courts was gained through flexing corporate power. Corporations publicly shamed and dismissed those who dissented from their orthodoxy. They used their outsized economic power to have their way: recent examples in Arizona, Indiana, and North Carolina show that corporations are on the side of normalizing formerly transgressive sexual identities and opposed to carving out protection for religious dissenters.
It took forty years for elites to bring us the normalization of homosexuality and acceptance for same-sex marriage. They are using the same techniques now to achieve transgender rights, and success may be on the horizon. A country in which such serious erosions of fundamentally important institutions happen so swiftly may be a country celebrating equality, but it is neither a free nor a self-governing country. Darel Paul’s meticulous, courageous account of how the elites brought same-sex marriage to America deserves to be read by all who would understand where we are and whither our democracy is tending.
Scott Yenor, PhD, is Professor of Political Science at Boise State University. He is the author of Family Politics: The Idea of Marriage in Modern Political Thought (Baylor 2011) and Hume’s Humanity: The Philosophy of Common Life and Its Limits (Palgrave 2016).