Culture War Starts—Where Else?—In California

“And by the way,” said San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom in his City Hall on May 15, “as California goes, so goes the rest of the nation. It’s inevitable. This door’s wide open now. It’s going to happen whether you like it or not. This is the future and it’s now.”

For the first time in many years, spurred by the California Supreme Court decision last week providing the opportunity of marriage in that state to any two adult humans, there is this talk of open culture warfare. This marks a bold return to the kulturkampf of more than a decade ago—this time with the gays in charge of the argument. For now. Maybe not for long.

The great culture wars—they seem so long ago!—reached their climax and then evaporated a dozen years ago, when the gay agenda was denounced in 1996 by Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia in the most disgusting piece of writing of our time, his dissent to Romer v. Evans; in it he claimed that the God-fearing people of Colorado were justifiably preventing homosexual special rights via legislation forbidding equal rights protections.

Since then, gay organizations, worn out and stretched thin, quietly huddled up and settled on tactics. Donations went up (although some estimate that only 5 percent of gay people donate to these organizations at all). Over the past five years, the funders and heads of gay organizations insisted upon an actual gay agenda. And the legal departments of these organizations settled on a unified argument, which they have applied to marriage cases in California, Iowa and Connecticut (decisions in those latter two states are forthcoming).

So this year, both federally—all three leading presidential candidates are opposed to gay marriage—and state by state, their schemes will either blow up disastrously or make irrevocable changes in American society. (Until perhaps the next culture war undoes them. Who knows?)

Matt Foreman, who was until recently the executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, has just settled in California. He was planning on marrying his partner in Montreal this coming Labor Day, and now he will be spared that trip. His marriage may be invalidated a few months after that, as those opposed to gay marriage organize an amendment to undo the court’s doings.

“The battle here to save that decision is going to be the most costly, high-profile gay rights battle ever,” he said. “The ramifications of it are going to be long-lasting. If the amendment is defeated, not only will we have preserved marriage in California, but it’s going to give a lot of new energy to the marriage-equality movement. If we lose it here, there’s going to be a lot of wind taken out of the sails.”

This gay agenda has not only those high stakes but also an illogical tactical underpinning, one that its legal proponents will not acknowledge. On one front, primarily through legislatures, the organizations are pressing for civil unions. At the same time, in courts, they argue that such a second-class status for relationships is unconstitutional.

“Well, civil unions are definitely a second best, no question about it,” said Shannon Minter of the National Center for Lesbian Rights and co-counsel on the California marriage decision. “But it can be an important stepping stone to get to marriage. It was a very important stepping stone in California. It hopefully will be stepping stone in Connecticut, where they have civil unions.”

So won’t domestic-partnership legislation see renewed opposition from the right, if the courts see it, as they did in California, as such a stepping stone?

“I don’t think that’s a revelation to folks who are considering civil-unions bills,” said James Esseks, litigation director for the ACLU’s gay rights project. “They support them because they know they’re a compromise. I don’t think this decision—which does say this is not equal, this is a lesser status—I don’t think that that is going to make it harder to pass civil-union legislations.”

“And I think those civil-union states will be converted to marriage states,” he added. “I don’t think it’s going to be a deterrent.”

“There’s so much momentum,” said Mr. Minter, “so much excitement, people are gearing up to get married. Once they’re actually married, they’re going to be very motivated to not have it taken away.”

On the day before the California decision, because there was a man in a good suit next to me on the bench, distractedly eating a lunchtime sandwich, and because there was a toddler with close-cropped hair in a green shirt playing perilously around the park’s fountain, I understood for just one moment the allure of marriage. It passed, but still.

I e-mailed some friends in California. Were they getting married, now that they could? No. And they were offended by the question. “As I’ve always said,” my friend K___ wrote, “the only thing gayer than marriage is gay marriage.” Well, that’s the next culture war. Culture War Starts—Where Else?—In California