The New Gay Orthodoxy
APRIL 5, 2014
TO appreciate how rapidly the ground has shifted, go back just two short years, to April 2012. President Obama didn’t support marriage equality, not formally. Neither did Hillary Clinton. And few people were denouncing them as bigots whose positions rendered them too divisive, offensive and regressive to lead.
But that’s precisely the condemnation that tainted and toppled Brendan Eich after his appointment two weeks ago as the new chief executive of the technology company Mozilla. On Thursday he resigned, clearly under duress and solely because his opposition to gay marriage diverged from the views of too many employees and customers. “Under the present circumstances, I cannot be an effective leader,” he said, and he was right, not just about the climate at Mozilla but also, to a certain degree, about the climate of America.
Something remarkable has happened — something that’s mostly exciting but also a little disturbing (I’ll get to the disturbing part later), and that’s reflected not just in Eich’s ouster at Mozilla, the maker of the web browser Firefox, but in a string of marriage-equality victories in federal courts over recent months, including a statement Friday by a judge who said that he would rule that Ohio must recognize same-sex marriages performed outside the state.
And the development I’m referring to isn’t the broadening support for same-sex marriage, which a clear majority of Americans now favor. No, I’m referring to the fact that in a great many circles, endorsement of same-sex marriage has rather suddenly become nonnegotiable. Expected. Assumed. Proof of a baseline level of enlightenment and humanity. Akin to the understanding that all people, regardless of race or color, warrant the same rights and respect.
Even beyond these circles, the debate is essentially over, in the sense that the trajectory is immutable and the conclusion foregone. Everybody knows it, even the people who still try to stand in the way. The legalization of same-sex marriage from north to south and coast to coast is merely a matter of time, probably not much of it at that.
There will surely be setbacks, holdouts, tantrums like the one in Arizona, whose Legislature in February passed a bill that would have allowed discrimination against gays and lesbians on religious grounds. (Mississippi enacted a vaguely similar measure last week.) Arizona’s governor of course vetoed the legislation, after being pressured by corporate leaders, and their lobbying underscored the larger and more lasting story. At least beyond the offices of Chick-fil-A, it’s widely believed — no, understood — that being pro-gay is better for business than being antigay. Hence the inclusion of a same-sex couple in the famous faces-of-America commercial that Coca-Cola unveiled during the Super Bowl. Hence a more recent television spot, part of the Honey Maid food company’s “This is Wholesome” ad campaign. It showed two dads cuddling their newborn.
The Mozilla story fits into this picture. Eich was exiled following not just employee complaints but signs and threats of customer unrest: The online dating site OkCupid was urging its users to boycott Firefox.
The business community has in fact been a consequential supporter of marriage equality. Wall Street firms lined the coffers of the campaign for marriage equality in New York, and 20 major financial service companies pay substantial membership dues to belong to and underwrite Out on the Street, an industry group that advocates for L.G.B.T. equality.
“You want to talk about a sea change?” Todd Sears, the group’s founder, said to me. “Fourteen financial services companies signed onto an amicus brief in the Edie Windsor case.” That was the one that asked the Supreme Court to strike down the Defense of Marriage Act, which the court essentially did last June.
The language in the high court’s ruling “demolished every argument put forward to justify marriage discrimination,” said Evan Wolfson, the founder and president of the advocacy group Freedom to Marry. And that ruling, he added, helped to pave the way for all the court victories — in Utah, in Oklahoma, in Texas — since. This coming Thursday, the United States circuit court in Denver will hear an appeal of the decision by a federal judge in Utah to allow gay and lesbian couples there to wed. The case could have a sweeping effect on a region of the country not typically considered progressive. It could also wind up at the Supreme Court and give the justices a chance to do what they stopped short of last year: decree marriage equality nationwide.
Wolfson noted a fascinating angle of the recent court rulings and of the blessing that Eric Holder gave in February to state-level attorneys general who didn’t want to defend bans on gay marriage. Both invoked racial discrimination in the country’s past, casting bans on same-sex marriage in that context.
Increasingly, opposition to gay marriage is being equated with racism — as indefensible, un-American. “What was once a wedge issue became wrapped in the American flag,” said Jo Becker, a Times writer whose sweeping history of the marriage-equality movement, “Forcing the Spring,” will be published this month. Becker mentioned what she called a rebranding of the movement over the last five years, with two important components. First, gay marriage was framed in terms of family values. Second, advocates didn’t shame opponents and instead made sympathetic public acknowledgment of the journey that many Americans needed to complete in order to be comfortable with marriage equality.
There was no such acknowledgment from Mozilla employees and others who took to Twitter to condemn Eich and call for his head. Writing about that wrath in his blog, The DISH, Andrew Sullivan said that it disgusted him, “as it should disgust anyone interested in a tolerant and diverse society.” A leading supporter of gay marriage, Sullivan warned other supporters not to practice “a fanaticism more like the religious right than anyone else.”
I can’t get quite as worked up as he did. For one thing, prominent gay rights groups weren’t part of the Mozilla fray. For another, Mozilla isn’t the first company to make leadership decisions (or reconsiderations) with an eye toward the boss’s cultural mind-meld with the people below him or her. And if you believe that to deny a class of people the right to marry is to deem them less worthy, it’s indeed difficult to chalk up opposition to marriage equality as just another difference of opinion.
But it’s vital to remember how very recently so many of equality’s promoters, like Obama and Clinton, have come around and how relatively new this conversation remains. It’s crucial not to lose sight of how well the movement has been served by the less judgmental posture that Becker pointed out.
Sullivan is right to raise concerns about the public flogging of someone like Eich. Such vilification won’t accelerate the timetable of victory, which is certain. And it doesn’t reflect well on the victors.