When the Supreme Court decided not to decide about gay marriage on Oct. 6, a profoundly hopeful turn was taken in the American story, with implications for an even broader social liberation. Marriage equality is now the rule in a solid majority of states, and so many millions of citizens — children and extended families, insurers, employers, the IRS, the military — will be institutionally and personally involved with married gay couples so as to make this change a permanent fact of the national condition. That the majorities favoring gay marriage also show up among groups where pressures run the other way, such as Catholics and younger Republicans, emphasizes the new situation. At last it can be said: No future court or legislature will be able to roll this victory of justice back. Just like that, a flash point in the culture war has become a bright shining point of light.
The significance of this transformation runs deep, precisely because of how it was brought about. Rarely has a revolution in culture been accomplished without, well, revolutionary tumult. But the momentous change in attitudes toward gay marriage, and by extension toward gay identity itself, has come about not mainly through social unrest, much less violence, but through mundane human interactions that efficiently trumped one of the most culturally sanctioned forms of intolerance. Relationship preempted ideology.
What had been widely taken as a “law of nature” (homosexuality is “unnatural”) was offset by the actual experience that an expansive population had of the gays and lesbians in its midst. This presumed the prior opening of the closet door, when brave members of a stigmatized minority claimed their identities — and could be seen to have done so. And it presumed, also, the catastrophic social trauma of the AIDS epidemic, when the grief-stricken gay community could be seen to lead the way in responding with compassion and generosity to a virus — far from being merely a “gay disease” — that found its niche in every ZIP code. In those years, Americans were challenged to reexamine attitudes toward sexuality and gender, and toward the social fault lines in which HIV flourished. By the time AIDS stopped being an automatic death sentence, the “normality” of gays and lesbians, the opposite of “unnatural,” had begun to seem self-evident.
Ideas that are self-evident have a particular power in America. “We hold these truths to be self-evident,” Thomas Jefferson wrote. His words assume that “truths” are arrived at not by conforming the mind to supposedly objective abstractions (like the natural law, which in Jefferson’s day established the primacy of the king), but by taking the subjective perceptions of the “self” seriously. The experience of subjects (“repeated injuries and usurpations”) outweighed an oppressive hierarchy’s claim to authority, no matter whose law established it. Experience, that is, counted for more than ideology. Indeed, that is the foundational principle of the scientific age, when “experiment” came into its own as the test of what is true.
But the scientific method implies a moral method, too. Perception based in ethics (say, the evident compassion of a gay community’s response to AIDS, or the evident integrity of a gay couple’s loving mutuality) leads to a change in perception based in dogma — no matter how sacred. When gay people were found to be everywhere, and to be like everyone, the prejudice that sought to marginalize and exclude them could be seen for what it is. This proved to be especially true in the case of young LGBT people, whose routine harassment could at last called by its proper name — the bullying that is no longer to be tolerated.
The legal maneuvering isn’t yet over. On Wednesday, Justice Anthony Kennedy, author of the Supreme Court’s major gay-rights rulings, put a temporary stay on the implementation of same-sex marriage in Idaho after the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals struck down bans there and in Nevada the day before; the high court lifted that stay late last week. Regardless, the full arrival of gay people has occurred, and it raises hopes for a larger transformation. Boundaries of all kinds dissolve in the new globalized culture, with mundane interaction defining a pluralism of belief, practice, and identity that joins previously isolated peoples in an unimagined social intimacy.
James Carroll writes regularly for the Globe.