The Queering of America

The US Supreme Court’s announcement on January 16 that it will decide the constitutionality of state-level bans on same-sex marriage has elicited the predictable whining about judicial activism. The Family Research Council’s Tony Perkins pleads “there is nothing in the Constitution that empowers the courts to silence the people and impose a nationwide redefinition of marriage,” neglecting to specify where in the Constitution the government is granted the power to get involved in defining marriage to begin with.

In fact, the trajectory of the rise of gay rights was foreshadowed by the opening words of Charles A. Reich’s The Greening of America: “There is a revolution coming. It will not be like revolutions of the past. It will originate with the individual and with culture, and it will change the political structure only as its final act.” As Reason’s Jesse Walker explains: “Contrary to the rhetoric you still hear from some of the idea’s opponents, gay marriage was not cooked up in some D.C. laboratory and imposed on America by social engineers. It was built from the bottom up, and it was alive at a time when the typical social engineer thought homosexuality was a disease.”

Indeed, the political response to burgeoning social acceptance of gays and lesbians has been so belated, so compromised by realpolitik, so evasively “evolving,” that it is hard for Democratic partisans to take credit. Author S.T. Joshi, surveying liberal progress that supposedly “will render the notion of small government a quaint eccentricity of the distant past,” avows that “it is a singular irony that, even though Republican administrations have been in power for sixteen of the twenty-four years between 1981 and 2005, gay rights have made strides almost as revolutionary as women’s rights had done.” Unmentioned is the “irony” of it being that span’s Democratic president, Bill Clinton, who signed the Defense of Marriage Act into law.

According to Perkins, upholding man-and-woman-only marriage referenda is required if “self-government still matters in a country claiming that ‘We, the People’ rule.” But pioneers of gay liberation offered lessons against not just such crude majoritarianism, but any social necessity of “rule” at all. Writer Oscar Wilde, imprisoned under the UK’s Victorian decency laws, insisted that “authority and compulsion are out of the question.  All association must be quite voluntary.” Social critic Paul Goodman, fired for open bisexuality in 1940, was just as nonconformist in his political identification, described by Casey Nelson Blake as “not a Marxist, not a sober social democrat, not a liberal ‘realist’ — an anarchist” for whom, in his own words, “A free society cannot be the substitution of a ‘new order’ for the old order; it is the extension of spheres of free action until they make up most of the social life.”

Charles A. Reich didn’t quite get it right. The coming revolution’s final act won’t be changing the political structure, but dismantling it.

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