Supporters of same-sex marriage love to make analogies to the African American Civil Rights Movement. Analogies are rhetorical devices that require careful scrutiny. While I do not find the attempt to connect bans on gay marriage to miscegenation laws persuasive, nevertheless there is nothing inherently wrong in trying to find parallels between these two social movements. In that spirit, let me offer my own reflections on what we can learn by comparing them.
Rather than beginning with a description of the Civil Rights movement and then looking for similarities to gay rights, my arguments goes in the opposite direction. That is, I begin with the extraordinary success of gay marriage advocacy and then ask what the Civil Rights movement would have looked like if it had followed the gay rights strategy.
First, then, let’s quickly recap that strategy. In a remarkably short period of time, gay marriage advocates have convinced millions of Americans that gay marriage is just the same as straight marriage. Gays thus deserve the right to marry because gay marriage will do nothing to damage or alter that revered institution. Put differently, the definition of marriage can be expanded without any negative consequences for society.
The aspect of this strategy that is relevant for my argument is its emphasis on sameness. Gay marriage is just as good (just as morally straight, we could say) as straight marriage. Therefore, denying gays this fundamental right is just as arbitrary as denying blacks their civil rights.
If the argument of sameness works for gay rights, could it have worked for Civil Rights? Imagine the following “alternative history.” It is the early sixties, and while it should be obvious to everyone that all human beings are the same in every important respect, racism is alive and well. The white political leaders most sympathetic to the plight of African Americans decide to make the case for this moral sameness by arguing that black people are really white. “Look past their skin,” they say, “and you will find that they are just as white as we are.” This argument is so effective that the discourse about race in America changes nearly overnight. Anyone who wants to talk about the distinctiveness of African American culture is accused of racism. Even black leaders who want to draw attention to black history and its unique challenges and achievements are shut down. There is no black pride movement, no discussion of the particularity of black culture, and no effort to find room in public discourse to reflect on the uniqueness of black life in America. Blacks continue to have their own history and culture, but those differences cannot be named, analyzed, and celebrated. For the purposes of social justice, blacks have become white.
Civil rights, of course, were not won in that fashion, and it is a good thing, too. White America had to learn to recognize not just black rights but also black lives, including their views on American history and their contributions to American culture. Blacks did not win civil rights because they are really white, and they did not have to give up their blackness to become full members of the American experience. Moral sameness did not eclipse historical and cultural differences.
That is not the case with the gay marriage debate. Gay couples who want to marry, according to their advocates—especially their straight advocates—are just the same as straight couples. Their pursuit of monogamy, their desire for children, their rites of courtship and reverence for tradition are no different from what goes on in the heterosexual world.
The result of this rhetorical strategy is the unofficial (and in many cases, official) banning of any discussion of the differences between gay and straight relationships. Everyone knows there are differences, but they are treated as insignificant and irrelevant for public debate. Worse, those who point out these differences are tagged with a label—homophobia—that puts them in the ranks of racists.
Gay marriage has won widespread support, but at the cost of erasing what makes homosexuality different from heterosexuality. Gay love has its own history, and gays can be rightly proud that their struggles to survive in hostile conditions has often taken the form of extraordinary cultural creativity. None of that can be acknowledged if homosexuals and heterosexuals experience their sexuality in the same ways.
But of course, they don’t. Gay sex should not be treated as if it were really straight sex. That, however, is exactly what the sameness rhetoric does, even though its most basic assumption is rarely if ever spelled out. That assumption is so bold, so counterintuitive, and so unbelievable that it must not be made explicit, even though the entire gay marriage appeal rests upon it: The anus is the same as the vagina. The most intimate act of self-giving, of penetration, in homosexuality is just as sacred, just as physically and psychologically healthy, just as fecund, just as spiritually uplifting, just as mutually pleasurable, and just as tenderly beautiful as the sexual intercourse of a heterosexual couple. I don’t think very many people really believe that, but as long as it is not stated, it cannot be discussed, and as long as it is not discussed, it cannot be denied.
Stephen H. Webb is a columnist for First Things. He is the author most recently of Mormon Christianity.