In November 2022, the ACLU’s deputy director for transgender justice came out against gay marriage. “I find it disappointing how much time and resources went into fighting for inclusion in the deeply flawed and fundamentally violent institution of civil marriage,” Chase Strangio wrote on Instagram. Two months later, Taylor Silverman, a female skateboarder who gained prominence after objecting to the inclusion of biological males in women’s athletic competitions, criticized gay marriage from the opposite direction: “I used to think gay marriage was ok until all of the things that conservatives warned us would happen next actually happened. Now it seems it really was the beginning of the dangerous slippery slope.” With the passage of the Respect for Marriage Act in 2022, the legal status of same-sex marriage has never been more secure. Public opinion is strongly in its favor, even as, not so long ago, it was overwhelmingly opposed. Yet the ideological case for same-sex marriage seems strangely fragile, subject to challenge on both the left and the right.
It has been eight years since the White House was lit with rainbow colors in celebration of the Supreme Court’s ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges. Hailed as the enshrinement of a new consensus, the national recognition of same-sex marriage can also be understood as an event that accelerated polarization—leading some on the left to press for ever more changes, and some on the right to doubt the very possibility of liberal governance.
Not all of the effects of gay marriage are obvious, or were anticipated. In the runup to the national recognition of gay marriage, much attention was paid on both sides to such questions as whether children raised in same-sex households could thrive as did those raised by a mother and father. Important as they were, these discussions distracted from another way in which gay marriage would affect national life. Its recognition changed the makeup of the American elite by causing more conservative and religious actors to lose standing while left-wing activists gained power and prestige. For thoroughgoing progressives, there is nothing to lament in these developments. But for figures on the center-left, gay marriage has had an ambiguous legacy.
Gay marriage was the first great triumph of cancel culture. Sasha Issenberg, a historian of gay marriage, has observed that by deploying the novel weapons of “shaming and shunning,” activists “changed the economic terrain on which cultural conflict was waged.” One of the early breakthroughs occurred when eightmaps.com appeared online. The site used information gathered under financial disclosure laws to list the names and locations of people who had donated to California’s Proposition 8, a referendum that stated marriage could take place only between a man and a woman. Suddenly American citizens came under pressure for their political views—not just from their friends and families, but potentially from anyone with an internet connection. Some reported receiving envelopes with powder and death threats.
Donors to Proposition 8 were also targeted through their employers. Scott Eckern, the artistic director of the California Musical Theatre in Sacramento, was forced to resign after his colleagues learned that he had backed the referendum. Brendan Eich was forced to step down as the CEO of Mozilla in 2014, when his past support of Proposition 8 was publicized.
Those who denounce cancel culture often speak as though it was hatched by radical activists and intolerant students, and see the contest as pitting liberal tolerance against illiberal denunciation. But as the history of gay marriage shows, the reality is more complicated. Cancel culture was pioneered in part by veteran political activists such as the lifelong Republican Fred Karger, who organized demonstrations outside commercial properties owned by backers of Proposition 8. And it arose in alliance with corporate power, as seen when corporations declared “capital strikes” by threatening to pull out of states that guaranteed religious freedom to those who rejected gay marriage.
In recent years, figures such as Andrew Sullivan have emerged as brave and eloquent critics of wokeness. They have opposed its particular injustices while exploring its deep origins. They have tied wokeness to the flowering of “illiberalism” on the left and the right. But they have failed to examine how these forms of illiberalism were encouraged by the campaign for a policy they support.
Gay marriage changed the character of important institutions in ways that its moderate supporters have not yet recognized. Through the operation of cancel culture, high-profile opponents of same-sex marriage were silenced, fired, or forced out of important institutions. In 2011, Paul Clement, the distinguished appellate lawyer and former solicitor general, was compelled to leave his law firm in order to continue his legal work on behalf of the Defense of Marriage Act, a case that his firm had been pressured to drop by the Human Rights Campaign. In 2015, Kelvin Cochran, the chief of the Atlanta fire department, was fired after writing a book that expressed opposition to homosexuality. In 2023, Jacob Kersey, a police officer in Georgia, was placed on leave after writing on Facebook: “God designed marriage. Marriage refers to Christ and the church. That’s why there is no such thing as homosexual marriage.”
Eliminating religious and conservative voices from important institutions changed the character of those institutions. People who had previously been liberals or centrists suddenly found themselves the rightmost members of institutions in which progressive causes enjoyed uncontested prestige. One victim of this process is Sullivan himself, who in 2020 was compelled to leave New York magazine because its junior staff had declared him a bigot for his rejection of progressive pieties on race and gender identity. Across his career, Sullivan has been admirably willing to break with conventional views. He has also spoken movingly of the necessity of treating those with whom we disagree with liberality. But legal recognition of same-sex marriage has in important ways worked against his better instincts by limiting the range of acceptable views.
A popular cartoon shows a liberal man remaining in place as his fellow liberals move left—so far left that they come to view him as on the right. That shift in perspective is part of the story of the transformation of American institutions in recent years. The other, and essential, part is the deliberate elimination of outspoken right-wing figures, often with the support of moderates, centrists, and liberals. These establishment figures frequently share the principles of their progressive counterparts, while lacking their consistency. Once the vocal right-wingers are gone, liberals must either preserve their self-conception as centrists by moving to the left, or they must become de facto right-wingers in a context where being right-wing has personal and professional costs. Most choose to move with the times.
LGBT organizations played an important role in the construction of this new reality. When the Berlin Wall fell, the Committee for the Free World, a neoconservative think tank, closed its doors. Its director, Midge Decter, concluded that it had served its purpose and so should dissolve. Gay-rights organizations chose a different path after Obergefell. Rather than declare victory and go home, they moved on to the “next frontier”: transgender rights. Religious conservatives had already been largely eliminated from important American institutions, and so posed no internal obstacle to the pursuit of this goal. Feminists, who remained, mostly went along with the idea that men could become women. Those who chose to speak were labeled “TERFs” and targeted with the same arsenal of social, professional, and financial threats that had once been deployed against opponents of same-sex marriage.
When rainbow colors were projected onto the White House, the symbolism was broader than the celebration of any one Supreme Court decision. It was a sign that something fundamental had changed about the country, that an older order, symbolized by the stars and stripes, had given way to a new one that marched under the rainbow banner. This regime rejects neutrality as it seeks to inscribe its political priorities in American law. Religious freedom, due process, and equal treatment before the law must all yield before the imperative of inclusion. If the expression of certain views makes members of protected groups uncomfortable, those views must be silenced. If legal norms cause an insufficient number of cases of sexual harrassment or rape to result in conviction, the norms must be abandoned. Christianity famously introduced a distinction between the sacred and secular realm, differentiating the things that belong to God from those that belong to Caesar. The new American regime has collapsed this distinction, creating a system in which full citizenship is closely tied to right belief.
This new regime is not narrowly tied to the cause of gay rights. Its quest for inclusion is all-encompassing, and its priorities—including the gender transitioning of effeminate boys and tomboyish girls—at times contradict the preferences of gay activists. It seeks to make queerness normal, to move what has been marginal to the center of society. This is why it has not been content to rest with gay marriage, but has proceeded to insist on drag queen story hours in public libraries and sex education for third-graders. Beginning at the earliest ages, the weird must be made familiar.
These developments indicate the triumph of the more radical—and consistent—side of a long-running debate. Gay marriage has always had critics on the left, who regarded it as an attempt to entrap queer desire within a dead institution. Sullivan’s insight was that America would be quicker to normalize gayness if gayness aspired to normality—if “acceptance” meant allowing gays to participate in an utterly conventional institution. But this was an ambivalent aspiration. Sullivan himself warned against the “stifling model of heterosexual normality,” and argued that heterosexual relationships could stand to take on “something of the gay relationship’s necessary honesty, its flexibility, and its equality.” The queer would be normalized by the queering of the normal.
Obergefell was supposed to tame homosexuality, but it has precipitated a regime of more radical queerness. From “Marriage is a human right” to “Marriage is deeply flawed and fundamentally violent”: The sexual left’s long-running dispute about the nature of marriage and its relation to gayness seems to be getting resolved in the direction of the marriage skeptics.
Progressive capture of institutions explains the emergence of a more populist and radical right. When conservative and religious people find themselves excluded from important institutions, they will naturally tend to acquire anti-institutional attitudes. When they see that ostensibly liberal institutions are arrayed against them, defining their beliefs as bigotry, they may turn against liberalism wholesale. Gay marriage has played an important role in this process. Legal protection of gay rights has entailed the penalization of traditional views of marriage: Any employer or employee who expresses opposition to homosexuality in stark or unsubtle terms can be regarded as creating a hostile work environment or engaging in hate speech. Institutional embrace of the rainbow banner—blazoned on police cars and flown at U.S. embassies—puts the lie to the claim that our regime upholds procedural neutrality or is equally open to every creed.
On the right, the success of gay marriage caused many to ask what the conservative movement was capable of conserving. The conservative movement had been characterized by its simultaneous commitments to moral traditionalism, laissez-faire economics, and liberal principles of argument. But after Obergefell, the business interests it had defended turned against the convictions of religious Americans. Likewise, the conservative belief in the importance of free speech and of transacting public business in the currency of reason and argument came to seem naive beside the cancellation tactics employed by the left. Perhaps an unstinting defense of corporate power is not finally conservative in its effects. Perhaps America, whatever it claims to be, is hardly a liberal democracy. These dark reflections led some in unexpected directions. A radicalization of the left prompted a radicalization of the right.
When the Supreme Court announced a constitutional right to same-sex marriage, the sky didn’t fall—as supporters of the decision wryly observed. But their claim that the legal recognition of same-sex marriage would change little about American life has become harder to sustain. Same-sex marriage may remain fixed in our law, but its placement there has caused much else to shift.
Matthew Schmitz is a founder and editor of Compact.