Conor Friedersdorf has a post up at The Atlantic arguing that it's possible to be against same-sex marriage but not harbor any antipathy towards LGBQ people, so stigmatizing such opposition is wrong.
It's an important argument for those who oppose former Mozilla CEO Brendan Eich's resignation, and it's an uphill battle considering they're saying that favoring a legal regime where two classes of people are granted different and unequal access to public institutions, access determined by their identities, is not at all based on antipathy towards one of those classes. It's a counterintuitive assertion, to say the least.
So you'd think Friedersdorf would develop and support it extensively. Instead, he writes this:
Opposition to gay marriage can be rooted in the insidious belief that gays are inferior, but is also commonly rooted in the much less problematic belief that marriage is a procreative institution, not one meant to join couples for love and companionship alone.*
That's why it's wrong to stigmatize all opponents of gay marriage as bigots, even if (like me) you'd find unobjectionable the forced resignation of a CEO who used anti-gay slurs, or declared that gays are inferior humans, or sought to deny gays even benefits unrelated to the definition of marriage, like the ability to be on a life partner's insurance. My position has always been that civil unions are not enough-that gays ought to have full marriage equality. But the pro-civil union, anti-gay marriage faction is instructive. Opposition to interracial marriage never included a large contingency that was happy to endorse the legality of black men and white women having sex with one another, living together, raising children together, and sharing domestic partner benefits, just so long as they didn't call it a marriage.
First, Friedersdorf says that some people think marriage is about procreation, so their opposition to same-sex marriage has nothing to do with gay people as such. Of course, opponents to same-sex marriage never mount campaigns against marriage rights for post-menopausal women or sterile men or straight couples that proudly declare they don't want children, so it's unlikely that this is anyone's actual reasoning.
Second, he's saying that there is a significant "pro-civil union, anti-gay marriage faction" that shows that at least some people are thinking about the word "marriage" and not about two classes of people. Again, this doesn't really prove anything, it just moves the argument around a little: these people Friedersdorf is describing want two unequal legal regimes for two classes of people. Even if their opposition is just about a single word, it's still the same mentality.
But I think that's giving Friedersdorf too much credit. There simply isn't a significant group of people who favor civil unions but oppose marriage. Sure, polling suggests that there might be such a group, so I can see how Friedersdorf could be mistaken, but this is a case where I wouldn't place so much stock in that polling data.
First, there is no way to verify Friederdorf's insinuation that these people support "marriage-by-another-name" civil unions. The question-wording of these polls is never that precise and respondents may have something different in mind when asked about civil unions.
More importantly, these people are being asked about a hypothetical situation that won't even affect them directly, two degrees of abstraction away from knowing their real preferences. If the only information we had is that polling, then it would have to work, but we have something better: actual election results from ballot campaigns where either marriage would be banned or both marriage and civil unions would be banned. If there is a large group of people who favor civil unions but oppose marriage, then one would expect the latter kind of ballot initiative to do worse. But if you can see any such trend related to civil unions in ballot initiative results, then you're probably tilting your head and squinting too hard when looking at the data.
The bottom line is that there just isn't energy behind this position. Instead, I'd suggest that those poll results where a lot of people say they'd prefer civil unions represent merely a hesitancy, a halfway point between the two, a way of kinda getting there but not really. That's the logic behind Barack Obama's use of the term "evolving," which is qualitatively different from Friedersdorf's assertion that equal rights/no marriage is a solution some people think - based on religious or other slow-to-change convictions - is optimal in its own right.
Last, it's entirely fair to point out that the "gays are OK but the word marriage is sacred" argument makes no fucking sense. Friedersdorf doesn't explain what it even means, or offer any examples of other issues where people base their policy preferences entirely on the word used to describe the policy, or spell out what negative consequences these folks think would happen that directly spring from the use of the word "marriage" describing same-sex partnerships. Yes, they do say that using the word "marriage" for same-sex relationships will lead to pedophilia, bestiality, etc., but it's entirely fair to judge those arguments and say that they make no fucking sense and no one could actually believe them.
People can lie about where their policy preferences come from, even to themselves. People can be wrong on this topic. When someone says "It's Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve," the speaker isn't actually okay with same-sex relationships until, one day, they opened the Bible and noticed that the first two people in it were of the opposite sex. When someone says "It's about plumbing," they don't actually see the human body as a building and have a spiritual commitment to taking that metaphor literally. So when I hear "the word marriage itself is sacred," I have a hard time believing that some people are just fans of a certain edition of the dictionary.
In any case, Prop 8's campaign went far beyond discussing the dictionary. If Friedersdorf wants to argue that there is a group of people holding no antipathy towards gay people but just wanting policy to reflect a certain definition of the term "marriage," then perhaps he should have chosen a better example than Brendan Eich. If that's the best Friedersdorf can do - point to someone who paid to broadcast ads that insinuated that gay people are trying to hurt children and then argue that he's not homophobic - then he hasn't done much to prove that non-homophobic same-sex marriage opponents exist.