Gay Marriage as Status Symbol

Robert Maranto

Robert Maranto is the 21st Century Chair in Leadership in the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas; [email protected] Maranto edits the Journal of School Choice, serves on his local school board, and with others authored or edited fourteen books, including the late Stanley Rothman’s The End of the Experiment (Transaction, 2016).

At an academic conference in 1998, I dined with several delightful social scientists who boasted that in a group called Common Ground, they had bravely conversed with some exotic and possibly dangerous people: Republican voting conservatives. Among other things, the professors took pride in convincing conservatives to support gay and lesbian domestic partnership legislation, more than a decade before same sex marriage became widespread.

"That's great," I affirmed. "I've supported gay and lesbian marriage since the 1970s. So what have they convinced you of?"

Awkward silence followed. Clearly, I hadn't gotten the memo. Any good social scientist should know that groups like Common Ground exist not to exchange views in search of common ground but to get conservatives to back liberal causes. Just between us professors, we know the score: Conservatives are not necessarily evil, but they are ignorant provincials, as Barack Obama later said, who “cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.”1 With proper education from their betters (us), conservatives might be improved.

A few years later, I saw the president of the American Political Science Association come under fire at a regional conference for holding APSA’s national conferences in Georgia and Louisiana, which did not yet recognize same sex marriage. She nervously explained that the host cities (Atlanta and New Orleans) were more progressive than their states, and that pulling out of long term conference commitments entails great cost and risk. Any professor present could see the career risks entailed by taking socially conservative stands. In recent years, the APSA and the farther left American Educational Research Association annual conferences have only occurred in reliably progressive parts of the U.S. or in Canada, thus avoiding contamination.

I recalled this recent history while reading Williams College political scientist Darel Paul’s remarkable, brave new book, From Tolerance to Equality: How Elites Brought America to Same Sex Marriage. The New York Times and National Public Radio will ignore Paul’s work, which is unfortunate since he explains the rapid spread of legal same sex marriage, and the thoroughly deplorable intolerance for dissenters and conscientious objectors that came with it. For my peer group—professors—this has become one issue on which only one view is tolerated.

Borrowing from Pierre Bourdieu, who defines class struggle as largely a “classification struggle” (139), Paul uses historical and statistical analyses to show that the spread of same sex marriage and the far more rapid rise of transgenderism have less to do with increased contact with sexual non-conformers than with elite markers of social distinction among 20-25 percent of the population. Segments of the college educated managerial class gain power neither through persuasion nor production, but rather by such markers.

As recently as 1996 when Bill Clinton signed the Defense of Marriage Act and Gallup first asked about it, the public opposed same sex marriage 68-27 percent (4). Much of the way through his first term, President Obama professed reluctance. Yet, by the end of his first term, such doubts became unthinkable among Democratic activists and corporate elites, and something Republicans generally avoided discussing. JavaScript inventor and Mozilla CEO designate Brendan Eich was forced to resign in 2012 for contributing to a (winning) anti-same sex marriage proposition just four years before. That same year mayors in Chicago, Boston, and San Francisco, seemingly unaware of the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment, declared their intentions to block Chick-fil-A restaurants after the firm’s CEO professed support for traditional marriage.

Since then the pace of social change has quickened. It took 42 years from the 1973 declassification of homosexuality as a mental illness by the American Psychiatric Association to the legalization of same sex marriage in the Supreme Court’s Obergefell v. Hodges. In contrast, the APA declassified “gender identity disorder” in 2012, shortly after the transgender movement came to public consciousness in the mid-2000s; yet corporations and the state are already far down the road toward erasing biological sexual categories. Why so fast?

Paul focuses on business. It goes without saying that academia and the media lean far left on social issues, and disdain traditional Christians. The New York Times editorial board actually had the chutzpah to blame Christian social conservatives for the 2016 Pulse Nightclub massacre by an Islamic extremist (69-70). In 2013 even Fox News had far more stories coded as supportive of, than opposed to same sex marriage (40). Yet this is a small part of a longer culture war. By the late 1990s, well before some state governments backed same sex marriage, a critical mass of large corporations provided benefits for same sex partners as a business best practice. Hundreds of corporations supported the constitutional right to same sex marriage in Obergefell (121). Fearing business boycotts and electoral defeat as befell North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory, conservative governors like Indiana’s Mike Pence backtracked on bills shielding religious traditionalists from progressive sexual and even bathroom best practices (133-39; 153-56).

Managerialism is key to the story, with educated, upper class managers defining themselves as essential to produce positive order in diverse organizations through their expertise, even though social science has done little to validate that expertise (119-29). Organizational acquiescence to the demands of identity politics spread fast as managers sought to avoid disruption. Further, little discomfort or sacrifice is required for the managerial class to welcome gays, with whom they share many social characteristics. Without pushing stereotypes too far, it is generally true that in large metro areas managerial elites in white collar settings are likely to see gay colleagues as safe (with low crime rates) and hip (stylistic trendsetters), possessing comparable skills and ability. For precisely this reason, Joan C. Williams and other writers see that prioritizing gays in the managerial drive for diversity involves more than a little hypocrisy.2 Indeed, Paul writes, managers in education, newsrooms, and corporations

are the least racially and ethnically diverse class fractions in the country … Privileging [homosexual] normalization rather than racial integration as a social ideal allows elites to have their diversity cake and eat it, too … Few sacrifices need be made to integrate those already so similar to members of the class they are joining. Diversity without tears only demands that elites follow the logic of the beliefs they already have.

Such diversity is all about the elites, championed in regions with concentrations of elite occupations (46-66).

Paul also outlines the history of religious (and later irreligious) snobbery. Through much of the twentieth century elite Protestants, followed by their secular and Jewish successors, defined Catholics and Fundamentalists as the “other” in battles over gender roles and contraception. Today, homosexuality and gender identity serve as new status markers in the culture wars against those prior foes (and Mormons). Alas, status conflicts render compromise unlikely, since they involve one’s very social identity. Despite professed support for tolerance and science, elites scorn traditionalists, and reject objective research like the famous (or infamous) Regnerus study questioning same sex family success in raising children. The symbolic importance of sexuality is such that Republican superlawyer Ted Olson, previously persona non grata for his work on Bush v. Gore and Citizens United, was medaled by the American Bar Association and welcomed at college campuses for backing same sex marriage (116-17).

Paul offers extensive discussions of blue state marriages (including same sex versions) largely divorced from procreation, red state marriages stressing procreation and traditional gender roles, and Creole families in which men are typically gone. He ponders that “[w]hile the Creole family model normalized the father’s absence, same-sex marriage normalizes his absolute nullity” (112-13). Generally, replacing traditional families has reduced fertility: “the blue family may not be able to reproduce itself in the most literal sense, while patriarchy … does have a successful track record on this score” (112). However much libertarians like me dissent, those on the left and right are probably correct to portray same sex marriage as a very big deal.

Paul concludes by observing that like all revolutions, the sexual revolution has undermined authority in messy, unpredictable, fear-inducing ways. Paul’s title thus seems inapt: reformers seek not equality but mastery, always a dangerous thing. Perhaps for a time, the Trump election has checked elite Hubris; yet “Nemesis is not a constructive force” (158).

Paul does admirable work discussing the decline of traditional family and religion. I wish he also tackled the role of government and the erosion of limited government ideals in this process. It should be clear by now, at least in terms of libertarian minimalism, an expansive government can both giveth (preferencing traditional marriage in law) and taketh away (same sex marriage, exile of opponents). Though the mass public never sufficiently appreciated the dangers of unlimited state and corporate power, our elites once did.3 Alas, today’s elites are insulated and shallow, excellent sheep seeking status rather than service or meaning, as William Deresiewicz argues in his book about Ivy League students. We cannot rely on them to defend freedom, pluralism, or indeed anything save their own privilege.4 Stated another way, contemporary elites champion gay rights because it helps distance themselves from the rabble, and marks them as deserving in a way that defending property rights, nationalism, or religious liberty does not.

Second, save for a few passages (143-44) Paul fails to explore the cultural contradiction that elites lionize Muslim and other immigrants who have the most traditional of families. Indeed as Charles Glenn shows, American Muslims increasingly choose private schools (including Catholic schools) to avoid untraditional sexual norms and family models.5 One might imagine a coalition of traditional Muslims and Christians, forcing elites to choose between adulation for Islam and sexual revolution. Precedents exist, such as when late nineteenth century Protestant elites directed state funds to Catholic schools, at a time when many considered Papists the greatest threat to democracy.6 Yet creating such coalitions and policies would require centrist and conservative political entrepreneurs more talented than any on the horizon.

Finally, as Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt argue in The Coddling of the American Mind, broader societal changes such as social media and the rise of victim culture (status through victimhood) have enhanced the value of the status markers Paul describes, and eroded our ability to bargain with rather than “educate” others.7 This would seem an essential part of Paul’s story.

That said, From Tolerance to Equality is a compelling work of social science explaining some of the most important and rapid social changes of the past half-century with great insight, and scholarly integrity. This book should be widely read; alas, I fear it will be widely ignored.


1For a sympathetic interpretation of Obama’s quote, see Janell Ross, “Obama revives his ‘clings to guns or religion analysis’---for Donald Trump supporters,” Washington Post, December 21, 2015,

2Joan C. Williams, White Working Class: Overcoming Class Cluelessness in America (Cambridge: Harvard Business Review Press, 2017).

3Thomas R. Dye and Harmon Zeigler, The Irony of Democracy, 12th edition (Belmont, CA: Thomson Wadsworth, 2003).

4William Deresiewicz, Excellent Sheep: The miseducation of the American elite and the way to a meaningful life (New York: Free Press, 2014).

5Charles L. Glenn, Muslim Educators in American Communities (Charlotte, NC: Information Age Press, 2018).

6Dirk C. van Raemdonck and Robert Maranto, “Prisoners of History: Explaining Why Statist Belgium Has School Vouchers While Liberal America Does Not,” Journal of School Choice, 12, no. 4 (2018): 546-66.

7Greg Lukianoff, Jonathan Haidt, The Coddling of the American Mind (New York: Penguin Press, 2018).

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