At War With the Next Generation
(And no, I do not mean Star Trek.)

It's Independence Day, and there's protests out at the Texas Capitol today both for and against gay marriage. I was planning to go with some friends, and then exhaustion (three hours of yard work yesterday evening, and one today in the hot sun) and the desire for socializing over barbecue entered, and we decided to get together over grilled food instead. This in spite of the fact that we are all strongly in favor of gay marriage (and several of the friends will not be able to marry their current partners unless the law changes). What this means is that I've been thinking about gay marriage all day, and also thinking that, since I didn't go to the protest, I need to speak out in some other way. And so here I am, writing about something that I haven't seen a lot about, in all the many discussions of gay marriage that are out there: how the proposed constitutional amendment represents the conservatives once again telling younger generations, "screw you." Bear with me and I'll explain...

Survey after survey indicates that support for marriage rights is heavily skewed by generation. While older survey respondents tended to oppose gay marriage by a substantial margin, the majority of younger ones were in favor - in a USA Today poll, two out of three 18- to 29-year olds believed gay marriage would either have no impact on society or would improve it, and a Hamilton College/MTV poll suggested that almost seven out of ten high school seniors were in favor of gay couples' right to marry.

What do we learn from this? Two things:

For one, younger generations are far more comfortable with the idea of gay marriage, and have a more relaxed attitude toward queerness in general. More gay people are coming out younger and younger, and more young straight people have openly gay friends and relatives. Straight people with gay friends and relatives - or even (gasp!) straight people who watch a few episodes of HBO's Six Feet Under - are inoculated against the right-wing or Christian-fundamentalists attempts at demonizing gay people. Gay marriage represents the decline of the American family? Young people are, more likely than not, going to respond to that suggestion by saying, "Hey! That's my friend you're talking about!"

The other lesson to be learned from this is that the Federal Marriage Amendment represents conservatives' close-to-last-ditch effort to preserve their values in the face of ever-growing resistance. Resistance which, as Voyager's Seven of Nine would remind them, is futile. (Jeri Ryan, who played Seven of Nine, recently cast a fascinating light on the personal life of one "family values" Republican, her ex-husband and congressional candidate Jack Ryan, who on the one hand lamented the breakdown of the traditional family unit and on the other hand tried to get his wife to have sex with him at sex clubs in front of an audience.) Given the fact that the younger generations are so heavily in favor of gay marriage, conservatives are doing whatever they can to preserve their own vision of America, ignoring the voice and the interests of the younger generation - and breaking the generational contract as they do so.

The generational contract - the notion that those in power should be acting in the interest of those yet to come - has, of course, been out of whack for quite some time now. Nowhere is that more clear than in the current administration. Tax cuts? Sure - for quickie payoffs now and huge debts later. War? Sure - who cares if we need to spends years rebuilding our international relations, or if this war spawns the threat of increased terrorism further down the road. Not to mention the problems that returning soldiers will have, both with their reintegration into society and health problems like post-traumatic stress disorder (1 in 5 Iraq veterans already suffer from this) or Gulf War Syndrome (linked to the use of depleted uranium, currently in heavy use in U.S. artillery shells), and the problems that soldiers' families face with their prolonged absence. But hey - who cares? Someone else will have to deal with that. And there's the environment - the so-called Clean Air Act which allows more pollution, and the cavalier attitude toward increased arsenic levels in the water (to pick merely two of many). These have serious health repercussions, among them increased asthma and cancer rates - but again, it's not the Bush administration's problem. The problems won't be clear until much further down the road, when Bush is safely back in the private sector and the younger generation, stuck with the consequences, will have to clean up his mess.

Hence the push for not merely a law banning gay marriage, but a constitutional amendment. After all, the so-called Federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which prohibits the federal recognition of gay marriages, already passed during the Clinton administration. Isn't a constitutional amendment just overkill?

Well, yes.

Except for that pesky generational problem.

Because a law is fairly easily reversed - not only by the courts, but by the legislature, which needs a simple majority in order to pass new laws or overturn previous ones. By the look of things, we'll have that legislative majority against the DOMA in a generation or two. A generation or two is a long time to wait, and it's entirely possible that it'll come sooner, especially if we keep protesting, writing to our representatives, and agitating for gay rights. But regardless: the will of the people is already changing, and the law will eventually be changed to reflect that.

But a constitutional amendment - that's a much harder thing to pass, and a much harder thing to reverse, as we saw with the ill-conceived amendment that gave us Prohibition: you have to pass another amendment to inactivate a previous amendment. And the push for a constitutional amendment is the conservatives' admission that they know they're acting against the interests and opinions of the younger generation. The DOMA is not enough; facing a country that is slowly but inexorably changing its views toward gay people, conservatives want to enshrine their rapidly more out-of-date values in the Constitution, knowing that constitutional change is a far slower process than changing laws.

Luckily, it looks like they won't even get the constitutional amendment through Congress, let alone through ratification by the necessary three-quarters of the states. In a cynical move, cultural conservatives are pushing for a vote anyway, hoping to use a vote against the losing amendment as a club with which to beat Democrats come November. The vote shows not only the cynicism of the conservatives, but also, more clearly than usual, the screw-the-next-generation politics they espouse. XX percent of young people for gay marriage, and rising? Who cares? The coming generations have been screwed by political decisions, decisions made against the interest of younger generations, for years. Why change now?

All of this makes me hope for serious change come November. It also makes me hope that those of us who support gay marriage rights - and who support other goals that will make life easier, rather than harder, for future generations - will speak up, speak out, donate money, and go vote. It's time to remind the old folks that they're in it for us, and that we're in it for future generations not yet born.

And that reminder is long overdue.

4. July 2004

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