During the 1996 congressional debate on the Defense of Marriage Act, gay rights activist Andrew Sullivan was asked if legalized gay marriage wouldn't simply send society sliding down a 'slippery slope,' where the next thing on the agenda would be legalized polygamy. 'To the best of my knowledge, there is no polygamists' rights organization poised to exploit same-sex marriage and return the republic to polygamous abandon,' Sullivan retorted.
It wouldn't be the last time that a gay rights activist would publicly distance the movement from other sexual minorities. In 2003, Republican Senator Rick Santorum unloaded the same sort of argument on an Associated Press reporter: 'If the Supreme Court says that you have the right to consensual (gay) sex within your home, then you have the right to bigamy, you have the right to polygamy, you have the right to incest, you have the right to adultery. You have the right to anything.' In response, David Smith, the communications director of the Human Rights Campaign, said that it was outrageous for Santorum to put being gay on the same legal and moral plane as a person who commits incest. 'That is repugnant in our view and not right,' he said.
There are a few important lessons to be gleaned here. First, social conservatives see the slippery slope as a poison arrow that can prevent all-out gay marriage, and they will use it again and again. Second, gay marriage advocates will say anything to distance gays and lesbians from other sexual minorities: the polygamous, the swingers, the S&M practitioners, and those rare couples that happen to be related.
This arms-length strategy is good PR. The reality, though, is that non-gay sexual minority groups are doing exactly what Sullivan said was improbable in 1996: they have formed political organizations to fight for their rights.
Perhaps the strongest of these non-gay organizations is the National Coalition for Sexual Freedom (NCSF), an umbrella organization that caters to the needs of transgendered/transsexuals, intersexuals, swingers, polyamorists, and BDSM practitioners (bondage/discipline, sadism/masochism, dominance/submission). Founded in 1997 and headquartered in Washington, D.C., NCSF does media relations work for more than 500 local groups and handles more than 600 information requests each year. NCSF scored an unprecedented amount of positive publicity in January 2004 when Time published a balanced profile of a BDSM couple.
Among the smaller pro-polyamory organizations: the Polyamory Association, the Polyamory Society, and Loving More, which publishes a magazine by the same name. Two organizations that advocate for first cousin marriage, C.U.D.D.L.E. International and Cousin Couples, received a huge boost in 2003 when the Journal of Genetic Counseling discredited the widely held belief that the offspring of first cousin marriages have significantly more birth defects. The Institute for 21st Century Relationships, another umbrella group, hosts well-attended seminars on activism and media relations for non-gay sexual minorities.
As these groups continue to earn publicity, gay marriage proponents will increasingly see their argument attacked on both flanks. Liberals and progressives will begin to chastise those activists who sell their principles of sexual liberation down the river in the name of media spin. Those who decide to align themselves with these groups risk being viewed as extremists. Either way, it's a good guess that, like it or not, gay marriage proponents are about to start sliding down that slippery slope.
Comments? Story tips? Write a letter to the editor
Like this? Want more?Subscribe to Utne magazine