“We’ve been fighting about gay marriage for what, 15-20 years now. Is there any evidence that fighting gay marriage is contributing to a greater appreciation among the broad society of the marital institution? Is there any evidence that the re-institutionalization of marriage is happening as a result of opposing gay marriage? And the best answer I can give to that is 'no.'” - David Blankenhorn
I’m Mark Oppenheimer and I write the “beliefs column” for the New York Times. Today I’ll be your host for a documentary special from WNPR: David Blankenhorn and The Battle Over Same-sex Marriage. In the next hour, you’ll hear an exclusive interview in which America’s most famous opponent of same-sex marriage announces that he has changed his mind, and he now supports marriage rights for gay and lesbian couples.
David Blankenhorn’s conversion is the latest crazy twist in what is shaping up to be the Year of Same-Sex Marriage. It’s already legal in six states: Massachusetts, Connecticut, Iowa, Vermont, New Hampshire, and New York. And the legislatures in three more states have passed marriage equality bills. Just over a year ago, a Gallup Poll showed that for the first time a majority of Americans favored gay marriage. Last August, a California judge ruled that Proposition 8, which had outlawed same-sex marriage, was unconstitutional. And then, just last month, on May 9, one particularly influential American announced his own change of heart:
Mr. Obama: At a certain point, I’ve just concluded that for me personally, it is important for me to go ahead and affirm that I think same sex couples should be able to get married.
But whatever the polls and President Obama say, there is another side. Twelve states have laws against same-sex marriage, and thirty states have written bans into their state constitutions. Everywhere that it’s been put to voters in a referendum, it has lost. Popular media figures, like Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh, and Glenn Beck, attack same-sex marriage regularly. Major religious organizations, like the Catholic and Mormon churches, fund efforts to stop same-sex marriage. And there are talented, tenacious organizers who have dedicated much of their lives to this cause. Here’s Maggie Gallagher, founder of the National Organization for Marriage, outlining her problems with this change.
Ms. Gallagher: It totally separates marriage from its core public function and its core idea that we as a whole society need to bring together male and female to make and raise the next generation, because children need mothers and fathers … And it changes - and here’s the other part - so it changes what marriage is, it also changes the relationship of the Judeo-Christian tradition to the public square. It is in the process of creating an America where you cannot be both a good citizen and be an outspoken advocate for a Christian understanding of sex and marriage because you will be redefined as a racist in the public square.
Just last month, the day before President Obama came out for same-sex marriage, Gallagher’s side scored a big victory in North Carolina, where voters passed a Constitutional ban, by a margin of more than 3 to 2.
Ms. Jones: State election officials say voter turnout overall was high, largely because of the measure. Creech calls it a great victory for the state.
Ms. Creech: I am thankful because it’s important to keep marriage as it is - between a man and a woman.
Since 2004, when Massachusetts became the first state to enact a same-sex marriage law, this issue has polarized Americans. Everyone knows that. People opposed to same sex marriage often warn of a “gay agenda,” pushed by liberals; supporters of marriage rights think of their opponents as crude bigots.
But those stereotypes don’t really work. Consider David Blankenhorn. If Maggie Gallagher was the pioneering anti-gay-marriage activist, David Blankenhorn is more of the movement’s intellectual. And his credentials might surprise you. He is a Harvard alumnus, a self-described liberal. He said he voted for Obama. After college, he was a community organizer. He thinks there is nothing wrong with being gay, nothing sinful about gay sex. But for years, he has argued, in books like The Future of Marriage, that marriage is such an important institution that it should not be tinkered with in any way, including opening it up to same-sex couples. That’s because, he says, the point of marriage must remain uniting biological parents with their children; anything else is a problem. Here he is on May 9, the very day that President Obama came out for same-sex marriage, talking with me in New York City:
Mr. Blankenhorn: The social procedure that the human species has established is a bi-parental form, whereby the male and the female - whose sex act makes the child, simultaneously makes a commitment to one another to be there together, to raise the child, and is granted by society the legal status of parent … No same sex couple can combine these three dimensions. The biological, the social and the legal dimension. It cannot be achieved. Ever. Ever. The same sex marriage idea is a kind of a standing affront to that principle.
Okay, that was basically what Blankenhorn argued as the prime defense witness in the Proposition 8 trial in California, two years ago. That was the famous trial in which a judge overturned a voter referendum banning same-sex marriages—a case surely headed for the Supreme Court.
During the trial and in the immediate aftermath, Blankenhorn became a national figure; he was a hero to some, but the butt of ridicule from others. And now, he has decided to give up that fight. I should say that we scheduled our interview long before we knew that it would occur on the day President Obama was making his stand on same sex marriage. When we sat down in New York, Blankenhorn and I talked for over three hours. For me, the interview was exciting. I was watching someone very publicly change his mind. And that’s something people almost never do. And I was pretty convinced that he was changing his mind not cynically, like a flip-flopping politician, but authentically, because he had decided that there were more important battles to be won.
Blankenhorn: Sometimes it’s important to stand down a bit from the purity of one’s position in the interest of comity. We need to live together here. Sometimes it’s not being chickenhearted or selling out … You can compromise a bit from the purity of one’s position in the interest of accommodating a broader spectrum of people in the society as kind of full members. You know? You can bend a little bit because we have to live together. And the endless perpetration of a culture war over this is …. enervating … And so nothing has changed in terms of what I said at the trial. And nothing has changed in terms of what I wrote in my book … but, for me, the thing that has changed … is that, I think that, at least for me accepting this reform, accepting gay marriage and focusing on the good things it can do, I think the reasons for doing that, for accepting the change and focusing on the good things it can do … now outweigh the reasons for continuing to oppose it. So that’s the change for me. And I look at it from the point of view today - we’ve been fighting about gay marriage for 10 or 15 years now? Is there any evidence that fighting gay marriage is contributing to a greater appreciation among the broad society of the marital institution? Is there any evidence that the re-institutionalization of marriage is happening as the result of opposing gay marriage? … And the best answer I can give to that is no. It is not. If anything, the opposite is happening.
So let’s be clear. For at least the past five years, opposing gay marriage has been a big part of David Blankenhorn’s life. The people who fund his think tank, the lawyers who called him to the stand in the Proposition 8 trial, the TV hosts who invite him on as a guest: they all believed him to be a reliable voice against same-sex marriage. So, while I think a lot of us suspected that President Obama would eventually come out for same-sex marriage, nobody who knows David Blankenhorn’s work could’ve seen this coming.
But once you hear all of Blankenhorn’s story, including his childhood in Civil Rights-era Mississippi and the work he did after college, you may not be so surprised. It might seem that he’s ending up back where he started. After a short break, you’ll hear how a man of the left ended up on the conservative side of the gay marriage fight...and now how he’s making his way back. I’m Mark Oppenheimer.
I’m Mark Oppenheimer. I write the “beliefs column” for the New York Times and I direct the Yale Journalism Initiative. Today, I’m your host for a documentary special from WNPR, David Blankenhorn and The Battle Over Same-Sex Marriage. We’re listening to an interview recorded May 9 with David Blankenhorn, perhaps the country’s leading foe of same-sex marriage. In 2010, he was the principal witness against gay marriage in the Proposition 8 trial in California. And today, for the first time, we are hearing how he has changed his mind.
To understand his story, let’s begin in Jackson, Mississippi, where Blankenhorn was born in 1955. He was from a middle-class family, the son of an insurance man and a homemaker. He loved his little Presbyterian church, the kind of place where, he says, “everyone knows your name.” He came of age as a white boy during the ongoing struggles for civil rights in the deep south. And he found himself on the side of integration.
Blankenhorn: And that experience of living in that time in that place, in Mississippi, with a lot of relatives in Alabama, too. That was the shaping - outside of my family and church — that was the shaping experience for me — deeply shaping — and it set me on a course for what I’ve done with my life.
As a teenager, Blankenhorn and some friends founded the Mississippi Community Service Corps, a program that brought white and black students together outside the classroom to talk about what they were all going through. They applied for a grant from the Nixon Administration, and got $30,000 for their work.
Blankenhorn: It was a rough period. On the other hand, you felt...I did and other kids that I was working with...felt a kind of exhilaration — we felt that perhaps we were being part of a positive change in the community.
When it came time for college, Blankenhorn did something nobody in his family expected: he went north, to Harvard.
Blankenhorn: Without telling a single soul what I was doing, I filled out the application and sent it in. Whether it was some kind of Southern quota...I don’t know what it was … but there it was. The letter came back and they said “We’re gonna let you go here, but no financial aid.” And my father comes home--old-school tough guy, you know...loves the south...played football in Alabama. I gave him the letter of acceptance and he looks at it for a long time and says, “Well, you know, it’ll cost you about a jillion million dollars.” He looked at it very carefully and he said, “Well, you really wanna go to this Yankee school?” “Yes sir.” He said, “Well, I suppose we can make the sacrifices to send you there.
At Harvard, Blankenhorn continued his social justice work, venturing into poor neighborhoods around Boston. When he graduated, he got a fellowship to study labor history at the University of Warwick, the home of E.P. Thompson, the famous Marxist historian. Blankenhorn wrote a thesis on the history of cabinet-makers’ unions in Britain. His plan was to come back to the United States and get involved with the labor movement, but the job he got in 1978 was with VISTA, the anti-poverty program President Lyndon Johnson had started as a domestic version of the Peace Corps. Blankenhorn began reading the works of Saul Alinsky, the famous organizing theorist who wrote Rules for Radicals.
Here’s an old, undated recording of Saul Alinsky talking to Studs Terkel:
Mr. Alinsky: As long as you respect the dignity of people then they will respond to you …now that sounds like an old cliche … but as long as I respect you … for example, I can’t come to you and say now Studs, this is the way you get this thing done, because what I am really saying to you is look, you dumb son of a bitch - you’ve been sitting around here for years and I’ve got to come along and tell you now this is the way you get it done. So naturally, you’re going to resent it.
Blankenhorn: At that time we all were carrying around Rules for Radicals in our back pocket … Alinsky was like our ultimate teacher for community organizing.
Blankenhorn loved the work: organizing tenants, teaching poor people about their rights, demanding better services from landlords and from the government. “You give yourself over to something larger than yourself,” Blankenhorn told me. He called it a Christian notion of social service and social change.” … the very best use of a life.
Blankenhorn: It came from Jackson, Mississippi, Fondren Presbyterian Church, my family… and then in college it just kind of developed in this pretty similar way. And it really hasn’t changed … I feel like I’ve been doing the same thing since I was 14 or 15.
For five or six years, Blankenhorn worked with poor people in communities like Springfield, Massachusetts; Roanoke; Richmond, Virginia. He helped them organize for improved government services and to fight their landlords. But over time, he began to doubt that government could really solve the biggest problems he saw. After years of working with poor children, most of them black, he decided that without more stable family structures, they were always going to face very steep odds.
Blankenhorn: The first thing you notice is a lot of these children don’t have any relationship to their fathers. Maybe they see their father occasionally, maybe they know who he is. But he’s not in the home with them … he’s not helping to raise them in any coherent - any meaningful way. The moms were under a lot of pressure to play all kinds of roles… but this was enough of a issue … and it was growing that you could just see that a lot of these young men--you could just tell--were going to end up in the criminal justice system …and you just knew that a lot of these young women weren’t going to graduate from high school and themselves become mothers and that was gonna be the deal … It struck me as just...not so much a personal failure on their part … but kind of a societal failure of my god -- why would this be OK?
So Blankenhorn decided that if he really wanted to help poor kids, he had to help their families stay together. In 1985, he told his wife, Raina, that he was going to travel around the country and ask people how to start a think tank. He bought a 30-day Greyhound bus pass and he went on a listening tour, stopping in Virginia, Mississippi, and Washington, DC, asking organizers what he should do to start. To save money, he slept on the buses. At one point, he stopped at the Highlander Folk School, in Tennessee, where Rosa Parks had gotten her training in activism, years before she became famous.
After gathering all the best wisdom he could find, Blankenhorn chose a grandiose name for his new project: the Institute for American Values. His plan was to get community organizers talking about the weakening of what he called civil society, which mainly meant the breakdown of the American family. He wanted to figure out solutions for the problems of divorce, absentee fathers — anything that kept children from having two parents in the home.
Blankenhorn got an office at 57th and Broadway, an office he shared with some Swedish guys who ran a greeting-card business. For $25 a month, he borrowed a desk and a phone.
Blankenhorn: And every once in a while the phone would ring, and it was probably Raina saying “Bring home milk or something,” but every once in awhile it would be somebody and I would answer them saying, “Institute for American Values!” It was just kind of a comedy, you know? Really one of the nice things about America isn’t it? You can just put up a shingle and call yourself something. You don’t have to have any qualifications. You don’t have to have gotten a degree. You don’t have to have stood in a line at some government agency to get a certificate - you can just call yourself whatever it is you want to call yourself and see what happens.
Soon, Blankenhorn’s Institute for American Values was attracting grants from both conservative organizations, like the Bradley Foundation, and more liberal organizations, like the Ford and Annie E. Casey Foundations (both of which happen to fund NPR and its member stations). The institute began to attract major scholars and fund their studies, not just on family breakdown but on other topics, like thrift and generosity.
Now keep in mind: at this point, Blankenhorn is about thirty years old, and he says he’s never spent one minute of his life worrying about same-sex marriage, or even gay people. He’s worried about the breakdown of the nuclear family, which up until that point meant all the ways that straight people had messed up. At a time in American history when people like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson were railing against the homosexual menace, David Blankenhorn had nothing at all to do with that.
In fact, he says he had barely even heard the term “gay marriage.”
Blankenhorn: I remember the first time I ever heard the word I was still a community org. and it was about 1983. And … a fellow organizer of mine … I was telling him I might leave to start a think tank to work on family issues from a community organizing perspective. He said, “Oh that’s great! Gay marriage.” He said, “Gotta have gay marriage!” And I looked at him, and I’d never heard the term before. I honestly didn’t know what he meant. That’s the first time I ever heard the term. And then I promptly forgot about it. ...Ten or 12 years passed, and when we founded the organization we did say there were two things we didn’t want to get involved in b/c of the divisive nature of it, and we thought it would make the whole effort stillborn …we said we didn’t want to get involved in abortion debates … because we had people on both sides of the abortion issue on our board and staff and everything...so we’re not going to get sucked into the abortion wars...and the other thing we said was we’re not gonna get sucked into issues of homosexuality. … We’re not going to fight or propose the gay rights agenda … that’s something we just wanted to bracket as something that we were not involved in because we thought - it turns out with some accuracy, that once you get involved in that, it’s very hard to get out.
So in 1994, Blankenhorn wasn’t at the front of the gay marriage debate yet. He was writing a book about fatherhood. It was called Fatherless America: Confronting Our Most Urgent Social Problem. And after that book came out, Blankenhorn traveled across the country preaching one message: keep fathers in the home. Marriage was important, but not because of some 1950s ideal or to stop people from fornicating. No, marriage was important--Blankenhorn believed--because it was the way societies had always managed, for thousands of years, to keep fathers in their children’s lives. To Blankenhorn, this was something no good liberal could possibly object to.
But then, in 2004, two worlds collided, when a reporter from USA Today called Blankenhorn to ask about the American Psychological Association’s decision to endorse gay marriage. The reporter quoted, to Blankenhorn, one psychologist who believed there was no advantage to having two married, straight parents.
Blankenhorn: And I said well who said that? That is just … I just started going nuts on the phone … friend of mine, but a reporter. And she said ‘Well, it’s a study that’s been put out in support of gay marriage.’ And I said, What? And she said will you make a comment. I said, well this isn’t my fight … I don’t want to have a fight over this. And she said, ‘Oh so - you have no comment on somebody saying that everything you’ve said in the last 10 years about fathers is wrong factually… you don’t have a comment.’ And I said well let me just think about this a minute and call you back...and I put down the phone, thought about it for a minute, and I called her back … and I said, ‘Look, it’s not true that the social science evidence shows that children don’t need fathers.’ And you can quote me on that. So the next day I’m in the USA today against gay marriage. I didn’t want it. I regretted that it happened. And yet, I felt like what exactly was I supposed to do? Because the question was not do you support gay marriage? The question was do you agree with a nakedly false assertion: that scholarship shows that it doesn’t matter whether children have fathers or not...Do you agree or disagree with that? … And here I am, kind of like the fatherhood guy … and I just felt like I couldn’t live with myself if I didn’t say it’s not just wrong, it’s ludicrous … there I go down the rabbit hole...kind of in the debate...in the very thing that I didn’t really want to be a part of...didn’t want to be a part of it at all.
But that clearly wasn’t going to be an option. Blankenhorn was starting to get asked about same-sex marriage everywhere he went, and when his institute held events where the issue was not discussed, they were accused of dodging it. Gay marriage was here to stay, and a man whose whole career was spent talking about family structure was going to be expected to have an opinion. So Blankenhorn decided he had better do some research. He started reading up to see what he thought. And in 2007, he published his own book, The Future of Marriage, in which he surveys thousands of years of history, archaeology, and anthropology to figure out what he thinks about marriage. This is where you can read about his belief that marriage exists to unite a child with his or her biological parents. This book is also where you can find the chapter, tucked in at the very end, where Blankenhorn comes out against gay marriage. And this is the book that the lawyers in California turned to when they were looking for an expert witness to defend the referendum banning same-sex marriage in that state. It was because of this book that Blankenhorn testified in Perry v. Schwarzenegger, the Proposition 8 trial.
Blankenhorn: The attorneys just called and said we’re looking to line up some expert witnesses … and we’ve come across your book... and would you be willing to serve as a witness... and to summarize in your submission to the court... and to be examined and cross-examined… at the Prop 8 trial … would you be willing to speak about what you say in your book?
Oppenheimer - When you decided to testify, you said you knew it was a big deal … was there any moment when your own voice in your head, or your wife, or someone said “Wait a second. This isn’t just another Op-Ed in the WaPo. This is gonna be bigger and scarier?” …
Blankenhorn - Well, certainly that voice in my head said that. I knew that this would take this to a whole other level. But I didn’t quite know what my options were. When they tell you that - this is kind of self aggrandizing - when they tell you we wanna take your argument and this is going to be entered into the court as the argument of the state of California and then this is going to go to the SC and the SCOTUS is indirectly going to be hearing your argument about what is marriage. Something you spent 20 years working on and a few years writing a particular book. When somebody tells you that, you’re supposed to say, no thank you - I don’t want to do that because somebody will call me a bad name. I didn’t feel like, I could live with myself - I mean what other answer is there to that question? I just felt obliged to say yes, b/c I wrote the book b/c I believed it - I still do and I just felt like, you know - just trying to live with myself.
And so in January 2010, Blankenhorn was off to California, to testify in defense of the voter referendum that had banned same-sex marriage. There he would take the stand before Judge Vaughn Walker, and be cross-examined by the legendary litigator David Boies, whom the Justice Dept had once chosen to argue its case against Microsoft. When it was over, Blankenhorn would be ridiculed in The New York Times, and he would be featured in a play by an Oscar-winning screenwriter, starring a bevy of Hollywood stars. In short, Blankenhorn was about to become the most famous gay marriage opponent in the world.
Coming up after the break, David Blankenhorn’s life since the Prop 8 trial … including his change of heart, and his newfound support for same-sex marriage. I’m Mark Oppenheimer.
I’m Mark Oppenheimer. I write the “beliefs column” for the New York Times, and today I’m your host for a WNPR documentary special, David Blankenhorn and The Battle Over Same-sex marriage. So far, we have heard how David Blankenhorn, who identifies himself as a liberal and an Obama voter, became famous as an opponent of same-sex marriage, and as the leading witness in the 2010 Proposition 8 trial in California. Blankenhorn never thought homosexuality was wrong. He has no religious convictions about gay sex being sinful. In fact, he would sometimes begin talks before conservative Christian groups by saying that he believed in the equal dignity of homosexual love. And he never said that that gay men or lesbians made inferior parents.
But as an activist, Blankenhorn’s primary interest was keeping fathers in the home, and he believed one of the best ways to do that was to define marriage as the institution that unites children with their biological parents. Because same-sex marriage deviated from that definition, he was against it. That is what he testified before Judge Vaughn Walker two and a half years ago, in the California Proposition 8 trial - where he was then cross-examined by the highly-respected trial lawyer, David Boies.
After his testimony was over, Blankenhorn was attacked in the media, accused of being unqualified, ignorant, and bigoted. Frank Rich of The New York Times wrote one of the most scathing columns. “You can’t blame the Prop 8 advocates for wanting to keep Blankenhorn off camera,” Rich wrote. “Boies demolished him during cross-examination.”
So I expected that Blankenhorn would not want to talk about that episode. But when he and I sat down on May 9, he said that he actually enjoyed testifying in California.
Blankenhorn: Well, the best time I had was at the trial itself. Because that was when I was actually on the stand and I got to say what I believed.
And Blankenhorn said he did not feel particularly ruffled under cross-examination by Boies.
Blankenhorn: He had a high old time saying that I didn’t have a PhD and that I was just some bumpkin who wrote a book …
You’ll recall that the book Boies ridiculed, Blankenhorn’s master’s thesis about British cabinet-makers’ unions, was Blankenhorn’s early stab at doing left-wing history. The media treated the paper as evidence that Blankenhorn was just an unqualified right-wing chump, with no credentials; but Blankenhorn had written that thesis thirty years ago to prepare himself for a career of left-wing activism. Anyway, to hear Blankenhorn talk about his testimony, he had nothing to be ashamed of.
Blankenhorn: I competently made an argument that he was unable to punch many holes in. Although, of course, if you ask him about it, he says he punched a million holes … and if you ask the Prop 8 plaintiffs they’ll say this was worst witness in the history of witnesses and too stupid to walk and chew gum at the same time, and so on. But I felt good about it. It was only after the trial --- it’s like living two realities.
At the trial, Blankenhorn reiterated his belief that, to judge from history, marriage has always united children with their biological parents. Blankenhorn stands by that testimony. And the truth is, he’s basically right about that--up to a point. That’s one thing that marriage has nearly always done. There are exceptions, of course: elderly people marry, people who never plan to have children marry, people with children from earlier marriages who plan not to have more kids--they get married. But Blankenhorn was right in the basic outline of his testimony: marriage has in great part been about uniting children with their biological parents.
Now, it’s a leap from there to say that including same-sex couples in the institution of marriage will weaken its ability to keep children and parents together. That is the central issue where the marriage-equality camp and Blankenhorn disagreed. But the media accounts of his testimony glossed over the point he was trying to make. Instead, they focused on his lack of a Ph.D., the fact that he had never done original scholarly research on marriage, the fact that even Judge Walker made a comment questioning Blankenhorn’s qualifications.
Blankenhorn: I wouldn’t quite put it that way. I would kind of say they were trying to paint me as a failed witness. A witness who completely failed to make a credible case and was just left in a pool of confusion and should never have even been up there to begin with in the first place b/c he doesn’t have any credentials. Just hardly smart enough to walk in out of the rain. I mean, that was their basic point of view.
It wasn’t just journalists who went after Blankenhorn. The marriage equality camp includes plenty of famous people, Hollywood stars. Earlier this year, the play 8, made its debut in Los Angeles. It was written by Oscar-winner Dustin Lance Black, who wrote the screenplay for Milk, and it starred George Clooney as David Boies and Brad Pitt as Judge Walker. In the excerpt you are about to hear, that’s John C. Reilly playing David Blankenhorn.
George Clooney: And when you say, based on the scholars that have studied this - that’s because you’re simply repeating the things that these scholars say. You’re just a transmitter of the findings of these scholars, is that correct?
John C. Reilly - Well, now you’re putting words into my mouth.
GC- No sir.
JCR - Yes, sir. I was simply trying to report the view of some scholars that I was basing my arguments on … I’m saying there are scholars--respected scholars--who have made this argument based on ethnographic research … and I’ve read them. And that’s the basis for my assertion.
GC - You honor could I ask this witness to be instructed to listen to the question, answer my question, and not make a statement that is not responsive to the question, even if he believes it’s important …
JCR - I don’t need such instruction. My intention is to do exactly that …
Brad Pitt - Mr. Blankenhorn … one of the instructions that the court gives to the jury when an expert witness testifies is to consider the witness's background, training, and all the other evidence in the case … and that other evidence includes the demeanor of the witness...so I would urge you to pay close attention to Mr. Boise’s questions, and to answer them directly and succinctly …so bear that in mind.
JCR - Yes sir. I will
In the play, that laughter was directed at John C. Reilly. In real life it was directed at David Blankenhorn The aftermath of the trial was brutal. Blankenhorn had somehow ended up as a conservative, as an enemy, somebody hated by his old liberal allies.
Blankenhorn: I had an old community organizing buddy who wrote a note to me after the trial and said how does it feel to be America’s most famous bigot? I used to think you were a good person. Now I know you’re a bad person. How does it feel to know that your tombstone will read that you’re just a bigot. My response to him is not repeatable on radio, but I told him what I thought he could do with those thoughts … but it was very painful. Now, you’re asking is there a fear that it’s true? // Well, don’t you think any person who is at all self-reflective would have to worry about that. Sure, I think anybody would, and so I think I probably do, too. Sure, wouldn’t anybody if people were saying this about you? … I don’t lose sleep over that because .. I’m not saying everything I did was right, but I’m saying that I feel a sense of integrity about the things I’ve done on this issue all along. I feel I’ve tried my best to act with integrity. Does it mean I’ve always done that? No. Does it mean I’ve worried about this? Well, I guess, yeah. Not just the reaction, but is it true? Yes. Because how could you not? How could anybody not?
After the trial, something changed in Blankenhorn. He does not entirely know how to describe what happened. Maybe it was some cocktail of the fame, the public abuse, or just getting older. Maybe it’s that he began to fear for his legacy, for how the world would remember him. He definitely saw that gay marriage was happening, and it was likely to spread and wasn’t going away. There was no turning back the clock. Is it too cynical to say that nobody wants to be on the wrong side of history? Maybe that’s not a fair way to put it.
But for whatever the reason, now that he was a famous enemy of gay men and lesbians, he found himself all the more sympathetic to their cause. In particular, he began to think about the fact that they had families, too.
Blankenhorn: I didn’t even know the history of the gay rights movement. So they would say things like...they would quote court cases...and I’d say “Can you just tell me what that is?”...because I was just ignorant. I used to get mad when people would come up to me after talks and they would always wanna say -- these gay and lesbian advocates-- come up to me and show me pictures of their family, saying “I want to tell you that were just like ordinary people. You must think we have horns, but here’s a picture of my daughter.” That really used to bother me, because I felt like saying, “Do you want to see pictures of my children? Do you want me to tell you that I’m a good person?” How am I supposed to respond to this? But now, in retrospect, I can kind of get the point a little bit. It’s the difference between knowing something and really knowing it. … I just don’t think I knew everything about it on the basis of personal relationships … This is the danger for intellectuals in general - they view the issue through the prism of words on a page by prominent people who’ve gotten book contracts … and who are professors at universities… so it’s this kind of crystalline, kind of ideologically coherent argumentation … but you walk out the street, you bump into somebody … you don’t get ideologically coherent argumentation, you just get people trying to make their way through life.
Blankenhorn says he still stands by everything he said on the witness stand two years ago: children need parents, ideally their biological parents; and marriage is our best institution for keeping children together with those parents. But he has now decided, he says, that the interests of same-sex couples take precedence over that abstract objection. He says he has always believed that gay love has just as much dignity, just as much worth, as heterosexual love. But it’s only in the past couple of years, that he has decided that those gay and lesbian families need, or deserve, the same legal recognition. For Blankenhorn, the need for same-sex couples to feel socially accepted now defeats the case for preserving a purely traditional definition of marriage.
Oppenheimer: You know, you live in a state that now has gay marriage. The legislature passed it. But what if it had come for a referendum providing same-sex marriage as a legal option in New York State?
Blankenhorn: Today? In New York? I’d vote in favor. What I’ve come to believe about the issue is that the right to marry the person of your choosing is not only viewed as important in and of itself, but ... the primary importance of it is a societal recognition of the validity of these love relationships … it’s saying that you’re not doing something that you should be ashamed of. You’re doing something that is as worthy and as respectable and as important as what heterosexuals are doing.
Oppenheimer: Is there anyone on either side you owe apologies to?
Blankenhorn: I don’t think so …because I feel I’ve done my best to act in a way that I can live with. I don’t feel that I need to apologize to anyone for that … We’re just fragile people. We’re all lost about half the time. We’re just struggling. We’re half blind all the time. All of us. There’s never purity, or perfection, or everything’s just great, you know...noodle salad at the beach. But, can I live with myself in trying to feel satisfied that I’ve tried to have integrity as a leader on this issue? I do … I basically do not feel that I need to apologize for that.
Above all, David Blankenhorn has decided to stop fighting. He is fifty-seven years old, and he says he still “has a little gas left in the tank.” In the years he has left, he wants to forge alliances with all people interested in building stronger families, whether those people are gay or straight. He has decided that if you want to lower the divorce rate, reduce fatherlessness, lower out-of-wedlock births, there are better ways to do it than to fight gay marriage. He says he wants to get back to basics. How to help kids? That’s what he wants to talk about.
It’s not that Blankenhorn is planning to become a crusader for same-sex marriage. He says that some states may not be ready for it and that it’s not his business to tell people in, say, Mississippi, what they should think. But as for where he stands, I think it’s pretty clear.
I’m Mark Oppenheimer.
You’ve been listening to David Blankenhorn and the Battle over Same-sex Marriage.
Our program was reported, written and hosted by Mark Oppenheimer. You can find out more about his work at markoppenheimer.com
Catie Talarski and John Dankosky are executive producers. Special thanks to Colin McEnroe, John Galiani and John Healey for their production help.