A common conservative complaint in the debate over same-sex marriage is that efforts to expand the institution of marriage to include same-sex couples amounts to a will-to-power that recognizes no preexisting reality, but instead seeks to reshape it according to the whims and dictates of radical revisionists. A recent example comes from R.R. Reno at First Things who writes:
If marriage can be reshaped to accommodate same-sex couples, then there is nothing that the modern liberal state cannot redefine to serve its own purposes.
Reno goes on to claim that
[m]ost who defend traditional marriage hold that our body of law should recognize the reality of marriage, while liberals tend to take the view that our legal system creates the institution of marriage, and therefore can reshape and recreate it as the democratic majority (or in this case a judicially empowered minority) sees fit.
Even apart from the tendentious phrasing (the “liberal state” isn’t the actor here; it’s people, largely gay people and their straight allies, who are seeking this change), this way of characterizing the issue, to my mind, gets things backwards. The movement for marriage equality isn’t an attempt to “redefine” reality (as though “marriage” exists as some sort of eternal Platonic universal), but an attempt to recognize reality and adapt social institutions accordingly.
The reality is that long-term, monogomous same-sex relationships exist that exhibit the same relevant qualities as the straight relationships which are already recognized in law. I’d be willing to bet that most people who switch from opposing same-sex marriage to supporting it do so because they encounter this reality in the flesh and realize that it’s only fair for social institutions to recognize it. In other words, the reality of marriage is the relationship; the legal and social institutions that recognize and support it are what need to be tweaked from time to time.
This is what makes the movement for same-sex marriage a conservative effort in some ways. Conservatives like to lecture liberals about taking account of reality as it is, not as we might like it to be. This ethos can be taken too far, but it does provide a useful check on pie-in-the-sky utopian dreaming. By that standard, a “conservative” approach would seem to be to stop pretending that gay people are going to go away, either by disappearing back into the closet or by changing their orientation by means of some dubious “therapy.” Instead, a realistic conservative should recognize that same-sex relationships exist, that they are, like their straight counterparts, generally benign, and that social institutions should account for and support them.