Disney Legalizes Same-Sex Unions

Real social change doesn't come from Washington.

Gay couples are now free to buy a Fairy Tale Wedding package at Disneyland, Disney World, or Disney's cruise ships, with "a ceremony setting befitting the dreams of a princess." The Disney properties have long allowed same-sex couples to tie the knot on the premises, but this is the first time those unions are being given official sanction. The Magic Kingdom has thus proved itself more progressive than the motherland, or as progressive as you can be while throwing around the word "fairy."

The reactions have ranged from the anti-gay activist Sonja Dalton's remark that this would be "a fantasy wedding indeed" to the gossip site TMZ.com's depressed discovery that homosexuals can be tacky too. (It's called camp, darlings.) But the most interesting fact here is just why Disney would change its policy. It wasn't because regulators ordered it to do so. If anything, the government has been increasingly unfriendly to gay unions, with multiple states passing laws refusing to recognize same-sex marriages. Nor was it pressure from activists, though The Advocate reports that "the change follows criticism from LGBT news outlets." (From the other side of the issue, the Southern Baptist Convention boycotted the Disney empire from 1997 to 2005 because of its "promotion of homosexuality.") It was the fact that two potential customers asked to purchase the service, and the company decided it had more to gain from saying yes than saying no.

This is why I don't buy what has been called the Hayekian argument against gay marriage, after F.A. Hayek, the economist and philosopher who celebrated social orders that emerge from below rather than being imposed from above. Jonathan Rauch—who doesn't buy the argument either—summed it up in a 2004 article for Reason. The position, he wrote, "warns of unintended and perhaps grave social consequences if, thinking we're smarter than our customs, we decide to rearrange the core elements of marriage. The current rules for marriage may not be the best ones, and they may even be unfair. But they are all we have, and you cannot re-engineer the formula without causing unforeseen results, possibly including the implosion of the institution itself."

My objection: Marriage isn't being re-engineered. It is evolving in an impeccably Hayekian fashion, as folkways appear on the ground and are gradually ratified by imitation, then market acknowledgement, and then, only lastly, by the law. For eons, same-sex couples have quietly lived as though they were married. As social mores changed and gays came out of the closet, so did those longtime-companion relationships. Before long, lovers were holding their own marriage ceremonies, which were not recognized by the government or (at first) by any established church but did carry weight with family, friends, and neighbors. Couples started to draw up marriage-like contracts, in an effort to establish rights privately that they couldn't acquire publicly. Businesses had to decide whether to extend benefits to gay spouses; with time, more and more did.

All this happened without legislators or judges taking the lead. It happened because a certain number of gay people wanted to live as married, then slowly established institutions that allowed them to do so. Legalizing gay unions—I don't really care if the government calls them "marriages," because what's important is what everyday people call them—doesn't rearrange a core social institution. It recognizes a rearrangement that is already taking place.

The smartest conservative critics of gay marriage understand this. The traditionalist writer Bryce Christensen once published an essay titled "Why Homosexuals Want What Marriage Has Now Become," which said plainly that "homosexual weddings constitute the predictable (not natural, but entirely predictable) culmination of cultural changes that have radically de-natured marriage. Once defined by religious doctrine, moral tradition, and home-centered commitments to child rearing and gender complementarity in productive labor, marriage has become a deracinated and highly individualistic and egalitarian institution." The roots of the change, he wrote, went back to the rise of the industrial economy, when "most men left behind the traditional household economy which had reinforced wedlock for millennia, leaving their wives to work alone in a functionally diminished home."

For Christensen, gay marriage is another step in the wrong direction. But you could as easily argue that even if you find all those changes objectionable, they amount to one less reason to deny gays the same rights as heterosexual couples, one less reason to expect same-sex unions to undermine society. Nor are those changes entirely irreversible—it is possible to imagine a household economy reemerging in a post-industrial context, though there would be substantial differences between it and its pre-industrial counterparts. For one thing, it might be a gay couple now manning (or womaning) the home-based enterprise, with some adopted kids on the premises.

Meanwhile, the world we live in now is increasingly willing to embrace homosexual unions, even if many Americans—and most states—haven't gotten there yet. For an extra fee, couples buying the Fairy Tale Wedding can hire Mickey and Minnie Mouse to attend as guests, sitting in the audience in formal wear. If Mickey is cool with gay marriage, the rest of the country can't be that far behind.

Jesse Walker is managing editor of reason.

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