Since 1999, domestic partnerships have granted same-sex couples virtually all the legal rights associated with marriage. Gay couples now have hospital visitation rights, adoption rights, sick care leave rights, and so on. To be sure, domestic partnerships are not the same as marriage, but they do grant similar liberties.
Strictly speaking, gay marriage represents a symbolic rather than a material victory for the gay community. With hospital visitation and other key rights already having been granted by domestic partnerships, gay marriage in itself adds little more than a title to relationships that are already recognized by the state on a de facto basis. On balance, the benefits of legalizing gay marriage are important, but relatively small.
In contrast, the costs of legalizing gay marriage could lead to negative results that might cost the gay rights movement heavily, at least in the short run. Within America, traditionalists will see gay marriage as a huge, visible target, and their movement to pass a federal amendment banning gay marriage—which would override California’s initiatives—will be turbocharged. Formerly apathetic conservatives would suddenly be awakened from their slumber, and funding for traditionalist groups could double or triple within a few years. This could lead not just to the repeal of gay marriage, but also to the loss of hard-won gains that the gay rights movement has accumulated over the years.
Outside the U.S., anti-American sentiments will be inflamed in billions of highly socially-conservative countries like China, India, Africa, Latin America, and the Islamic world. Most of those people probably aren’t aware of what a domestic partnership is, but they would have a very fixed and traditional idea of what they think marriage is. This might even lead some countries to clamp down further on gay communities within their own borders.
The gay rights movement is not a monolithic bloc. To support gay rights does not mean that one must vote against every anti-marriage proposal that happens to come along. Strategically, it might be in the gay rights movement’s best interest for Proposition 8 to pass. Opposing this bill at this inopportune time will add little and subtract much from the gay rights movement, both at home and abroad.