Like many other go-to terms -- "moderate," "extreme," "skeptical" and "agnostic" come to mind right off the bat -- "conservative" shouldn't have any content, but is often treated as if it did. It connotes a relation between two or more terms. Think of William F. Buckley's definition from his 1955 mission statement for the fledgling National Review:
A conservative is someone who stands athwart history, yelling Stop, at a time when no one is inclined to do so, or to have much patience with those who so urge it.Of course there's some stupidity here, in the self-pitying and dishonest clause about "a time when no one is inclined to do," since there are always people who are inclined to try to stop history. Liberals are just as apt to claim that they stand alone, or defy the tide. But the definition makes sense, in referring to a relation between people and the present: someone wants to conserve something, but might very well want not to conserve something else. It would apply, as numerous people have pointed out, better to a New Deal Democrat trying to preserve the legacy of FDR than to someone like Buckley, Barry Goldwater, or Ronald Reagan, who wanted to dismantle the American system then in place and replace it with something radically different. Those who claim to wish to return to bygone days seldom really want to; they generally are historically illiterate, and don't know what the bygone days were like. What they dislike is the present.
Consider a 1986 PBS documentary called The AIDS Show, about a revue staged by a San Francisco theater troupe. I quote from memory: a group of gay men are sitting around talking about how AIDS has affected their lives. When someone mentions safe sex, one of them bursts out, "I'm tired of hearing about safe sex! Look: I like to get drunk, take drugs, and go out and have sex with strangers. You can call me old-fashioned, but that's what I like." That character's position should qualify as conservative, even essentially conservative, in the context of gay men's culture. So, for that matter would be the closet, leading a double life, marriages of convenience, gender transgression (from men referring to each other as "she" to drag), diva worship, and so on. Indeed any appeal to culture, be it queer or gay or lesbian or what have you, is likely to be a conservative if not reactionary move: thus far and no farther!
Despite my reservations about the whole project, I'm not so sure that gay marriage is an essentially conservative cause. Nor is it essentially progressive. It can be seen as either, or neither. The first thing you have to notice is that those who are usually called conservatives in the US political map have not exactly rushed to embrace the idea. Neither, for a long time, did those who were usually styled liberals, though it's certainly legitimate to question whether the likes of Barack Obama and Bill Clinton should be called liberals. As Nancy Polikoff pointed out, the gay marriage movement seems to be dominated by people with otherwise reactionary views on marriage that they hold in common with the right-wing marriage movement:
... [S]ame-sex marriage supporters borrow from flawed marriage-movement arguments that further a political agenda historically out of line with the gay rights movement. For example, psychology professor Gregory Herek argues for marriage rather than civil unions by referencing that “heterosexual cohabiting couples do not derive the same advantages as married couples from their relationships.” But critics of the marriage movement point out that such claims are based on bad science, reflecting “selection effect” and assuming a causal connection that cannot be proven. Similarly, cultural anthropologist Gilbert Herdt and psychiatrist Robert Kertzner assert that because “marriage supports mental and physical health,” the ban on same-sex marriage “compromises the well-being [of lesbians and gay men], that of their children, and the well-being of future generations.” …Of course, if these views are "historically out of line with the gay rights movement," rejecting them is the conservative thing to do.
Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders has expressed the belief that the marriage of lesbian and gay couples will strengthen the institution of marriage, not weaken it, as though strengthening the institution of marriage, on the terms that rhetoric is usually deployed, is an unqualified accomplishment. When the marriage movement speaks of strengthening the institution of marriage it is always in a context that asserts the superiority of marriage [Beyond (Straight and Gay) Marriage, Beacon Press, 2008, 99].
Marriage might well be "conservative" for heterosexual couples and "progressive," even radical, for same-sex couples. A conservative stance on homosexuality would entail that gay people remain invisible, silent, closeted. Conservative gay people, the kind I met and argued with in the 1970s and after, would agree. Why do you have to advertise your sex life? they'd ask peevishly, much like their heterosexual counterparts: My private life is nobody else's business. Legal marriage, which entails putting your couplehood on public record, registered with the state, entails leaving the closet, and I've often been amused by closeted people who nonetheless wanted a marriage license: to get that piece of paper, they'd have to declare their sex lives publicly. Even if they didn't take out a wedding announcement in the local paper, the issuance of a license would be published. If you're married, that person you're living with can no longer be euphemized as your friend, your longtime companion: that person becomes your spouse, and it's been revealing how many gay people who want the social and historical baggage that comes with marriage are queasy about the social and historical baggage that goes with husband and wife.
When I've pointed all this out, the reactions I get told me that they hadn't really thought through the implications of their position. The same was true of those who said they wanted government to get out of the marriage business, ignoring the fact that a marriage license and all the benefits and privileges it bestows are the result of government getting into the marriage business.
True, a lot of gay people seem to think that legal marriage will prove to straights that we are sober, responsible, respectable people, just like heterosexuals. But the right-wing backlash to the drive for same-sex marriage has shown how naive such a belief is, so it's strange to see that a self-styled queer vanguard seems to share it. And of course there's a lot of hypocrisy among the advocates of same-sex marriage. As a group we probably are as sober, responsible, and respectable as straight people are, as a group -- which isn't very. But hypocrisy, defined as the homage vice pays to virtue, is a very conservative practice.
I've mentioned before Duncan's First Law of Gay Respectability, which holds that if gay people want to have a “respectable” public life, we have to have a “scandalous” private life, and vice versa. The exact content of a respectable public life and a scandalous one has changed over the past few decades, thanks to generational changes in straights' attitudes toward homosexuality. I've also observed that presenting ourselves so as to please straight people is a hopeless exercise, since some straights are more comfortable with gender-compliant (not "stereotypical") gays and others are more comfortable with gender-noncompliant ("stereotypical") ones. No one approach will work across the board, so I've been skeptical for decades about buzzwords like "assimilation," "transgressive," "conservative," "liberal," and "radical." It's not always possible to avoid using them, but they are mirages that recede as one pursues and tries to capture them.
It's essentialist to posit that gay people should be "outlaws," just as it is to claim that we should be respectable citizens. Like straight people, we aren't by nature anything. Human sexuality is expressed in many different ways, some of which are invalid and other of which aren't. I see many prescriptions about what sex and love should be for; some I agree with and others I don't, but none of them is universal or mandatory.