IT’S HARD TO IMAGINE A MORE overwhelming vote on a controversial issue than the one that occurred on November 8, when Texans spoke loud and clear in their opposition to same-sex marriages. The mandate from the voters to place Proposition 2 in the state constitution (even though such a prohibition already exists in statutory law) was more than three to one. One hundred and four counties supported the measure by more than 90 percent. A friend from East Texas told me that his home county, Anderson, had voted 91 percent for Prop 2. “Does that mean that nine percent of Anderson County is gay?” I asked him. “It means that nine percent can’t read,” he answered. Of the state’s 254 counties, 253 supported it. All I can say is, How can so many be so wrong?

Of course, I live in Travis County, the only county to vote down Prop 2. It wasn’t even close. While the rest of the state was for it by more than 78 percent, Travis voted just a tick short of 60 percent against it. Well, what can you expect from the only county north of Interstate 10 to vote for John Kerry (no, I didn’t do that) and from the city of Austin, the last bastion of Texas liberalism?

I voted with the majority—in Travis County, that is—and I’m proud of my vote. But liberalism had nothing to do with it. I believe that a vote for same-sex marriage is a conservative vote—not the evangelical conservatism of today, to be sure, but a more classical conservatism that upholds the freedom of the individual and the importance of order and stability in society. I believe in the values of marriage, commitment, and family. My wife, Sarah, and I have been married for 28 years and two weeks at this writing, and we have raised three children to what some would call adulthood. Never once in that time has it occurred to either of us that allowing same-sex marriages would threaten the institution of marriage, as opponents have averred. There are threats aplenty to the institution of marriage—divorce, infidelity, abuse, ennui, thoughtlessness, and, my particular demon, the irresistible urge to make the right rejoinder at the wrong time—and my challenge, as I have seen it, is to keep me from being a threat to the institution of marriage.

Allowing gay marriages would have positive benefits for society. Is it better to perpetuate a lifestyle that must be very difficult—struggling with coming out of the closet, trying to find a partner, cruising bars and other meeting places, and forming and dissolving relationships—or is it better to give couples the chance to form more-lasting bonds? From society’s viewpoint, the answer is clear. Same-sex marriage reduces promiscuity, stems the spread of AIDS, and provides homes for children who have no families. It solves legal problems, such as whether a partner can make medical decisions, inherit property, or qualify for insurance benefits. It allows for orderly dissolutions of marital ties and divisions of property. For heterosexual people who don’t want their children exposed to the gay lifestyle—that is, same-sex public displays of affection—marriage provides a path to privacy. Finally, I think marriage to the right person is a true blessing, and I don’t believe that anybody should be deprived of happiness by law. Didn’t the Declaration of Independence have something to say about that?

Opponents of gay marriage might suggest that gay couples should just live together without getting married, especially since more and more employers allow their workers to include domestic partners in their health insurance programs. Oh, swell. Talk about a threat to the institution of marriage: You can get the benefits without the commitment. I think that’s bad public policy. If it were up to me, my Prop 2 would prohibit such benefits for unmarried couples, gay and heterosexual alike. If you want the goodies, you should have to get married. Is that discrimination against singles? You bet it is. Society has every right to institutionalize a preference for marriage.

But does it have every right to institutionalize a preference for heterosexuality? Well, it is institutionalized, in our instinct to propagate the species. No parent wants his or her offspring to grow up to be gay. Children are all we know of immortality. We want our children to have children, so we can live on through our genes.

I saw the preference for heterosexuality emerge as my children grew up—not so much through their own attractions, for these secrets they kept to themselves, but through their vocabulary. They knew better than to use racial epithets, but around the time Joel, my older son, hit the third or fourth grade, he brought home new taunts for his younger brother. “That’s so gay,” he would say, or “You’re such a fag.” In the collision between political correctness and the endless young-male search for put-downs, “gay” and “fag” apparently had become the only acceptable discriminatory remarks. I asked him what “gay” meant, and he said, “You know. Stupid.” Too bad Arnold Schwarzenegger hadn’t yet come up with “girlie man.”

I didn’t even know that such a thing as homosexuality existed when I was growing up. All I cared about at age fourteen was sports. I was in middle school, and somehow I landed the job of phoning in the results of the Lovenberg Seagulls football and basketball games to the Galveston Daily News. A reporter was my contact, and one night, after I had finished dictating my story, he asked me if I would like to come over to his house some evening and talk about sportswriting. I was very excited at the prospect. My mother was not. My father was no longer living, so she called in the marines—a stern cousin who told me about men who liked to touch young boys—and may have made another call as well. All I know is that I continued to phone in sports results, but a different voice was on the other end of the line, and the reporter’s byline no longer appeared in the paper.

It is not possible to grow up so clueless today. Gay issues arise in the course of our daily lives, and we are forced to decide how we feel about them. Should gays be protected by hate crimes laws? If we’re going to single out some classes of crime victims as having been more terribly dealt with than others (a proposition I have some doubt about), then I suppose gays should be protected along with other groups. Should gays be allowed to serve in the military? “Don’t ask, don’t tell” is a hedge—and that’s why I like it. It gives gays the ability to serve their country without making it a right that ties the Army’s hands in egregious cases. Should gays be protected by civil rights laws—for example, from being fired from a job because of their sexual preference? Sure. People who feel differently argue that such laws validate the gay lifestyle, which goes against their religious beliefs. But I am trying to look at such issues from the viewpoint of policy, not theology. I believe people ought to be judged on how they perform, not on what they do with whom in their bedroom.

Then there are the issues that can’t be legislated. Is sexual preference genetic or a choice? This question matters because most proponents of gay marriage argue that sexual preference is genetically determined, while opponents disagree. The scientific evidence for the existence of a gay (male) gene is inconclusive. Here I hedge again; I believe it’s both genetic and a choice, that inclination and influence are two ends of a continuum. Should public affection between homosexual couples be allowed in public schools? This is a real concern for parents who believe that sexual preference is a matter of choice and that their kids’ choice can be influenced by such displays. What should the school’s responsibility be? In Garden Grove, California, a high school principal removed an openly lesbian girl from school because she was hugging and kissing her partner in full view of their classmates. The principal subsequently informed the girl’s parents that their daughter was gay. The daughter, who ranked in the top 5 percent of her class, sued the principal for invasion of privacy, and a judge recently ruled that the lawsuit can go forward. Why couldn’t the girl just obey the principal’s request to be discreet? I guess any parent who has raised a teenager knows the answer to that question. Is the alternative for school administrators to serve as the kissing police? Good luck.

In Texas, the next battleground for the anti-gay element is adoption. For the past several legislative sessions, a few lawmakers, notably state representative Robert Talton, of Pasadena, have tried to block adoptions by homosexuals, without success. I have to admit that if Sarah and I were trying to adopt a child, and we lost out to a gay or lesbian couple, I would go berserk. All other things being equal, preference should be given to heterosexual couples because to be raised in the prevailing lifestyle is in the best interests of the child. But to bar gay couples from adopting is cruel, both to the parents and to the children. This is particularly true in the case of foster children, who have been taken away from their parents and are wards of the state. Although no statistics are kept, it is widely thought that a significant percentage of foster children in Texas are taken in by gay and lesbian couples. Where will these children, most of whom have suffered abuse and neglect, end up if gays are legally barred from adopting them? What hope will they have? Critics of gay adoption, confusing homosexuality with pedophilia, have suggested that gays will continue the cycle of abuse. It is a specious argument, but specious arguments are not unknown to the Texas Legislature.

The ban on gay adoption has failed in the past because prominent lawmakers in both parties who care about the fate of foster children have been able to speak against it. But the fight against gay adoption has previously been the lonely crusade of Talton and a few other legislators. The question now is whether the success of Prop 2 will embolden the hard-core conservative base of the Republican party to make gay adoption a litmus-test issue, as they were able to do for gay marriage. I hope not. It would be terrible public policy. But if there should be another statewide vote, I will be proud, once again, to mark my ballot “no.”