Few subjects prompt acrimonious ideological warfare as effectively and as swiftly as gay marriage. In one corner, social conservatives and some libertarians offer a host of religious and secular arguments against the idea; in the other corner, progressives and activists pile on their mostly emotive counter-arguments. The scene evokes an 18th-century gunship battle, with both combatants firing their broadsides yet despite barrage after barrage, both miss more often than they hit.
No intellectually honest discussion of gay marriage can proceed without a few ground rules:
- Rational discussion requires the concession that local communities have the right to set normative standards that circumscribe the outer bounds of individual behavior. If you believe that “society” (defined variously as the government, or a local cultural group, or local community) lacks the right to set authoritative cultural standards that can bind individuals within that polity, then there’s no possibility of reasonable discussion on the subject of gay marriage. There is simply no way around this barrier: Either you accept that the community can set the boundaries of acceptable social behavior, or you don’t. If you don’t, then your radical individualism — however laudable in principle — sets you in a sociopolitical framework too far removed from mainstream thought and too absolutist in its inclinations to accommodate your views in the context of a pro/con debate. But be careful: Lots of people think “society” has no right to legislate against what they favor, but does have the right to legislate against what they oppose.
- Opposition to gay marriage does not imply anti-gay prejudice. Claims that gay-marriage opposition necessarily constitutes bigotry or homophobia are intellectually dishonest at best and morally grotesque at worst. For the record, this writer is a practicing bisexual who has had relationships with both men and women. My opposition to gay marriage is based on principle, not a disdain for The Other, and I’m perfectly comfortable on a personal level with gay marriage (including participating in one).
- However, prejudice is real and it does play into the debate on a pre-rational level. There’s plenty of disdain for gay folk out there; to pretend that anti-gay sentiment doesn’t color opposition to gay marriage in at least some contexts is to stake a position ridiculous to the point of irrationality.
- Homosexuality occurs naturally. It’s OK to be gay or lesbian, and homosexuals and bisesxuals should enjoy the full scope of their rights and liberties under the law. Adopting a contrary position changes the nature of the debate.
- Marriage as an institution has a purpose that isn’t subject to individual, personal redefinition. Some people choose to view marriage as meaning one particular thing instead of accepting its full definitional context — a situation rather like someone looking up a word in a dictionary, discovering that the word has five different lexical entries then deciding that the word can only mean entry No. 2. Preferential emphasis is one thing; willful blindness to the full scope of the subject is quite another.
- The definition of marriage has both secular and religious characteristics. Sectarian arguments won’t persuade unbelievers, so they won’t be emphasized in this discussion. Sectarian arguments often prove powerful but they only persuade people who are sympathetic to the sect’s epistemological framework. In the context of a broad public debate about gay marriage it’s preferable to set aside sectarian rationale so as to maximize one’s argumentative reach.
Six starting principles. Let’s explore, next, the outer boundaries of the subject matter.
What Marriage Is
In its most fundamental sense, marriage is no more and no less than a legally and culturally respected contractual framework that provides for the rearing of children and offers a socially useful infrastructure for protecting and privileging close-kin relationships while legitimizing the intergenerational transfer of property.
In almost every known civilization, marriage’s first function was to support child rearing. Plenty of evidence suggests that children flourish best in a stable two-mixed-sex-parent household; the evidence is sufficiently compelling that the best study to date, the New Family Structures Survey recently compiled by Texas researcher Mark Regnerus, prompted a violent reaction from sociologists and gay-rights activists, who attacked the conclusions but could not successfully counter the research.
Because of the central role marriage plays in the formation of stable environments for child-rearing, the state has a compelling interest in developing a robust marriage framework.
Marriage’s roots draw nourishment from two separate springs. First, from a biological perspective, traditional marriage marks the social manifestation of pair-bonding for the purpose of mating. Evolutionary biologists suggest that the long-term survivability of offspring is highest with both parents supporting the child during infancy; both parents have a vested interest in their offspring surviving to adulthood. Because a woman always knows that she’s the mother of her child, whereas a man has to take it on faith that the resources he’s expending to raise a child are in fact supporting his child, human pair-bonding keeps men around to support the woman and child and gives the men reasonable assurance that the children they’re raising are their own. Perhaps the best treatment I’ve seen on this point comes from noted scholar Jared Diamond’s short but powerful book, Why Is Sex Fun? — his overview addresses the principles of evolutionary biology that lead to enjoyable sex, pair bonding and child rearing.
Second, marriage provides a legally binding infrastructure to help determine legitimacy (e.g., inheritances and other forms of intergenerational wealth gransfer) and provide for kin support (e.g., a widow’s maintenance or the guardianship of minor children). Without the web of relationships that attend to marriage, chaos would result in any human settlement that wasn’t already comprised of pure-blood kin. Imagine life in an early Iron Age village of 100 people — without universal respect for marriage, any man’s woman is fair game for rape. If parents die, children may simply have their parents’ assets seized by the strongest neighbor and in general authority would flow solely by force of will without being circumscribed by culturally endorsed networks of relationships. In addition, marriage to an “outsider” becomes legitimate, improving the genetic diversity of the local community and building networks among micro-communities. Marriage as a child-rearing institution, then, has proven necessary for human flourishing.
Clear-headed understanding of marriage requires careful delineation of purpose against possible use. Consider the case of a simple hickory hiking staff. The purpose of the staff is to stabilize a hiker’s gait and provide additional support while crossing uncertain terrain. The staff may well permit ancillary uses like serving as a tarp pole, rattlesnake mover or makeshift camera stabilizer, but the purpose of the staff isn’t to do any of those extra things. A thing — a cultural institution as well as a simple material object — has a purpose (a teleology or final cause), but it also admits to ancillary uses that may or may not be related to its purpose. Likewise with marriage: Its purpose is child rearing in a social setting, but its ancillary benefits include nurturing love and helping your mate in old age. Too many conflate “ancillary benefit” and “purpose” in ways that make a clear understanding of marriage more difficult to share across ideological lines.
Over time, marriage as an institution has changed and different cultures have embellished the institution in different ways. Among the wealthy throughout history, for example, marriage rarely dealt with love — parents arranged marriages among their offspring for political or economic advantage. In some places, plural marriage took off; in other places, divorce is illegal. Inheritance laws differ widely, with the British aristocracy adopting an “everything to the firstborn male heir” custom and the French often diluting an inheritance among sons. In some places, marriage is a state affair; in other places, marriage is foremost a religious event that receives civil recognition.
Although the specific forms of the institution change, its purpose — to create a cultural and legal framework for child rearing and intergenerational property transfer — remains constant. And throughout history, there are very few recorded instances of socially acceptable same-sex marriage. Why? Because same-sex couples don’t participate in the purpose of marriage and therefore have no claim to its ancillary benefits.
What Marriage Isn’t
Jonathan Rauch argues, in a book-length treatment, that marriage is merely a culturally and legally recognized relationship for long-term aid and mutual support. As such, its primary goal is to encourage pair bonding, not child rearing. For Rauch, marriage protects against loneliness; child-rearing isn’t a primary focus, and gay marriage in particular provides assorted social benefits like “civilizing” young gay men into less risky relationships. His line of reasoning provides a philosophical framework for much of the pro-gay-marriage argument. The problem with it, though, is that by cutting out child rearing from his definition, he’s made the case for an institution that isn’t marriage. As we’ve noted earlier, you cannot decide that a word with five dictionary entries really only has one, two or three. You cannot write child-rearing and intergenerational property transfer out of the picture simply to re-define the term in a way that fits your latent political preferences and their attendant arguments. Marriage is what marriage is; what Rauch describes is a different institution altogether. (Perhaps, I’d respectfully suggest, civil unions.) In a very real sense, what Rauch did has all the semantic value of pointing at a pitchfork and calling it a “pointy thing” and then suggesting you can use that pointy thing as a shovel because, well, it’s long and has a point at the end.
It’s common among the hipster crowd — the oh-so-trendy folks whose knowledge of complex social issues is no deeper than the smarmy slogans distilled into a bumper sticker or a button — to support gay marriage “until love is equal.” This sentiment confuses the purpose of marriage with its ancillary benefits. The purpose of marriage isn’t to legitimize love. Indeed, if you require the state to affirmatively recognize your emotional attachment to someone else, then you might have a self-esteem problem. Marriage and love aren’t synonyms. The state has no compelling interest in splitting apart or de-legitimizing same-sex love nor does the state have a compelling interest in recognizing it. The state does have a compelling interest in creating a web of legal and financial relationships — that thing we call marriage — to nurture the next generation of citizens. In Michigan, for example, the state is blind to whether two people love each other but pays very close attention to those who enter into marriage, because the state’s interest in raising that next generation is expressed in part through a system of tax credits, tax rates and related benefits intended to support family growth. Because same-sex couples do not raise children except in fleetingly rare instances, the state obtains no greater good from conferring the benefits of child-rearing upon those who don’t procreate — indeed, the state loses dollars in the long run. Thus, from a governmental perspective, supporting same-sex marriage with the financial benefits intended for child rearing constitutes a waste of tax dollars by the state and unjust enrichment by those who receive those benefits.
Finally, many gay-marriage activists claim they’re advocating “equality” but what they’re really fighting for is a very specific lifestyle. They want the social benefit and prestige of marriage and condemn as “haters” any who oppose the goal. Yet it’s instructive to see that the fight for gay marriage is very much a cause célèbre of the wealthy Left — the folks who already have access to money and prestige and power. There’s very little activism among the poor and among minorities for gay marriage. In fact, African Americans constitute the biggest block against it in the U.S., a point that’s making Democratic Party mechanics increasingly strained. Marriage isn’t a marker of social status, a thing to be acquired like a Porsche or a midtown condo or a Pomeranian. That the activism in favor of gay marriage hails mostly from wealthy elites is … curious.
Bad Arguments, Rebutted or Refuted
Many bad arguments muddy the waters:
Gay marriage will “civilize” gay men. In fact, 75 percent of same-sex marriage licenses in San Francisco and Massachusetts were issued to lesbians. Current statistics on gay men raise real questions about whether marriage will do them more harm than good. There’s ample survey data to note that gay men who’ve been together for one year as a couple nevertheless have an average of eight different sexual partners, and that of gay men in a relationship when surveyed, 42 percent of them have been together for three years or fewer. In addition, in jurisdictions that have authorized same-sex marriage or legally equivalent unions, less than five percent of eligible couples pursue marriage in the first place. When you add the social, legal and cultural costs of such marriage-related problems as divorce, property splits, alimony and child custody, it’s not altogether clear that the permanence implied by marriage (despite the impermanence of so many recent heterosexual marriages) is a good fit with current gay culture.
You can’t exclude gays from marriage unless you exclude sterile heterosexuals. It’s a common, sophomoric retort that limiting marriage to those who can naturally reproduce is a farce because sterile heterosexuals, or heterosexuals who don’t intend to procreate, can still get married. Such statements constitute a red herring. No social institution paints with a fine brush; in any case, the institutional cost of testing each and every heterosexual couple for their capacity to procreate would impose significant costs that aren’t offset by avoiding the provision of benefits to non-reproductive hetero couples. Simple cost-benefit arithmetic says it’s expensive to test hetero couples for their fecundity, whereas you can just eyeball same-sex couples for free to know that they are incapable (as a couple) of procreating. Regardless, from a cultural perspective, admitting sterile heterosexuals into marriage reinforces the validity of marriage as both an ideal outcome and a normative institution for mixed-sex couples — a point worth celebrating as an object lesson in cultural success during a child’s socialization.
Objections to gay marriage hail from religious bigotry. The insinuation that the only reason to oppose gay marriage is because one’s pastor wills it constitutes a flimsy straw man. Although it’s true that many faith traditions oppose gay marriage, not all opposition to gay marriage arises from within organized religion. The suggestion that all opposition to gay marriage secretly hails from the pulpit, and therefore may be dismissed, is merely a bald attempt at de-legitimizing the integrity of those who oppose gay marriage.
There won’t be a slippery slope for the redefinition of marriage and families. Some breathless social conservatives complain wistfully about all sorts of potential future redefinitions of marriage along a very slippery slope. While slippery-slope arguments, in themselves, are inherently weak, there’s some evidence that the logic of same-sex marriage doesn’t create the firewall between same-sex marriage and many other sorts of legally sanctioned relationships that proponents claim. For example, the California legislature is debating a bill that would authorize judges to find that some children have more than two legal parents and Brazil recently recognized a civil union consisting of a man and two women. Decrying the slippery-slope argument is harder when you’ve already begun the slalom.
Same-sex partners deserve equal treatment under the law. This point is freely conceded, and any legal impairment ought to be dismantled. However, it’s worth pointing out that marriage in itself, because it excludes homosexuals on a purely functional basis, doesn’t provide a silver bullet. For example, there’s no effective difference in joint ownership of property or banking accounts between married and unmarried couples — in both cases, the paperwork to add a name is exactly the same. Even the lament about visiting a same-sex partner in the hospital is a bit of a diversion, since any patient can allow any visitor at any time, and even things like end-of-life choices are governed by advanced directives, living wills and such — documents that could specify a spouse, or anyone else. Other goods, like retirement benefits, are trickier in that there’s a presumption of intergenerational wealth transfer at stake, and most employers are free to set survivability policies on their benefit plans.
“Marriage equality.” There’s been an astonishingly effective turn of phrase of late, that instead of calling it “gay marriage” we call it “marriage equality,” ostensibly to evoke a parallel to the civil-rights era. The trouble is, the homosexual cause isn’t analogous to the civil-rights movement, insofar as gays can hide their minority status at will whereas a black man or a Hispanic woman cannot hide his or her physiology. You cannot identify a gay person by sight unless that gay person presents himself in a manner that deliberately evokes homosexual stereotypes — for example, by wearing that lovely T-shirt that asks, “Does this cock in my mouth make me look gay?” (Yes, hon. Yes it does.) In any case, the “marriage equality” construct presupposes that barring gays and lesbians from the institution of marriage is, ipso facto, an act of overt discrimination. If you accept, however, that marriage properly understood cannot admit homosexuals, then “marriage equality” becomes a slogan that obscures more than it illuminates. Gay marriage simply isn’t a civil-rights issue in any standard sense of the idea.
Heterosexuals have already messed up marriage. While it’s undoubtedly true that a divorce rate above 50 percent, the trend of “starter marriages” and longer periods of cohabitation have undermined a traditional cultural conception of marriage, no amount of hetero misbehavior serves to change the qualitative definition of marriage such that the child-rearing aspect is removed. It’s unfortunate that straight people have screwed up a good thing, but their behavior doesn’t thereby legitimize further violence against the institution of marriage.
Does it make sense to impose a costly legal framework upon a complex web of interpersonal relationships — including divorce, alimony, property splits, child custody — for a gay population that (statistics show!) is likely to demonstrate a higher relationship churn rate than heterosexuals?
Should states that recognize common-law marriage recognize common-law same-sex marriage? What might common-law same-sex marriage mean for child custody?
Is the benefit of a stable, two-parent (male/female) household upon a child’s long-term success vector sufficient in itself to justify opposition to gay parenting?
If future medical advances allow two same-sex couples to procreate without the use of a surrogate, should the law recognize the couples’ parenthood? If so, must conservatives re-evaluate whether parents so situated have overcome the child-rearing barrier and thus are candidates for civil marriage?
Can homosexuals obtain the effective benefits of marriage without entering into the institution of marriage? If so, then why push the issue?
If homosexuals really respected the institution of marriage in the first place, why are so many activists working so hard to tear it down and replace it with something it isn’t?
An Ideal Outcome?
Compromise is the art of the possible. Remaining affixed to a point in the distant past and clinging to some prior time’s specific implementation of a social institution may feel natural for conservatives, but if conservatives want to “conserve” the institution, they must allow the minimally necessary changes that arise as a given society matures. Liberals, for their part, cannot continue to foster a radical individualism that paints today’s pleasures as the highest good — sacrificing a child (through abortion on demand) or a child’s long-term success (through sub-optimal family structures) simply because adult liberals want to have their cake and eat it, too.
In other words: In this particular ideological debate, I declare a pox on both houses.
Perhaps the best solution is to pull out Solomon’s sword to give each side their half of the baby:
All must accept that marriage exists as the union of one man and one woman oriented toward child rearing, with socioeconomic benefits that reflect the state’s interest in raising new citizens and a body of supporting regulations that protect the intergenerational transfer of wealth and recognize close-kin lineage for the purpose of successor guardianship, etc.
All must support easier access to civil unions. Note that these unions need not be limited to same-sex partners nor be exclusive, nor limited even two people; it’s reasonable that a mother and son who live together to save on expenses could have a civil union that recognizes their shared financial arrangement. Or, the members of a frat house could engage in a group civil union that acknowledges their shared liability or property interest. People could engage in several “civil unions” or “domestic partnerships” at once and these legally recognized relationships could be created or broken with ease. In short, it’s an extension of standard contract law — but one that explicitly identifies social relationships instead of the transfer of goods or services.
Religious marriage should retain its religious character; faith traditions that decline to honor same-sex unions should face no discrimination penalty.
Same-sex marriage warrants further review if and when same-sex couples can routinely procreate without the use of a donor or surrogate.
Inasmuch as I loathe the self-righteous posturing of someone like Rick Santorum, who tells Chicken Little stories about the collapsing sanctity of marriage, I cannot bring myself to support the disestablishment of a cultural institution that has served human flourishing so well for so long. Especially when the argument in favor is so distressingly weak.
You cannot remove child-rearing from the definition of marriage without turning the institution into something that’s different from marriage. And if you do that, then what’s the whole point behind the original redefinition? More than anything, this is a fight over what a word means, and semantic arguments usually aren’t worth the bother.
I am pro-gay. I very strongly desire that gays, lesbians and bisexuals should have equal access to happiness and personal fulfillment. I just don’t think that the argument in favor of gay marriage is persuasive enough; what’s more, I think the motivation behind the push for gay marriage isn’t as pure as it seems. Too many wealthy Progressives are pushing for it as if it were a fashion accessory, with almost no concern about the damage they’re inflicting on institution per se or acknowledgement of their access to alternative options (like civil unions) that are just as effective at rendering the economic and legal framework they need to facilitate long-term loving relationships. And how many urban poor or lower-middle-class minorities are clamoring for gay marriage?
The real solution rests in a different understanding of contract law — one that makes it easier to establish or dis-establish legally recognized and lawfully binding interpersonal relationships.
The rest is merely sound and fury.
[EDIT 9/9 … several post-publish language tweaks.]