I wasn’t planning to devote quite so much space to commentary on the same-sex marriage debate, but Maggie Gallagher’s guest-blogging at The Volokh Conspiracy piqued my interest. (My earlier blogposts on the subject can be found here and here.)
First, my basic position. I think that ending the social and legal persecution of homosexual men and women has been one of Western culture’s greatest cultural and moral victories in our time. I think that sexual orientation is largely innate, and that discrimination against gays in the workplace, housing, and other matters is gravely wrong (and should be illegal if we agree that other types of identity-based discrimination by private businesses can be outlawed — in other words, you can’t be selectively libertarian about anti-gay discrimination if you have no problem with the government prohibiting race or sex discrimination). However, like the movements for gender and racial equality, the gay liberation movement has had its excesses and extremes, including attempts to portray heterosexuality itself as an oppressive institution and/or a social invention. To state the obvious, sexuality evolved as a reproductive mechanism, which strongly suggests that the primary biological template of human sexuality is heterosexual (though a large percentage of humans probably have some bisexual potential). It seems fairly clear to me that homosexuality is a morally neutral variation on that template. Equal treatment for gay men and women is a laudable goal; dismantling “heteronormative” culture is a socially divisive utopia.
As various polls show, the vast majority of Americans now support full equality for gays in most areas of life. What’s being debated now is equality not just for gays and lesbians as individuals, but also for same-sex relationships.
On one level, I believe this is a question of basic equality. When a gay man is barred from making medical decisions on behalf of his longtime partner; when a lesbian who wants to be a stay-at-home mom cannot get coverage under her partner’s health insurance plan; when a same-sex couple is not allowed to pool their credit the way a married straight couple would be — the injustice is obvious. What’s more, for some gay couples, the unavailability of marriage effectively amounts to denying them the opportunity to live together. If I go to Russia, meet the perfect guy and decide to bring him home, I’m allowed to do that. If the same thing happens to a gay man, he’s not. I would like to know how any non-homophobic opponent of equal rights for same-sex couples can explain to a gay man or a lesbian why this is right and why this is “moral.”
For these reasons of basic fairness, I have long been sympathetic to equal rights for same-sex couples (see, for instance, my articles here and here). I am somewhat more dubious when the demand for, specifically, marriage — as opposed to civil unions or domestic partnerships with all the basic privileges of marriage — is used as a symbolic affirmation of equality and inclusion. I can certainly understand that to many gays, “marriage in all but name” feels like a statement of second-class citizenship. But there are also a lot of Americans who support legal protections for same-sex couples yet, for the reasons I outlined in my previous posts on this topic, feel that the male-female union should retain a special cultural status. And I think this is a disagreement that can and should be settled through a democratic debate.
The state of the debate, however, is endlessly frustrating to me, and that’s part of the reason I’ve waded into these treacherous waters. Here’s a quick survey of the battleground as I see it:
1. Bad arguments. Plenty of those on both sides. My favorite stupid anti-SSM argument: “Gays and lesbians already have the right to get married — to someone of the opposite sex!” Wonderful. It’s a bit like outlawing all non-Christian religious services and then telling Jews, Muslims and Buddhists that they do have the right to worship — in Christian churches. My favorite stupid pro-SSM argument: “The government has no business telling me whom I can and can’t marry.” Oh yes, it does. The government has no business telling consenting adults whom they can and can’t sleep or live with (constitutional originalism or not, I believe that Lawrence v. Texas was rightly decided). But marriage is a set of legal privileges, protections, rights and obligations the government bestows on some relationships. Besides, if taken to its logical conclusion, this argument takes us directly to the anti-SSM parade of the horribles: establish the principle that the government can’t tell you whom you can and can’t marry, and next thing you know, some guy will want to marry his horse. (By the way, that’s my second favorite stupid anti-SSM argument.)
2. Hidden agendas (and charges of hidden agendas). Gay rights activists typically charge that conservative opponents of SSM are simply using the issue as a smokescreen for bigotry and gay-bashing, and in many cases this happens to be true. The rhetoric from some of the social conservative groups positively drips with disgust for gays, with a lot of references to disease, pedophilia, and graphically described sexual practices. The frequent habit of invoking bestiality as a parallel to homosexual sex also has strong overtones of literally dehumanizing gay relationships; and the fact that many right-wing opponents of SSM also support anti-sodomy laws is telling as well.
Meanwhile, many conservatives charge that SSM advocates have covert agendas of their own — that they are not interested in marriage so much as in an official affirmation that homosexual relationships have equal worth to heterosexual ones. Of course there is some truth to that as well. I don’t think that the destigmatization of homosexuality represents some kind of nefarious agenda, but there are gay activists who clearly want to go beyond that — who want to subvert the “heteronormative” culture and to radically overhaul marriage itself. There clearly are supporters of SSM who openly regard gay marriage as a way to destabilize traditional family insitutions, and I think reasonable SSM advocates need to do more do distance themselves from them.
3. Secrets and lies. The anti-SSM right routinely trafficks in misinformation about gays and “the homosexual lifestyle,” from “studies” showing that gays have an average life expectancy of 43 years to claims about the success of “reparative therapy.” At the same time, some real facts relevant to this debate tend to be surrounded by taboos. For instance, in my earlier thread on SSM, a commenter says:
Take, for instance, Maggie’s claim that male-male couples do not regard fidelity the same way that male-female couples regard fidelity. There’s the faint odor of bigotry, but I’d rather challenge the statement than attack the person making the statement.
Odor of bigotry? I think a University of Vermont study reported on Vermont’s premier LGBT website, Out in the Mountains, should pass the smell test:
Seventy-nine percent of married heterosexual men felt non-monogamy was not okay, compared with only 34 percent of gay men not in civil unions and 50 percent of gay men in civil unions. Over 82 percent of the women in the study, regardless of sexual orientation, said monogamy was important.
There are specific examples as well: the very first same-sex couple to receive a marriage license in Provincetown openly declared that they had an “open marriage” and that “the concept of ‘forever’ is overrated.” If a substantial number of legally partnered gay men do not regard sexual fidelity as an essential feature of marriage (and the 50% figure in the Vermont study is consistent with other studies I have seen), is this a problem worth discussing? Is there a need for a conscious effort in the gay community to deal with this issue as we head toward some form of same-sex marriage (whether as formal marriage or marriage-like legal partnerships)? If not, is it possible that as SSM gains more widespread acceptance, there will be a push for greater acceptance of open marriage as well? (Which, in my opinion, would qualify as a negative.) I have absolutely no doubt that a lot of gay men have relationships as loving and as committed as the strongest of heterosexual marriages. But it won’t do to simply sweep the non-monogamy issue under the rug as an anti-gay slur.
4. The “marriage culture” and the SSM debate. In many ways, the same-sex marriage debate is part of a larger debate about marriage, sex, and relations between the sexes. SSM opponents such as Maggie Gallagher say that allowing gay marriage pushes us toward a view of marriage as nothing more than the pursuit of individual happiness, shorn of obligations and ties to the future generations or to the wider community — and as just another lifestyle choice rather than a social norm. Others argue that we have already shifted toward such a view of marriage, or at least are shifting toward it; and I think that’s largely true, at least in more urbanized and socially liberal parts of the country.
There is still a social expectation of marriage, but a considerably weakened one. In a 1994 New York Times poll, 73% of adolescent girls (but, interestingly enough, only 61% of boys) said that they could have a happy life even if they did not marry. And here’s another interesting statistic I got from Helen Fisher’s book The First Sex: In a 1965 survey, more than three out of four female college students said they would marry a man they were not in love with if he otherwise met their standards for a perfect husband. Men were actually the romantics, with two-thirds insisting they would only marry for love. By 1991, about 90% of college students of both sexes said that they would not marry someone they didn’t love.
As I said in my earlier post, preventing the legalization of same-sex marriage is not going to reverse the trends Gallagher and other social conservatives deplore. But social conservatives do want to reverse them at least somewhat and to return to a more marriage-centric culture and a more traditional vision of marriage; and I do think that, for better or worse, legalizing same-sex marriage will make that goal more difficult. I also think it’s possible that SSM will lead to greater cultural and legal acceptance of other alternative family forms — from polygamy and polyamory to child-rearing partnerships between straight women — and while a part of me feels that society is resilient enough to survive such a development, the other part sees the proverbial handbasket headed to hell.
Perhaps the best response to Gallagher & Co. is that vague concerns about the possible social repercussions of SSM, and even vaguer hopes to roll back some of the cultural changes that conservatives believe have harmed families, are a pretty poor reason to deny a minority equal rights (i.e., at the very least, civil unions with all the basic “incidents of marriage”). On the other hand, the claims of some conservative SSM advocates such as Jonathan Rauch that legalizing SSM will strengthen the marriage culture strike me as rather strained. In his 1996 New Republic article advocating gay marriage, Rauch writes:
If it is good for society to have people attached, then it is not enough just to make marriage available. Marriage should also be expected. … When grandma cluck-clucks over a still-unmarried young man, or when mom says she wishes her little girl would settle down, she is expressing a strong and well-justified preference: one that is quietly echoed in a thousand ways throughout society and that produces subtle but important pressure to form and sustain unions. This is a good and necessary thing, and it will be as necessary for homosexuals as heterosexuals. If gay marriage is recognized, single gay people over a certain age should not be surprised when they are disapproved of or pitied. That is a vital part of what makes marriage work. It’s stigma as social policy.
If marriage is to work it cannot be merely a “lifestyle option.” It must be privileged. That is, it must be understood to be better, on average, than other ways of living. Not mandatory, not good where everything else is bad, but better: a general norm, rather than a personal taste. … And heterosexual society would rightly feel betrayed if, after legalization, homosexuals treated marriage as a minority taste rather than as a core institution of life.
Whether the legalization of SSM will create equal familial and social pressures on gays and heterosexuals to wed is very much an open question. For one thing, such pressures do have a lot to do with expectations of procreation: I doubt that a man and a woman in their sixties who are dating get a lot of “so when are two you getting married?” questions. But perhaps more important, I’m not convinced that the gay community, at least at this point, would agree to Rauch’s 1950s-style vision of a marriage culture. (For that matter, I suspect that plenty of heterosexuals would find it much too stifling, too.) Not long ago, Andrew Sullivan linked to an interesting article about efforts to bridge the cultural gap between gay men and lesbians. This is the part that struck me:
Knight [Cathy Knight, a lesbian invited to discuss gender issues with a gay men’s group] suggested that even if some stereotypes are accurate, they shouldn’t serve to divide a community that needs unity.
“More lesbians are coupled, homebodies, they don’t go to bars as much, and men are more sexually active,” she said. “My response is, ‘So what?’ If that’s what they choose, it doesn’t have anything to do with having less moral values. It’s about expressing yourself.”
Evidence suggests that lesbians are indeed more drawn to monogamy than gay men — two-thirds of the same-sex couples who have married in Massachusetts or entered civil unions in Vermont are women. But prominent lesbians balk at using such statistics to question the multi-partner dating preferences of many gay men.
“I don’t have any judgment about how they order their lives,” Kendell [Kate Kendell, executive director of the San Francisco-based National Center for Lesbian Rights] said. “Lifestyle choices that are damaging and self-destructive — that’s the problem, not gay men having more partners.”
I am not for a moment suggesting that gays are innately “less moral” than heterosexuals. I’m not even convinced that because of innate sex differences, men are less interested in monogamy in the absence of pressure from women (in Sweden and the Netherlands, gay men and lesbians marry or enter civil unions in roughly equal numbers). However, given the fact that the gay rights movement started out as a sexual liberation movement, I wonder if the gay community is reluctant to stigmatize any sexually “liberated” behavior between consenting adults?
I’m hoping to wrap up my Maggie Gallagher-inspired same-sex marriage discussion with this post, and to leave the topic alone for the time being (there are other things going on in the world!). But this is an important topic — one that, incidentally, isn’t going away just because some people in my comments threads would like to pretend it doesn’t exist — and it needs a better caliber of civil, honest debate.
Update: If you haven’t seen it already, check out Jane Galt’s very interesting post on the topic from last April. Long, but definitely worth reading.