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My boyfriend and I have talked about getting married. Then we’ve laughed uproariously—as though one of us had suggested, say, vacationing in Rwanda. Why muddle our present relationship by dragging a church and the government into the mix?
Don’t get me wrong. I think legalizing same-sex marriages would do more to equalize gays and straights than any previous step, and I think there’s no good reason to oppose it. Some lesbians and gays want desperately to marry. Let them. Let them have the prenuptial agreements and the court-brokered divorces—a high price for the concomitant cheap insurance and tax breaks.
But let’s be clear about one thing: Legalizing gay marriage would change the institution of marriage, just as true gay equality would change society at large. Conservatives worry that if homos and heteros were fully equal—able to serve in the military, to marry, to walk down the street without getting beaten up—then sex and sexuality would be viewed as more fluid, more complex. They’re right: Children who grow up in a world where gays and straights are equal will conceive of sexuality differently from today’s kids. Sexuality won’t be (as) bound up with tradition and religion as it is today.
Of course, the same conservatives are wrong to further say that such a decoupling of sex and tradition would lead to more homosexuality. That’s sort of like saying legitimizing the Ku Klux Klan would lead to more white people. Conservatives are probably also wrong that gay equality would lead to more gay sex: No straight boy (at least none that I’ve ever met, unfortunately) is going to decide to have sex with a male pal—what a lark!—because he saw a gay couple legally marry on World News Tonight.
Conservatives claim they’re worried about the “waverers”—those confused souls who today “choose” heterosexuality because homosexuality is still demonized. I’ve never met a true waverer, and I suspect these conservatives haven’t either. I know bisexuals are out there, but I don’t really think they can turn half their attractions off. Desire isn’t a spigot.
Ultimately, however, it shouldn’t matter what people do in bed. Experimentation is great, and the consequences of real sexual liberation and equality would be great as well. Maybe most people wouldn’t sleep with members of the same sex, but maybe they would feel free to have more fulfilling sex. Maybe they would have more partners from different social classes and races. Maybe Americans would get married even later, with all these experiments under way. Such fluid sexual boundaries would improve gender relations and, in the end, strengthen the commitments we do settle upon. (And as long as the sex is safe and consensual, the New Golden Rule applies: More sex is better.)
Finally, perhaps marriage itself would end. I doubt it, but would that be so terrible? Marriage is said to domesticate men and provide a healthy forum for child-rearing. Bullshit. Commitment does. Love does. If those things don’t exist, people shouldn’t be together, no matter what their marriage license says. My parents have been married for nearly 30 years, but the August 1967 ceremony they underwent—and the Tennessee license it got them—isn’t the reason. They love each other.
I know I have great advantages because I wasn’t a child of single parenting. I want other kids to have the same. But marriage has nothing to do with good parenting—indeed, it may keep unloving parents together artificially, which surely isn’t good for anyone involved.
So I’m in a tough spot. I support same-sex marriage but oppose all marriages. Or, more precisely, I think marriage is occasionally harmful and always irrelevant. I just want gays and lesbians in on the silly game, too.
Last year, the Nation’s Katha Pollitt recounted a five-year, six-lawyer battle between two acquaintances to settle their divorce terms. “Had [they] merely lived together,” Pollitt writes, “they would have thrown each other’s record collections out the window and called it a day. Clearly something about marriage drives a lot of people ’round the bend. Why shouldn’t some of these people be gay?” Just so.
Pollitt’s essay is included in Andrew Sullivan’s compilation of editorials, academic texts, legal briefs, and other writings, Same-Sex Marriage, Pro and Con: A Reader. Unfortunately, hers is one of the few pieces, pro or con, that’s interesting. Most of the debate’s participants argue over points that either can’t be settled or are simply immaterial—particularly the traditional and religious conceptions of marriage and how gays fit (or don’t) within them. Listening to the debate is disconcerting—like going to the must-see film of the moment only to fall asleep in the middle.
But at the same time, I’ve always been intrigued by gay conservatives, and gay marriage is nothing if not the gay conservatives’ highest aspiration for society. These conservatives interest me not simply because I disagree with many of them but because they reinvigorated the question of homosexuality at a time when AIDS had diverted attention from it.
They did so by pointing out that the focus on gay “rights” (basically, anti-discrimination laws that serve openly gay people) was distracting from a more basic need: gay dignity (which would do more for the vast majority of gays—those in the closet). Ironically, the demands for gay dignity turned out to involve a more radical social agenda than that embraced by the gay-rights establishment—the liberal Democratic lesbians and gays who favor workplace and other legal protections akin to civil rights laws.
The gay conservatives, on the other hand, shoved marriage and the military to the foreground—conservative, traditional institutions to which they wanted full access. They kicked the gay agenda from merely where we work to how we love. But when you tackle this reader—particularly the essays by Sullivan and Jonathan Rauch, the two most compelling gay conservatives—you realize they are in a fairly tragic position.
The gay conservatives want to ignore the very revolution they are leading. They write as though they can contain the social consequences of legalizing gay marriage—like the Manhattan Project scientists who thought they could keep atomic reactions from military use. The gay conservatives want the world to be the same, just with legally married gay couples. But that’s impossible.
Sullivan and Rauch (a former Economist writer) prefer to argue why same-sex marriage should be legal on its own terms, and they do so eloquently. But they have a harder time snaking around the question of whether legalizing same-sex marriage would set the stage for more revolutionary changes, like legalized polygamy or incest.
The “slippery slope” argument, as Sullivan calls it, received its most prominent articulation last year, during the debate over the ridiculous Defense of Marriage Act. Republican powerhouse William Bennett and conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer both published versions of the argument that are reprinted in Same-Sex Marriage, in a tendentious back-and-forth with Sullivan and Rauch.
“Why on earth would Sullivan exclude from marriage a bisexual who wants to marry two other people?” Bennett begins. “After all, exclusion would be a denial of that person’s sexuality. The same holds true of a father and daughter who want to marry.”
Sullivan’s response is lame: “Almost everyone seems to accept, even if they find homosexuality morally troublesome, that it occupies a deeper level of human consciousness than a polygamous impulse.” Polygamy, Sullivan notes, “is an activity, whereas both homosexuality and heterosexuality are states.”
(Let’s bracket the obvious complaint that Sullivan’s assertions are morally loaded in the same way as pronouncements against homosexuality.) Then Krauthammer: “If John and Jim love each other, why is this an expression of some kind of existential state, while if John and Jim and Jack all love each other, this is a mere activity?”
Finally, Rauch: “The main purpose of marriage is not, and never has been, to sanctify love,” he sweepingly declares. “The purpose of secular marriage, rather, is to bond as many people as possible into committed, stable relationships.”
But surely John, Jim, and Jack can all become bonded into a single relationship, can’t they? This isn’t something I think would occur too often, but I can imagine a threesome asking for a marriage license by using the language of same-sex marriage arguments. And if they do, can we simply decree that their relationship isn’t “committed” and “stable”?
So Rauch moves to an even weirder definition of marriage. Marriage, he announces in a screwy passage:
“domesticate[s] men and ensure[s] that most people have someone whose ‘job’ is to look after them. Polygamy radically undermines this goal, because if one man has two wives, it follows that some other man has no wife….Over time, a society can sanction polygamy only if it is prepared to use harsh measures to repress a menacing underclass of spouseless men. In that respect, the one-partner-each rule stands at the very core of a liberal society, by making marriage a goal that everyone can aspire to. Gay marriage, note, is fully in keeping with liberalism’s inclusive aspirations. Polygamy absolutely is not.”
I don’t get it. First of all, even if we accept this definition of marriage, it doesn’t necessarily prohibit polygamy. Rauch hasn’t shown why monogamy is required for domestication. Couldn’t a threesome live in domestic bliss for the rest of their lives? After all, there would be one more person (or perhaps even more) whose “job” is to look after the others.
Turning to Rauch’s bizarre worldview, isn’t it true by his logic that if one man marries another man, then some woman has no husband? I suppose she’s a lesbian in Rauch’s world? This is madness. The world is far too big and complex to assume that every person is somehow available for one other person, and that polygamy would ruin the whole system. Besides, we already have a menacing underclass of spouseless men, in a country that recognizes neither gay marriage nor polygamy.
My point here is not to call for the legalization of polygamous or incestuous marriages. Rather, I’m saying that Sullivan and Rauch can’t really contain the possible implications of their most cherished policy goal. Once the law sees marriage as gender-neutral, its traditional “purposes”—particularly child-rearing—will take a back seat to its most important elements—love and commitment. And many different people can claim to love and be committed to one another.
Ultimately, that’s why the state should just get out of the love business altogether. It would save gays and lesbians a huge fight, and the nation as a whole wouldn’t have to argue over the moral complexities of a state granting a marriage license to, say, a brother and his half-sister. But I bet that argument is not too far off—especially if the same-sex marriage proponents win.CP