Thursday, June 19, 2003
I've been getting a bunch of mail lately about the gay stuff here (thanks to John Derbyshire and Jonah Goldberg for linking) and I thought I ought to clarify some of my views for the sake of those who are new to the site.
First, I have a handful of very close gay friends, and I certainly don't believe in any way in shunning gay people or keeping them in the closet. The closet is a dark and lonely place and no one should stay there. You can be out to yourself without being out to the world; that's a personal decision. But being out to yourself is a matter of basic mental health, I am completely convinced, and for most people once you're out to yourself, you want to be out to other people, at least people you know well.
Second, I believe that male homosexuality is essentially innate; whether it is genetic or the result of early-environmental factors or both I don't know, though I am inclined to believe (from studies like the relative prevalence of gay identical twins versus fraternal twins versus non-twin siblings) that there is some genetic component. (Female sexuality is, generally, a much different story, one that I have a much firm grasp on. I've known too many lesbians and bisexual women of convenience to be sure that it is in any way analogous to male homosexuality.)
Third, I believe that no one is born a Nazarite. That, I think, is part of the point of the Samson story. Let me explain: the Nazarite is an obsolete Israelite institution, where an individual would take an oath of abstinence (from wine, shaving, etc.) it order to achieve some spiritual goal (typically to overcome some powerful compulsion to sin). The rabbis generally frown on oath-taking, and the institution of the Nazarite cannot operate without Temple sacrifices, but that's not my point. My point is: the Nazarite abstains from things that are part of normal human life, for a specific purpose. Samson is the only character in the bible who is born a Nazarite - that is to say, he is under a sentence of abstinence from birth. And he is, I think, a very tragic figure and a failed hero. What I mean when I say that no one is born a Nazarite is that no one is born under such a sentence, and that to subject someone to such a sentence - for example, to condemn a person to either loveless sexuality or no sexuality because of being born gay - is to perpetrate a tragedy. As a matter of course, because I believe this, I think there has to be some Jewish accommodation of homosexuality, which is very difficult to accomplish given the lack of useful precedent.
Fourth, I believe that gay men differ in many ways from straight men, not all ways that bear directly on sexuality. I think the difference is profound enough to constitute a difference in nature. I think there are gains and losses from this difference, and I don't think there's any point in trying to weigh one against the other, but I think to deny the difference is just silly. I think that the differences between gay and straight men are comparable in magnitude to the differences between men and women (though not at all identical; gay men are definitely men). If you don't think there are any differences between men and women (fundamental psychological differences, I mean), then we have simply had very different experiences of the world.
Fifth, I believe that the institution of marriage is absolutely vital to social well-being, as well as to individual well-being. I believe that companionate marriage is one of the great achievements of civilization, an enormous advance over the patriarchal polygamy that preceded it, and considerably superior to the arrangements that are slowly replacing it (which I would describe simply as the abolition of fatherhood). I believe that marriage is important to individual well-being in so many ways that it is hard for me to articulate them briefly, so I'll mention just one way: marriage orders a life. It gives a life a center, a purpose, a trajectory; it anchors a person the way nothing else - no business or vocation - can. A marriage is about love, and friendship, and economic security. But before it is any of these things, it is about the completion of a self through the transcendence of the self. For that reason, every marriage that fails - even bad marriages that must fail - is a tragedy, in a way that a faded love or a waning friendship or a bankrupted business is not. A failed marriage is like a kind of death.
Sixth, I believe that marriage works because it speaks deeply to us; because of the encrustation of tradition and the interaction of that tradition with our deepest natures. I don't think you can simply engineer that sort of power; it must grow, over time, through literature far more than through law. The bible articulated an ideal of companionate marriage 3500 years ago in a polygamous world. Monogamy did not become obligatory in Judaism until 1000 years ago in the West, and not until the 20th century in some parts of the Islamic world. That's a long, long time.
Because I believe that marriage is so important; because I believe that it is deeply mysterious and tied to our deepest natures; because I believe it can never be understood fully in a social-science kind of way, I don't want it mucked with. We've done an awful lot to muck with it already; nothing gay marriage could do could be as bad as what no-fault divorce has already done. But it will, in a way, be a capstone to the project of the deconstruction of marriage and its replacement by a variety of relationships of convenience. No-fault divorce could be reversed; it was not a redefinition of marriage so much as a gross liberalization of its terms. I'm not sure a court decision that marriage itself is discriminatory because it posits the complimentarity of men and women could be so easily reversed. It would, fundamentally, redefine marriage.
Because I believe all of the above, I believe that the right solution to the problem of gay couples needing recognition is to create an institution - by legislation - designed for gay couples, bearing equivalent rights and privileges to marriage. Britain is heading that way by legislation; Vermont got there by judicial fiat, which I think is far less defensible; Canada redefined marriage itself by judicial fiat, which I think is even less defensible, and Massachusetts looks likely to follow suit.
I think conservatives have shot themselves in the foot by trying to draw the line against any official recognition of gay unions. I accept Jonathan Rauch's argument that by not granting such recognition, conservatives have opened the door to the progressive expansion of "domestic partnership" legislation to the point where, today, the significance of marriage is severely blurred for many young heterosexuals. Rolling back that legislation, and shoring up the exclusivity of marriage, will require some accommodation of gay unions or it will be rejected as overly punitive against gays (which it would be). But more fundamentally, I think that (as Jonah Goldberg put it earlier today), gay people aren't going anywhere. They are part of the family. They have to have a way to be, and be themselves, and be healthy. That means both living honestly and living with self-control, two things that are hard to achieve without some social recognition for serious relationships.
I nonetheless want the recognition of those relationships to be distinct from marriage because I don't know if they will be the same as marriage, or even if it can be; because I don't want to change the definition of marriage or its mythic meaning; and because, frankly, I want to give gay people themselves the time to become what they are. Redefining marriage would, among other things, force someone to change: either straights would have to accept an evolving gay understanding of marriage as just as good for any two people (meaning also for straight couples) or gays would have to accept the established understanding of marriage (among straights) as the proper model and template for their lives. I already resist the first and I don't want to be compelled - and I don't have any gay friends who want to be compelled - to accept the second.