Tuesday, July 29, 2003
Stanley Kurtz does his usual best to rest the case against gay marriage on the connection with monogamy and stable family formation. As usual, I think he rests his case too narrowly, and as a result he does not finally close the sale.
Kurtz relies almost entirely on the slippery slope to make his case. But there is a simple answer to all slippery-slope arguments: stop sliding. If polyamory is bad, oppose polyamory. If some advocates of gay marriage support polyamory as well, oppose them, and make "conservative" advocates of gay marriage come out of the closet on their views of the matter. If a slippery-slope argument is to have force, it is not enough to identify a trend and the next point on it. It is necessary to articulate the deep structure, in logic, law and culture, that will *force* us down the slope.
My own thinking on this topic has gotten, if anything, more conservative over time, and this disturbs me. I have a number of close gay friends; I know gay parents whose kids are wonderful, extremely well-adjusted people. I have no reason to believe that gay couples would be unable to form stable families. I'm convinced that for an irreducible core of individuals, homosexuality is not a choice but a destiny, and I think it is cruel to say to such people that they must hide who they are from shame. Believing all this, I should be an advocate of gay marriage. And I was, until fairly recently.
What changed my thinking had nothing to do with the nature of gay people or my sense of what was fair and just. What changed my view was thinking hard about the meaning of marriage, how that meaning has been debased, and how the case for gay marriage as currently articulated makes it extraordinarily difficult to restore what is essential about marriage; how it will, in fact, close the door on the possibility of restoration of what has been lost.
Here are some of the propositions that I believe to be deeply true about marriage that have been badly undermined by the sexual revolution, and that will finally be destroyed, and marriage along with it, by gay marriage.
1. To endure, marriage cannot be merely one lifestyle choice among many. It must be a social norm.
Our age is the age of choice: we move at will across borders, across careers, and, increasingly, between romantic relationships without censure. For the most part, this is a good thing; when people freely choose something, they value it more, and on the whole the society should be richer and most of us should be happier when we can trade that which we want less (whether we're talking about goods or jobs or homes) for that which we want more with someone whose preferences run the opposite way.
But some things we cannot choose. We cannot choose when or how we are born, or to whom. We cannot choose how we will be reared. We cannot choose how and when we will die. And we cannot choose to undo that which we have done, to relive our lives after we have lived them. Once some choices are made, they are made forever.
A woman who chooses to spend her 20s and 30s in pursuit of sexual satisfaction will very likely have difficulty having children. The likelihood of her contracting a sexually transmitted disease that impairs fertility is very high, and the natural drop off in fertility in a woman's 30s is extremely steep. But to be prepared to marry in her 20s, and have children in her early 30s at the latest, requires cultural preparation. Marriage and childbearing are difficult goods; they require the abandonment of easy goods like casual sex and late-night partying. And people have to be educated to seek difficult goods rather than easy ones.
We (conservatives, anyhow) understand this principle in every other aspect of education: you have to learn grammar, arithmetic, and scales by rote before you can read poetry, do advanced mathematics or play a concerto. And it will not be obvious to most children that being stuck in a room learning these things by rote is preferable to going outside and playing in the mud. Similarly, it will not be obvious to a 16-year-old girl that she needs to be preparing for marriage unless someone makes her do so. Her preference will be to follow her heart through relationships of varying passion and satisfaction, until she wakes up, older, more jaded, and quite probably less able to adjust to the idea of subordinating herself to a marriage that she now wants for reasons that have little to do with sexual desire or romance. For a boy, it will be even less obvious that he should in any way organize his life around getting married as a young man and being a good father; the penalties for failure to do so are far less, and the opportunities to make up for lost time in his 40s are far greater than for a woman.
Because marriage is a difficult good, we cannot count on young people to choose it on the merits. The principal way that a culture increases the short-term value of a difficult good, making it much more attractive to pursue, is by according it status. This is especially important for young men. If young men get the message that the highest status accrues to the male who has the longest list of sexual conquests, many, many young men will pursue that grail - and, more important, those who cannot, by temperament or for whatever reason, will be ashamed. And this evident shame will make these young men far less attractive to women, hence further reducing the collective prospects for marriage. By contrast, if married men who stick with their wives and children through the inevitable frictions of marriage are accorded high status, the prospects for a high rate of marriage are much greater.
This cultural message is not conveyed by highlighting married men for special praise; after all, marriage is a condition to which most men can aspire, and which most people through history have managed, more or less, to sustain through a lifetime. And most people don't think they are especially virtuous; if only the exceptional can manage a marriage, then one who fails to do so is hardly to be blamed. No, the way the culture sends the message that to be married is to achieve status is by saying that marriage is *normal* and that people who fail to marry are, in some sense less than whole people. Marriage is articulated not as an achievement, but as a stage in life that everyone, more or less, is expected to achieve; like learning to walk, learning to read, getting a driver's license, graduating high school, getting a job. Sure, some people will never learn to drive and some people will never marry. But they will be understood by all to be exceptions, in some sense, to a general rule.
And this is where gay marriage comes in. Stanley Kurtz worries that gay (male) couples will be fully accepting of sex outside of marriage, and that this will erode an ethic of monogamy already badly undermined by no-fault divorce and a norm of premarital sex and cohabitation. Andrew Sullivan rightly retorts that there are plenty of straights who break this norm of monogamy, so why should gays be singled out? So long as they are held to the same standards as straights - as Sullivan has consistently called for - why should gay marriage change things?
It will change things because, if what we observe about gay sexuality is at all representative of essential natures (as I believe it is in part) then most gay men will not choose to marry. More to the point: those who marry will do so because they *chose* to, not because they understood it was *expected* of them.
I made the following analogy once, and I still think it is a good one: assuming that gay marriage really is taken seriously (and I give gays sufficient credit that this will be the case), gay male couples are likely to consider marriage in roughly the way that people consider entering the clergy. Marriage will be recognized as a meritorious lifestyle, one to be admired - one superior, perhaps, to the footloose ways more gays will follow. But there will, of course, be no censure for *not* marrying, any more than there is censure for *not* becoming a priest or minister. Even if the conservative case for gay marriage is fulfilled, and gay marriages are as stable as straight ones, and the existence of gay marriage as an institution makes such marriages more common and exerts a stabilizing influence on gay life generally, it seems very unlikely to me that marriage will ever become a *norm* among gay men. That, it seems to me, is to predict too much - more than, I suspect, even Jonathan Rauch would confidently predict.
If I'm right about this, and if gay marriage is understood - legally and culturally - as no different from heterosexual marriage, then *even if* the net effect of gay marriage is to reduce gay promiscuity, and *even if* it doesn't have any impact on the cultural association of marriage with monogamy, gay marriage will nonetheless further current trends away from marriage and towards more casual relationships. Straights will learn from gays that while marriage may be rewarding for some, it requires extraordinary sacrifice and discipline, and really isn't for everyone - or at least, it isn't for most people until they have gotten into their 40s or 50s, and are too old to enjoy the dating life any longer.
Sullivan might object that we are already there, that marriage is already considered optional, that illegitimacy is at something like 30% in a number of Western countries so how is this an excuse to keep gays out of the institution of marriage? And he has a point. But my response is: to what extent does he *approve* of what has happened to marriage, and, if he does not, to what extent does he want to *restore* what has been lost? I'm open to a dialogue with gay marriage advocates who *also* favor legal or cultural changes to shore up marriage and its status privileges over alternative social arrangements. I'm open to a dialogue with gay marriage advocates who *also* think divorce law needs reforming, who are willing not only to say that gay marriage won't lead to legalized polyamory but who *condemn* polyamory explicitly, as plenty of gay rights advocates are eager to *condemn* organizations like NAMBLA that advocate pederasty. But that isn't the way the discussion usually goes. Gay marriage is discussed as a *right*, part of the right to freedom of sexual expression and equality of treatment. And if those are the terms of its acceptance, then I don't see how we can ever go back to talking about marriage as a norm.
2. (Yes, 2. This is a long post.) The sexes are equal, but not identical.
The constitutional argument under which gay marriage has advanced in Canada and the United States is precisely the one that Phyllis Schlafly used against the ERA. She argued that the Equal Rights Amendment would inevitably lead to gay marriage, because it would open the door to a judge forbidding the state from discriminating against a woman who wanted to marry a woman, while allowing her to marry a man. And this is precisely the argument now being made: that to prevent someone from marrying a person of whichever sex he or she prefers is a form of sexual discrimination.
Now, this is not *really* the argument for gay marriage; the real argument is that gay people are themselves a distinct "gender" who deserve equal "protection" under the laws. But as a matter of law, the argument is advancing under the banner of equal treatment of the sexes - in other words, under the banner of legal androgyny. And as a cultural matter, gay marriage will significantly advance and, again, preserve against subsequent reversal the cultural trend towards androgyny. Effectively, I'm making Schlafly's argument in reverse: that gay marriage will make it impossible to reexamine some of the more ridiculous execrescences of feminism.
I do want to be clear here: I'm not some troglodyte trying to force women back into the kitchen. My wife is a doctor; my mother works and worked all her adult life. I think a world in which women compete actively with men in the economy and in politics is a better world by far than the world of a century ago. While I think the discrimination police go overboard (women now outnumber men in universities, for example, so they certainly shouldn't be getting any special treatment academically), this is not something I obsess about.
What I do obsess about is relations between the sexes, and the degree to which they have been impaired by a frank refusal to accept that woman and men are psychologically (and physiologically) different. And I think this refusal does real damage to man and woman alike, if in different ways.
For women, more than anything I worry about the scenario I outlined above: the woman who, convinced she can have it all, and that no habits need be acquired to acclimate to marriage, wakes up at 35 wanting to marry and have kids, having been misled about her biological destiny (it will be much harder now) and having little idea of how to be married. Enough about her. For men, I worry about something rather different. I worry that boys, for deep psychological reasons, need to learn how to be *men* and not just abstract responsible adults. They need to be taught what manhood means. Masculinity is not instinctive; only its caricature, all aggressive ego and slovenliness is. And a culture that refuses to talk about men and women as distinct types will be unable to talk to boys about becoming men - with a consequence that these boys will grow up to be precisely the adolescent caricatures of men that we least want them to be.
So what does this have to do with gay marriage? Well, deep in the structure of marriage is the assumption of the complementarity of man and woman. It's front and center in Genesis, to give just one example. Gay people tend to read this subject as essentially exclusionary: that the only reason to point to such a story is to exclude them. This reaction is a perfect illustration of how little gay people understand straights. It is *not obvious* that men and women should live together as life partners. It is *difficult*. We are very different creatures; we like different things; we smell different. We try to dominate each other in ways that drive us crazy. It is far easier for a man to take his pleasure and go than to stay and build a nest; it is, in some sense, more *natural*. Telling him that men and women were *made* to live together in marriage is a way of getting him to stay by teaching him that this is part of *manhood.*
Now, how on earth do you communicate that in a culture that embraces the notion that marriage is the love-union of any two individuals who desire it? Love is, after all, such a feminine thing. How do you explain to an ordinary straight 14 year-old - not explain; how do you build it into his deep assumptions about the world, such that it is second-nature - that he will fully become a man not when he beds his first woman but when he weds her, if we can no longer talk about weddings in terms of men and women, but only in terms of people in love?
And this brings me to my third point.
3. Marriage is not all about love.
I had a friend over for brunch a few months ago who told me a story. A rabbi he knew was trying to convince this friend to allow him to make a shidduch - to fix him up with a likely marriage prospect. (This friend is not especially religious.) The friend asked the rabbi how this would work. The rabbi said: you'll come to my house, she'll come, you'll have a meal, you'll take a walk, and if you suit each other, we'll make an arrangement. Don't worry, the rabbi said, I don't invite a man over unless he's really ready to get married. And if he's really ready, I always have success.
My friend was intrigued. How, he asked the rabbi, do you - how do I - know after one meeting like this that I've found my destined bride. The rabbi looked at him. Listen, he said, when a man is *really* ready to get married, any uterus will do.
This answer offended my friend a bit, and he didn't go to the rabbi. Instead, a couple of years later, he met a woman through a computer dating service and, after a brief courtship, they married. Unless my friend ascribed miraculous powers to the computer that he would not attribute to the rabbi, I can only conclude that what offended him was mostly the unexpected shock of the honest truth.
Fool that I am, I myself married for love. I consider myself blessed for that, and I chalk it up not only to God's goodness but to my comparative innocence at the time I met my destined bride (I was 21 when we began dating). But many, many people I know did not marry for "love" in the sense that you see in the movies. They married because they were ready to get married. If they were in a "relationship" of one sort or another, they proposed to their girlfriend - or, in one case, ditched her and quickly found someone more marriageable. If they were not, they actively sought out the right sort of man or woman - the sort they could imagine living with even after they grew wrinkled or fat - and, if the other party was willing, married them.
What does "ready" mean? It means I'm lonely too much, and I don't want to get so used to being lonely that I miss my chance to have companionship. It means I want to have children, if only to comfort me with some notion of continuity when death approaches, and I want them now, before I am too old to enjoy them. It means I'm tired of the dating scene, tired of change, of getting to know new people and having to impress them, of having to pretend to be somebody more interesting than I am. It means I'm no longer waiting for perfection. It means I know I'm not fully grown yet, and I want to be.
This is the unromantic perspective that marriage is made of, far more than of love, sex or romance - far more, even, than of friendship, which is a different thing; also precious, and one's wife or husband really ought to be one's friend, but not the same at all.
But this is not how the advocates of gay marriage talk about marriage, and there's a reason: this is not how gays will approach marriage. (At least not gay men; it's quite possible lesbians will very closely approximate this script.) Rather, they will look at marriage as a validation of existing relationships that have stood the test of time, a wedding as, effectively, the prize for having developed a love and a friendship of enduring power and depth. This is a beautiful thing, and perhaps it deserves a wedding as its reward. But it is not a plausible route to marriage for most people.
As with everything before, the assumption that marriage is fundamentally about love (with the corollary that if love fades, presumably so should the marriage - after all, there might still be time to actualize oneself through another, yet more thrilling love!) does not originate with the campaign for gay marriage; far from it. But again, acceptance of gay marriage entails explicitly understanding marriage in this way, and therefore bars the way back to a more realistic appraisal.
I'll make an analogy that may be a bit abstruse for some readers, but bear with me. The traditional rule in Judaism for "who is a Jew" is that of matrilineal descent: if your mother was Jewish, you are Jewish; if she wasn't, even if your father was, you aren't, unless you undergo conversion (which is, of course, open to someone without any Jewish parentage at all). Now this rule can be applied more or less strictly. Someone can have a mother who converted to Judaism, and a rabbi could decide either to investigate the details of the conversion or simply assume the best. A rabbi could look into a bloodline for several generations or stop with the person's mother or grandmother. (The context in which this sort of thing usually comes up, by the way, is impending marriage.) But stretching the rule, or applying it more leniently, is not changing it fundamentally.
Reform Judaism has repudiated this rule, and replaced it with what is usually called a patrilineal or egalitarian rule. Reform Jews were troubled by the inequality implied by saying that Judaism can't pass through the male line as well as the female, and so they got rid of the female-line rule. But they could not simply say "anyone with a Jewish father *or* mother is Jewish" for simple mathematical reasons. If Judaism is "transmitted" on both lines, then after a few dozen generations even with a small percentage of intermarriage the entire population of the world would be Jewish, an obviously absurd outcome. So what they really did, by saying that patrilineal descent was valid, was eliminate descent *entirely* as the basis for determining who is a Jew. Rather, the new basis is: if you are *raised* Jewish, you are Jewish. The new Reform Jewish rule, therefore, l would *exclude* from Judaism (logically) someone with two Jewish parents who had no religious education (though I doubt they would demand a conversion in practice in such an instance). By making the rule more egalitarian, Reform Judaism actually destroyed the rule, replacing it with an entirely different rule with very different implications for the nature of Judaism.
I think something similar is true of gay marriage. By opening up the institution to new groups with a perfectly reasonable argument for entry, the nature of marriage will be changed - no longer essentially a stage in life, part of a life narrative, part of how the culture domesticates men and teaches them the meaning of civilized manhood, marriage will have been redefined as, essentially, a story one tells oneself and one's love about the love you share. In medieval days, the cult of Courtly Love explicitly opposed love to marriage, and celebrated adulterous devotion for that reason. In modern times, we have tried to assert the opposite: that true love can only truly be consummated in marriage. This has sufficiently raised the stakes for marriage that we came to believe that marriage was about nothing but love. Now we dissolve marriages that have hit a rocky patch without concern; once the love is gone (how do we know it is gone for good?), the marriage is dead in all but name, so why not recognize its death? With gay marriage, the process of transformation will be complete.
I hope this is a conclusion. I hope I've said my peace on the subject. I really want to "move on" as they say. But I keep coming back. I feel like we're headed for a cultural train-wreck, that I'm going to lose friends over an issue that is of very distant consequence to my actual life, that I will be forced to choose sides in a matter where once a choice of sides is forced, the battle is already lost.
Is all this inevitable? Is there no way to reconcile the legitimate demands of gay couples with the need to preserve the essential nature of companionate marriage? I want to believe there is a way. But what I think it will take is a recognition on the part of advocates for gay marriage that however much they may know about their own lives, their own sexuality, their own culture, and however ignorant the straight world may be of their joys, triumphs and sufferings, their insights are of little utility to straights. They do *not* know anything essential about us, about our world, of which marriage is a pillar. Yes, we could learn some things from each other, and enrich each others lives - but only if we recognize that we are different first. Marriage is an essential institution of the civilized (overwhelmingly straight) world. If its essential nature excludes gay people from its ambit, then perhaps the just solution to the very real problem of that exclusion is to erect another institution specifically for gay people. And if its essential nature does *not* exclude gay people - which is the only thing advocates of gay marriage can honestly mean by their advocacy, otherwise they are essentially acting in bad faith - then the burden is on the advocates to explain *why* and *how* it does not exclude them. And to do so in the terms I'm using, terms of the soul, of culture and its myths.