Thursday, November 17, 2005
Apparently, an old piece of mine on same-sex marriage is getting passed around two and a half years after I wrote it. So I guess I should revisit it for the sake of those who are coming to this blog through it for the first time.
First of all, having read through the post again, there are some things I still agree with and some things I'd back off from, plus some wording I'd change.
What do I still agree with? That marriage, to serve its social function, must be a social norm, not a lifestyle choice, and that marriage is unlikely to become a same-sex norm. And that women and men are equal but different, and that same-sex marriage would make it that much harder to speak about marriage in terms of the complementarity of the sexes and the nature of masculinity.
What do I no longer really agree with? Well, I think my last point is kind of a non-sequitur. It's true: marriage is not only about romantic love; probably, it's not even primarily about romantic love. But upon reflection, I'm not convinced this has anything to do with the same-sex marriage debate. More importantly, I think my first argument - about marriage being a social norm - cuts both ways. If the alternative to same-sex marriage is "marriage lite" for both hetero- and homosexual couples, then arguably same-sex marriage would do less harm to the norm. This is certainly at the core of Jonathan Rauch's argument. In the abstract, I think it's certainly true that a world in which this debate wasn't happening would be a world in which the marriage culture was stronger than ours is. Concretely, it's no longer obvious to me what is the least-damaging path out of our current dilemma.
Finally, I'm increasingly convinced that, politically, conservative leaders are "using" marriage rather than seriously trying to protect it. This is a pattern oft observed with "social issues" from school prayer to abortion. I don't want to be a part of that process.
I think there are broadly speaking six ways to approach the question of how the state should relate to gay couples.
(1) The state can anathematize homosexuality, full stop. I view that as unjust.
(2) The state can take a "don't ask/don't tell" approach, doing nothing to anathematize homosexuality but also nothing to recognize gay couples in any way analogous to the way marriages are recognized. Even if optimal in the abstract, I don't think such a position is tenable, and I am not convinced it is optimal in the abstract.
(3) The state can take a libertarian view of social relations generally, and withdraw public recognition of marriage as such. I think such a position would be highly destructive of the marriage culture and, at least as important, of our common culture generally, and accelerate the balkanization of our society.
(4) The state can adopt a "continuum" approach to marriage, recognizing various kinds of "marriage-lite" arrangements like benefits for domestic partners, joint adoptions by non-married couples, partial custody rights for "third parents" and so forth, while also retaining recognition for some kind of more stringent "traditional" marriage. This is the direction we have actually been headed in practice, and while it has alleviated some of the problems of gay couples it has done so at a serious cost to the marriage culture, and hence to our social fabric and the well-being of children. Some advocates of same-sex marriage, notably Jonathan Rauch, largely agree with this critique; so, obviously, so most opponents of same-sex marriage from the Right, notably David Frum. At least one conservative opponent of same-sex marriage - John O'Sullivan - advocated a variation on the idea of a marriage "continuum" as the solution to our dilemma. My response to his idea is here, and his follow-up (responding to me in passing) is here.
(5) The state can redefine marriage to mean an exclusive partnership, intended to be life-long, between any two individuals regardless of their biological sex. That's what advocating "same-sex marriage" means. My principal objections to this stand. That's not what marriage means, nor ever has meant, because the complementarity between men and women is at the heart of the meaning of marriage. Marriage has changed an awful lot over the centuries, and we in the West have ultimately repudiated the polygamy and consequent second-class status for women that were central to marriage for its first few thousand years as a legal institution. But the proposed redefinition would be, essentially, a linguistic falsehood. For that reason, I fear that it would have the practical consequences I identify in my original piece: because it would make the traditional language of marriage relating to complementarity of the sexes appear to be nonsensical, it would make it that much harder for men and women to learn how to relate to one another, and form stable marriages. And because it would have advanced under the banner of rights such a reform would implicitly concede that marriage is a choice rather than a norm - a choice we all have a right to make but, by the same token, the right not to make if we prefer to live otherwise.
(6) The state can recognize a new institution, call it what you will, exclusively for same-sex couples, that would have many - perhaps even all, if that's what people wish to vote for - of the rights and responsibilities of marriage. The public debate would be over which rights and responsibilities associated with marriage should be extended to this institution, along with the various presumptions associated with marriage. There would be many ways in which the institutions would be parallel, other ways in which they would not be (for example, the "marriage veil" could not logically be extended to gay male couples). I outline a bit of what this would mean in this post explaining why I oppose the Federal Marriage Amendment. In effect, creating such a parallel institution would mean legally recognizing gay people as a "third gender" rather than formalizing legal androgyny as option #5 would do.
Once upon a time, I favored option #5. I shifted over time to favor option #6. I shifted in part because of serious thinking on my own part about what marriage meant, which led me to the conclusions in my post from two and a half years ago. I also shifted in part because of serious meditation on the gay couples I know, and how their narratives are different from the heterosexual narrative, and my increasing conviction that the greater and greater acceptance of gays as part of the social fabric - an entirely welcome development - won't change the ways in which gays and straights are innately different. And I think our social institutions should be cognizant of difference as well as equality.
In the last year, though, I've been reconsidering whether option #6 is really optimal, even though I still think my main objections to option #5 stand. Why have I been reconsidering? For a few reasons.
First, I think I underestimated the threat posed by legal recognition in the West of traditional polygamy from the Muslim world. I now view that as a very likely event across the West - least likely here and most likely in Canada and Scandinavia, but more likely than not everywhere. I view this eventuality as disastrous. How does the same-sex marriage debate play into this question?
Most opponents of same-sex marriage think that it's the next step on a slippery-slope to polygamy. I'm beginning to think they are wrong. Rather, I think the "continuum" approach - option #4 above - is the most likely to lead to public recognition of polygamy, which would be presented (along with polyamory - a rather different thing) as just another part of the continuum, and a highly traditional one at that. So the question, in my mind, is: what is the most likely route off the train we're on right now, which is option #4. My option #6 - recognition of same-sex relationships as a separate category from marriage - seems at least as likely to leave the door open to recognition of Muslim polygamy as does option #5, redefining companionate marriage androgynously, if not more so.
Second, while I may think that our social institutions should be cognizant of difference as well as equality, that is not the tenor of the times. Rather, we live in an era when the hegemonic paradigm abhors difference - the constant paens to "diversity" are actually evidence of this. So, realistically, it's very hard to see the position I favor winning the kind of support necessary to become law. Rather, it's much more likely that folks like myself will be lumped together with other people "in the middle" and provide the bulk political support for a compromise more along the lines of option #4 - some kind of civil-unions or "marriage-lite" law open to same-sex or heterosexual couples, with some of the rights and responsibilities of marriage but not all. That certainly seems to be the preferred outcome in most of the bluer of the blue states, and that preference is likely to spread. Given my concerns about option #4, I can't be sanguine about this outcome.
Finally, as I said, I feel like the advocates for marriage are being used by the political process, that "gay marriage" is becoming a wedge issue rather than a serious topic, and is eclipsing the serious questions about marriage. We are talking about the non-existent "threat" from gay couples instead of talking about the real damage caused by no-fault divorce. Critics of mine such as Justin Katz have argued, in a nutshell, that advocates for a more robust marriage culture need to focus on stopping same-sex marriage because that's (a) a popular cause, and (b) a negative trend that has to be reversed before a positive trend can be started. I can't get on that train. I can't tell a lesbian couple with children that I oppose any effort to publicly recognize their relationship because fighting them is the only way to get other straight people's attention, and that I hope, some day, to use that attention to focus on the actual problems of marriage. That's simply not just. I point you to this piece of mine, particularly the last four paragraphs (though I would suggest reading the whole thing to get sufficient context).
So where does that leave me? Well, not in a very different place than I was before. I still think same-sex marriage is a linguistic error, and a bad idea legislatively. I still think the FMA is inappropriate for the Constitution and would have negative unintended consequences, and I would oppose its passage. So I guess was I thought before was a bad idea I still think is a bad idea, but I'm less sure than I was of what would be a *good* idea. Which is probably a good reason to take a rest from an issue and stop talking about it for a while. Which is what I did for about a year, and intend to do again.