April 22, 2004


Married With Children (Shelby Steele, 04.14.04, New Republic)

[Andrew] Sullivan disagrees with my contention that gay marriage is not really a civil rights issue by referring to the famous Loving v Virginia miscegenation case in which Earl Warren says, "Marriage is one of the basic civil rights of man." Sullivan then adds an addendum of his own: "The right to marry whomever you wish is a fundamental civil right." This, of course, is simply not true and in no way reflects Warren's meaning. You may not marry your sister or your pet even if you wish to, and this bar to your wishes is not considered a denial of civil rights. Because marriage is defined as a heterosexual institution, its exclusion of gay unions doesn't really qualify as a denial of rights. Gays have the same right to marry as heterosexuals as long as they marry the opposite gender--as many do. If the gay marriage movement succeeds in expanding the definition of marriage to include gay unions, and if gays are then still prohibited from marrying, then we would have a clear civil rights issue. As things stand there really is no precedent or "jurisprudence" on the side of gay marriage, only on the right of all citizens to heterosexual marriage. The Loving case only made the point that interracial marriage is no bar to this right.

Sullivan then compares the old arguments against interracial marriage to my argument against gay marriage. And this points to an important theme of my argument: Racial difference is an innocuous human difference that in no way redefines the heterosexual nature of marriage or effects its procreative function. Interracial marriage has no effect on the institution of marriage. But when marriage is redefined to include homosexuality, it ends the heterosexual definition of marriage and moves marriage farther away from its grounding in procreation. It effectively makes marriage an institution more purely devoted to romantic love and adult fulfillment than to the heavier and more selfless responsibilities surrounding procreation. Of course, adult love and the responsibilities surrounding procreation are not mutually exclusive, but the gravity of marriage as an institution comes from its demand that love be negotiated through these larger responsibilities.

To be sure, there are childless heterosexual couples and homosexual couples with children. But to define an institution as important to society as marriage by exceptions to the norms of both sexual orientations--rather than by the norms themselves--makes little sense. It could be argued that marriage is quite literally an outgrowth of heterosexuality itself, an institution that follows from nature's requirement that men and women sexually merge to perpetuate the human species.

Sullivan argues that marriage encourages "stability, fidelity, and family among homosexuals." I don't know. It is certainly doing less and less of this among heterosexuals. But, in any case, the stabilizing features of marriage have evolved over the millennia to protect children and procreation from the vicissitudes of adult love. How many 50's style marriages found stability only for "the sake of the children"? How many 70's, 80's, and 90's marriages ended because children and procreation became secondary to adult fulfillment? The point is that marriage offers the features Sullivan wants for homosexuals only when it is very narrowly--often repressively--grounded in heterosexuality, procreation, and the socialization of children. When it is defined, as Sullivan says he would have it be, around "the unifying experience of love," it becomes nearly as fickle as love itself--a nasty fight, a single betrayal away from dissolution. Marriage brings "stability" to love by humbling it, by making it often less important than the responsibilities to family and community.

When love and fulfillment are of first importance, marriage weakens as an institution, as the high divorce rates of recent decades illustrate. Homosexual unions are, by nature's grace, naturally less burdened by the very responsibilities that heterosexuals have been running from in marriage for decades now. The truth is that heterosexuals have been moving marriage toward the more exclusively adult-focused relationships that gays have always had--relationships that turn more narrowly on love, attraction, and fulfillment. Cohabitation is now virtually a norm among young heterosexuals, and adult happiness is more the test of marriages today than family stability. So the conundrum for the gay marriage movement is that marriage has already declined from its more selfless and stable era into something very much like what gays already have.

That is certainly the basic argument of most advocates: the institution of marriage is already so damaged you might as well let us drive the last nail into the coffin. Perhaps the better idea is to refurbish the institution.

Posted by Orrin Judd at April 22, 2004 8:49 AM

Marriage does not civilize men; women do. And if not only women, women and children. Anything else is just bonding. Nothing wrong with that except when the courts butt in.

Posted by: MG at April 22, 2004 10:21 AM

Mr Steele's argument is the best and most concise yet that I have seen to answer Sullivan's discrimination argument. This is precisely how I feel about the issue. OJ's comment is spot on.

Posted by: Robert Duquette at April 22, 2004 11:53 AM

MG: I hope that there was no mens rea in that remark.

Posted by: David Cohen at April 22, 2004 1:09 PM

I'd worry more about the actus rea!

Posted by: Twn at April 22, 2004 2:28 PM

One could both refurbish the institution, and allow gays to marry.

To the benefit of both.

Posted by: Jeff Guinn at April 22, 2004 6:52 PM

Destroying an institution--by allowing gays to trivialize it--hardly refurbishes it.

Posted by: oj at April 22, 2004 8:56 PM