Commentary Magazine


Same-Sex Marriage

To the Editor:

Contrary to Stanley N. Kurtz in “What Is Wrong with Gay Marriage” [September], lesbians and gay men have been making the same arguments for same-sex marriage for more than a generation. It is the opposition’s arguments that have shifted most dramatically—a point well illustrated by Mr. Kurtz’s article itself.

Opponents of same-sex marriage once drew upon the Bible to argue that marriage entails the union of a man and a woman, but now they invoke instead the functional idea of the complementarity of the sexes. Mr. Kurtz says that marriage meets the complementary goals of men to be masters of their households and women to serve in those households; “the possession of a beloved woman,” he claims, enables a man to settle down and give up his promiscuous ways. But he presents no evidence for this thesis, and many social scientists question its implicit gender stereotypes. Indeed, why should the domestication of men be purchased at the price of the servitude of women? Mr. Kurtz seems to think that women “want” this servitude. He may be right about some women, but he is not right about lesbians, for whom same-sex marriage is much more satisfying and functional than different-sex unions.

Mr. Kurtz then shifts his argument to acknowledge that while same-sex couples might love one another, they should not be allowed to marry because they cannot procreate and form stable families. But thousands of committed lesbian and gay couples raise their own children in loving households. Moreover, our society has never made procreation a prerequisite for marriage.

Mr. Kurtz also argues that allowing gay people to marry one another would undermine the already weakened institution of marriage by inviting promiscuity into it. But committed same-sex couples pose no threat to the institution, which has already been weakened by the easy exit of no-fault divorce and by the pervasiveness of spousal abuse. By Mr. Kurtz’s own standard, lesbian couples would strengthen marriage since on the whole they are not promiscuous.

Finally, Mr. Kurtz claims that equality for lesbian and gay families would require the state to legalize polygamy. But this is, so to speak, a lavender herring. The reason the state recognizes and regulates marriage is to reward and reinforce commitments that promote unity between two people, which both historians and sociologists have found to be common among lesbians and gay men. History tentatively suggests that three is a crowd, with plural wives being the big losers.

William Eskridge
Yale University
New Haven, Connecticut

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To the Editor:

Contrary to Stanley N. Kurtz, I believe that legalizing same-sex unions would actually strengthen, rather than threaten, the institution of marriage. The importance of marriage is diminished whenever a lesser relationship is afforded the same rewards as marriage. Currently, for instance, some companies extend medical coverage to the “significant others” of their employees. A large number of those obtaining benefits under these provisions are homosexual partners who do not have the option of getting married. But if every couple, heterosexual or homosexual, that seeks marital benefits is required to enter into a civil marriage, the paramount status of marriage over other arrangements will be enhanced.

Common-law marriage—under which a couple is deemed to be married if both parties agree to the arrangement—is no longer sanctioned in most states, largely because of its legal ambiguity. A similar problem exists in the case of “significant others.” How long must two people live together for them to achieve significant-other status? Can one gain this status from a nonexclusive sexual relationship?

By requiring all persons seeking the benefits of marriage to assume the obligations contained in the marriage contract, we can restore marriage to its original purpose—not only to provide a better environment for child-rearing, but also to afford the rights of support, nurture, and inheritance to the marital partner.

Victor Stein
Caldwell, New Jersey

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To the Editor:

Stanley N. Kurtz’s “What Is Wrong with Gay Marriage” does a disservice to the institution of marriage and to gay families. Mr. Kurtz defends the Western ideal of marriage against polygamy by arguing that “anything other than monogamy would fatally undercut the primacy of the individual.” This emphasis on individualism obscures the fundamental reason that most people get married: because they wish to live as part of a couple.

While Mr. Kurtz is right to point out that complementarity is part of what makes living as a couple a desirable arrangement, his implication that complementarity in marriage arises necessarily out of the differences between men and women does not follow. The real source of it is differences of temperament, preference, and talent that are not essentially linked to sex at all.

The idea that heterosexual marriage joins complementary partners while homosexual unions unite clones reflects an unfounded stereotype about gay couples and smacks of the kind of antigay sentiment that Mr. Kurtz is so eager to deny at the outset of his article.

Timothy D. Lytton
Albany Law School
Albany, New York

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To the Editor:

I read with some interest Stanley N. Kurtz’s article on gay marriage, but I cannot help concluding that he totally misses the point. One must remember that all state-sponsored financial benefits for, and protections of, married couples predate the existence of effective birth control, and were designed both to subsidize the expenses of those who produced the next generation and encourage two-parent families. Now that bearing and raising children have become a choice rather than the inevitable consequence of sexual relations, it would be logical for the state to get out of the marriage business altogether. If the health insurance or tax benefits married couples receive were redefined as child-subsidy benefits, we would be putting our money and protections where they belong.

For childless couples, gay or straight, that wish to enter a legally binding financial relationship, the state could provide “civil-union” contracts. If such couples wanted to call themselves “married,” and some religious body chose to sanctify whatever relationship existed, that would be none of the state’s business, since no state-provided benefits would accrue. Once children of the union were produced or adopted, state benefits, restrictions, and protections would automatically apply.

In short, while the state has a vital interest in the raising of the next generation, it has none at all in what happens between consenting adults.

Jeffrey Greenhut
Rockville, Maryland

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To the Editor:

Stanley N. Kurtz is very effective in exposing the weak premises of supporters of same-sex marriage and explaining how they open the door to other “innovations,” such as polyamory. He correctly grasps that the real issues in the debate are “the fundamental questions of what marriage is, and what it is for,” rejecting attempts by proponents of same-sex unions to define marriage in terms of civil rights and equality.

On the other hand, I find Mr. Kurtz’s regard for marriage as a purely social construct to be troubling. As he puts it, “Historically, certain human communities have decided that this particular form of personal alliance between a man and a woman both needs and deserves societal encouragement.” He seems to shy away from a more robust affirmation that marriage is an expression of human nature.

If one defines marriage in purely historical and functional terms, then the problems that have plagued marriage historically, like its hierarchical aspects, almost necessarily become part of one’s definition of what marriage really is. Yet if one steps back from the mixed record of history and looks for the core of what marriage is, I believe one finds a union of male and female uniquely designed for procreation, the nurture of children, and the connection of families across generations.

David Orgon Coolidge
Marriage Law Project
Columbus School of Law
The Catholic University of
America
Washington, D.C.

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To the Editor:

Stanley N. Kurtz has produced a fine and important discussion of the problems with gay marriage. Unfortunately, he ignores an important part of the ongoing debate.

There has been an attempt to enlist quantitative social science to support the legitimation of gay marriage. Simply put, a growing body of research literature has been marshaled that purports to show that gays or lesbians, whether singly or in whatever combination, are as fit as their heterosexual counterparts to raise children. The claim is further pressed that children raised in such arrangements grow up to be well-adjusted adults and are no more likely to become gay themselves than are children raised by heterosexual parents.

This view, revolutionary in its implications, was unheard of even five years ago, but is now held by many social scientists. In a recent issue of Contemporary Sociology, Judith Stacey writes that “thus far the research on the effects of lesbian parenting on child development is remarkably positive.” In her book, The Nurture Assumption, the psychologist Judith Rich Harris is even more emphatic, claiming that “children with two parents of the same gender are as well adjusted as children with one of each kind.”

But the research in question does not stand up to critical scrutiny. In a recent study, I analyzed the design, methods, and results of 49 published academic studies that claim to find no difference between children raised by homosexual and heterosexual parents. My conclusion: the methods used in these studies are flawed.

First, almost all the gay-parenting studies examine young children, not teenagers or young adults. Second, except for one study, they fail to follow these young children into adulthood. Third, the studies differ radically on what constitutes the proper subject of research. Some report on lesbian mothers with children from a previous heterosexual marriage; others on lesbian mothers with children from donor insemination; and still others on gay fathers. Some have no comparison group of heterosexual parents; others compare lesbian mothers to divorced single heterosexual mothers; still others compare lesbian families to heterosexual couples with children from donor-insemination.

Moreover, many studies select their subjects through homosexual-rights groups, gay-lesbian parenting networks, or the local university campus—and thus rely on people who have a large stake in the “right” research outcome. Finally, most researchers fail to control statistically for income, occupation, or education—to name a few standard variables—and all the studies suffer from samples so small that the investigator is almost guaranteed to find no statistically significant differences among children raised by homosexual parents.

It is this body of statistically invalid, scientifically distorted, but politically correct research that has been pressed into service in custody disputes, adoption cases, and, most importantly, in the quest for the legitimation of gay marriage.

Robert Lerner
Rockville, Maryland

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To the Editor:

Some years ago, the Reform movement’s Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR) appointed a special committee to examine the issue of homosexual marriage. Although the committee, like CCAR itself, accepted homosexuality, its report opposed the rabbinical endorsement of homosexual marriage on the grounds that such unions are incapable of realizing the uniquely sacred marital mitzvah (commandment) of creating the next generation. At CCAR’s annual meeting, however, the committee’s recommendation was overruled.

In response to this vote, I wrote “Homosexuality: A Political Mask for Promiscuity: A Psychiatrist Reviews the Data,” which appeared in the January 2000 issue of Tradition (an Orthodox journal), and supports many of Stanley N. Kurtz’s conclusions. In particular, and despite the CCAR committee’s repeated assertions of its belief in homosexual fidelity, my article cites two pairs of investigators—homosexuals themselves—who found an almost total absence of fidelity among the gay couples they interviewed. Of 156 couples in one study, only seven, none of them together for more than five years, had had a totally exclusive relationship. The other study concluded that “the cheating ratio of ‘married’ gay males, given enough time, approached 100 percent.” Indeed, Andrew Sullivan, the leading gay apologist, places sexual “freedom” ahead of fidelity, even within gay marriage, when he writes that “there is more likely to be greater understanding of the need [emphasis added] for extramarital outlets between two men than between a man and a woman,” and again, “The lack of children gives gay couples greater freedom.”

Nathaniel S. Lehrman, M.D.
Brooklyn, New York

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To the Editor:

Stanley N. Kurtz’s potent article reminds us that the politics of gay marriage is the culmination on the one hand of the depathologizing of homosexuality by the American Psychiatric Association and the American Psychological Association, and on the other of the blessing of gay weddings by several religious denominations. In their approval of homosexuality, the two professional associations and the various religious groups have demonstrated not only their liberal sexual mores but also their cowardice in the face of being labeled homophobic.

Robert Lyon
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

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To the Editor:

I found Stanley Kurtz’s article to be the most cogent, balanced, and insightful piece I have ever read on the subject of same-sex unions. I had no idea that the radical proponents of gay marriage are arguing for far more than even they may realize. Thank you for alerting those of us who have remained blissfully ignorant of what is going on in this particular theater of the culture wars.

John A. Pummell
Heidelberg, Germany

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To the Editor:

Many thanks for publishing Stanley N. Kurtz’s penetrating article on the subject of gay marriage. I too am mystified as to why the general public, and the Jewish community in particular, have embraced the gay-rights agenda so fully. Fear of being called homophobic is certainly one reason, but I believe another reason is the failure to understand that homosexuality is not inborn and is therefore treatable.

Elaine Silidor-Berk
Jews Offering New Alternatives
to Homosexuality
Jersey City, New Jersey

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To the Editor:

The careful explanation by Stanley N. Kurtz of the difficulties with gay marriage is a model of lucid and profound argumentation. The key problem, as he correctly notes, is the definition of marriage as a human right. If it is regarded as a right rather than as a desirable form of social organization, then marriage cannot be denied to anyone, save children: not to gays, and not to a man wanting to marry three women, or a woman wanting to marry three men, or a father wanting to marry his daughter.

Polygyny (a man with more than one wife) exists in many societies, but as Mr. Kurtz points out, they are societies in which group or clan rule dominates individual preferences and, as he could also have pointed out, in which men acquire wives as symbols of worldly success. I doubt that many of the scholars, such as the late Jesse Bernard, who have favored marital communes or ménages à trois would want to live in such places.

Marriage existed initially to manage property and care for children. Today, the property basis has been weakened, but the child-rearing one has not.

My only trivial quarrel with Mr. Kurtz is to suggest that, contrary to what he asserts, polyandry (a woman with several husbands) has rarely existed, and when it has, as in certain remote Himalayan communities, it has come into being only for extreme reasons.

James Q. Wilson
Pepperdine University
Malibu, California

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Stanley N. Kurtz writes:

William Eskridge attempts to deflect attention from the core contradiction in arguments by “conservative” advocates of gay marriage such as himself and Andrew Sullivan. But the problem will not go away. Championing an infinitely flexible right to reconfigure marriage does not comport with a defense of marriage as a tested and proven social institution, particularly when there is so much reason to believe that a change in the definition of marriage will undermine, rather than promote, its beneficial effects.

Mr. Eskridge is correct to say that many lesbian couples reject the notion of sexual complementarity. That is exactly the problem. Sexual complementarity is a central pillar of marital stability, and yet, as I pointed out in my article, many of even the most committed and nonpromiscuous lesbian couples look forward to same-sex marriage as a way of “subverting” sexual complementarity—and through it, the institution of marriage itself. As described in Mr. Eskridge’s own book, even Ninia Baehr, who brought the historic Hawaii gay-marriage case to court, was inclined to think of marriage as an oppressive institution, and was more interested in making a public statement about homosexuality than in promoting marriage.

Moreover, Mr. Eskridge’s claim that “committed same-sex couples” would not undermine marriage begs the fundamental question. How many same-sex couples who married would be “committed,” in the sense that we now understand that term? Since even many monogamous lesbian couples view marriage as oppressive and, as Nathaniel S. Lehrman correctly points out, many more gay male couples do not identify commitment with monogamy, that does not leave much room for the ethos of traditional marriage. As Gretchen Stiers’s important study (cited in my article) demonstrates, many gay couples will marry strictly for the legal and financial benefits. Thus, contrary to Victor Stein, economic incentives will not spread the traditional marital ethos but simply draw gay couples into marriage without fundamentally changing the social and sexual dynamics of their relationships.

Mr. Eskridge’s jaundiced description of the hierarchical complementarity within marriage fails to grasp the lived complexity of male-female relations, in which both a man and a woman serve one another—although in different ways and in different contexts. While there is a sense in which men “possess” women, there is also a sense in which, through the very act of allowing themselves to be possessed, women “tame” and possess their men.

I agree with Timothy D. Lytton that all couples are in some respects complementary. It could also be said that all couples are in some respects alike. But none of this changes the fact that male/female complementarity is more pronounced than the same-sex variety, or that the specific form of heterosexual complementarity tends to maximize marital stability. In this connection, incidentally, although David Orgon Coolidge is correct to argue that some aspects of this sexual hierarchy are outdated, the truth is that much of the traditional male/female dynamic remains strong.

Contrary to Mr. Lytton, the fact that married partners form a couple does nothing to gainsay the importance of individualism in the formation of Western families. It is our yearning for freedom that draws us into independent alliances with self-chosen and unique others, rather than alliances with multiple marital partners under the influence of our extended kin. In fact, this individualistic propensity reaches its apex in calls, like that of Jeffrey Green-hut, for the effective abolition of marriage and conversion to a series of flexible, individually arranged contracts. Mr. Greenhut is honest about the radical program that stands behind the move for gay marriage, but he is mistaken to argue that the state can protect children without caring about the nature of the relationship between their parents.

Robert Lerner’s important and persuasive critique of the literature on child-rearing among gay couples demonstrates why we cannot rely on the studies undertaken so far. Unfortunately, the policy debates are moving so swiftly that we will need to make fundamental decisions about what is best for our children well before the definitive studies come in.

Nothing in my case against gay marriage requires assent to the notion that homosexuality is a clinical pathology. Robert Lyon may pursue the point, but its resolution is not essential to the policy issue at stake. In general, my view is that we can relax the social taboo on homosexuality without abandoning special support and encouragement for heterosexual marriage.

Finally, James Q. Wilson rightly identifies my basic aim: shifting the ground of the debate over gay marriage away from claims of infinitely flexible “rights” and symbolic statements about homosexuality and toward a discussion of the impact of this proposed reform upon the institution of marriage itself. In this regard, William Eskridge is surely wrong to suggest that extending the right to marry to gay couples would not entail legalizing polyamorous unions. Once we begin to redefine marriage in terms of our common humanity and the right to equal benefits, the process will not stop.

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