Commentary Magazine

What Is Wrong with Gay Marriage

A clear majority of the American public opposes same-sex marriage, a social reform already making headway in a number of states. And yet this opposition, though real, is by and large silent. Just prior to the close vote on “civil unions” in the Vermont state assembly this past April, a number of anguished legislators pleaded for more time. Our society, they said, had only begun to consider the full implications of same-sex marriage; how could they be expected to make so fateful a decision in the absence of informed and substantive discussion? But the vote was taken anyway; the Vermont measure has passed into law; and still the hoped-for discussion has failed to materialize.

So striking is this general silence that one cannot help wondering about the reasons for it. They are not far to seek. In April, just after Reform rabbis had been authorized by their movement to conduct same-sex wedding ceremonies, and as Methodists, Presbyterians, and Episcopalians were debating whether to do likewise, a story appeared in the New York Times about three respected and moderately liberal Protestant theologians known to be opposed to such a move who had been invited to air their views on television. All three had declined to appear, and on more or less the same grounds: fear of being publicly smeared as “homophobic.”

In a democracy, Tocqueville warned, the threat of social ostracism can be too easily turned against minority viewpoints. How curious, then, to see it being deployed so effectively today against the majority. True, even a relatively small group of deeply committed partisans can always impose certain costs on its adversaries, and the cause of same-sex marriage is certainly one to which gay activists and their allies are deeply committed. True, too, the positions espoused by these activists are generally supported by the American cultural elite, including the mainstream media, which exercise a powerful censoring role of their own. But one also senses that the silencing of the majority would never have been possible were the majority itself more certain of its ground.

Although most Americans are indeed opposed to the legalization of same-sex marriage, large numbers of these same Americans do not consider homosexuality itself a sin, and they welcome greater tolerance for homosexuals. Favoring equality, they do not wish to see anyone denied his rights. It is the seeming ambiguity in this position that has been seized upon by activists to stigmatize any opposition to same-sex marriage as evidence of homophobia, or prejudice against homosexuals per se. But a fairer way of putting it would be to say that we have allowed a muddled understanding of democracy to subvert our capacity to speak on behalf of those human forms and traditions upon which democracy itself crucially depends.



Not that the arguments in favor of same-sex marriage are themselves models of clarity. Quite the contrary: they have shifted with the moment, and with their proponents’ sense of political expediency.

Perhaps the most articulate of these proponents is the British-born Andrew Sullivan, who just over a decade ago launched his campaign for same-sex marriage in the pages of the New Republic, the magazine of which he was then the editor. True to his self-description as a conservative, Sullivan put forward a conservative argument. Marriage, he proclaimed, is an institution worthy of preservation, and society is correct to extend legal advantages to couples who choose to live under its formal sanction. For marriage provides a counterbalance to sexual adventurism, especially male sexual adventurism, and thus serves to encourage the socially beneficial ends of emotional stability, economic security, and a healthy environment in which to rear the next generation. But precisely for that reason, Sullivan concluded, the legal benefits of marriage ought to be extended to gays as well, who if anything stand in even greater need of its ameliorating spirit than do heterosexuals, and who could contribute most to society if brought under the healing embrace of bourgeois respectability.

Would homosexuals actually choose to marry? Sullivan, after all, was speaking of a community—his own community—that has put a premium on sexual promiscuity, as well as on rebellion against everything subsumed under the word “proper.” Not to worry, he reassured his readers: while some gay activists and a number of aging radicals might cling to an outdated notion of homosexuals as the quintessential outsiders, in the community as a whole the impulse to rebel was giving way to the impulse to belong. Indeed, his “guess” was that, if only the straight world would accept them, many would happily wed—and they might well prove to be more committed marriage partners than heterosexuals themselves. At the very least, by turning marriage into a shared institution, America could heal the gay/straight rift, make headway against the scourge of AIDS, and ensure that a restless and endangered class of citizens would be happier, more productive, and better cared for.

Several years later, Sullivan fleshed out this argument in a book, Virtually Normal, which garnered generally enthusiastic reviews. It also attracted at least two vigorous counterresponses: one by James Q. Wilson in COMMENTARY (“Against Homosexual Marriage,” March 1996) and a shorter piece by William J. Bennett in Newsweek. Bennett raised the interesting possibility that Sullivan’s “guess” might prove wrong—that legalized marriage would not in fact domesticate gays but rather the reverse: that an often openly and even proudly promiscuous population would fatally undermine an already weakened institution by breaking the bond between marriage and the principle of monogamy. Besides, Bennett asked, once we arbitrarily redefine marriage to take in couples of the same sex, what would be the stopping point? Why not legalize polygamy, even incest?

This last point Sullivan himself was, in turn, quick to disparage as irrational fear-mongering, likening it to the disaster scenarios trotted out decades earlier during the debate over interracial marriage. “To the best of my knowledge,” he scoffed in reply to Bennett, “there is no polygamist’s rights organization poised to exploit same-sex marriage and return the republic to polygamous abandon.”

But at the same time, Sullivan was already beginning subtly to shift ground. In the case of heterosexuals, he complained in his response to Bennett, we have never been in the habit of making “nitpicking assessments of who deserves the right to marry and who does not” (emphasis added); why do so in the case of homosexuals? This was a portent of things to come. From urging that the benefits of marriage be extended to gays as a matter of society’s own self-interest—that is, in order to tame an antinomian force by, in effect, co-opting it—Sullivan and others soon began to build a case for gay marriage on the basis of human and civil rights.

Gone now was the earnest contention that marriage both solemnized and reinforced a worthy moral code. Gone, too, was any serious effort to show that gays, if allowed to marry, would adopt that code. In “State of the Union,” a piece published in the New Republic earlier this year in the wake of the Vermont legislature’s action, Sullivan conceded in one breath that many gay men had no interest in marriage with its expectations of fidelity, while insisting in the next that even if they did marry, the impact on the institution as a whole, given the tiny percentage of homosexuals in the population, would be negligible. But all that was beside the point, which was one of principle: in a free society, Sullivan declared, we allow anyone to marry who so wishes. And although we naturally hope for the best from all those marriages, the actual outcome is irrelevant; marriage itself is an elementary right, and to deny it to anyone, not only in substance but in name (by adopting such halfway measures as domestic partnerships or civil unions), is a species of discrimination, pure and simple.

Thus the “debate” so far. To judge by the silence on the other side, the proponents of same-sex marriage would seem to have won hands down, no matter which argument they happen to base themselves on at any given moment. In instructing the state legislature last December to authorize either same-sex marriage or, as the closest thing to it, civil unions, Vermont’s supreme court unabashedly invoked what it called a “recognition of our common humanity” as the ground for its decision. “Our common humanity”: who could be so retrograde, or so callous, as to say no to that?



But the fact is that our common humanity has nothing to do with the case. After all, we recognize a common humanity with all sorts of people, some of them even criminals, to whom we would not consider extending many of the normal benefits of society. As a social and legal institution, marriage exists not because it is a universal right but only because, 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. In fact, a rights-based argument, if it were honest, would reject this social favoritism altogether, calling instead for the abolition of state-sponsored marriage and, perhaps, its replacement by contracts in which personal alliances of any kind would be arranged solely by the parties concerned, in whatever number or gender, and with whatever associated responsibilities, they saw fit to stipulate.

Of course, advocates of same-sex marriage do not (generally) espouse so radical a position. But neither do they concede what is manifestly the case: that they already have the same legal right to marry as everybody else—to marry, that is, members of the opposite sex. What they claim instead is a new right: the right to reconfigure the conditions of marriage in such a way as to change its very definition, while denying they are doing any such thing. And this right to reconfigure marriage in favor of gays is indeed tantamount, just as Bennett warned, to a right to reconfigure it in favor of polygamists, or pederasts, or practitioners of incest—do we not share a common humanity with each of them?—and thus, in effect, to eliminate heterosexual monogamous marriage as a legal and, ultimately, a social category. As we shall see, at least some advocates of same-sex marriage are frank enough to say so.

What we are thrown back on, in other words, are the fundamental questions of what marriage is, and what it is for. It was the answers to these questions that gave rise to the determination in the West to give a privileged status to monogamous heterosexual unions in the first place, and even though those millennia-old answers may have been momentarily forgotten, or have fallen into disrepute, they remain as sound and as compelling as ever.



In a great many non-Western cultures, polygamy and polyandry (a marriage of one woman and several men) have long existed; it is even possible that the great majority of human societies throughout history have allowed polygamy even if most did not practice it. By contrast, monogamous heterosexual marriage arose for specific reasons, of which the more venerable has to do with the complementarity of the sexes and the more recent with the fundamental liberal belief in the primacy of the individual. If we begin with the second of these, that is only because it is the less controversial.

Societies that practice polygamy tend to be built around life within groups, where the rights of the individual are subordinated to the honor and fate of the clan or joint family. Marriages in such societies are undertaken not so much to join forever with a distinctive beloved but first and foremost to further alliances between families and clans, and the children of these marriages are raised less by their parents alone than by some larger association of kin. Hillary Clinton’s favorite proverb, “It takes a village to raise a child,” is meaningful in just these sorts of settings, which may indeed be stable, and which are certainly complex, but where the chief source of authority is not the individual but the group.

That our own society is rather different hardly needs to be demonstrated. In the modern period, families in the West are for the most part based not on large associations of kin with whom we live cheek by jowl but rather on deeply personal ties established over time between two unique individuals. These emotionally intimate ties are the fundamental glue of Western marriage, which is monogamous not only because it represents the free choice of autonomous persons but because anything other than monogamy would fatally undercut the primacy of the individual and force us back either into social chaos or into the straitjacket of large, rule-bound groups.

To be sure, individualism like every other form of human expression can be carried to excess, and in ways that promote its own subversion. The same regard for our individual uniqueness that pushes in favor of romantic love can, if unbridled by other considerations, make us chafe at any restrictions whatsoever on our freedom, enticing us to believe that we can have whomsoever we desire, whenever it strikes our fancy, and no matter what prior obligations we may have undertaken to any one person. “The heart wants what it wants,” said Woody Allen famously, at a moment when he was upending his own family arrangements dramatically. But that too is precisely why society has stepped in to reinforce, through the legalized institution of marriage, the notion of committed romantic love: that is, the side of individualism that draws men and women together rather than the side that pulls them restlessly apart. Its interest in doing so goes beyond the stake every society has in settled order; the fact is that the continuity of these two-person bonds is, once again, all that stands between our children and chaos.

What, one may ask, does this have to do with homosexuality? After all, as proponents of same-sex marriage remind us, gay couples can be drawn together by romantic love, and stay together, too. And at least some homosexual couples have children as well—through adoption or artificial insemination, or from previous marriages. Not only that, but nobody bars heterosexual couples who are sterile or childless from getting or staying married. Maybe there is good reason for marriage to be monogamous; does that mean it also has to be exclusively heterosexual?



But that brings us to the complementarity of the sexes, a concept so politically incorrect that even to mention it these days is to invite ridicule. For if it implies anything, the complementarity of the sexes implies that men and women are different—and that, where the formation of families and the rearing of children are concerned, heterosexual parents are and should be preferred to homosexual parents: two ideas that are anathema to radical feminists and gay activists alike. Nevertheless, whether it is a biologically based fact or a cultural artifact, or both, the complementarity of the sexes is real, and it is not about to disappear. And a good thing, too, since the stability of marriage depends on it.

In speaking of the complementarity of the sexes, I do not have in mind the old “division of the spheres”—the doctrine that, to put it crudely, men’s natural place is to occupy themselves with labor outside the home while women’s natural bent is to care for hearth and children. But neither is that idea to be lightly disparaged. True, increasing numbers of women work outside the home these days, and their access to prestigious and highly remunerative jobs is approaching that of men. But when it comes to sex and marriage, the old patterns, the old attitudes, and the old instincts stubbornly refuse to lie down and die. The woman who pulls down a six-figure salary still waits for a man to call for a date, and the woman who comfortably commands men at the office still waits for a man to hold the door open for her. In our fantasies and in the details of our intimate lives, as in our popular songs, the complementarity of the sexes lives on, and will not be eradicated.

This complementarity is absolutely crucial for married life. To Andrew Sullivan, it is the institution of marriage itself that “domesticates” men. But he has it wrong, or at best half-right: it is women who domesticate men. This is hardly to say that women themselves are never promiscuous; it is to say, rather, that what characteristically leads a man to abandon the quest for sexual conquest and, as the phrase has it, settle down and raise a family is the companionship and (yes) the possession of a beloved woman. Upon this basic dynamic of sexual coupling, society puts its imprimatur in the form of legalized marriage and, at least until recently, has also put its sanctions in the laws regulating divorce, laws that were typically much harder on men as the “naturally” promiscuous partners than on women.

There is still another aspect to the complementarity of the sexes that might be mentioned in this context, and that is hierarchy. If a man’s proprietary interest in wife and family—his sense of possession and responsibility—is what both induces and permits him to give up the restless search for sexual conquest, the maintenance of this interest depends on, at a minimum, the tokens of entitlement suggested (again, however risibly to feminists and others) by the image of a home as a castle and the father and husband as its king. Of course, everyone knows and has always known that this kingship is more often symbolic than real: a rough sort of equality has always lain hidden under the idea of heterosexual hierarchy, and the question of who is the conqueror and who the conquered as between men and women is one of the oldest themes of high literature and folk humor alike. There is plenty of winning and losing all around.

But, to put it plainly, what the Promise Keepers have the audacity to say out loud about a man’s authority within the marriage bond remains, in subtler form, the formula of heterosexual marital success. The mere fact that, to the abiding frustration of feminists, 90 percent of married American women still take their husbands’ surnames, while only 2 percent retain their maiden names alone, is powerful testimony to the enduring relevance of this ageless and complex drama of pursuit and possession by means of which individual men and women complete and “own” one another exclusively.



In sum, to suppose that legally conferring the word “marriage” on the union of two gay men will somehow magically domesticate them both is to indulge in fantasy; only sexual complementarity can do that. The state can reinforce the effect, but it cannot create it out of whole cloth.

In saying all this, I am merely reiterating something that heterosexual men and women have always known. More significantly, it is something that at least one segment of the homosexual community has been similarly frank to affirm: the segment, that is, that acknowledges the difference between heterosexuality and homosexuality. In contrast to moderates and “conservatives” like Andrew Sullivan, who consistently play down that difference in order to promote their vision of gays as monogamists-in-the-making, radical gays have argued—more knowledgeably, more powerfully, and more vocally than any opponent of same-sex marriage would dare to do—that homosexuality, and particularly male homosexuality, is by its very nature incompatible with the norms of traditional monogamous marriage.

Such people are represented most prominently in the trendy academic discipline known as “queer theory.” Some of them simply scoff at the idea of same-sex marriage as a contradiction in terms, and will have nothing to do with it. But for others, the prospect of legalizing same-sex marriage is in fact quite attractive—because, in making a mockery of the forms and traditions of monogamous unions, it holds out the promise of eventually undoing the institution altogether.

Take, for instance, Gretchen Stiers, a lesbian theorist and advocate of gay marriage: “Two women or two men who marry subvert the belief that women and men take on separate but complementary roles with marriage and overtly resist the notion that marriage functions to support specifically defined gender roles.” Indeed, in her recent book, From This Day Forward, the best study to date of gay and lesbian attitudes on these matters, Stiers shows that many homosexuals who disdain the idea of conventional marriage or even “commitment ceremonies” would nonetheless marry for the “bennies”—that is, the legal and financial benefits involved (such as shared health insurance). Far from reinforcing the marriage ideal, then, these couples would in effect be putting into practice the program of cultural “resistance and subversion” that she and other queer theorists favor.

Or take Michael Bronski, another radical advocate of same-sex marriage for whom “homophobia” is hardly an irrational prejudice but a “completely rational fear.” After all, writes Bronski, homosexuality posits “a sexuality that is justified by pleasure alone” and that is “completely divorced from the burden of reproduction”; as such, it “strikes at the heart of the organization of Western culture and societies,” destabilizing both monogamous marriage and the role of two sexually complementary parents within the nuclear family.

Nor does one have to look only to the radicals for a recognition of the subversive potential of gay marriage. William Eskridge, who like Andrew Sullivan lauds its power to tame and civilize promiscuous gay men, also frankly hopes that the institutionalization of same-sex marriage will in turn encourage a greater experimentation with all family forms. Gay marriages are bound to be more “fluid,” in Eskridge’s term, not so much because homosexual men will be less constrained by notions of fidelity but because, where children are concerned, sperm donors and others will be incorporated into “novel family configurations.” Thanks to the example set by these “configurations,” we can look forward to all sorts of beneficial changes in the structure of Western marriage.

From this perspective, in short, gay marriage represents but a critical first step toward the legitimation of multipartner marriages and then, perhaps, the eventual elimination of state-sanctioned marriage as we have known it. Once gay male couples with open sexual relationships or lesbian couples with de-facto families are legally married, the way will be open to even more imaginative combinations. On what grounds, for instance, could the sperm donor and aging rock star David Crosby be denied the right to join in matrimony with both the lesbian rock singer Melissa Etheridge and her lover Julie Cypher, the “mothers” of his child?



Enter, now, polygamy, an idea so outrageously offensive to Andrew Sullivan that he held William J. Bennett up to scorn for raising it a few short years ago. But those same years, as it happens, have seen the rise of a movement, known delicately as “polyamory,” many of whose proponents are indeed “poised,” in Sullivan’s derisive words, “to exploit same-sex marriage and return the republic to polygamous abandon.”

Although exact numbers are hard to come by, and one does not wish to exaggerate, one measure of the growth of the polyamorist idea is the jump in Web-based support groups from three to upward of 250. A polyamorist organization, Loving More, now holds two conferences a year, and a magazine under the same name claims a circulation of 10,000 and growing. The movement even boasts a cause célèbre in the case of April Divilbiss, a woman living openly with two “husbands” whose “immoral life-style” resulted in a court’s awarding custody of her child to a grandparent. A defense fund has been set up for her, and the case has attracted the usual media attention, figuring centrally, for example, in the full-page article Time magazine devoted to the polyamorist movement last year.

The most common form of polyamory is “couple-centered,” essentially an updated version of that ill-fated experiment of the 70’s, the “open marriage.” Couples attend sex parties together or meet prospective partners through ads or Internet chat rooms. Some prefer three-way sex, while others have sex only with other couples; some insist on the presence of their “spouse,” while others permit one partner to go off on his or her own, on condition that no emotional involvement will ensue. (Of course, exactly as in open marriage, these outside relationships frequently lead, inside, to jealousy and breakup.) Although polyamorist couples are predominantly heterosexual, homosexuals are involved as well.

In addition to the couple-centered kind, which is perhaps familiar enough, there are two more innovative forms of polyamorous relationship: so-called group marriages, and networks of sexual connection that are even more open and “fluid” (to use William Eskridge’s word). Group marriages can consist of anywhere between three and six adults who live together, sharing finances, children, and household responsibilities. Every adult is expected to be in a sexual relationship with others in the group, and if bisexuals are involved they may have sex with both men and women. The groups themselves are usually closed, although new members can join if all the existing partners agree. In the still looser forms of “polyfidelity,” the group forms and re-forms according to shifting tastes and sexual orientations. Polyamory websites regularly describe multipartner sexual liaisons among gay, straight, and bisexual individuals.

Needless to say, the loss of autonomy and the high potential for conflict in all of these arrangements do not exactly make for stability, and (as in 60’s-style communes) one can well imagine that the fate of the children involved is particularly harsh. But that hardly deters the enthusiasts, who, spurred by the success of the gay-marriage movement, see legalized polyamory as the wave of the future. One such enthusiast, a de-facto polyamorist though she may never have heard the word, is the respected mainstream feminist Barbara Ehrenreich, who has forecast the rise of a whole variety of personal arrangements entered into voluntarily by consenting parties and protected by law. Although entry into and exit from these associations would be free, the marriage contract as we know it would be replaced by a parenting contract in which the parties agreed to provide in perpetuity for whatever offspring might emerge from their shifting liaisons; as for the children themselves, they could be raised in, for example, mixed-sex communes whose residents were both gay and straight.

Ehrenreich and the polyamorists are hardly unaware of the liabilities attendant upon their Utopian schemes. Polyamory websites are filled with chatter about techniques for overcoming the effects of sexual jealousy, as, again and again, the seething passion for open-ended emotional exploration yields agonies of personal humiliation and betrayal, not to mention the smash-up of innocent children’s lives (which does in fact usually go unmentioned). But, bringing us full circle, the polyamorists also insist there must be a cure for this debility: if other cultures can do it, we can, too. After all, they point out helpfully, many Pacific Island societies have permitted multiple and shifting sexual unions, and the majority of non-Western cultures also feature complex networks of aunts, uncles, and other kin to nurture the children. Why not us?

Why not, indeed? For sheer amusement, it would almost be worth it to see how long a fiercely willful feminist like Barbara Ehrenreich would last in a real Pacific Island society, with its tightly bound groups of kin, its intricate rules of respect, its complex and often rigid hierarchies, and its constant demands for personal sacrifice. Indeed, it is tempting to laugh at all these laborious re-creations, whether in theory or in practice, of some of the most disastrous social experiments of the last 40 years. But they are even less laughable this time around than they were in the 1960’s and 70’s. For now, in the form of the movement for legalized gay marriage, the machinery of the state itself has, for the first time, been mobilized to sanction, bless, and protect those very same experiments.



Ultimately, it may be that what lies behind the demand for same-sex marriage, whether couched in conservative or in “civil-rights” terms, is a bid to erase entirely the stigma of homosexuality. That bid is Utopian; as radical gays like Michael Bronski acknowledge, the stigma arises from the fundamental separation between homosexuality and reproduction, which is to say from the fundamental fact that the world is, for the overwhelming part, heterosexual. Nevertheless, in pursuit of this Utopian end, we are being asked to transform, at unknown cost to ourselves and to future generations, the central institution of our society. And we are being admonished that to reject this demand is to repudiate our “common humanity” with those who are advancing it: that is, to repudiate them as persons.

That is simply not so. There is not the slightest evidence that either the civil status of homosexuals or the increased sympathy and respect they now enjoy in America will in the least suffer from a continued refusal to redefine marriage so as to include homosexual unions. The real danger, rather, lies in the opposite direction—in the emptying-out of every last vestige of meaning from an institution already under siege by the disintegrative sexual and social forces of the last decades. If ever there was a place to draw a line, this is it.

“What is distinctive about marriage,” wrote James Q. Wilson four years ago in COMMENTARY, “is that it is an institution created to sustain child-rearing.” The reason that role is “entrusted in principle to married heterosexual couples,” he added, is “because after much experimentation—several thousand years, more or less—we have found nothing else that works as well.” It would be hard to improve on Wilson’s quiet formulation of the case. Yet today, the war against this “institution created to sustain child-rearing”—that is, against marriage and the family—continues in force. Spearheaded by the campaign for same-sex unions, and under the reassuring but radically false guise of preserving marriage and the family, it is, in fact, intensifying. For that reason, among a host of others, it ought to be resisted—firmly, politely, but above all unashamedly.


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