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April 27, 2004

Notes on the Marriage Debate

For three full weeks, I've held on to Andrew Sullivan's "fisking" of Shelby Steele. To be honest, I had intended to let it slide, at first — not knowing much about Mr. Steele, and believing that the form and style of fisking plays to Sullivan's weaknesses, not his strengths. Fisking his efforts, in turn, is more work than it seems worth. So, rather than reread the thing and offer a polished rebuttal, I thought I'd just (essentially) post the notes that I made a few weeks ago in response to the piece and some related entries on his blog.

If one reads broadly from Sullivan's marriage library, a tacit underscore becomes apparent that seems to hold for many other advocates for SSM: he wants marriage just to be another choice. Homosexuals can live the free, libertine lifestyle, or they can marry. No stigma or objective preference is intended to attach to either. However, for the broader society, marriage is meant to create expectation.

The nature of straight relationships is such that the wilder, multifarious practices that even the "conservative" Sullivan has been known to laud would be detrimental to society. Heterosexuals simply cannot afford to make marriage just another option. A strong cultural expectation of marriage is most important for those whose behavior makes marriage preferable even though it mightn't be what they would choose in a void. A couple whose members thoroughly commit to each other purely as a matter of choice — considering that commitment to be absolutely binding (as Sullivan believes all marriages should be) — are in no need of a public institution, or at least the "spouses" need it less. To get to the point, marriage isn't meant to be a choice, strictly speaking, because those who would choose it don't require incentive, and the real benefit of marriage isn't the perks, but the familial structure for children.

Sullivan flips the emphasis, saying that some straight marriages are childless, so homosexuals' natural childlessness isn't a factor. But he's wrong to disconnect marriage from procreation in such a way. Even leaving aside that the connection still exists in fact, it must continue to exist in principle. Both marriage and procreation may not be individually connected with sex, but it is crucial that they remain connected with each other.

This statement is sure to elicit guffaws from SSM supporters, but marriage is less about whether two heterosexuals do procreate than that, barring relatively uncommon problems, they can. Much has been made of the truism that birth control has disconnected sex from childbirth. However, in terms relative to choices of lifestyle, even birth control does not open the promiscuous "choice" that marriage is meant to foreclose. Most forms of contraception require some degree of control over the circumstances of the sex. With multiple partners, particularly for men, it becomes exponentially more difficult to ensure effectiveness.

Even so, Sullivan might argue, marriage is ultimately about family, and "marriage discrimination" drives wedges into families. It has been my reading experience that Sullivan usually means this to refer to the homosexual adults and their parents and siblings. Most dramatic, in this line, is his periodic reference to figures who oppose same-sex marriage, but who have gay sons and daughters:

When "pro-family" types talk about wedge issues, they don't often concede that one of their wedges is to split families apart. And part of the point of civil marriage for gays is to bring families back together.

It's truly dissonant for a self-proclaimed libertarian to be pushing the concept that government action can confer legitimacy on offsprings' lifestyles in the eyes of their parents — particularly when this is an area in which the libertarian view would actually be correct. To the extent that families' wounds related to homosexuality aren't healed, a marriage ceremony that comes "close enough" to meeting the parents' thwarted visions of their children's futures will be of limited value. Legal accoutrements will be of even less. On the other end, families not currently divided over the issue will not find themselves more not divided because of a government stamp.

Beyond all the policy judgments made at a distance, I wonder if Sullivan, sitting at his computer, staring aimlessly out the window, ever meditates on why parents would work against the immediate interests of their own children. Yeah, there are certain to be instances of parents' lashing out and/or harboring some unspoken hope that preventing the institutional normalization of gay relationships will push their children back toward more-normal lives. But couldn't it be, just maybe, that they believe — also or instead — that the issue is important enough to merit resisting the pull of personal accord?

Posted by Justin Katz at April 27, 2004 9:13 PM
Marriage & Family