Yesterday I addressed part of David Blankenhorn’s argument, relying on international survey data, that support for same-sex marriage is part of a “cluster” of “mutually reinforcing” beliefs that are hostile to traditional marriage. “These things do go together,” he writes.
I responded by saying that a correlation between the recognition of same-sex marriage in a country and the views of its people on other marital and family issues (1) could not show that same-sex marriage in that country caused, or even contributed to, those other views, and (2) did not tell us anything very important about whether, on balance, SSM is a good policy idea. SSM might be a small part of a project of reinstitutionalizing marriage – despite what those who hold a cluster of non-traditional beliefs about marriage may hope for.
I don’t deny that people who hold non-traditionalist views about family life and marriage also tend to be more supportive of SSM; I simply maintain that the existence of this cluster in some people is not very important in the public policy argument about SSM. By itself, it tells us nothing about what the likely or necessary effects of SSM will be. It would similarly not be very useful in the debate over SSM to note the existence of other correlations more friendly to the case for SSM, like the fact that countries recognizing SSM tend to be wealthier, more educated, more democratic, healthier, have lower infant mortality rates, longer life expectancy, and are more devoted to women’s equality, than countries that refuse to recognize gay relationships.
The second half of Blankenhorn’s argument that supporting SSM and opposing marriage “go together” boils down to this:
[P]eople who have devoted much of their professional lives to attacking marriage as an institution almost always favor gay marriage. . . . Inevitably, the pattern discernible in the [international survey data] statistics is borne out in the statements of the activists. Many of those who most vigorously champion same-sex marriage say that they do so precisely in the hope of dethroning once and for all the traditional "conjugal institution."
In a move that has become common among anti-gay marriage intellectuals, Blankenhorn then quotes three academics/activists who do indeed see SSM as a way to begin dismantling traditional marriage and undermining many of the values associated with it. There are many more such quotes that could be pulled from the pages of law reviews, newspaper op-eds, dissertations, college term papers, and the like. They’ve been gathered with great gusto by Maggie Gallagher and especially Stanley Kurtz, who regards them as the “confessions” of the grand project to subvert American civilization. (Remember the “Beyond Marriage” manifesto that excited Kurtz so much last summer? Not many people do.)
I do not deny that there are supporters of SSM who think this way, including some very smart and prominent academics. I wince when I read some of what they write; in part because I know these ideas will be used by good writers like Blankenhorn to frighten people about gay marriage, in part because I just think they’re wrong normatively and in their predictions about the likely effects of SSM on marriage. But mostly I wince because if I believed they were correct that SSM would undermine marriage as an institution, if I thought there was any credible evidence that this was a reasonable possibility, I would oppose SSM – regardless of whatever help it might give gay Americans and the estimated 1-2 million children they are raising right now in this country.
So I wince, but I am not persuaded that either correlations from international surveys or statements from marriage radicals show that “gay marriage clearly presupposes and reinforces deinstitutionalization [of marriage].”
First, as Blankenhorn well knows, it is not necessary to the cause of gay marriage to embrace the “cluster” of beliefs he and I would both regard as generally anti-marriage. One could, as many conservative supporters of gay marriage do, both support SSM and believe that (1) marriage is not an outdated institution, (2) divorce should be made harder to get, (3) adultery should be discouraged and perhaps penalized in some fashion, (4) it is better for children to be born within marriage than without, (5) it is better for a committed couple to get married than to stay unmarried, (6) it is better for children to be raised by two parents rather than one, and so on.
Second, a policy view is not necessarily bad because some (or many) of the people who support it also support bad things and see those other bad things as part of a grand project to do bad. Some (many?) opponents of gay marriage also oppose the use of contraceptives (even by married couples), would recriminalize sodomy, would end sex education in the schools, and would re-subordinate wives to their husbands. And they see all of this – including their opposition to SSM – as part of a grand project to make America once and for all “One Christian Nation” where the “separation of church and state” is always accompanied by scare quotes and is debunked by selective quotes from George Washington. These are, one might say, a “cluster” of “mutually reinforcing” beliefs that “do go together.” But it would be unfair to tar opponents of SSM with all of these causes, or to dismiss the case against SSM because opposing SSM might tend to advance some of them.
Third, in citing and quoting these pro-SSM marriage radicals, Blankenhorn and other anti-gay marriage writers ignore an entire segment of the large debate on the left about whether marriage is a worthwhile cause for gays. While there are many writers on the left who support SSM because they believe (erroneously, I think) that it will deinstitutionalize marriage, there are many other writers on the left who oppose (or are at least anxious about) SSM because they think it will reinstitutionalize it. Let me give a just a few examples that Blankenhorn, Gallagher, and Kurtz have so far missed.
Paula Ettelbrick, in a very influential and widely quoted essay written at the outset of the intra-community debate over SSM, worried that SSM would reassert the primacy of marriage, enervate the movement for alternatives to marriage, and traditionalize gay life and culture:
By looking to our sameness and de-emphasizing our differences, we don’t even place ourselves in a position of power that would allow us to transform marriage from an institution that emphasizes property and state regulation of relationships to an institution which recognizes one of many types of valid and respected relationships. . . . [Pursuing the legalization of same-sex marriage] would be perpetuating the elevation of married relationships and of ‘couples’ in general, and further eclipsing other relationships of choice. . . .
Ironically, gay marriage, instead of liberating gay sex and sexuality, would further outlaw all gay and lesbian sex which is not performed in a marital context. Just as sexually active non-married women face stigma and double standards around sex and sexual activity, so too would non-married gay people. The only legitimate gay sex would be that which is cloaked in and regulated by marriage. . . . Lesbians and gay men who did not seek the state’s stamp of approval would clearly face increased sexual oppression. . . .
If the laws change tomorrow and lesbians and gay men were allowed to marry, where would we find the incentive to continue the progressive movement we have started that is pushing for societal and legal recognition of all kinds of family relationships? To create other options and alternatives?
Since When is Marriage a Path to Liberation?, Out/Look, Fall 1989, at 8-12 (emphasis added).
Professor Michael Warner of Rutgers argues in his book, The Trouble With Normal (1999), that SSM would augment the normative status of marriage, reinforce conservative trends toward reinstitutionalizing it, and thus be “regressive” (all of which for him would be bad things):
[T]he effect [of gay marriage] would be to reinforce the material privileges and cultural normativity of marriage. . . . Buying commodities sustains the culture of commodities whether the buyers like it or not. That is the power of a system. Just so, marrying consolidates and sustains the normativity of marriage. (P. 109) (emphasis added)
The conservative trend of shoring up this privilege [in marriage] is mirrored, wittingly or unwittingly, by the decision of U.S. advocates of gay marriage to subordinate an entire bundle of entitlements to the status of marriage. (P. 122) (emphasis added)
In respect to the family, real estate, and employment, for example, the state has taken many small steps toward recognizing households and relationships that it once did not. . . . But the drive for gay marriage  threatens to reverse the trend [toward progressive change], because it restores the constitutive role of state certification. Gay couples don’t just want households, benefits, and recognition. They want marriage licenses. They want the stipulative language of law rewritten and then enforced. (P. 125) (emphasis added)
The definition of marriage, from the state’s special role in it to the culture of romantic love – already includes so many layers of history, and so many norms, that gay marriage is not likely to alter it fundamentally, and any changes that it does bring may well be regressive. (P. 129) (emphasis added)
As for the hopes of pro-SSM marriage radicals (like those Blankenhorn quotes) that gay marriage would somehow radicalize marriage, Warner counters that “It seems rather much to expect that gay people would transform the institution of marriage by simply marrying.”
Many other activists and intellectuals have written a stream of editorials and position papers over the past two decades expressing a similar “assimilation anxiety” (William Eskridge’s phrase) about SSM. Here are just a few:
“[Same-sex] Marriage is an attempt to limit the multiplicity of relationships and the complexities of coupling in the lesbian experience.” Ruthann Robson & S.E.Valentine, Lov(hers): Lesbians as Intimate Partners and Lesbian Legal Theory, 63 Temp. L. Q. 511, 540 (1990).
“[I]n seeking to replicate marriage clause for clause and sacrament for sacrament, reformers may stall the achievement of real sexual freedom and social equality for everyone. . . . [M]arriage – forget the gay for a moment – is intrinsically conservative.... Assimilating another ‘virtually normal’ constituency, namely monogamous, long-term homosexual couples, marriage pushes the queerer queers of all sexual persuasions – drag queens, club crawlers, polyamorists, even ordinary single mothers or teenage lovers – further to the margins.” Judith Levine, Stop the Wedding!, Village Voice, July 23-29, 2003.
“As an old-time gay liberationist, I find the frenzy around marriage organizing exciting, but depressing. . . . Securing the right to marry . . . will not change the world. Heck, it won’t even change marriage.” Michael Bronski, “Over the Rainbow,” Boston Phoenix, August 1-7, 2003.
“But the simple fact remains that the fight for marriage equality is at its essence not a progressive fight, but rather a deeply conservative one that seeks to maintain the social norm of the two-partnered relationship – with or without children – as more valuable than any other relational configuration. While this may make a great deal of sense to conservatives . . . it is clear that this paradigm simply leaves the basic needs of many people out of the equation. In the case of same-sex marriage the fight for equality bears little resemblance to a progressive fight for the betterment of all people.” Michael Bronski, “Altar ego,” Boston Phoenix, July 16-22, 2004.
So, David Blankenhorn, I see your three marriage radicals and raise you three!
Seriously, here's another "cluster" of beliefs to add to the mix: gay marriage will enhance the primacy of marriage, take the wind out of the sails of the "families we choose" movement, cut off support for the creation of marriage alternatives (like domestic partnerships and civil unions), de-radicalize gay culture, gut the movement for sexual liberation, and reinforce recent conservative trends in family law. So say what we might roughly call the anti-SSM marriage radicals.
These anti-assimilationist writers (some of whom have actually opposed SSM and some of whom, to be fair, are just very uncomfortable about it) have not gotten as much attention in the press as other writers because they greatly complicate an already complex debate. And indeed it’s fair to say they have kept themselves fairly quiet for fear that their concerns would be seen as undermining gay equality and thwarting gay marriage, a cause that has broad support among gays. They don’t want to be seen as opposing benefits for gay people (which in fact they do not oppose).
But these anti-SSM marriage radicals comprise a significant perspective among what I would call “queer” activists, those who observe that the gay movement is pursuing traditionalist causes in traditionalist ways, who think it is endangering sexual liberation, and who fear it is making gay people just like straight people (who are, by implication, all boring, uncultured philistines who couple up, vote Republican, and live in the suburbs). And they think these are bad things.
The point is not to argue that any of these writers are correct that gay marriage will have the significant reinstitutionalizing effect they think it will have. I think both the anti-SSM marriage radicals and the pro-SSM marriage radicals Blankenhorn cites are far too taken with the transformative power of adding an additional increment of 3% or so to existing marriages in the country. So are anti-gay marriage activists generally. I think all of them – including Blankenhorn – are mistaken if they imagine that straight couples take cues from gay couples in structuring their lives and relationships, if they think straight couples may stop having children, or if they predict straight couples will be more likely to have babies outside of marriage because gay couples are now having and raising their children within it.
The point is that both support for and opposition to SSM well up from a variety of complex ideas, fears, hopes, emotions, world-views, motives, and underlying theories. The debate will not be resolved by dueling quotes from marriage radicals. SSM will have the effects it has – good or bad – regardless of what marriage radicals with one or another “cluster” of beliefs hope it will have.
I should add that I have begun reading Blankenhorn’s book, The Future of Marriage. So far, I find it lively, engaging, subtle, interesting, happily free of jargon, and deeply wrong. It is probably the best single book yet written opposing gay marriage.