Thursday, January 08, 2009

The Gay Marriage Conundrum

Andrew Sullivan takes on Daniel Larison here and here on the merits/demerits of legitimizing gay marriage and its effect on straight marriage.

Larison: When endorsing a change, particularly one this radical, a conservative would need to show not only that it does not do harm to the institution in question but also that it actually reinforces and reinvigorates the institution. Whether or not “gay marriage” harms the institution of marriage, it certainly does not strengthen it. It is therefore undesirable because it is unnecessary to the preservation of the relevant institution, and so the appropriate conservative view is to leave well enough alone.
Sullivan: I think allowing gay couples to marry does strengthen the institution, because it ensures that everyone in a family has access to the same civil rites and rights, and so the heterosexual marriages are as affirmed as effectively as the gay ones. (It is not my experience that the straight siblings and families of gay people feel their marriages affirmed by excluding some of their own.) By removing the incentive for gay people to enter into false straight marriages, which often end in divorce or collapse, wrecked childhoods and betrayed spouses, heterosexual marriage is also strengthened. And the practical alternative to marriage equality - civil unions for straights and gays - presents a marriage-lite option for everyone that clearly does threaten traditional marriage in a way that gay marriage never could.

I agree more with Larison. I don't see that gay marriage strengthens heterosexual marriage, but I also don't see that it hurts it. I've been pretty lukewarm on this issue, but if I lean, I lean toward Larison's position. I don't see any compelling need to give gays parity with straights with regard to marriage. But if it is to be done, better through legislatures than courts.

Sullivan's argument that gay marriage will keep gays from marrying women just to get the social approval and benefits of marriage makes no sense. Once gays won widespread social approval for living an openly gay lifestyle, there is nothing to be gained from a heterosexual marriage. Gays can live in committed long term relationships without formal marriage, and can gain many of the legal benefits of marriage through domestic partnership legislation already in place. The incremental benefits to be gained by legal parity with heterosexuals seems mostly symbolic to me, and I don't see it adding any stability to gay relationships to speak of.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Gay marriage conundrum? How retro. We've had it for a couple of years now and you will be pleased to know it has had no detrimental effect at all on traditional marriage, which remains as eternal and rock-solid as ever. Indeed the Department of Gender Studies at the University of Manitoba has just released a major study proving (proving, I say) that it has had no negative effect on marriage, child-rearing, mental health, collective self-esteem or Canada's fortunes in international hockey. Indeed, the authors suggest strongly it may have actually strengthened marriage, although they allow more research may be required on that one.

So, we've moved on and our Supreme Court will soon be ruling on the constitutionality of criminal sanctions against polygamy. The bets are that it will strike them down and, although that isn't the same as legalizing polygamous marriages, it's pretty tough to know what would stop that from flowing quickly and naturally as a consequence. It is interesting to see how this issue is being handled on mainstream/conservative blogs. There is a widespread palpable caution and opposition, but almost nobody can articulate why in any persuasive way. There is a vague sense that this might not really be good for women (Duh!!), but exactly why is a mystery, for surely we all know that women over eighteen are 100% capable of deciding what is best for them and that those decisions are inherently more authoritative than anything collective tradition or experience might have to say. We're all libertarians now and nobody, especially among the young, seems capable of cerebrally breaking through those rationalist fetters and challenging the triumphant reign of absolute choice, choice, choice.

So instead, what you see most of the time are rather desperate efforts to inject the question of the effect of polygamy on children (always helpless victims born without original sin), both progeny and "teen-aged brides". This allows everybody to get in touch with their inner authoritarian paternalist, but of course it isn't going to work in the long term because the other side will always be able to present examples of healthy, happy polygamous families ("Janey has Six Mommies")and also because the interests of children never end up prevailing over adult sexual freedom and choice in our era. Nobody knows how to handle the underlying question, which is how can something that is a perfectly private, legitimate, value-free lifestyle choice for adults be inherently bad for children.

It reminds me of debates on gay marriage, late-term abortion, enthusiastically assisted suicide, etc. It's all the visceral "yuck" factor, but few other than the strongly religious seem willing to get their hands dirty trying to defend the sanctity of marriage, life, etc. or inject some notion of reverance into the debate, presumably because they have lost the language that would help them articulate what their guts are screaming at them and because presumably they have learned the hard way that if they tried, Duckian wannabes would chide them about the Big Spook and swarm them with accusations they are sliding down the slippery slope to theocracy.

January 09, 2009 5:45 AM  
Blogger erp said...

Bravo Peter. All without taking a breath. You will keep us informed on the polygamy thing.

Polygamy goes both ways and may be the very thing to save heterosexual marriage and maybe even homosexual ones.

The budget getting a little tight; the little woman wants to have a career too -- bring in additional husbands, wives -- mix and match genders or even consider metrosexuals to pitch in with the household bills and chores.

Polygamy may not be such a bad idea.

January 09, 2009 9:18 AM  
Blogger Duck said...

Peter, the start down the road toward an emphasis on the individual needs/wants of adults started with the legalization of divorce in protestant nations, and the eventual liberalization of divorce laws. This isn't something new, and it certainly didn't gain traction with the gay rights/gay marriage movement.

But we are more individualistic in the West for a reason. You can't value marriage stability according to an absolute scale where the most stable is the most desired/valued. If that were so, we'd resemble Muslim cultures. I think I remember you praising our respect for the status of women in Western society, and ascribing credit for such to Christianity. We've de-propertized women, which means they can sue for the right to divorce abusive/loutish husbands.

So stability of marriage has to be weighed and balanced on a scale against other desirable social values. I think it is instructive to note that polygamy is practiced not in the most permissive and individualistic societies, but in the most traditional and authoritarian ones. Women who have a real choice and economic opportunities don't decide to be a second or third wife.

January 09, 2009 10:29 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oh, I think you would be surprised at what many people will decide when they are emotionally vulnerable, there are no rules and nobody stops them, but I really don't have a problem with what you are saying. After all, it's more than a little absurd to criminalize polygamy when it is perfectly lawful for any sexual perm or com to cohabit outside of marriage. Woody Allem just made a popular flic suggesting that a menage-a-trois can contribute to emotional stability and as is usual with Woody, his tongue didn't seem to be pressing too firmly into his cheek. Besides, as erp points out, there are all those practical upsides to consider. As I've said before, if they legalize polygamy, I'm changing my specialty to estate litigation.

Funny how Christian monogamy was originally seen as a major legal protection for women/mothers that reflected an enhanced status. (Please stop that "depropertized" nonsense. You sound like a professor of Women's Studies at some Ivy League school). Oh well, I guess it's on to incest, for the Enlightenment never sleeps.

January 09, 2009 11:04 AM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...

It is interesting to see how this issue is being handled on mainstream/conservative blogs. There is a widespread palpable caution and opposition, but almost nobody can articulate why in any persuasive way.

I can, in two words: parity error

Remember the lost boys?

January 09, 2009 12:38 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Link broken, Skipper, but I assume you are taking a dirigiste macro view of how society should design itself. Isn't that a little bit like telling me I should stay with my wife (or, more realistically, that she shoud stay with me) because it will bolster the GNP and help our international competitive position? I thought you were the limited government libertarian.

January 09, 2009 4:15 PM  
Blogger Duck said...

Peter, weren't you claiming credit (on behalf of Christianity) for the Enlightenment? So was it a good thing or not?

January 09, 2009 5:00 PM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...


Sorry, try this.

I am not taking some dirigiste macro view.

Rather, it is the very easily argued principle underlying all appropriate individual rights: that everyone may choose to exercise them without depriving anyone else's opportunity to do the same. My exercising freedom of speech does not inhibit you doing so, or anyone else. Therefore, everyone may.

However, polygamy comprehensively fails that essential test through inevitable parity error. Put another way, polygamy is a zero-sum game.

In contrast, whatever one may think of gay marriage, one must admit that it, like conventional marriage, is most not zero sum.

If I was the HDWIC, I would make civil marriage contingent upon children. People may enter into limited civil partnerships, but the full panoply of marital privileges is only available to those who become parents. (Put that way, maybe there is an argument to be made forcing parents to marry, but that probably doesn't belong on this thread.)

At that point, one may wrestle with whether allowing same-sex couples to adopt is a good idea. Keeping in mind, of course, with respect to what alternative for the adoptees.



I disagree with Larson to the extent that if something neither weakens nor strengthens the institution of marriage, than that thing, by definition, is irrelevant.

If he wants to argue the precautionary principle, that is one thing, but to say on one hand that something is irrelevant, and on the other that it matters in a way that violates a conservative approach is self-contradictory.

IMHO, gay marriage will eventually be seen as irrelevant to conventional marriage.

However, since marriage is a truly social institution, imposing gay marriage by judicial fiat is dead wrong.

January 09, 2009 5:01 PM  
Blogger David said...

erp reminds me of this comment at BrothersJudd when the SJC struck down the ban on gay marriage.

January 09, 2009 5:33 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


And what, pray tell, is "the full panoply of marital privileges"? Is Disney offering us discount coupons?

January 10, 2009 3:37 AM  
Blogger erp said...

David, more proof that great minds think alike!

January 10, 2009 6:49 AM  

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