Thursday, October 27, 2005

Some closing thoughts on the same-sex marriage debate

I wasn't planning to devote quite so much space to commentary on the same-sex marriage debate, but Maggie Gallagher's guest-blogging at The Volokh Conspiracy piqued my interest. (My earlier blogposts on the subject can be found here and here.)

First, my basic position. I think that ending the social and legal persecution of homosexual men and women has been one of Western culture's greatest cultural and moral victories in our time. I think that sexual orientation is largely innate, and that discrimination against gays in the workplace, housing, and other matters is gravely wrong (and should be illegal if we agree that other types of identity-based discrimination by private businesses can be outlawed -- in other words, you can't be selectively libertarian about anti-gay discrimination if you have no problem with the government prohibiting race or sex discrimination). However, like the movements for gender and racial equality, the gay liberation movement has had its excesses and extremes, including attempts to portray heterosexuality itself as an oppressive institution and/or a social invention. To state the obvious, sexuality evolved as a reproductive mechanism, which strongly suggests that the primary biological template of human sexuality is heterosexual (though a large percentage of humans probably have some bisexual potential). It seems fairly clear to me that homosexuality is a morally neutral variation on that template. Equal treatment for gay men and women is a laudable goal; dismantling "heteronormative" culture is a socially divisive utopia.

As various polls show, the vast majority of Americans now support full equality for gays in most areas of life. What's being debated now is equality not just for gays and lesbians as individuals, but also for same-sex relationships.

On one level, I believe this is a question of basic equality. When a gay man is barred from making medical decisions on behalf of his longtime partner; when a lesbian who wants to be a stay-at-home mom cannot get coverage under her partner's health insurance plan; when a same-sex couple is not allowed to pool their credit the way a married straight couple would be -- the injustice is obvious. What's more, for some gay couples, the unavailability of marriage effectively amounts to denying them the opportunity to live together. If I go to Russia, meet the perfect guy and decide to bring him home, I'm allowed to do that. If the same thing happens to a gay man, he's not. I would like to know how any non-homophobic opponent of equal rights for same-sex couples can explain to a gay man or a lesbian why this is right and why this is "moral."

For these reasons of basic fairness, I have long been sympathetic to equal rights for same-sex couples (see, for instance, my articles here and here). I am somewhat more dubious when the demand for, specifically, marriage -- as opposed to civil unions or domestic partnerships with all the basic privileges of marriage -- is used as a symbolic affirmation of equality and inclusion. I can certainly understand that to many gays, "marriage in all but name" feels like a statement of second-class citizenship. But there are also a lot of Americans who support legal protections for same-sex couples yet, for the reasons I outlined in my previous posts on this topic, feel that the male-female union should retain a special cultural status. And I think this is a disagreement that can and should be settled through a democratic debate.

The state of the debate, however, is endlessly frustrating to me, and that's part of the reason I've waded into these treacherous waters. Here's a quick survey of the battleground as I see it:

1. Bad arguments. Plenty of those on both sides. My favorite stupid anti-SSM argument: "Gays and lesbians already have the right to get married -- to someone of the opposite sex!" Wonderful. It's a bit like outlawing all non-Christian religious services and then telling Jews, Muslims and Buddhists that they do have the right to worship -- in Christian churches. My favorite stupid pro-SSM argument: "The government has no business telling me whom I can and can't marry." Oh yes, it does. The government has no business telling consenting adults whom they can and can't sleep or live with (constitutional originalism or not, I believe that Lawrence v. Texas was rightly decided). But marriage is a set of legal privileges, protections, rights and obligations the government bestows on some relationships. Besides, if taken to its logical conclusion, this argument takes us directly to the anti-SSM parade of the horribles: establish the principle that the government can't tell you whom you can and can't marry, and next thing you know, some guy will want to marry his horse. (By the way, that's my second favorite stupid anti-SSM argument.)

2. Hidden agendas (and charges of hidden agendas). Gay rights activists typically charge that conservative opponents of SSM are simply using the issue as a smokescreen for bigotry and gay-bashing, and in many cases this happens to be true. The rhetoric from some of the social conservative groups positively drips with disgust for gays, with a lot of references to disease, pedophilia, and graphically described sexual practices. The frequent habit of invoking bestiality as a parallel to homosexual sex also has strong overtones of literally dehumanizing gay relationships; and the fact that many right-wing opponents of SSM also support anti-sodomy laws is telling as well.

Meanwhile, many conservatives charge that SSM advocates have covert agendas of their own -- that they are not interested in marriage so much as in an official affirmation that homosexual relationships have equal worth to heterosexual ones. Of course there is some truth to that as well. I don't think that the destigmatization of homosexuality represents some kind of nefarious agenda, but there are gay activists who clearly want to go beyond that -- who want to subvert the "heteronormative" culture and to radically overhaul marriage itself. There clearly are supporters of SSM who openly regard gay marriage as a way to destabilize traditional family insitutions, and I think reasonable SSM advocates need to do more do distance themselves from them.

3. Secrets and lies. The anti-SSM right routinely trafficks in misinformation about gays and "the homosexual lifestyle," from "studies" showing that gays have an average life expectancy of 43 years to claims about the success of "reparative therapy." At the same time, some real facts relevant to this debate tend to be surrounded by taboos. For instance, in my earlier thread on SSM, a commenter says:

Take, for instance, Maggie's claim that male-male couples do not regard fidelity the same way that male-female couples regard fidelity. There's the faint odor of bigotry, but I'd rather challenge the statement than attack the person making the statement.

Odor of bigotry? I think a University of Vermont study reported on Vermont's premier LGBT website, Out in the Mountains, should pass the smell test:

Seventy-nine percent of married heterosexual men felt non-monogamy was not okay, compared with only 34 percent of gay men not in civil unions and 50 percent of gay men in civil unions. Over 82 percent of the women in the study, regardless of sexual orientation, said monogamy was important.

There are specific examples as well:
the very first same-sex couple to receive a marriage license in Provincetown openly declared that they had an "open marriage" and that "the concept of 'forever' is overrated." If a substantial number of legally partnered gay men do not regard sexual fidelity as an essential feature of marriage (and the 50% figure in the Vermont study is consistent with other studies I have seen), is this a problem worth discussing? Is there a need for a conscious effort in the gay community to deal with this issue as we head toward some form of same-sex marriage (whether as formal marriage or marriage-like legal partnerships)? If not, is it possible that as SSM gains more widespread acceptance, there will be a push for greater acceptance of open marriage as well? (Which, in my opinion, would qualify as a negative.) I have absolutely no doubt that a lot of gay men have relationships as loving and as committed as the strongest of heterosexual marriages. But it won't do to simply sweep the non-monogamy issue under the rug as an anti-gay slur.

4. The "marriage culture" and the SSM debate. In many ways, the same-sex marriage debate is part of a larger debate about marriage, sex, and relations between the sexes. SSM opponents such as Maggie Gallagher say that allowing gay marriage pushes us toward a view of marriage as nothing more than the pursuit of individual happiness, shorn of obligations and ties to the future generations or to the wider community -- and as just another lifestyle choice rather than a social norm. Others argue that we have already shifted toward such a view of marriage, or at least are shifting toward it; and I think that's largely true, at least in more urbanized and socially liberal parts of the country.

There is still a social expectation of marriage, but a considerably weakened one. In a 1994 New York Times poll, 73% of adolescent girls (but, interestingly enough, only 61% of boys) said that they could have a happy life even if they did not marry. And here's another interesting statistic I got from Helen Fisher's book The First Sex: In a 1965 survey, more than three out of four female college students said they would marry a man they were not in love with if he otherwise met their standards for a perfect husband. Men were actually the romantics, with two-thirds insisting they would only marry for love. By 1991, about 90% of college students of both sexes said that they would not marry someone they didn't love.

As I said in my earlier post, preventing the legalization of same-sex marriage is not going to reverse the trends Gallagher and other social conservatives deplore. But social conservatives do want to reverse them at least somewhat and to return to a more marriage-centric culture and a more traditional vision of marriage; and I do think that, for better or worse, legalizing same-sex marriage will make that goal more difficult. I also think it's possible that SSM will lead to greater cultural and legal acceptance of other alternative family forms -- from polygamy and polyamory to child-rearing partnerships between straight women -- and while a part of me feels that society is resilient enough to survive such a development, the other part sees the proverbial handbasket headed to hell.

Perhaps the best response to Gallagher & Co. is that vague concerns about the possible social repercussions of SSM, and even vaguer hopes to roll back some of the cultural changes that conservatives believe have harmed families, are a pretty poor reason to deny a minority equal rights (i.e., at the very least, civil unions with all the basic "incidents of marriage"). On the other hand, the claims of some conservative SSM advocates such as Jonathan Rauch that legalizing SSM will strengthen the marriage culture strike me as rather strained. In his 1996 New Republic article advocating gay marriage, Rauch writes:

If it is good for society to have people attached, then it is not enough just to make marriage available. Marriage should also be expected. ... When grandma cluck-clucks over a still-unmarried young man, or when mom says she wishes her little girl would settle down, she is expressing a strong and well-justified preference: one that is quietly echoed in a thousand ways throughout society and that produces subtle but important pressure to form and sustain unions. This is a good and necessary thing, and it will be as necessary for homosexuals as heterosexuals. If gay marriage is recognized, single gay people over a certain age should not be surprised when they are disapproved of or pitied. That is a vital part of what makes marriage work. It's stigma as social policy.

If marriage is to work it cannot be merely a "lifestyle option." It must be privileged. That is, it must be understood to be better, on average, than other ways of living. Not mandatory, not good where everything else is bad, but better: a general norm, rather than a personal taste. ... And heterosexual society would rightly feel betrayed if, after legalization, homosexuals treated marriage as a minority taste rather than as a core institution of life.
Whether the legalization of SSM will create equal familial and social pressures on gays and heterosexuals to wed is very much an open question. For one thing, such pressures do have a lot to do with expectations of procreation: I doubt that a man and a woman in their sixties who are dating get a lot of "so when are two you getting married?" questions. But perhaps more important, I'm not convinced that the gay community, at least at this point, would agree to Rauch's 1950s-style vision of a marriage culture. (For that matter, I suspect that plenty of heterosexuals would find it much too stifling, too.) Not long ago, Andrew Sullivan linked to an interesting article about efforts to bridge the cultural gap between gay men and lesbians. This is the part that struck me:

Knight [Cathy Knight, a lesbian invited to discuss gender issues with a gay men's group] suggested that even if some stereotypes are accurate, they shouldn't serve to divide a community that needs unity.

"More lesbians are coupled, homebodies, they don't go to bars as much, and men are more sexually active," she said. "My response is, 'So what?' If that's what they choose, it doesn't have anything to do with having less moral values. It's about expressing yourself."

Evidence suggests that lesbians are indeed more drawn to monogamy than gay men -- two-thirds of the same-sex couples who have married in Massachusetts or entered civil unions in Vermont are women. But prominent lesbians balk at using such statistics to question the multi-partner dating preferences of many gay men.

"I don't have any judgment about how they order their lives," Kendell [Kate Kendell, executive director of the San Francisco-based National Center for Lesbian Rights] said. "Lifestyle choices that are damaging and self-destructive -- that's the problem, not gay men having more partners."

I am not for a moment suggesting that gays are innately "less moral" than heterosexuals. I'm not even convinced that because of innate sex differences, men are less interested in monogamy in the absence of pressure from women (in Sweden and the Netherlands, gay men and lesbians marry or enter civil unions in roughly equal numbers). However, given the fact that the gay rights movement started out as a sexual liberation movement, I wonder if the gay community is reluctant to stigmatize any sexually "liberated" behavior between consenting adults?

I'm hoping to wrap up my Maggie Gallagher-inspired same-sex marriage discussion with this post, and to leave the topic alone for the time being (there are other things going on in the world!). But this is an important topic -- one that, incidentally, isn't going away just because some people in my comments threads would like to pretend it doesn't exist -- and it needs a better caliber of civil, honest debate.

Update: If you haven't seen it already, check out Jane Galt's very interesting post on the topic from last April. Long, but definitely worth reading.

48 comments:

Revenant said...

Nicely summarized!

Randy R. said...

Bravo! You pretty much hit the nail on the head. I can't think of anything to add. I wish YOU were the official "marriage expert" instead of Gallagher!

Rottin in Denmark said...

One thing that's always frustrated me as a gay person is the lack of debate within the gay community about the casual sex that underlies a lot of gay male culture. I have never seen the statistic about gay men being more likely to be in open relationships, but it doesn't surprise me at all.

I've been frustrated for years about the lack of any prominent homosexual saying 'It's not very smart or healthy to have a different sexual partner every day or every week.'

I'm tired of gay people accepting that kind of lifestyle as normal, healthy, and even encouraged. Most of the guys I know who regularly have casual sex have mental scars of some kind of another, and are deeply unhappy.

I think there needs to be a real debate within the gay community about how to mature beyond backrooms and park benches. The casual sex culture of the older generations is understandable, but rapidly becoming obsolete and dangerous. I think one of the benefits of SSM on gay culture will be to normalize truly monogamous relationships. Now it's just up to the gay-marrieds to actually stay faithful to each other. . .

Cathy Young said...

rottin in denmark, actually I think there has been a good deal of discussion of this topic by a number of gay writers -- Bruce Bawer, Jonathan Rauch, and Andrew Sullivan, to name just a few.

The Navigator said...

I'm sure this has been said before, but, once again: most if not all of the things you're worried that some gays might want to do to change the institution of marriage are already being done by straights. Multiple partners? It's called swinging, and it happens all the time. Open relationships? See Sartre, etc. Men are more sexually driven than women are - so married gay men have sex with other men, and married straight men have affairs, visit escort services, strip clubs, massage parlors, etc. etc.

This has been a very intelligent, thoughtful series of posts, but in the final analysis, I really don't think there's anything gays can do to marriage that straights aren't already doing - it's just that a few gays [queer theorists] talk about it, while straights just do it. And yes, I see your stats about different attitudes towards multi-partnering between gays and straights, but straights outnumber gays in absolute terms by a wide margin, so I think there's not much cumulative difference.

So, while it may well be worth pondering whether gays or straights ought to be encouraged to do these things, I really don't think that the fear that a small handful of queer theorists will agitate for these things is ultimately a valid reason for denying gays full equality under law.

Revenant said...

One thing that's always frustrated me as a gay person is the lack of debate within the gay community about the casual sex that underlies a lot of gay male culture.

I don't think that gay men have any more casual sex than straight men would have if the average woman was as interested in casual sex as the average man is.

Richard Bennett said...

I've seen one study that suggests gay men are much more likely to marry than are lesbians in those jurisdictions where both have the option, FWIW. I believe this would be the case because men are less selfish than women.

Anonymous said...

I agree with what the navigator said. Basically, I fail to see any compelling argument for not granting gays the rights associated with marriage (either through marriage or federally recognized civil unions).

To dig a little deeper, the study you cited about gay/straight feelings about monogomy really only skims the surface. Straight men and woman certainly talk as if monogomy is important to them. However, various studies of actual behavior indicate that more than 2/3 of men and women in "monogomous" long-term relationships cheat. Should we start denying marriage to straight people since only 1/3 of them "take it seriously"?

If anything, I'd say that gays are slightly less hypocritical when it comes to their desires, partially because their culture isn't bound by the same puritanical norms straight culture is (for good or for bad).

So, if in the end the behavior of straights and gays in long-term relationships is similar, there's really nothing left except the fears and bigotry of SSM opponents, which, as you put it, is not a reason to deny marriage rights to gays

Revenant said...

Straight men and woman certainly talk as if monogomy is important to them. However, various studies of actual behavior indicate that more than 2/3 of men and women in "monogomous" long-term relationships cheat.

The topic is "marriage", not "monogamous long-term relationship". Estimates for the percentage of married couples in which one or both partners cheat at some point range from 20% to 60%.

Now, you seem to think that this is evidence that the men and women in question don't honestly think that monogamy is important. In reality they do; they're just not perfect people, and don't always do the right thing. There is a qualitative difference between an open marriage and a marriage in which one partner is unfaithful -- the former openly endorses behavior most people consider immoral, and the latter doesn't.

You may look at that and say "the former group are less hypocritical". But I think most people would look at them and say "the former group isn't even willing to TRY doing what's right". The term "open marriage" is, to most people, an oxymoron.

Just food for thought.

Cathy Young said...

Just a quick point:

Yes, there are heterosexual swingers, of course. But when was the last time you saw a straight couple "out" themselves as swingers in a newspaper? In 1975? At least today, the social stigma against this lifestyle is so strong that in 2002, Damon and Brenda Van Damme, the parents of a child murdered by a pedophile, suffered a considerable loss of public sympathy after the revelation that they were swingers. (For the record, I think the "they were asking for it" bashing directed at the Van Dammes was disgraceful; I don't think public morality is an excuse for such smug callousness. But do I think that swinging and open marriages should be socially unacceptable? You betcha.)

I also think that this is to a large extent a matter of culture, not biology. In the PlanetOut article I linked and excerpted, lesbian activists expressly refuse to condemn promiscuity. For gay community leaders to openly declare that monogamous marriage is not morally superior than casual sex is not a very good way to win public support.

Will this attitude change if SSM is legalized? Perhaps. Another possibility, as I said, is a push to destigmatize open marriages. Right now, the tendency is for SSM advocates to assert that gay marriage will be essentially no different than straight marriage. Is it possible that after basic acceptance is won, we will see more people arguing that gays ought to be able to redefine marriage on their own terms? (Much like the first generation of feminists argued that women were perfectly capable of competing in the workplace on the same terms as men, while the second generation -- once women's right to be in the workplace was no longer in dispute -- argued that the workplace should change to accommodate women's unique needs.)

Oh, and randy:

I wish YOU were the official "marriage expert" instead of Gallagher!

Um, thanks. I prefer to remain unofficial. *G*

Anonymous said...

What can I say? I'm a straight man in an open marriage. Actually, I prefer to call my polyamorous; but most of the people here wouldn't recognize the term.

I just left the bed with both of my loves cuddled up in it.

And you know what? I'm not alone. Go check out livejournal communities, and there are people signed up there.

Am I mainstream? *Snort* Not by any sense of the word. Never have been since I found my voice.

But the question I had is this, why is safe, consensual sex wrong?

There seems to be an underlying assumption presumption that multiple partners is bad, wrong, maybe even evil.

But tell me, what is the evil?

peter hoh said...

Cathy, the "faint odor" of bigotry comes not from the facts, but from how they are used. Maggie uses the facts to create sweeping generalities that cast SSM and gay men in the worst possible light. For her, these facts don't raise questions -- they always point to her conclusions.

But I'm not arguing that Maggie is a bigot. This is a critique of her writing.

I don't have the same reaction to the writings of Eve Tushnet and David Blankenhorn, for instance, even though they use the same facts and share Maggie's opposition to SSM.

The facts themselves are not at issue. When you wrote about them in this post, you fleshed them out -- giving context and data instead of a generalization. Then you used the facts as a starting point for some interesting questions.

All of this distracts from the points I was trying to make when I wrote the "faint odor" comment. Maybe I screwed up because I was trying to make two points with one example. I think that accusing one's critics of bigotry is counter-productive. And I think that generalizations are overused in this debate.

Revenant said...

But tell me, what is the evil?

If it truly works for all the people involved in your relationship, fine. But personally, all the "polyamorous" relationships I've witnessed have consisted of one partner who was miserable, another partner who cared more about sex than his or her partner's emotions, and whoever the latter was boinking this week.

Cathy Young said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Cathy Young said...

Peter, thanks for your comments. Your initial post did across to me as implying that the statement itself was possibly bigoted.

As for "anonymous": I think that sexual jealousy is a natural human reaction. (Even in cultures where polygynous marriages are legal and accepted, they are often rife with tensions among the wives.) Some relationships may be free of it. Most of the accounts I have seen of the polyamorous lifestyle suggest (even when they're meant to be positive) that there are a lot of hidden tensions, and a lot of people in chronic denial.

Since I'm discussing polyamory, I have to a disclosure to make. No, not about my personal life. In my other life in the Xena: Warrior Princess fandom, I am the author of a fan fiction novel (which I actually hope to adapt into an original novel one of these days) dealing with a non-monogamous relationship in which a woman is simultaneously involved with a man and a woman, both of whom, in different ways, she deeply loves. At the end, they settle into a menage a trois. However, I don't see my novel as an endorsement of polyamory. For the duration of the novel, my characters' unorthodox sexual arrangement causes all three of them considerable emotional agony (though a friend of mine did say that you can only have limited sympathy for people who are having that much sex). At the end, they find a kind of peace when the heroine's two lovers accept each other's presence and, to a degree, bond sexually as well; but I intended this seeming "happy ending" to be rife with ambiguity and even a bit of tragedy, since both of them are settling for something other than what they really want (the undivided affection of their beloved).

It's an arrangement that can work for some people. I bear them no ill will, and have no desire to persecute them. But I think that they should keep a discreet profile, and that monogamy should definitely remain the cultural ideal.

mythago said...

Found you by way of Alas, A Blog.

But I think that they should keep a discreet profile

Er, you do realize that this is the same argument used to suggest that gays, bisexuals and lesbians shut up and stop agitating for things like marriage? Of course polyamory will never be mainstream--that's fine. I admit I am not following revenant's argument that it's morally inferior to cheating.

I think most of the points in your original post are sound, but I winced when you said that heterosexuality is biologically normative; there really isn't much evidence for that, especially when you look at primates.

The Navigator said...

Cathy,
I think you're absolutely right that
"this is to a large extent a matter of culture, not biology"
and anonymous is absolutely right that
"gays are slightly less hypocritical when it comes to their desires, partially because their culture isn't bound by the same puritanical norms straight culture is (for good or for bad).
So, if in the end the behavior of straights and gays in long-term relationships is similar, there's really nothing left except the fears and bigotry of SSM opponents
"
Now, you've made clear that you're on the fence on SSM, but it seems to me that this discussion has revealed that your partial urge to oppose SSM arises - not from bigotry, to be sure - but from fear, as anonymous says. Except that the fear is about what [some] gays will say, not what they'll do, since we've granted that straights do it too, and the observed differences stem primarily from culture, not biology.

In other words, you're open to the possibility of denying equal marriage rights to gays because of what they'll say about marriage - they're more likely, in your view, to advocate for open marriages by word and by visual example, and that's bad for society in your view, so perhaps we shouldn't let them marry because then they'd be in a better position to influence straight people's view of marriage...

I don't think that's where you want to end up. Assuming for the moment that we do wish to criticize what some gays say, and to "maintain a social stigma" on polyamory, and reject efforts to destigmatize open relationships - is the wish to make such a statement really a valid reason to deny equal marriage rights to all gays? Surely not - surely their rights to equality under law and freedom of expression trump our interest in manipulating the marriage laws to make a statement.

Is it possible that after basic acceptance is won, we will see more people arguing that gays ought to be able to redefine marriage on their own terms?
Maybe it is - and maybe SSM advocates are slightly disingenous in downplaying the extent of that possibility - but so what? People now and in the future should be free to argue whatever they want about the definition of marriage.

Revenant said...

Maybe it is - and maybe SSM advocates are slightly disingenous in downplaying the extent of that possibility - but so what?

Because widespread acceptance of "open marriages" is synonymous with the destruction of marriage as an institution. If there is a possibility of that following from legal recognition of SSM, then those social conservatives who argue that legal recognition of SSM could destroy marriage are, in fact, correct.

surely their rights to equality under law and freedom of expression trump our interest in manipulating the marriage laws to make a statement.

The only reason the state grants special legal status to ANY marriages is to "make a statement". Advocates of SSM aren't really pushing for equality with straights; they are pushing for the government to say "gay married couples, like hetero married couples, are better than single people, and therefore deserving of better treatment and special rights".

The principle of equality means only that you treat two people equally unless there is a legitimate reason NOT to. Society treats hetero married couples as "better" because society believes hetero married couples are vitally important to the well-being of society. The case for SSM depends on the idea that gay marriage is similarly beneficial. If it wasn't -- if recognition of SSM would inevitably lead to acceptance of infidelity -- then denial of recognition to SSM would be entirely right and proper.

People now and in the future should be free to argue whatever they want about the definition of marriage.

If it were as simple as that, this wouldn't even be an issue -- the argument is already taking place, and has been for ages, and has thus far concluded that the definition of marriage doesn't include gay people.

The Navigator said...

Revenant,
I haven't the time to respond to your whole comment; let me just note that
Because widespread acceptance of "open marriages" is synonymous with the destruction of marriage as an institution. If there is a possibility of that following from legal recognition of SSM, then those social conservatives who argue that legal recognition of SSM could destroy marriage are, in fact, correct.

misses the point. There's no possibility that legal recognition of SSM, by itself, in a vacuum, will lead to the destruction of marriage. SSM is not a virus or a supernatural force. Rather, what's being suggested as a possibility is that, once permitted to marry, many gays will be likely to advocate for open marriage and multipartnering, and recognition of SSM will allow them to show off their open relationships as examples, and that such advocacy by word and by example will cause straights to choose open relationships, until eventually there is no generalized social stigma to having an open relationship. Lots of straights, meanwhile, are currently in de facto open relationships; there's just no prominent advocacy on behalf of straights for destigmatizing open relationships.

So, the issue isn't that gays will introduce open relationships, or be radically more likely to have open relationships - it's just that they're more likely to advocate for open relationships (and, perhaps, marginally more likely to have such relationships). What the non-homophobic SSM opponents seek, therefore, is not to prevent SSM marriage per se, but to censor/marginalize/minimize the free expression by certain gays of a pro-open-relationship point of view, and they seek to accomplish that, not by presenting a counter-argument in the marketplace of ideas, but rather by denying all gays the right to marry. It's not about choosing to grant special privileges to certain forms of cohabitation - it's about preventing straights from hearing what some gays may have to say.

You were responding to my own response to Cathy's question
Is it possible that after basic acceptance is won, we will see more people arguing that gays ought to be able to redefine marriage on their own terms?

My point is that this is not a slippery slope - we're not sliding down it, towards all open relationships and a devaluing of traditional marriage. We're choosing whether or not to take one step at a time down that slope. Legalizing SSM doesn't take us anywhere near the bottom of the slope (indeed, if Jonathan Rauch is right, it may take us up the slope in the opposite direction). If society takes additional steps, it will be because the straight majority listens to the queer theorists, decides they're right, and chooses to move to destigmatize open relationships. Maybe you think it's okay to deny all gays the same marriage rights straights enjoy in order to make it harder for straights to hear the message of certain queer theorists, but our kind host is a libertarian and I rather doubt she favors such heavy-handed, clumsy social engineering.

Finally,
the argument is already taking place, and has been for ages, and has thus far concluded that the definition of marriage doesn't include gay people.

Horse feathers. There's been no discussion of SSM in the broader society except in the last, what, 10 years? And there's been no "conclusion" - there's been an unthinking acceptance of the way things have been for centuries up until very recent decades, when it began to occur to people that we didn't enjoy true equality by simply mimicing the rules set in place by the wealthy straight white male property-owning class over the ages.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps the difference is that gay male couples may be more honest upfront about their requirement or lack of requirement for mutual sexual fidelity? Men in straight couples will almost always demand sexual fidelity upfront, because they demand that their wives be untouched by other men (else divorce or murder), BUT if they themselves cheat, well, it isn't honorable, but it's only because they can't help their masculine needs, and they deserve to be given slack by the wives.

Heterosexual swingers may be stigmatized if they are too open or blatant (cf. the failed Senate bid of Jack Ryan, Mr. Seven-of-Nine, who tried to make his actress wife do public sex at a swingers' club), but men with trophy wives and/or hot mistresses on the sides are regularly elected to Congress and regularly seen as reliable by those who promote executives.

If there's any lesson here, it is that the double standard is alive and well, and that traditional marriage supporters are perfectly fine with the lying and hypocrisy. Why no attention to the guy who dumps the first wife when she's in the hospital with cancer, then go through two more, including one of his office aides 20 years younger than himself. Or the man who was busily boinking wife #2 while married to wife #1. (Gingrich and Reagan, respectively).

Oh, and "rottin in denmark". Ever heard of Larry Kramer? (the loudest pro-restraint gay, or simply the loudest gay on the planet) Or Rotello? Signorile? Andrew "HIV+ barebacker" Sullivan, whose motto is "do as I say, not as I do".

NancyP

Cathy Young said...

Hi mythago,

Welcome and I hope you stick around. I've seen your posts on other blogs (Amptoons, Kevin Drum) and found them very impressive whether I agree or not.

Re heterosexuality being "normative": I don't think the presence of homosexual sex in the animal world contradicts that statement in any way. "Not normative" is not the same as "unnatural" (I also said in my post that I believe most homosexuality is genetic). Is anyone disputing the fact that sexuality evolved as a reproductive mechanism? Yes, we all know about those gay penguins, but let's face it, if half of all penguins were in same-sex relationships, the penguin population would suffer a serious decline.

To be honest, I'm also wary of some of some claims made about the prevalence of homosexuality in the animal kingdom. It seems like a lot of the time they're talking about playful behavior that isn't necessarily sexual, or long-term bonding with no sexual component. Some of the allegedly "homosexual" bonding among male dolphins is actually about forming groups for the purpose of enticing a female ane keeping other males away from her. (See Dinitia Smith, "Love That Dare Not Squeak Its Name," New York Times, February 7, 2004.)

I realize that because of the traditional prejudices against gays, "not normative," to many people, smacks of "abnormal" or "unnatural" or "wrong." But I don't think that the (laudable) desire to end anti-gay bigotry should lead us into the trap of what "dissident feminist" Daphne Patai has called "biodenial."

I remember reading an account of a women's studies class (can't remember where, sorry) in which the professor cited as an example of heterosexist bias the fact that scientists talk about finding out the causes of homosexuality but no one ever talks about finding out the causes of heterosexuality. Sorry, but that's just ridiculous. The cause of heterosexuality is pretty obvious. It's called sexual reproduction. (Which doesn't mean, of course, that reproduction is the only purpose of sex.)

To the navigator:

A strictly libertarian position would be no government-sanctioned marriage at all. I think revenant is correct when he (I believe revenant is male? correct me if I'm wrong) says that all marriage to some extent is about social engineering.

Furthermore, a lot of the current debate is not about whether gay couples should have the same legal rights as male-female couples but about whether these rights should come under the label of marriage. It seems to me that at least that part of the debate, on both sides, is about "making a statement."

Revenant said...

There's no possibility that legal recognition of SSM, by itself, in a vacuum, will lead to the destruction of marriage.

Even if that was known to be completely true, it still wouldn't especially matter -- legal recognition of SSM will not take place, by itself, in a vacuum. It will be existing gay couples, and existing "gay culture", that will be joining the existing institution of marriage. If that culture does endorse open marriages, then people who worry about harm to the instutution of marriage do so for good reason.

What the non-homophobic SSM opponents seek, therefore, is not to prevent SSM marriage per se, but to censor/marginalize/minimize the free expression by certain gays of a pro-open-relationship point of view, and they seek to accomplish that, not by presenting a counter-argument in the marketplace of ideas, but rather by denying all gays the right to marry.

I simply do not agree that denying married gay couples a place at the entitlement trough is a form of "censorship", or a denial of freedom of expression. *I* don't get any government benefits as a single man, and you don't see me kvetching that that represents a form of censorship. (and don't say "you can get married". Yeah, and gay men can marry straight women. They just don't want to, and neither do I).

Horse feathers. There's been no discussion of SSM in the broader society except in the last, what, 10 years?

There has been an enormous wealth of discussion about what marriage is, what it means, and who should be allowed to participate in it, dating back thousands of years. You can't say "SSM wasn't discussed" just because basically every culture in the world reached a conclusion about it hundreds or thousands of years ago.

when it began to occur to people that we didn't enjoy true equality by simply mimicing the rules set in place by the wealthy straight white male property-owning class over the ages

Drop the words "wealthy", "white", "male", and "property-owning class" and that claim will begin to bear some resemblance to reality. Divide the world up into demographic groups by race, gender, and income quintile -- you'll find that in every last one of those groups, most people think marriage is exclusively heterosexual, and has for pretty much all of recorded history.

Hell, in the United States, wealthy white people are some of the MOST likely to support gay marriage. If you want to find vicious homophobia, look in a poor black neighborhood.

mythago said...

To be honest, I'm also wary of some of some claims made about the prevalence of homosexuality in the animal kingdom

I was thinking less of "gay animals" and more of how primates are less hung up on strictly limiting their sexual behavior--especially sexual activity that isn't specifically reproductive.

It *is* ridiculous to worry about only the origins of homosexuality, because that point of view presumes that zero sexual attraction to same-sex members is the norm, and homosexuality is some kind of damaged variation.

Revenant said...

It *is* ridiculous to worry about only the origins of homosexuality, because that point of view presumes that zero sexual attraction to same-sex members is the norm

It is. The notion that significant numbers of people feel sexually attracted to both sexes is refuted by the observed fact that bisexuality is even less common than homosexuality is.

Cathy Young said...

I think this discussion is a bit off-topic, but basically, my point is: obviously, sex has been used (by animals as well as humans) for purposes other than reproduction. That doesn't negate the fact that sexuality evolved as a method by which sperm meets egg.

Non-reproductive sexualized behavior in the animal world includes a lot of activities that we would not normally classify as "sex" (i.e. genital contact leading to orgasm). That includes animals mounting other animals of the same sex in a display of dominance or presenting themselves to other animals of the same sex in a receptive posture as a signal of submission. The New York Times article I referenced before lists male monkeys embracing or female monkeys smacking their lips at each other and playing hide-and-seek or peekaboo as homosexual behaviors. Along with that, of course, true homosexuality occurs in the animals world as well.

I don't think this negates the obvious fact that in every species that reproduces sexually, male-female sex is necessary to the survival of the species. As I said, I think homosexuality is a morally neutral variation on this template.

As I understand, most SSM advocates argue that homosexuality is an innate, genetically fixed sexual orientation, occurring consistently in 3 to 5% of the population, and hence legalizing gay marriage is (1) a matter of justice for the gay minority, and (2) very unlikely to have more than a minimal effect on the rest of the population. There is a lot of support for that position among fair-minded Americans. I don't think that the goal of "problematizing" heterosexuality is likely to find the same kind of support.

I appreciate your comments.

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Cathy Young said...

In case you're wondering, there wasn't any flaming in this thread. A spammer somehow snuck past the word-verification barrier -- what do you know.

Anonymous said...

I should point out the very notion that deviant human behaviors are a matter of genetics is a matter for debate.

The argument "Gays are born that way" smacks of biological determinism, which is highly controversial in the scientific community. Unlike animals, human beings have free-will and the ability to make choices.

I believe human beings are product of their socialization, and people are no more born gay than they are born to be smokers or drinkers.

Besides, the removal of homosexuality from the list of mental disorders was 100 percent political, and pro-homosexual individuals are blinded by their irrational emotivism.

Homosexual desires are intrinsically disordered because they deviate from the basic biological design of human reproductive organs. Emotions aside, homosexuality is about as natural as a human breathing under water.

That point leads me to another one. All pro-homosexual arguments are rooted in an irrational fear of traditional families and procreation as the basic design for sex.

To sum it up pro-homosexual individuals are IRRATIONAL individuals who cannot make an argument based upon reason alone.

Cathy Young said...

anonymous:

Emotions aside, homosexuality is about as natural as a human breathing under water.

So, somewhere between 2 and 4% of humans can breathe under water? Interesting factoid.

Anonymous said...

I was glad to see that you now have a blog because I have always enjoyed, reading your columns in the BOSTON GLOBE, the clear-eyed intellectual honesty with which you routinely call to task the excesses of both the right and the left.

I would like to respond to two points you have raised in regard to the SSM debate: first, the question of whether or not legalizing SSM could pave the way for legalizing polygamy and, second, the question of preserving the special cultural status of the male-female union.

You have written that gay marriage proponents have offered no substantive arguments to show that the reasoning used to assert the right to same-sex marriage could not be extended to plural marriage as well. I believe that such an argument can be found in the language of the Massachusetts ruling which stated that the right to "marry the person of one’s choice" is a fundamental right, albeit "subject to appropriate government restrictions in the interests of public health, safety, and welfare."

Unlike the SSM of two individuals, polygamous arrangements would pose pragmatic threats to such interests—as the experience of the Mormon church in America well documents. From a public health perspective, for example, relationships based on multiple sexual partners increase the odds of the spread of sexually transmitted diseases—and the costs associated with such diseases. From a safety and welfare perspective, the incidence of spousal and child abuse and/or neglect that has historically characterized the polygamous experience (the routine coercion of girls as young as 14 into harem-like marriages to much older and powerful males formed a horrific and well-substantiated pattern of sexual and psychological predation) suggests a powerful state interest in not sanctioning such arrangements. From an economic perspective, polygamous marriages would also create a host of problems and injustices that could prove extraordinarily disruptive of the laws and structures in place to deal with issues of child custody, inheritance, and health insurance—should an employer, for example, be compelled, at considerable cost, to provide health care coverage to three wives of one employee? I think the overwhelming majority of Americans would rightly perceive such a compulsion as both unfair and an undue burden. Clearly, and for rational and pragmatic (and not purely moral) reasons, the interests of public health, safety, and welfare should trump the right of individuals to marry more than one partner of their choosing.

SSM, by contrast, does notimpose similar undue burdens or pose similar threats to interests of public health, safety, and welfare; whether I marry one man or one woman, the costs (and benefits) to society are comparable. It is even arguable that, in the interest of promoting public health, safety, and welfare, the government should offer the same financial and legal protection incentives to marry that it currently offers to opposite-sex couples to same-sex couples for the very same reasons: marriages foster social stability, economic productivity, and good public health.

Second, you have written that you “can certainly understand that to many gays, ‘marriage in all but name’ feels like a statement of second-class citizenship…but feel that the male-female union should retain a special cultural status” and also that you would support the notion of civil unions so long as they conferred protections truly equal to those offered by traditional marriage.

Marriage is all but name can never truly equal civil marriage; as Margaret Marshall wrote in the Goodrich opinion (mindful, perhaps, by her life experience as a South African raised in the era of apartheid), “separate but equal is rarely equal.” Marriage in all but name is the moral equivalent of black- and whites-only drinking fountains from the Jim Crow era in American history and galling for similar reasons; the source of the water and the physical structures of the foundations may have been identical (indeed, they were often literally side by side) but no one could reasonably argue that, even thought these fountains were interchangeably identical, their separation delivered even-handed treatment for both groups. The very fact that governmental authority saw the need to impose a distinction conferred a stigmatizing effect on one and a stamp of superiority on the other; those who doubt this should ask themselves how many whites would have drunk at a blacks-only water fountain (and how many opposite-sex couples would happily trade in their marriage licenses for a civil union certificate.

This brings me to wonder why it is imperative to retain the special cultural status of the male-female union. Of course, such a union is inarguably the biological building block of our species. But if human sexuality and the drive to reproduce are largely innate, then the the retention of such special cultural status does not seem all that critical; I suspect that if SSM were legalized the world over tomorrow, the overwhelming majority of citizens would nonetheless still be sexually and emotionally attracted to, fall in love with, and choose to marry people of the opposite sex, thus safely perpetuating the species and preserving, by sheer statistical reality, the cultural centrality of traditional marriage.

Given that the reasons for retaining this special status are thus not practical but philosophical in nature, then is it not fair to critically assess the value judgement made by our civil government in deciding to bestow this special cultural status exclusively--yet indiscriminately--on opposite-sex couples? If the government’s motive in conferring such status truly is, not to reflect theologically-based popular moral disapproval of same-sex relationships but rather a morally neutral, democratic, good-faith desire to promote relationships that best serve society and family interests, then why does it not critically examine the circumstances underlying the issuing of ALL marriage licenses issued in this country and regulate accordingly?

Is not the stable, monagamous lesbian couple of 15 years more likely to serve society’s best interests than the union of two drunken opposite-sex strangers who choose to get married, on the spur of the moment, by an Elvis impersonator in Vegas? Is the educated, affluent gay male couple raising three flourishing adopted children more likely to benefit and contribute to society than the opposite-sex teen couple who dropped out of high school to wed in the face of an unplanned pregnancy? Is the union of an elderly lesbian couple who’ve been together for 40-plus years less worthy of special cultural status and a bona fide marriage license than the the convicted felon who chooses to exercise his right, from behind bars, to marry (with or without conjugal visitation privileges)? Should all infertile couples (by definition, this would include all same-sex couples but also a significant percentage of opposite-sex couples) be entitled to civil unions but only physician-certified fertile couples to marriage licenses?

Or perhaps the government, in weighing whether or not a couple should be issued a civil union license versus a marriage license, should consider applying other standards such as the applicants’ average yearly income, educational level attained, mental health status, and/or prior convictions for domestic battery and/or child abuse? Or perhaps only those couples who undergo some kind of state-sanctioned prenuptial counseling, or who can furnish proof of the length and depth of their commitment should be entitled to marriage licenses and the rest to domestic partnership certificates? And what about marital history? Should twice- or thrice-divorced individuals forfeit their eligibility to obtain a civil marriage license much as repeat DUI offenders sometimes have their driving license privileges curtailed or even eliminated? Are not all of these indicators equally, if not significantly more relevant, to assessing the worthiness of any particular union of special cultural status based on the potential of such a union to promote the best interests of society at large? Talk about your slippery slopes…

My guess is that the majority of straight Americans would be (rightly) outraged by such attempts by the government to scrutinize, and award or deprive accordingly, marital status, based on such criteria, as rational as they might be. And yet so many have few qualms about relegating same-sex couples to a Jim Crow-esque second-class facsimile of marriage, despite the absence of any compelling rational evidence that admitting such couples to the privileges and responsibilites of the institution of civil marriage would do society significant harm.

I believe that if admitting same-sex couples to the privileges and responsibilites of civil marriage became the norm in this nation, it would only be a matter of time before people began arriving at the same conclusion (and one similar to that reached by the courts in striking down the principle of ‘separate but equal’ in other contexts of American life) that so many Massaschusetts residents, contrary to dire ‘the sky is falling’ predictions of the unraveling of the social fabric, have come to in the remarkably quiet aftermath of the legalization of SSM in that state: namely, that retaining a semantic distinction is not only practically pointless but morally indefensible.

Anonymous said...

I think the piece misses a very fundamental distinction: being homosexual vs. engaging in homosexual activities.

"Being homosexual" means being romantically attractied to people of your same sex. Whether that is innate or not is beside the point. People who are homosexual are as entitled to fair, even kind treatment as anyone. It is not a sin to be homosexual, and whether a person is homosexual is none of anybody else's business, unless the person decides to make it so.

Engaging in homosexual activity is another thing entirely.

Society confers certain advantages on married couples, because stable marriages provide social benefits. I do not see any benefit to society from homosexual activity, and see no reason why people who engage in homosexual activity are entitled to those advantages.

How quickly the conversation slips from "treat everyone fairly and with kindness", which is right, to "protect homosexual activity", which has no basis.

Josh Jasper said...

Why don't we accept civil unioons that are exactly the same as marriage, but differnent only in name, you ask?

BECAUSE NO ONE IS OFFERING THEM TO US. THIS SORT OF LEGAL STATUS FOR SAME SEX RELATIONSHIPS DOES NOT EXIST.

I used all caps, in bold, because this should be obvious. I figure if I speak loud enough, some anti-ssm advocate will actually listen. God knows Gallhager hasn't. She keeps pretending that equal civil unions exist, and that ssm advocates turned them down.

They don't exist, they haven't existed, and there's no sign that they will exist any time soon. Acting as if they do, and we turned them down is disengenous.

Anonymous said...

Insistence on making a distinction between being gay and engaging in gay activity does not represent any kind of meaningful tolerance; I seriously doubt that if heterosexual people were told,"it's absolutely fine to be attracted to whomoever you were born to be attracted to--just as long as you don't ever talk about it, act on it, or express your loving commitment by displaying a photo of your would-be spouse on your desk at work, wearing a wedding band, or getting married, you shouldn't have any problems," that they would characterize this as "fair, kind, even treatment."

This is akin to assuring all non-Christians that they are perfectly free to be of whatever faith they feel called to and perfectly deserving of respect--so long as they don't let anyone know they're not Christian, never set foot in a non-Christian church, and never actually practice any of the rites of the faith to which they feel called. Utterly absurd.

As far as not seeing any benefits to society from homosexual activity, my guess is that anonymous simply doesn't (knowingly, at least) actually know any gay people or families headed by gay people. If s/he knew half of the decent, loving, committed couples I know, and the beautiful children they are lovingly raising, I can't imagine s/he would be so casually dismissive of the contributions to society of such fine human beings.

Anonymous said...

Engaging in homosexual activity is another thing entirely.

Yes, it is. It is fulfilling the most basic, intense human need there is (besides food and water).

If heterosexuality is the be-all and end-all of existence for heterosexuals (foundation of humanity, the joining of two persons in the nearly divine manifestation of blah, blah, blah, etc.), then homosexuality is the same thing for gay people. (And bisexuals get to pick either or both.)

Cathy Young said...

Thanks for the comments, everyone. I hope to answer as soon as I'm done with a work deadline.

John Howard said...

Why don't we accept civil unioons that are exactly the same as marriage, but differnent only in name, you ask?

Civil Unions should have a major difference: they should not grant procreation rights, they should be able to be given to couples that are prohibited from procreating together. If they explicitly give "all the rights of marriage" but are prohibited from procreating, that attacks marriage's procreation right as much as giving marriage itself.

BECAUSE NO ONE IS OFFERING THEM TO US.

I agree they should be offered as part of the compromise. Congress should prohibit non man-woman reproduction (and forget the useless Brownback "anti-cloning" bill) and affirm that marriages have an inherent right to procreate together, and also say that state civil unions will be treated as marriages for all federal purposes.

Anonymous said...

"Engaging in homosexual activity is another thing entirely."

"Yes, it is. It is fulfilling the most basic, intense human need there is (besides food and water)."

So sexual activity is essential to continued existence, and homosexuals cannot control their activities? They are driven, without self control, to engage in homosexual acts? Really?

Then they are truly more dangerous than I had ever supposed. We must isolate them at once.

You didn't really mean to say that, did you?

Anonymous said...

"I don't think that gay men have any more casual sex than straight men would have if the average woman was as interested in casual sex as the average man is."

That's actually a pretty good argument against gay marriage - at least "guy" marriage.

mythago said...

She keeps pretending that equal civil unions exist

As any lawyer could tell you, there is no such thing as an equal 'civil union'. You would have to wave a magic wand and change history so that there is a long history of law dealing with 'civil unions'. You'd also have to rewrite every law mentioning 'marriage' to make it explicitly refer to 'civil unions'.

People who claim they don't mind the rights but just don't want gays to use the M-word are either ignorant or lying.

Cathy Young said...

I used all caps, in bold, because this should be obvious. I figure if I speak loud enough, some anti-ssm advocate will actually listen. God knows Gallhager hasn't. She keeps pretending that equal civil unions exist, and that ssm advocates turned them down.

They don't exist, they haven't existed, and there's no sign that they will exist any time soon. Acting as if they do, and we turned them down is disengenous.


Very true. Not only that, but most of the right-wing groups opposing SSM also oppose civil unions and domestic partnerships.

A number of anti-SSM state amendments specifically prohibit the creation of any other legal state similar or identical to marriage. So, I believe, does the FMA version that went to a vote in the Senate.

In Michigan, the conservative groups that pushed for an anti-SSM amendment to the state constitution pooh-poohed concerns that the amendment would endanger already existing domestic partner benefits for state employees.

Then, after the amendment passed, they turned around and demanded that those very same benefits for state employees be discontinued as incompatible with the new state law.

If Maggie Gallagher and David Blankenhorn have spoken out against these actions, I am not aware of it.

I do recall an article by Maggie G. saying that civil unions were preferable to SSM. However, it certainly wasn't so much in the spirit of supporting civil unions as "all right, looks like some kind of recognition of same-sex couples is inevitable, let's at least 'save' the m-word."

John Howard said...

most of the right-wing groups opposing SSM also oppose civil unions and domestic partnerships.

Only if they give all the rights of marriage, and are said to be equal to marriage. I think most right-wing groups support the idea of protections to committed couples to address the problems raised by SSM advocates. But we should not give procreation rights to same-sex couples, and therefore we should not give marriage rights, or it would change marriage, and they wouldn't be equal anyway, so why bother?

Cathy, have you had time to think about how procreation rights might relate to marriage rights, and if there could/should be a ban on conception that is not the union of a man and a woman? Put another way, do you think it would be OK for a scientist, right now, today, to attempt to bring a human person into the world that is not the result of a sperm fertilizing an egg?

What do you think of the compromise I offer to end this debate? Congress would enact a ban on non man-woman conception, and also enact a law that said, for all federal purposes, state civil unions can be substituted for marriages. Marriage is preserved, unethical procreation is banned, and committed gay couples get federal recognition. Who would be against this, except people intent on allowing scientists to turn human reproduction into a eugenic manufacturing industry?

Cathy Young said...

John:

Just curious, if your primary concern is same-sex reproduction (presumably along with cloning and any other types of non-sperm/egg reproduction?), then why not ban that and extend full marriage rights to gays who would then be treated like any infertile couple?

Btw, I certainly agree that at least at present it would be quite unethical to use such technologies to create new human life, since we don't know what the consequences are.

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