"no harm, no foul"
Tuesday, August 05, 2003
GAY MARRIAGE: I’ve been reading a few conservative magazines the last few weeks, trying to discern the argument against gay marriage. I’ve routinely been stumped by the claims of John Finnis, Robert George, et al. about homosexuality, and thought I’d try harder to understand the conservative point of view this time around (the arguments of Finnis have, to my mind, been best characterized by Richard Posner, who says that “they sound as if they’ve been poorly translated from the original Latin”).

So here’s my best shot. The function of marriage is procreative – to have kids, and to raise them. Now, it’s true that we allow elderly people to marry, and also people who are infertile. But these at least symbolically embody the ideal of marriage, even if they can’t embody the ideal. Marriage between two members of the same sex doesn’t serve this symbolic function, because there’s no way men or two women can have kids (leaving out adoption). At least a man and a woman have the right equipment, so to speak, even if the equipment isn’t working properly or at all. And I imagine also working in the background is the idea that children, to be properly raised, need both a mother and a father, a masculine and a feminine influence.

Now, at first blush, this type of argument seems to put a whole lot of weight on biology, or as some like to put it, “the natural teleology of the body” and also on the “essential” differences between men and women. But this aside, I find myself at least able to grasp the sense of conservative arguments against gay marriage, and why they think it would transform our understanding of that institution, by making it more an institution geared towards mutual commitment rather than the bearing and rearing of children.

The trouble is, a whole lot of other things have transformed our understanding of marriage and its function. Birth control, for example, which severs the link between sex and procreation. Or divorce, which makes permissible a child not being raised in a home with a father and a mother. And so on.

It’s sometimes said that marriage is in such trouble now that adding gay marriage risks ruining the institution altogether. But it seems to me the rot, if it is rot, is already occurring within the context of heterosexual marriages. And it strikes me that if we deny gay marriages, then, in principle, we’re going to have to go back and deny a whole lot of other things, like divorce and birth control. Catholics on this point, should be praised for their marvelous consistency, if little else. I believe it’s a refusal to face the implications of a denial of gay marriage that leads so many politicians to return to those tired refrains that “marriage is by definition between a man and a woman” and that “traditionally, marriage has always been between a man and a woman.” If we got into the “why” question, as in, “why should marriage be thought of this way?” we’d get into messy questions of procreation, etc., and we’re quickly down a slippery slope to unpopular political stances.

I think defenders of gay marriage, of which I count myself one, should be up front that what we’re proposing is a transformation of marriage, to make explicit what seems already implicit in the way we do think about marriage: that it is a contract between two people, and has at its essence an idea of mutual, life-long commitment, with or without children. Talking about gay marriage is, in a sense, hijacking the word “marriage” – and suggesting that we conduct an experiment to see what life would be like consistently looking at marriage in this new (actually not so new) way.

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