Gay Marriage

E-mail debates of newsworthy topics.
March 11 1997 12:30 AM

Gay Marriage

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Dear Andrew,

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       After two decades of denial, Americans are at last coming to accept that the erosion of marriage indeed represents the country's gravest social problem. Fewer than half the American children born this year will live to the age of 18 with both their father and mother present. The unlucky half will be dramatically more likely to suffer child abuse, to be poor, to drop out of school, to go to jail, to become pregnant as teen-agers.
       Faced with a social disaster of this magnitude, we are entitled to ask someone who proposes to reinvent marriage: Will your ideas help or hurt? Will they tend to stabilize marriage, to discourage divorce and illegitimacy? Or will they destabilize it, and condemn millions of more young Americans to life in a broken or never-formed family, with all the accompanying dangers?
       It's a credit to your honesty, Andrew, that you frankly admit that gay marriage will tend to make the institution of marriage even wobblier. You even tell us why. The debate over gay marriage, as you say in the introduction to your new reader, helps us to "realize that marriage itself has changed. From being an institution governed by men, it has been placed on a radically more egalitarian footing. From being a contract for life, it has developed into a bond that is celebrated twice in many an American's lifetime. From being a means to bringing up children, it has become primarily a way in which two adults affirm their emotional commitment to one another. From being an institution that buttresses certain bonds--family, race, religion, class--it has become, for many, a deep expression of the modern individual's ability to transcend all of those ties in an exercise of radical autonomy."
       I'd prefer to phrase that thought a little less polemically, but otherwise it seems to me exactly right--and exactly the problem. If we still thought about marriage the way we did 35 years ago, gay marriage would seem to us just as impossible as it seemed then. If we can give serious consideration to gay marriage today, it is only because we have lived through an intellectual revolution that has eroded society's understanding of the difference between a marriage and a love affair. And since two men or two women can fall in love as well as a man and woman can, we find it harder and harder to explain why they shouldn't be issued a wedding license if they want it.
       After all, a modern wedding license is such a valuable and yet simultaneously unburdensome thing! It can get you health insurance and Social Security survivors' benefits and American citizenship. In return, you are committed to really very little. The Unitarian wedding service states matters candidly. It asks the marrying couple: "Do you promise to love, honor, and cherish each other as long as love shall last?" That's all that modern American law asks anyone, Unitarian or otherwise, to promise.
       But imagine something else. Suppose we took marriage as seriously as Americans did when a divorce cost Nelson Rockefeller the presidency. Suppose we made it difficult for all but the most unhappy marriages to dissolve, and then expected the richer partner to pay alimony to the poorer partner for life. Suppose we were prepared to talk frankly about the differences between the sexes: about how men need children (and must surrender their sexual liberty to get them) and how women need security (and must limit their personal independence in order to achieve it). Suppose we frankly acknowledged that marriage is not a very feminist institution: that it does not bring together two interchangeable "partners," but assigns different roles and responsibilities to husbands and wives, arising out of the different natures of the sexes. Suppose everybody--the priest, one's relatives, the teachers at your children's school, the grocer, the cleaning lady--expected all but the unhappiest married couples to tough it out, to stay together despite their disagreements, and that they felt free to look down their noses at husbands or wives who failed to meet this expectation.
       If all of this were still true, would homosexuals still be bringing lawsuits asking for the right to marry? And would non-homosexuals still find it so difficult to explain why this request isn't just misplaced, but is actually logically impossible?
       The value of marriage to society--and the joy it can bring people--arises entirely from the fact that, as an institution, it rejects "the radical autonomy" that you seem to endorse. Marriage submerges our autonomy in a new commitment to our spouse, our children, our in-laws, and on and on in an ever-widening circle. Individuals unwilling to let their autonomy go are unlikely to discover much happiness in marriage. Radical autonomists make lousy husbands--and worse parents.
       Advocates of gay marriage talk as if they were proposing to integrate a country club. The truth is, they are proposing to bulldoze the club and build a subdivision in its place. They aren't talking about extending the much maligned Leave It to Beaver marriage to gays. They are talking about completing the replacement of the Leave It to Beaver marriage with a new form of legal union that shares nothing with the marriages of 35 years ago but the name. This new union, available equally to gays and straights, is focused on the happiness of adults, not the needs of children. It presupposes a rigid economic equality between the partners, and cheerfully permits the stronger partner to impose disadvantageous prenuptial agreements on the weaker. It insists that marriage brings together unisex "partners" rather than reconciling the very different needs and duties of men and women. And, finally, this new form of union that is replacing traditional marriage can be canceled at any time, by either party, for any reason, regardless of the wishes of the other. We already see that this new sort of union is proving a flimsy thing. "The only difference between a caprice and a life-long passion," quipped Oscar Wilde, "is that a caprice lasts a little longer." But feminists and gay-rights advocates insist that it doesn't matter that the new union that is replacing marriage is flimsy, so long as it seems egalitarian.
       Which takes us, as I think you understand, to the heart of the issue. The fight over gay marriage is only secondarily a fight about gays. Only 5 percent of the population, or less, is homosexual, but--as you point out--33 percent of Americans favor gay marriage. These people, I believe, favor gay marriage because they favor the revolution in family life of the past three decades, and understand that gay marriage is the logical culmination of this revolution.
       If you believe it's fine for millions of kids to be raised by mom and a succession of stepdads, then you probably won't be greatly shocked by the thought of thousands of kids being reared by mom and a stepmom. If you mistrust organized religion, then you won't be shocked by weddings that defy religious teachings. If you want to banish traditional sex roles entirely from family life, then what better marriage could there be than one between two people of the same sex?
       But those of us who oppose gay marriage, and we remain the majority at least for now, believe that these new values are not changing the family--they are destroying it, and harming those within it. As such beliefs become more widespread, so do divorce and illegitimacy. The proponents of gay marriage can only get what they want by weakening Americans' attachment to the traditional family even more than it has already been weakened. And as such, these proponents are hastening a process of social dissolution that has already brought misery to untold millions of people, with children suffering most grievously of all.

David Frum is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and a contributing editor to the Weekly Standard. He is the author of What's Right. Andrew Sullivanis a senior editor at the New Republic and editor of Same-Sex Marriage: Pro and Con, a reader published next month by Vintage Books.

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