"Everyone should be radically free to choose the person he or she marries," you write. Everyone? Really? Including Oedipus?
It's not a hypothetical question after all. Your magazine, the New Republic, has just published a long review of a much talked-about new book by a woman describing the decision she made, as an adult of 20, to start a prolonged sexual affair with her father. The affair didn't end in marriage, as it happens, but why shouldn't it?
I think I know what you will say to this question. You will in some way try to draw a line between homosexual marriage and the marriage of a father and daughter. Some will find your line-drawing convincing; others won't. But the point is that when pushed, even you will concede that human beings can never be "radically free." There are always limits.
Sometimes you seem to recognize that truth; at other times you don't. At one point in your memo to me, you complain that I have distorted your meaning. I am sincerely sorry to hear that. But if I did misunderstand you, it may have been because you are not easy to understand. You claim not to want to jettison all the rules governing human sexuality. On the other hand, you dislike the rules that actually happen to have existed for the past few thousand years. You want clear, strict, and binding rules to govern the institution of marriage--and you want the right to make them up yourself. You want marriage's advantages, but you reject its obligations. I'd like to quote you again, this time from your book Virtually Normal--and I'll do it at length to avoid any possible distortion:
Same-sex unions often incorporate the virtues of friendships more effectively than traditional marriages; and at times, among gay male relationships, the openness of the contract makes it more likely to survive than many heterosexual bonds. Some of this is unavailable to the male-female union: there is more likely to be greater understanding of the need for extramarital outlets between two men than between a man and a woman.
Look: I understand the need that every human being has for love and companionship. I can sympathize with your hope that reinventing family law might help homosexuals to secure love and companionship. But in order to persuade others to make the changes in law you want, you are forced to talk as if the final and complete severing of marriage from its basis in biology, culture, and religion were some minor event. It is not. It is a colossal event.
It is simply not true that you can rewrite the laws and conventions of marriage to make it possible for Jim to marry Jules just as well as he can marry Julie, without altering the institution of marriage in any other way. Marriage is fundamentally an institution built to serve the needs of children. In debate, you try to minimize the implications of this fact with the reply that many lawfully married heterosexual couples remain childless. That's true. It's also true that many corporations fail to turn a profit. But corporate law is founded on the assumption that corporations exist in order to attempt to make profits, and family law is founded on the assumption that marriages will form families.
In Virtually Normal, you sought to reassure readers worried about children with a different argument: There you claimed that gay marriages will not generally involve children. But if we change the law in the way that you want, there will be nothing to prevent it. Nor would the courts tolerate any attempt by society to prevent it.
With what consequences? Who can say? In the early 1970s, the law of divorce was revised so that either party could divorce the other, at any time, for any reason. Advocates of this reform promised us that whatever makes adults happy must be good for children. "This isn't about you," the divorcing parents coo to their son in the hit movie Kramer vs. Kramer, and if the 1970s had a signature sentence, that was it. Millions of children lost their fathers or mothers. Only now are we beginning to appreciate the extent of the damage done. Children raised without both biological parents are between two and three times as likely as other children to commit crimes, to drop out of school, to get pregnant in their teens, to be unemployed as young adults.
Advocates of gay marriage are repeating the argument offered by advocates of casual divorce: What suits grown-ups must be good for children. You reprint in your reader two articles on homosexual child-rearing, one contending that it's harmless, one pointing out that the studies conducted so far are scientifically worthless. But neither piece deals directly with the most ominous question mark homosexual marriage inscribes upon the future of the family: What does the drift toward gay marriage say about our view of the responsibilities of parents?
Of course, homosexuals have always had children. What will be different, if you prevail, is that our society will be endorsing the conscious creation of families intended from the beginning to be fatherless or motherless or both. To believe in gay marriage, you have to be ready to accept that girls might be raised by two men--and that it won't matter. You have to be ready to accept that boys will be taken away from their fathers, and led to manhood by two women--and that it won't matter. You have to be ready to accept children being raised by foursomes: Two men, two women who mutually impregnate each other. (No, I'm not inventing this: Just such a family lives in Vancouver, British Columbia, and was admiringly profiled by Canada's Globe and Mail last year.) You have to be ready to accept children being bought and sold like prize heifers, as lesbians purchase semen from sperm banks and gay men rent wombs from surrogate mothers. Gay marriage is maybe not the very last step to the transformation of children into commodities. But it's close to the last.
Andrew, you are a Catholic and in many ways a conservative. Don't you find these possibilities ominous?
It's not good enough to accuse those of us who are worried by the direction in which our society is going of wanting to "return to the ... 1950s." We all realize that it's not possible to return to the past. But it is possible to learn from the past. And if we see that our society is heading toward a calamity, progress doesn't require that we speed the calamity along. We can--it's our duty to--try to avert it.