Gay Marriage

E-mail debates of newsworthy topics.
March 21 1997 12:30 AM

Gay Marriage

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Dear David,

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       Your first contribution to this debate took an interesting, if unconvincing, tack. You argued a) that marriage would be better off returning to the gender-role specificity of the 1950s; b) that same-sex marriage entrenches the current erosion of those gender roles; and therefore c) that marriage should continue to be denied to homosexuals. I just want to confirm that in your reply you have done nothing to rebut the points that a) given that marriage now has changed to a less gendered, less procreative model, there is no rational reason to exclude homosexuals from it; and b) that, even if one were to agree with you that marriage needs to be ratcheted back to the past, it is egregiously unfair to do so on the backs of the one group of people who have had nothing to do with it. I consider your complete silence on these points as a small, but significant, victory.
       So you change tack. Your argument now is that there is no discernible difference between advocating for a same-sex relationship and advocating for incest as legally married states. Or--perhaps because you understandably fear this may come across as a little harsh--you argue that the distinctions between same-sex marriage and incest are so inherently difficult to draw and open to further question ("Some will find your line-drawing convincing, others won't") that the only real choice is between the current definition of marriage and complete moral and social anarchy. Charles Krauthammer has also made this argument. So has William Bennett, who called any defense of same-sex marriage inherently "morally relativist," because once one has conceded ground on homosexuality, there is no possible rational defense against polygamy, bestiality, incest, and heaven knows what else. This, as a type of argument, is not so much the analogy of the slippery slope as the slippery cliff. It is to say that either one accepts the current state of affairs as a whole or one is a social anarchist, who believes in no limits whatsoever to human behavior. I suppose I should be grateful that the analogy you bring up is incest; and that Krauthammer's and Bennett's is polygamy. Why not say that advocating for same-sex marriage is indistinguishable from arguing for child abuse, murder, or slavery as legitimate forms of marriage? Well, you are civilized men and this is a civilized debate.
       But, David, as you well know, this line of debate is not an argument; and it has nothing to do with conservatism. It is pure reactionaryism. The precise challenge for morally serious people is to make rational distinctions between what is arbitrary and what is essential in important social institutions. The difference between cranks and conservatives is that the latter can actually use their reason to divine when change is therefore warranted and when it is not. If you want to argue that a lifetime of loving, faithful commitment between two women is equivalent to incest or child abuse, then please argue it. It would make for fascinating reading. But spare us this bizarre point that no new line can be drawn in access to marriage--or else everything is up for grabs and, before we know where we are, men will be marrying their dogs. It is intellectually laughable.
       So is your claim that what we are addressing here is "making up" the rules for yourself against "the rules that actually happen to have existed for the past few thousand years"? You would surely concede that the work many of us have done to make the case for same-sex marriage has not been some arbitrary exercise in selfish wish-fulfillment. We have made an objective argument that deserves to be taken seriously. You also know that the rules of marriage have changed beyond recognition in the West over the past few thousand years. For 800 years after Christ, for goodness' sake, the church didn't even celebrate marriage! For over a thousand years in the West, arranged marriages were common, as were marriages between minors and adults. For hundreds of years, slaves could not marry at all, women were the legal property of their husbands, blacks could not marry whites, Christians could not marry Jews, divorce was illegal, and so on and on. Were all these changes the result of people "making up" the rules for themselves against thousands of years of tradition? Did they all represent a choice between order and the abandonment of all moral limits? Of course not. Each of them was the result of social change, of people looking at the institution and asking if reform made sense or did not.
       So stick to the question you are desperate to dodge. Does this reform mean the end of all limits or not? The answer is obviously not. Those of us arguing for it could not be clearer. We do not want any change in the obligations that marriage entails. We want the same limits as now apply--but applied to people regardless of their sexual orientation. This argument is not arbitrary; it does not invite social anarchy (on the contrary, it is a bulwark against the social anarchy now confronting gay men and lesbians); and the distinction between it and arguing for incest or polygamy is clear to anyone willing to think about it a little. The slope, in fact, is not slippery at all. It isn't even a slope.
       Let me show you why. The essential meaning of contemporary marriage is a lifetime legal commitment between two unrelated, consenting adults to take responsibility for each other (and their children, if any) and to share their lives and home together. My argument, pure and simple, is that someone's involuntary homosexuality--like their involuntary race or gender--in no way rationally disqualifies someone from that endeavor. In this, it is radically unlike any of the activities you describe. Incest disqualifies someone from marriage because incestuous relationships destabilize and destroy the trust that is essential to family life, a trust that marriage is designed to affirm, indeed create. It is, in fact, an abandonment of the responsibility marriage demands. Fathers should therefore be barred from marrying their sons as much as their daughters. Being a minor disqualifies someone from marriage because the kind of consent and responsibility that marriage demands can only be achieved by adults. Polygamy disqualifies because the marital bond is designed to be so deep and profound that it can only be felt between two human beings, not more than two. Bestiality disqualifies because the kind of responsibility, love, and consent that marriage demands is unavailable to animals. All these rules vitally preserve and protect the very integrity of the marital bond; they are integral, I think, to the central meaning of marriage; they can and should apply to homosexual marriages just as much as to heterosexual ones. This is why I think it is true that the proponents of same-sex marriage have been defining marriage by what it includes, and the opponents of same-sex marriage have been defining marriage by the people it excludes. Ours is, I think, a far more persuasive approach.
       Or let me put it another way. Homosexuality is distinguishable from all of the activities you mention because, exactly like heterosexuality, it exists prior to them. Homosexuality, like heterosexuality, is an unchosen emotional and sexual orientation. Incest, polygamy, and bestiality are subsequent activities, choices, and moral behaviors that are available to heterosexual and homosexual alike. It is perfectly possible therefore--logically, morally, politically, theologically, socially--to include homosexuals within the existing institution and retain a complete and inviolable bar against all these other activities. Indeed, there is no logical connection between any of them and homosexuality at all. Let me draw an analogy that might help you see this more clearly. Let us assume we are in the distant past in 16th century Spain and debating whether a Jew should be allowed to marry a Catholic. You oppose such a change because you see no rational distinction between letting a Jew marry a Catholic, and letting a child abuser marry a Catholic, with all the danger that entails for the physical safety of Catholic children. Or let us say we are in your blessed 1962 and debating whether it should be legal to allow a black man to marry a white woman. You oppose this change because you are worried that if we allow a black man to marry a white woman, there is no logical reason to stop us allowing an animal to marry a woman. The only conceivable defense of these positions, as surely you must see, is the basest form of bigotry, a dehumanization of people, an imputation of moral evil to a condition that is essentially blameless. And yet in 1997, you blithely associate incest with the notion of homosexual marriage, and aver that some will find my distinction between the two convincing, and others won't. I wonder: Who do you think we are?
       But, you say, your objection is not rooted in this kind of prejudice. It is rooted in a rational disqualifier. Well, what is it? You still don't have an answer. Are homosexuals disqualified from marriage because they cannot of themselves have children? But that would imply that sterile couples could not marry, or that older couples could not marry. It would disqualify Pat and Shelley Buchanan, Bob and Elizabeth Dole, Newt and Marianne Gingrich from marriage. You argue that opposite-sex marriage, even when between sterile couples, still somehow contains the possibility of offspring in a way that same-sex marriages cannot. Or to use your analogy: "It's ... 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." But this analogy obviously doesn't work. Corporations that occasionally fail to make a profit do not invalidate the central principle of corporate law. But corporations that cannot make a profit--ever--simply do not exist. But family law as it now exists is founded on an opposite assumption. Yes, it incorporates the notion of married couples who can but choose not to have children. But it draws no distinction between them and couples that biologically cannot have children, even if they wanted to--for reasons of age or sterility. Unlike inherently unprofitable corporations, such families not only do exist, they make up a large part of what we now mean by married life, which is precisely my point. The procreative line you want to draw has already been drawn. Either change marriage law to bar sterile or elderly couples from marrying or give homosexuals the same rights. You simply cannot have it both ways.
       Now, to children ... Well, let's save that for the next exchange, since I have already spent long enough dealing with your first illogical diversions. But I'm not surprised you bring it up. The notion that tolerating homosexuals is a threat to children is an ancient and powerful piece of social psychology, as deep as the blood-libel was with tolerance of Jews. So I am very keen to address it. In my view, it is precisely for the sake of children that this reform is necessary. It is the current system that is designed to suit the fleeting prejudices of a few adults rather than care for the genuine needs of gay and straight children. But it seems to me you already have enough to respond to in this missive. I look forward to your reply.

Sincerely,
Andrew

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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