Gay Marriage

E-mail debates of newsworthy topics.
March 25 1997 12:30 AM

Gay Marriage

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       That last message was eloquent, but I'm not sure I see its point. I'm happy to concede that homosexuality is quite different from bestiality and incest--Shakespeare, after all, never wrote any sonnets under the inspiration of either. Your long explication of the nature of those differences only confirms the observation I offered in reply to your first message: When pushed, you do agree that human beings can never enjoy the "radical autonomy" and "radical freedom" you sometimes praise.
       Still, I wonder whether you, who have thought so much on this subject, have really thought it all the way through. At times it seems there are two Andrew Sullivans, one of them respectful of conventional moral standards and one who angrily rejects them. Even your March 20 piece, composed almost entirely by the first Andrew Sullivan, betrays occasional glimpses of the second: I'm thinking of the passages where you compare defenders of the father-mother family first to Southern segregationists and then to Spanish Inquisitors. What's next? Comparing us to the Nazis?
       Perhaps it is inevitable, in a debate of this type, that each of us should come to feel that the other is failing to see the central question. To you, that central question is the needs of homosexuals. You complain that I haven't got any good ideas about how to respond to them, and conclude triumphantly that I'm therefore "dodging" the main issue. But I believe that the central question in the gay-marriage debate is not gays, but marriage. And you have not responded seriously to any of the truly troubling concerns raised by the prospect of granting wedding licenses to same-sex couples. Let's recapitulate what those are:
       Marriage is, at bottom, a legal institution--a network of obligations enforced by the state, both between the parties to the marriage and between the wedded family and third parties. The content of those obligations is rooted in fundamental facts about the sexes and the generations. Marriage is not, as Maggie Gallagher has quipped, a medal that the government hands out to people who have sex the way it likes. It's a legal construct for the creation of families, based on the insight that husbands and wives, parents and children need very different things from each other.
       Even a recent innovation, such as the obligation of employers to make fringe benefits available to the spouses of their employees, emerges from our awareness of the probable dissimilarities between the work experiences of husbands and wives. Women are twice as likely as men to work part time and, therefore, without health-care or pension benefits. The reason for this variation in work patterns is obvious enough: babies. So society has responded with a series of workplace bargains that attach health benefits for the whole family to the sorts of jobs men are disproportionately likely to have. If marriages were simple partnerships of two adults equally likely (or unlikely) to become mothers, why would we expect an employer to pay the bills of the adult who doesn't work for him?
       Many other of the legal rules governing marriage linger uncodified, such as the presumption that children ought to stay with their mother in custody disputes. That they're unwritten, though, makes them no less real. It's still true, even in 1997, that marriage has not yet succumbed to total blindness to the differences between the sexes it joins.
       This, by the way, is the reason your analogy between same-sex couples and childless husbands and wives fails: The same family law that governs childbearing families can apply to the childless--some sections of the law will not apply to the childless, but the law itself doesn't have to be amended. Gay marriage, on the other hand, is not an extension of the existing law of marriage: It implies a reconstruction of the whole structure of family law to make it radically gender-neutral. The remaining connections between the law of marriage and human nature will have to be severed. You can't say, and in any case I don't think you would say, "Well, let's leave the old rules in place for the 97 percent of marriages that will be heterosexual and invent new rules for the 3 percent that will be same-sex." Law doesn't work like that. Somebody will have to go through the corpus of family law and the habits of our society with a fine comb, removing all references to "mothers" and "fathers," eliminating all the extant distinctions between "husbands" and "wives." The state would have no justification for discouraging homosexual divorce--if two adults no longer want to live together, why should anyone else care? And because the law of divorce will have to be the same for homosexuals and traditional couples, a powerful argument will be added to the arsenals of the proponents of easy divorce. After all, the core logical argument that supports gay marriage--"any two people who love each other sexually should be married"--also justifies an endless series of divorces and remarriages: "These two people no longer love each other sexually, therefore they should cease to be married."
       It's true, as you say, that we have gone pretty far toward the disposable, unisex marriage already. But I don't think it therefore follows, as you also say, that we should therefore have no qualms about going all the way. After all, when environmentalists began warning that there were alarming quantities of pollutants in the air, nobody would have thought it made sense to reply, "In that case, a little more won't hurt."
       For let's be clear: As bad as things are for the American family, they could be worse. Sperm banks and surrogate mothers could transform children into commodities for sale. Instead of one child out of two being raised by nonbiological parents, the ratio could be two out of three. The upheaval in our law and customs required to make gay marriage a reality would bring these nightmarish possibilities that much closer to reality.
       Some of the lesbians who want to form mother-mother families, for example, will draft contracts with sperm donors (either sperm banks or individual men) promising not to seek child support from the father and demanding in return that he waive all rights over his progeny. And they will demand that the government enforce those contracts.
       Gay men seeking children will demand that adoption agencies abandon their policy of preferring traditional father-mother families--and the law will compel those agencies to comply. (America is on the verge of becoming a society that forbids adoption agencies to discriminate in favor of stable, traditional mother-father families, while requiring them to discriminate on grounds of race. Does this not strike you as bizarre?)
       In your two messages to me, you have chosen, astonishingly, to write several thousand words about the radical reordering of the law of marriage without addressing any of these concerns about child rearing. In this, I am sorry to observe, you are following in the footsteps of the sexual liberationists of the past 25 years, who cheerfully took for granted that whatever gratifies adults must be good for children.
       Our fellow S

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contributor, David Blankenhorn, has written with great power about the harm done by our society's disparagement of the importance of fathers to their children. But to believe in gay marriage, you must disparage not only the role of fathers, but that of mothers too. You must believe that any adult, or pair of adults, can raise a child just as well as the child's own mother and father; you must be willing to amend our law to make it even easier for children to be deprived of one or both of their parents than it is now; and you must pooh-pooh all the accumulating evidence of the catastrophic consequences of the decline of the mother-father family.
       These concerns may seem awfully theoretical to you. Perhaps that's because non-parents understand marriage very differently from parents. As a parent, you learn every day how urgently children need their fathers and mothers--their own fathers and mothers. You tremble for the future of a nation that has come to be so insouciant about whether that father and that mother are present. And you develop more than a little impatience toward those who flippantly reply to these grave anxieties: "Fathers and mothers? That would take us back to the 1950s!"
       Andrew, I cannot stress this enough: What you are asking for is not a little thing. It is not the extension of the existing institution of marriage to a few more people. It is a fundamental reordering of a crucial, and already damaged, institution. I acknowledge that we have been busily at work demolishing marriage for some time. But it seems to me that instead of touching off the final sticks of dynamite, we ought to glance round at the damage we've done, and devote ourselves to the job of repair. That is the central question in this debate. And, with respect, it is you who are dodging it.

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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