Gay Marriage

Gay Marriage

E-mail debates of newsworthy topics.
April 3 1997 12:30 AM

Gay Marriage

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       I must say I blinked and rubbed my eyes at your last transmission. You wrote, "If you're concerned that children, given a choice, might be given to a gay couple over a straight couple, then ban same-sex adoption or write laws that will always give a preference to different-sex couples." Is this a joke? As you must surely know, if gay marriage ever did become law, there is not a court in this country that would permit such a ban or preference to stand.
       Once we take this step, we will have launched a social revolution that will tolerate no exceptions to the new rules. Just as the feminist revolution has brought us to the point where a single-sex military school is regarded by the Supreme Court as morally the equivalent of racial segregation, so the revolution you want will proceed to its ultimate conclusion as well. A ban on same-sex adoption? Andrew, three years after we permit gay marriage, it will be illegal for schools to send home printed forms with one blank for the mother's name and one blank for the father's. This, the final round of our debate, is no time to start going all wobbly in the face of the obvious logical implications of the changes in law and society you seek. Gay adoption follows ineluctably from gay marriage.
       And what is gay adoption? It won't be anything like adoption as it used to be: an exceptional situation in which orphaned or abandoned children without relatives to care for them were cautiously placed in a stable home by an independent agency. One very real scenario is that gay adoption will be sought by lesbians who will want the right to obtain or purchase sperm from a sperm bank or an individual man, and then have the state transfer the responsibilities and rights of parenthood from that child's father to an adoptive lesbian ... what shall we call her? This issue is coming next--and whatever you say here in S

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, I very much doubt that we'll be able to count on you to raise your voice in opposition when it does.
       Let me sum up where I think this debate stands as it goes into its last round. I opened by pointing out that the demand for gay marriage is the culmination of a series of changes that have horribly destabilized American marriage--destabilized it to the point where fewer than one child in two can expect to grow up with both his or her mother and father in the home. And I contended that granting this demand would destabilize marriage even more, by sundering the legal definition of marriage entirely from its basis in human biology and in our religious and ethical traditions.
       You replied by claiming that there was no turning back from the changes I deplored. And since we had begun moving toward a conception of marriage that paid no mind to traditional sex roles, justice demanded that we complete the job, and liberate Americans to enjoy the right to "be radically free to choose the person he or she marries."
       In Round 2, I cast doubt on the existence of this supposed radical right: After all, taken literally, it would apply to Oedipus. And I reminded you that marriage must be thought of, above all, as a legal institution--that if you changed its law (by, in this case, rewriting the law of marriage to impose on it an absolute sex-neutrality that deleted all distinctions between "husbands" and "wives," "fathers" and "mothers") you would change the law for everybody. This is what I meant when I said that you don't want to desegregate the country club, you want to bulldoze it: The changes you seek don't extend marriage; they would demolish marriage and put something else in its place. This is why your attempts to piggyback the case for same-sex marriage upon the case for interracial marriage fail. Loving vs. Virginia (the case that abolished miscegenation laws in the South) did not in any way alter the substantive law of marriage--husbands still were united to wives, marriages still produced families. Your plans, by contrast, would reconstruct the basic legal definition of what constituted marriage--with one probable result being, I suggested, a dramatic enlargement of the demand for the artificial conception of children.
       The opening sentences of my argument in Round 2 seem to have struck some sort of nerve with you. In any case, in that round you largely dropped the topic of homosexual marriage in order to discuss homosexuality itself, arguing that homosexuality is an unchosen disposition that in no way resembled incest or bestiality.
       What homosexuality is (or isn't) seemed to me a topic for another day--and perhaps for a psychologist or a geneticist rather than for me. So in Round 3, I suggested we return to the topic at hand, marriage. I asked you again why we should believe that severing marriage from biology would do a beleaguered institution no harm. I then offered several very graphic examples of the harm I foresee.
       Which brings us to your most recent response. Gay marriage, you say, is above all necessary for the sake of children--if not for the children purchased from a sperm bank or a surrogate mother, and if not for the children whose odds of living with both parents have been further reduced by a society that keeps rewriting the marital pact in ways that devalue it, then at least for those children who might themselves grow up to be gay. Think of the young woman, you urge me, who finds herself lesbian. How can I tell her that she can't marry?
       And maybe this does at last bring us to the heart of the matter. The case for gay marriage does in some ways appeal to American society at its best--its generosity, its unwillingness to inflict pain, its fair-mindedness. But the case for gay marriage is also crucially dependent on some of the characteristics of present-day America: the fear of calling things by their right names and the inability to defend the interests of society as a whole against the pressures of self-seeking interest groups.
       I will call things by their right names. That young woman you invoke--it is not I, or anyone else, who is preventing her from marrying if she should grow up a lesbian, any more than it is I who will prevent her from being an Indy 500 driver if she grows up blind. It is her own nature. If her lesbianism prevents her from wedding a husband, then her lesbianism will prevent her from marrying. We're paying her empty compliments if we say otherwise.
       As I read your impassioned third essay, I appreciated more fully something that I had until then only surmised. You want gay marriage, not so much for the sake of marriage, but because you hope it will ease the psychic difficulty of growing up homosexual. Maybe it will; maybe it won't. I doubt it, but who can say for certain? But even if you were right, your emphasis on this point illustrates the second flaw in American society exposed by the gay-marriage debate: its inability to say no to any organized group.
       After all, my main theme in this debate has been that amending the law of marriage to accommodate homosexuals will do serious harm to the institution of marriage overall. You don't offer a serious reply to this argument: not here in S

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, not in your reader on same-sex marriage, not in Virtually Normal. The argument doesn't seem to have impressed you at all. On the contrary, you seem to believe that if 3 percent of the population insists urgently enough that it wants something, everyone else must give way, no matter how much harm is thereby done to the structure of society.
       I think proponents of new things--indeed, of revolutionary change--ought to meet a higher standard of proof than you have so far done. If one wants to abolish marriage as we have known it, an ancient institution that has proven immensely beneficial to everyone in society (to homosexuals, too, as you admit), one must offer some better claim than "my friends and I believe that this will make us happy."
       One good way for readers of this debate to judge it is by considering its omissions. The questions that most trouble me about gay marriage, and that probably trouble most non-homosexuals, have generally gone unanswered by you. Ignoring them, and relying instead upon Americans' sense of pity and their embarrassment in saying "no" may make political sense. Indeed, if the proponents of gay marriage ever win, they will win in just this way. But ignoring trouble doesn't avert it. Usually, in fact, ignoring trouble brings it on in the end with even more disastrous force.

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.