Politics & Policy

Why Not Gay Marriage?

It's about men and women.

We’re here! We’re Queer! We don’t want anymore bears!”

That’s the chant started by Homer Simpson when he’s determined to get the government of Springfield to keep the bears from harassing citizens. In an exchange — edited out of the rerun episodes of the Simpsons — Lenny asks, “Hey Homer, that’s a pretty catchy chant. Where’d you learn it?”

Homer responds, “Oh, I heard it at the mustache parade they have every year.”

I bring this up mostly because I think that it is hilarious, but also because I went to the March for Gay People Meeting Other Gay People yesterday. I had my girlfriend and mother with me for cover. I know this might strike some as over-kill. It might strike others as just plain weird. My own feelings about it prove that these two conclusions are not mutually exclusive. But the ladies were the ones who wanted to go and I was just following orders (few things are more emasculating then being instructed to attend a gay festival by two chicks. I’ve been scratching, cursing, and burping for twenty-four hours to compensate). Alas, I didn’t hear the bear-chant and I didn’t see that many mustaches, but I did see a lot of people playing beach-blanket bingo and not taking themselves too seriously. Even many gay groups boycotted the March on the Mall because they thought the event was pretty pointless.

Regardless, there was a very large number of very gay people there. Seeing all of the chiseled and buffed-up gay men frolicking and fondling, the first thing that occurred to me was, “Why can’t the lesbians be so obsessive about looking good and getting into shape? That would be really cool.” Alas, the cult of Narcissus seems to be oversubscribed on the male side of the gay continuum.

Considering that D.C. is still overrun with same-sex couples holding hands and the like (on Saturday I spotted a groom and groom walking up the street in their gray tuxes), this is as good an occasion as any to address the issue of gay marriage.


I will be honest. I wish the whole issue of gay marriage would go away. I do not like it. To what extent my problems with the idea are visceral versus intellectual I do not know. But, certainly, to some significant extent they are in my gut. Regardless, gay marriage is not going to go away. This is because gay people are not going to go away and conservatives should stop blinking and rubbing their eyes in the hope that, when they re-focus, homosexuals will be missing from the picture.

The two most interesting and persuasive people on the pro-side of the argument are Jonathan Rauch and Andrew Sullivan. Both men are gay and are extremely thoughtful men of the Right (I’m not sure I can call them conservatives). They make very lucid and fairly conservative arguments in favor of gay marriage.

Their case is fairly straightforward and by now pretty familiar to anyone paying attention to such things. Marriage is a civilizing institution. It civilizes heterosexual young people, especially men. It encourages stability and monogamy. And it would have the same effect on gay men too. Barring gays from the institution of marriage is not merely discriminatory and unfair on its face, it is also unwise social policy because society has an interest in civilizing gay people too. Refusing gays full admittance into this fundamental institution only encourages marginal and self-destructive behavior. (For more on this see Andrew Sullivan’s cover essay in the current issue of The New Republic.

Now, many readers — and conservatives generally — complain bitterly at the suggestion that there is a conservative case for homosexual marriage at all. Marriage is a sacred institution, they say, and its parameters are defined by natural law. Sullivan aims his response at liberals who subscribe to this popular view (he’s written off convincing orthodox conservatives).

He finds an unlikely opponent. “Marriage has got historic, religious, and moral content that goes back to the beginning of time, and I think a marriage is as a marriage has always been: between a man and a woman.” This quote comes not from Gary Bauer but Hillary Clinton. (Of course, Gary Bauer would mean it when he said it.) Anyway, Hillary’s public position is pretty close to the conservative position. Conservatives argue that marriage is an institution rich in religious and moral significance which precedes the modern state — like parental authority — and therefore it does not lend itself to the tampering of do-gooders.

But there is an important distinction which needs to be made here, and I am indebted to Jerry Muller’s excellent piece in the Spring issue of The Public Interest for reminding me of it. Peter Berger, famously (okay, not famously) distinguished “conservatives by faith” from “conservatives by lack of faith.” Conservatives by faith believe that there is a transcendent and perfect ideal which human institutions must strive to emulate. Russell Kirk argued that “there exists a transcendent moral order, to which we ought to try to conform the ways of society.” Conservatives by lack of faith, on the other hand, revere institutions because they work pretty good. The test of time has shown that religion, marriage, capitalism, law, and a thousand other institutions we take for granted have helped civilize people (people who think otherwise have not read the transcript of man’s Hobbesian past).

I must confess I have always leaned more to the lack of faith perspective, not so much because I reject absolute notions of good and evil, but because it is so much easier and more fun to argue from evidence rather than from assertions of principle. My favorite definition of conservatism has long been Glenn Loury’s axiom that conservatism is the belief that human nature has no history. That is to say, that human beings born today are no different than Vikings or Zulus born a thousand years ago. Western civilization is built upon the shoulders of giants and the critical-theory midgets from Yale and elsewhere who think they can redraft civilization in a term paper are kidding themselves. Ultimately, the conservatism-by-lack-of-faith perspective is a public-policy argument with a view to the very long run. It recognizes the permanence of human nature and the imperfect nature of human intellect. It understands that pure reason works on paper because on paper you can account for all the variables. But in the real world, there are always more variables. I like to call this perspective wisdom.

Sullivan and Rauch concentrate on this kind of conservatism, mostly out of necessity. After all, it’s very difficult to persuade people who believe in ideal forms that such forms should be — let alone can be — changed. Sullivan expressly rejects the notion that marriage has an immutable form. “If marriage were the same today as it has been for 2,000 years,” Sullivan writes, “it would be possible to marry a twelve-year-old you had never met, to own a wife as property and dispose of her at will, or to imprison a person who married someone of a different race. And it would be impossible to get a divorce.”

Opponents are fond of pointing out that marriage is about children. Proponents like Sullivan are quick to respond that all sorts of men and women are allowed to get married even though they have no intention or ability to have children.

Sullivan is of course right. Marriage has changed over time. But it has always been about men and women. When you strip away the side arguments and quibbles, major and minor, this is where the divide on the issue of gay marriage is for the public-policy types. One side thinks the male-female thing is essentially irrelevant. The other side doesn’t. One side says marriage civilizes men, the other side says women civilize men.

It seems to me the evidence is up in the air here. You won’t hear about it in the mainstream media but gay-male promiscuity is an undeniable phenomenon. Rauch and Sullivan believe marriage will temper such promiscuity. Others believe it will be like tying up a great Dane with a leash made of dental floss. I’m willing to say I don’t know.

But there is another consideration. The lack-of-faith conservatives believe that human nature is such that we create certain self-regulating organizations and institutions. Many atheists believe that man may be naturally theotropic — he may need to believe in God by instinct. Hence the old observation that if God didn’t exist mankind would need to invent Him. Think of it as a natural need to put carrots in front of donkeys. Mankind needs to have notions of ideal forms — whether those forms exist or not. We need to strive for the best even if the best may be utterly imaginary and unattainable.

We already know — according to the polls — that most people believe marriage is a male-female organization. It may also be the case that we need to think of it in those terms. Sure, barren couples get married, but they are still adhering to the ideal form, they’re just falling short of it. But same-sex unions are not different in degree from the ideal, they are different in form. This is obvious in both substance and style. Except in prison jokes, when was the last time you heard of a same-sex couple being divided into husband and wife? Gender divisions are part of the definition of marriage for most people and that has been true from the beginning of time.


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