Politics & Policy

Give Federalism a Chance

The case for same-sex marriage.

Hats off to Stanley Kurtz for one of the most thoughtful conservative treatments yet of gay marriage (“Love and Marriage” and “The Right Balance“). Kurtz has advanced the argument on both the social-policy and the constitutional side of the issue. Let me see if I can advance it further still, starting with his argument that sex difference lies at the core of successful marriage.

I’ve argued that marriage will have many of the same domesticating and healthful effects on homosexuals as on heterosexuals. Kurtz argues, by contrast, that it is women, not marriage, that domesticate men. Traditional marriage, in this view, is a male-female bargain: The man exchanges promiscuity for security and a stable love life. Male-male spouses, however, will continue to be promiscuous within marriage. This will weaken marriage itself. “A world of same-sex marriages is a world of no-strings heterosexual hookups and 50 percent divorce rates.” Indeed, “our increased tolerance for homosexuality” is already part and parcel of “the weakening of marriage.”

There are some important cavils with this line of thinking, the most obvious being (1) that it offers no argument against same-sex marriage for lesbians, (2) that America is already “a world of no-strings heterosexual hookups and 50 percent divorce rates” and has been for years, and (3) that “tolerance for homosexuality” is at most a trivial cause of marriage’s problems compared with such factors as liberalized divorce laws, women’s increased economic independence, the spread of contraception, the decline of the shotgun wedding, and the cultural changes of the 1960s and 1970s. Still, Kurtz’s argument goes deeper and deserves a deeper reply.

I think he’s right that women (and children) domesticate lusty men. That’s why everyone is so happy when the town bully takes a bride. But — a crucial point — women and children are not the only things that domesticate men. Marriage itself also does so. The reason is that marriage is not a piece of paper ratifying a pre-existing relationship. It is a caregiving contract that two people make not just with each other but with society, and it’s enforced with a whole bundle of rituals and expectations, from public gestures like weddings and rings and anniversary banquets to in-laws and shared finances and joint party invitations addressed to both spouses. Far from being a rubber stamp, marriage is a culture that actively binds people together.

Will extending this culture to homosexuals damage it by ratifying rampant promiscuity, or strengthen it by affirming and extending its reach? This is a question that can only be answered empirically, which is why gay marriage should be tried in a few states (see below). But we do have quite a bit of suggestive evidence, in the form of existing homosexual unions of the all-but-married sort. Of the ones I know, I can’t think of any that don’t aspire to aspire to fidelity and lifetime commitment, even without a woman in the house. More important, when they fail in this aspiration, they do so in private, so as not to embarrass each other or their friends and family, who accept and respect their partnership. That’s all we ask of straights.

In the real world, some married heterosexuals play around a lot (even if they’re president), some play around not at all, and some play around a little and get over it. All, however, are allowed to marry. It might be true that on average male-male pairs will be less faithful than male-female ones, who in turn will probably be less faithful on average than female-female ones. But if the question is whether gay marriage should be legal, rather than exactly what any given marriage looks like, those are the wrong averages to look at. Here are the right ones: The average married homosexual man will almost certainly be much less wanton than the average unmarried homosexual man. And I think it’s pretty likely that even the average unmarried homosexual man will be significantly less wanton in a gay culture where marriage is expected than in a one where marriage is illegal.

Really, truly, if I thought that homosexuals would treat marriage like an orgy and inspire millions of heterosexuals to do the same, I’d say we’re not ready for the privilege. But I don’t think that’s remotely likely; Vermont isn’t full of orgies posing as civil unions. And it’s at least as plausible that gay marriage will strengthen marriage as weaken it. When homosexual couples can legally commit to each other for a lifetime, they, too, will be able to say to each other: “If you really care about me, as opposed to just wanting to have sex with me, you’ll marry me.” Many, probably most, homosexual men want to get off the market and settle down, but it’s hard to sort out the serious partners if marriage isn’t an option. Allow gays to marry, you don’t wreck proper courtship — you allow it to begin. I’m not saying that male-male or female-female courtship is identical to male-female courtship (not that any two are alike anyway). But it doesn’t need to be. It only needs to work better than, “If you really care about me, you’ll move in with me.”

When I started to understand I was gay, a particularly bitter realization was that, whatever the future might hold for me, it would not hold marriage. A life without the possibility of marriage is a deprivation so severe that most heterosexuals can’t even imagine it. If I’m right, same-sex marriage will give stability and care and comfort to millions of homosexuals at little or no cost to anyone else. If I’m wrong, it’s not a good idea. The only way to find out is to try and see, which is why I favor a federalist approach that lets some state experiment with same-sex marriage when it feels the time and circumstances are right.

In his second article, Kurtz argues that my federalist approach is a daydream. For one thing, the courts might not go along with it. Kurtz is certainly right that the constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act, which says that no state need recognize any other’s same-sex marriage, will be challenged in the courts. Everything is challenged in the courts. I’m confident that the courts will uphold the act; I just can’t see this or any foreseeable Supreme Court imposing gay marriage nationally by fiat. But, of course, there’s no telling what courts may do. The answer is obvious: write DOMA into the Constitution. An amendment saying, “Nothing in this Constitution shall require any state to recognize as a marriage any union but that of one man and one woman,” does the trick. End of problem.

Such an amendment would be much less controversial, and much easier to pass, than the one that the would-be amenders have actually proposed, which bans gay marriage altogether. Why the “not one inch” position, which says that same-sex marriage must never be allowed on even one square inch of U.S. soil, regardless of what the people of any state want? Because, says Kurtz, even if states are not required by the courts to recognize other states’ gay marriages, they will be driven to do so by practicalities.

Now, hold on there. It’s true that having only a few states recognize gay marriage would lead to confusions and legal tangles. This, however, is what’s known as federalism. In other contexts — tax law, corporate charters, environmental rules — we live with confusingly disparate state laws routinely, as any attorney for a national bank will be quick to confirm. It’s a hassle, but the benefit is enormous: the ability to experiment with different policies and to let local people create a social and legal climate that suits them (or move to a state where they’ll be happier).

My guess is that, after an initial period of confusion, states and the courts would fairly quickly develop workable rules for gay marriage. For instance, a state that had a partnership program might automatically include any resident gay couple with an out-of-state marriage licenses. States that firmly object to same-sex unions, by contrast, will simply tell those couples, “Sorry, you’re not officially married here. If you want to be officially married, stay there. Here, you need to write a will.” This doesn’t seem “next to impossible.” It doesn’t even seem very difficult. Compared to the headaches of interstate banking laws, it’s a piece of cake.

And what’s the alternative? National culture war. Support for gay marriage, now at 35 percent, is likely to grow over time, and the argument is passionate. Kurtz’s insistence on “all or nothing” risks turning same-sex marriage into the next abortion issue, in which the stakes are so high — national imposition of gay marriage versus national abolition — that extremism runs riot on both sides. And what if Kurtz et al. gamble on all-or-nothing and lose? What if they refuse to try federalism and they fail to pass their constitutional ban and the courts actually do rule that all states must recognize one state’s same-sex marriages? Then their rejection of federalism will have brought about exactly the nightmare they feared. If that happens, don’t blame us homosexuals for polarizing the argument and “ramming homosexual marriage down the country’s throat.”

Believe me, Mr. Kurtz: Federalism is the solution, not the problem. At the very least, it should be given a chance. Isn’t that what conservatives always tell liberals?

Members of the National Review editorial and operational teams are included under the umbrella “NR Staff.”


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