Thus, in their statement “Beyond Same-Sex Marriage,” more than 300 “LGBT and allied” scholars and advocates — including such prominent figures as Gloria Steinem and NYU law professor Kenji Yoshino — call for legally recognizing sexual relationships involving more than two partners. Professor Elizabeth Brake, of the University of Calgary, argues that justice requires using legal recognition to correct for “past discrimination against . . . polygamists and care networks.”
What about the connection to family life? Andrew Sullivan says that marriage has become “primarily a way in which two adults affirm their emotional commitment to one another.” E. J. Graff celebrates the fact that recognizing same-sex relationships as marriages would change the “institution’s message” so that it would “ever after stand for sexual choice, for cutting the link between sex and diapers.”
And exclusivity? Mr. Sullivan, who has extolled the “spirituality” of “anonymous sex,” thinks that the “openness” of same-sex relationships could enhance the bonds of husbands and wives by promoting “flexibility” — euphemisms for sexual infidelity. Dan Savage argues for the same in a New York Times Magazine article titled “Married, with Infidelities.” A piece in The Advocate, a gay-interest newsmagazine, supports our point still more candidly:
Anti-equality right-wingers have long insisted that allowing gays to marry will destroy the sanctity of “traditional marriage.” . . . What if — for once — the sanctimonious crazies are right? Could the gay male tradition of open relationships actually alter marriage as we know it? And would that be such a bad thing?
These are not our words, but those of leading supporters of same-sex marriage. We could provide many, many more examples. If you believe in permanence and exclusivity but would redefine marriage, take note.
In fact, some have embraced the goal of weakening the institution of marriage in these very terms. Former president George W. Bush is correct, says Victoria Brownworth, “when he states that allowing same-sex couples to marry will weaken the institution of marriage. . . . It most certainly will do so, and that will make marriage a far better concept than it previously has been.” Michelangelo Signorile urges those in same-sex relationships to “fight for same-sex marriage and its benefits and then, once granted, redefine the institution of marriage completely.”
These ideas play out in policy. Since countries have begun recognizing same-sex relationships, governments have seen challenges to nearly every other traditional norm: Mexico City considered expressly temporary marriage licenses. Equality-based proposals to decriminalize or recognize polygamy have arisen in Canada and elsewhere. A public notary in Brazil recognized a three-person partnership (a “triad” or “throuple”) as a civil union, saying that the redefinition of marriage required it: “What we considered a family before isn’t necessarily what we would consider a family today.”
Preliminary social science confirms that marital norms would be weakened by the establishment of same-sex marriage. The New York Times recently reported on a study finding that exclusivity was not the norm among gay partners: “With straight people, it’s called affairs or cheating,” said Colleen Hoff, the study’s principal investigator, “but with gay people it does not have such negative connotations.” In fact, several studies suggest that there is either no difference between exclusive and open same-sex male relationships or greater stability in the open ones. By contrast, 99 percent of opposite-sex couples demand of each other and anticipate sexual exclusivity in their marriage, and violations of it are, in one study’s words, “the leading cause of divorce across 160 cultures and are one of the most frequent reasons that couples seek marital therapy.”
All the evidence suggests that same-sex marriage simply cannot generate social norms of the sort traditionally associated with marriage. That is because such norms make less sense as general requirements for same-sex relationships than they do for truly conjugal unions, as many LGBT scholars and activists concede.
How would recognizing same-sex relationships as marriages hurt marriage?
Recognizing same-sex relationships as marriages requires replacing one basic vision of what marriage is (in our law, and hence in our mores, and hence in practice) with another vision of marriage. The new vision is one that equates marriage with the much broader category of companionship. Companionate bonds have great personal value, but they can’t ground in a principled way the norms that set marriage apart.
To the extent that marriage is misunderstood, it will be harder to see the point of its norms, to live by them, and to encourage their strict observance. And this, besides making any remaining restrictions on marriage arbitrary, will damage the many cultural and political goods that first got the state involved in marriage. Here is a summary of those goods.