Answering Advocates of Gay Marriage
The Twist List Cheat Sheet
Common Claims that Advocates of Gay Marriage Make….click a claim to see each refutation.
Claim 1: Marriage is an institution designed to foster the love between two people. Gay people can love each other just as straight people can. Ergo, marriage should be open to gay people.
Claim 2: Not all straight couples have children, but no one argues that their marriages are unacceptable
Claim 3: Some gay couples do have children and therefore need marriage to provide the appropriate context.
Claim 4: Marriage and the family are always changing anyway, so why not allow this change?
Claim 5: Marriage and the family have already changed, so why not acknowledge the reality?
Claim 6: Children would be no worse off with happily married gay parents than they are with unhappily married straight ones.
Claim 7: Given global overpopulation, why would anyone worry about some alleged need to have more children in any case?
Claim 8: Marriage should change, whether it already has or not, because patriarchal institutions are evil.
Claim 9: Gay marriage has had historical and anthropological precedents.
Claim 10: Banning gay marriage is like banning interracial marriage.
Claim 11: The case for gay marriage is more “poignant” than the case against it.
Claim 12: Gay marriage is necessary for the self-esteem of a minority.
Claim 13: Anyone who opposes same-sex marriage is homophobic.
Claim 14: Exceptions could be made for religious communities that disapprove of gay marriage, or religious communities could simply add their rites to those of the state.
Claim 15: To sustain an “ethic of caring and responsibility,” we must include gay people in every institution.
Claim 16: Norms of any kind at all are discriminatory.
Claim 17: Almost everyone believes in equality. How can we have that if gay citizens are denied the same rights as other citizens?
Claim 18: Winning the struggle for gay marriage is important for the cause of gay liberation.
Claim 19: What about majority rule in democratic countries?
Claim 20: But gay people are a small minority. Allowing them to marry would mean nothing more than a slight alteration to the existing system and would even add support for the institution. What’s all the fuss about?
Marriage is a complex institution. It must do several things (and, from an anthropological and historical perspective, fostering the emotional gratification of two adults is the least important). It must foster the bonds between men and women for at least three reasons: to encourage the birth and rearing of children (at least to the extent necessary for preserving and fostering society); to provide an appropriate setting for children growing to maturity; and — something usually forgotten — to ensure the co-operation of men and women for the common good. Moreover, it must foster the bonds between men and children, otherwise men would have little incentive to become active participants in family life. Finally, it helps provide men with a healthy masculine identity based on a distinctive, necessary, and publicly valued contribution to society — fatherhood — especially when no other contribution is considered acceptable.
Without public cultural support for a durable relationship binding men, women, and children, marriage would initially be reduced to nothing more than one “lifestyle choice” among many — that is, it could no longer be encouraged in the public square (which is necessary in a secular society). In fact, doing so would be denounced and even challenged in court as discrimination — the undue “privilege” of a “dominant” class, which is a breach of equality as defined by Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms. But discrimination in this case should be allowed — and could be under the Charter — in view of the fact that marriage, as a universal institution and the essential cultural complement to biology, is prior to all concepts of law.
In short, redefining marriage would amount to a massive human experiment. Some experiments work, it’s true, but others don’t. Remember that an earlier experiment, changing the divorce laws, set in motion social forces that would not be evident for forty years. This new experiment would be unprecedented in human history, and yet we haven’t taken the time to think carefully about possible consequences. Instead, we’ve allowed emotion to sweep aside all other considerations.
Welcome to “Marriage a-la-mode.” The title refers not to marriage with ice cream but to marriage according to whatever the current fashion happens to be and, more specifically, to a series of four satirical paintings produced in the eighteenth century by William Hogarth. Although there is some satire in what follows, our aim is not to lampoon gay people or gay relationships but merely to challenge the claims made by those who advocate gay marriage. And those claims have been very successful, so far, in Canada.
At the moment, three legal rulings are being examined in connection with the possibility of redefining marriage to include gay couples. In Egale v. Canada (3 October 2001), British Columbia’s Supreme Court ruled that the current definition of marriage — a union between one man and one woman — should be retained. But in Halpern v. Canada (12 July 2002), Ontario’s Superior Court of Justice ruled that this definition infringes on the right of gay people to equality under Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms. And in Hendricks and Le Boeuf v. Canada (18 September 2002), Quebec’s Superior Court agreed with Ontario — adding that it would permit gay couples to marry anyway if Parliament refuses to revise the definition within two years. All three provincial judgments have been appealed by the federal government. The appeal in British Columbia has been defeated; those of Quebec and Ontario are still pending. Meanwhile, Parliament has been conducting public hearings across the country. What follows is based on (a) our research, commissioned by Canada’s Department of Justice; (b) the affidavit1 based on this research produced for the federal government; and (c) our presentation to the House of Commons Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights.2
Our approach has been both comparative (see below) and ideological. One of us is a man, the other a woman; one is Jewish, the other Gentile; one is gay, the other straight; one specializes in Western civilization, the other in Eastern civilization; and so on. As a result of our collaboration, we have been able to gather a great deal of evidence, both historical and cross-cultural, to support our answers to the claims made by advocates of gay marriage.
The latter make no fewer than twenty of these. Our primary task here is to refute each of them. One reason for organizing the material in this way is that no one else, to our knowledge, has actually done so. Maybe too many people have assumed that there is no need to defend what they take for granted. In other words, they have been complacent. Another reason is to reinforce a claim of our own: that the burden of proof is always on those who want change. Their claims must be evaluated first, not ours. Without some compelling reason for change, after all, why bother? More to the point, in this case, why take the risk of a massive experiment?
Before discussing those arguments, though, we are going to discuss an underlying assumption about heterosexuality (and the underlying problem here is associated with heterosexuality, not homosexuality.) By definition, of course, this assumption is unstated. Even so, the arguments based on it are quickly becoming conventional wisdom in the most influential academic and political circles. Opposing it, therefore, always involves counter-intuitive and “politically incorrect” arguments.
Most people, both gay and straight, assume that heterosexual bonding is a given of nature for straight people. But we argue — and this is a matter of fundamental importance — that it must indeed be deliberately fostered and supported by a distinctive culture. We refer here and elsewhere to “heterosexual bonding,” because the word “heterosexuality” could be understood as a reference to mere heterosexual copulation, which is not what concerns us in this essay.
Much of what is accomplished in animals by nature (often known as “biology,” “genetics,” or “instinct”) must be accomplished in humans by culture (which includes not only elite culture and popular culture but all aspects of human existence aside from those that are determined by nature). Although no particular culture is genetically encoded, the ability and need to create culture is genetically encoded. We are equipped and even driven by nature, paradoxically, to be cultural beings. This has made us more flexible than animals, which rely entirely (or almost entirely in the case of a few primate species) on nature. And this, in turn, has greatly facilitated our adaptation to new circumstances or environments and thus fostered human survival. Culture is not a superficial overlay on something more primitive and basic, in short, but a defining and fundamental feature of human existence; if it were somehow removed, the result would not be a functioning organism, whether human or non-human. Apart from any other handicap would be its inability to reproduce successfully. Why? Because mating,4 or copulating, which really is governed by nature, is not synonymous with the complex behaviors required by family life within a larger human society.5 So the sexual behavior involved in marriage is governed not only by nature but also by culture. This explains why it includes both universal features and culturally variable ones. More about that in due course.
All societies have found it necessary to establish norms. We define the latter as cultural ideals6 — models, paradigms, collective preferences — which are supported by rules7) That is because no society can have it all, just as no individual can; every society must make choices. And choosing one thing — one form of behavior, say — inevitably means not choosing others. Because nature itself does not enforce norms, moreover, culture must do so. Every society has found it necessary — whether formally or informally, directly or indirectly — to reward some forms of behavior and either not reward or punish others. These ways of doing so have varied a great deal from one society to another and from one period to another even within the same society. Small-scale societies often rely on group control: Act in this way, and you will be shamed by society; act that way, and you will be honored by society. Large-scale societies usually find it necessary to add individual control: Act this way, and you will be guilty even if not publicly condemned; act that way, and you will be justified even if not publicly acclaimed.
Because the most common sexual tendency for human beings, by far, is heterosexuality (our species reproduces sexually, after all, which has an evolutionary advantage over the asexual reproduction of some other species); because heterosexual bonding is directly related to both reproduction and survival; and because it involves much more than copulation, every human society has had to encourage heterosexual bonding actively (although some have also allowed homosexual bonding, too, in various circumstances). This has always required a massive cultural effort, usually religious,8 involving myths, rituals, symbols, theologies, rewards, privileges, and so on. Heterosexual bonding is always encouraged by a cultural norm, in other words, not merely allowed as one “lifestyle choice” among many. Some norms vary greatly from one society to another, to be sure, but others are universal. Marriage is one of these9 and thus prior to law, which is an important point for judges and legislators to consider.
This means that every society has always maintained the cultural mechanisms that provide public support for heterosexual bonding. These have always been associated with public legitimacy (represented by ancestors, deities, scripture, law, and so forth), public recognition (rituals, witnesses, registrations) and thus public accountability (see below for our definition of universal features). It has always been fostered by inducements, whether social (prestige, say, or political alliances), economic (transfer of property), religious (divine rewards, and so on), or a combination of them. So deeply embedded in consciousness are these that few people are consciously aware of them. The result, in any case, is a “privileged” status for heterosexual bonding. Postmodernists are not wrong in identifying it as such, but they are wrong in assuming that any society can do without it.10
To be more specific, the culture of marriage must encourage at least five things:11 (a) the bonding between men and women12 that ensures their cooperation for the common good,13 (b) the birth14 and rearing of children, at least to the extent necessary for preserving and fostering society, in culturally approved ways; (c) bonding between men and children so that men are likely to become active participants in family life;15 (d) some healthy form of masculine identity (which is based on the need for at least one distinctive, necessary, and publicly valued contribution to society and is especially important today, because the other two cross-cultural definitions of manhood, provider and protector, are no longer distinctive now that women have entered the public realm);16 and (e) the transformation of adolescents into sexually responsible adults — that is, young men and women who are ready for marriage and the beginning of a new cycle.
It should come as no surprise that comparative research on the worldviews of both small-scale societies and those of world religions,17 Western and Eastern, reveals a pattern: Marriage has universal, nearly universal, and variable features.18
Its universal features include the fact that marriage is (a) supported by authority and incentives; (b) recognizes the interdependence of men and women; (c) has a public, or communal, dimension; (d) defines eligible partners; (e) encourages procreation under specific conditions; and (f) provides mutual support not only between men and women but also between them and children.
Its nearly universal features are: (a) an emphasis on durable relationships between parents; (b) mutual affection and companionship; (c) family (or political) alliances; and (d) reciprocity between young and old. Most large-scale societies have encouraged durable relationships between biological parents and children at least until the latter reach maturity. That is because of the long time it takes infants to mature; cooperation is necessary to ensure their survival. Most societies have recognized that mutual affection and companionship, moreover, facilitate bonding between men and women. Some have recognized that these are fragile bonds have preferred arranged marriages (although they usually encourage affection and companionship as well).
These universal and nearly universal features assume the distinctive (but not necessarily innate) contributions of both sexes, transmit knowledge from one generation to another, and create not only “vertical” links between the generations but also “horizontal” ones between allied families or communities.
As for the many variable features of marriage, these include endogamy (marrying within a group) or exogamy (marrying outside it); marrying up in status or marrying down); arranged marriage or chosen; dowry (from the bride’s family) or bride price (goods given or services performed by the groom); sexual equality or hierarchy; many children or few; extended family or nuclear; residence with the bride’s family, with the groom’s, or neither; divorce allowed or prohibited; and so on. Alternatives to marriage are celebrated in some societies (as in the case of celibate monks, for instance, or shamans) and tolerated in others (such as single people or gay couples) but only when the larger society is in no danger of failing to reproduce itself.
From one perspective, variables make any definition distinctive. From another perspective, however, they create a problem. Focusing on the definition of marriage in any one society makes it hard to know which aspects are distinctive or local and which are universal or nearly universal. Patterns emerge only when many societies are compared. When only one society is considered, in other words, the variables can mask the universals.19 We can detect universals only by using cross-cultural and historical methods.20 From these perspectives, as we say, patterns do emerge. This makes it easier to see the universal and nearly universal features of marriage.
It could be argued that focusing on these features would lead to the methodological problem of “essentialism.” But that is a false problem for three reasons. First, there really is an empirical basis for the existence of these features. Second, using inductive reason to discern patterns is a fundamental characteristic of scholarship. And third, any phenomenon so common as to be universal or nearly universal surely reveals something basic in the human condition.
This is not to say, however, that every society does so effectively. Our ideal is hardly the current status quo, in which marriage has been reduced by irresponsible straight people to the proverbial “piece of paper” at worst and pure sentimentality at best. For evidence of the latter, just take a cursory glance at such massively popular shows as The Bachelor, The Bachelorette, and Joe Millionaire. Participants, who hope to marry as a result of appearing on the show, seldom talk about anything more serious than how they like to spend their free time, whether to reveal their feelings, or, occasionally, how many children they would like to have; they never ask prospective husbands or wives about political beliefs, say, or communal affiliations. For them, courtship and marriage, like the show itself, are forms of entertainment. Careful attention to sets — lavish hotel suites, exotic locales, and dozens of candles everywhere — creates the “romantic” ambience of a soap opera. Although ritualistic aspects remain — the most obvious being when a young man kneels as he proposes marriage — many of these are anachronistic, to say the least. This nonsense is manufactured and sold primarily by and for straight people, not gay people.
Given the prevalent but misleading assumptions, ones that underlie all of the claims made by advocates of gay marriage, it is clear to us, we repeat, that this public debate is really about heterosexual bonding. There is nothing wrong with the homosexual bonding. There is something wrong, something perverse, with the idea that any society can endure without offering public support or even preferential treatment to heterosexual bonding.
We turn now to the twenty most common claims, most of them closely interrelated, that are made by advocates of gay marriage.
The second statement is true, and the third follows logically from it. Because the first statement is false, however, this line of reasoning makes no sense. Marriage is a complex institution. Fostering the emotional gratification of two adults is only one of its functions — and not the most important one from a cross-cultural or historical perspective. (It might not be accidental that this exclusive focus on emotional gratification coincides with a high divorce rate.) The question is not whether gay people should have relationships. The only question is whether this should be done in the specific context of marriage.
Actually, that is an oversimplification. Some religious traditions, for instance, have given childless couples the possibility of divorce or annulment. Besides, marriage can function in additional ways (one of them being companionship) and can express additional ideals (the most obvious one being love). Consequently, these traditions do not insist that childless couples separate. Instead, they maintain what they consider the one distinctive ideal of marriage without punishing those who fail to attain it. The latter are exceptions. This institution has always been intended primarily, however, to serve the needs of children. It provides an ideal scenario for parents and children. Not every individual or individual couple lives up to the ideal, of course, but the ideal remains effective nonetheless — except, of course, in societies that are breaking up.
This claim reverses the other one by accepting the premise that marriage is indeed the ideal context for children. The problem is that gay marriage would provide that context in name only. Our point here is not that gay couples are less able to love their children than other couples; they are neither more nor less able to do that. Our point here is not, moreover, that gay couples would teach their children to be gay; the mere fact of being gay, from our point of view, is not problematic in any case. The point is that children require more than love from their parents, whether gay or straight. One thing that they surely require is at least one parent of each sex. (We say “at least” one, because an extended family — with aunts, uncles, and grandparents — is much closer to the ideal than the isolated nuclear family.) That is because the sexes are not interchangeable.
For the past few decades, it has been conventional wisdom either that masculinity and femininity are nothing but “social constructions,” which can be “deconstructed” to suit changing times and individual tastes, or that everyone is innately “androgynous.” Both theories ignore the obvious fact of male and female bodies, which are subject to different experiences (the most obvious being that only women can gestate and lactate). Though much more similar than dissimilar, each sex is distinctive. Boys cannot learn how to become healthy men from even the most loving mother (or pair of mothers) alone. And girls cannot learn how to become healthy women from even the most loving father (or pair of fathers) alone. This learning takes place day by day and often by example in the larger context of intimate family life. The need for fathers is particularly acute for boys, moreover. Like girls, they must separate from their mothers. Unlike girls, however, they must also switch the focus of their identity from one sex to the other. There are psychological and sociological studies to support these claims.21
The problems under discussion here apply not only to gay parents but also and even primarily to straight single parents. Yes, there have always been single parents due to death, divorce, or desertion. But these were the exceptions. Now that divorce has become so common, the phenomenon has changed. Single parenting — usually by mothers and often by choice — has become a “lifestyle.” The message to fathers and their children is that men have no distinctive, necessary, and publicly valued function in family life.22 And the results of fatherless children on a massive scale, as described by psychologists and sociologists, are not exactly encouraging.
Some advocates of both gay and single parents argue that the problems just mentioned can be fixed by bringing home friends or relatives to serve as “role models.” But can these transient visitors adequately replace the enduring presence within a family of adults of both the same sex and the opposite sex? Advocates of gay and single parents can hardly demonstrate that. Others argue that the men seen on television or in the movies, even pop stars, can function as “role models.” Indeed, they can. But are these role models healthy ones? Very, very few men in popular culture would ever be as helpful in this respect as the late Mr. Rogers. Are we really prepared to settle for the likes of Homer Simpson, say, or Michael Jackson — or anyone else who happens to represent or parody macho cool at the moment? The welfare of children is an afterthought for advocates of gay marriage and single parenting, not something that takes priority over their own interests.
Some gay people become parents while still involved in straight relationships. Others do so in the context of gay relationships. Lesbian couples, for instance, often resort to sperm banks and artificial insemination. New reproductive technologies can look very attractive to gay people who want children but not even token relationships with the opposite sex. Legalizing gay marriage would certainly increase interest in newer technologies and probably lead to demands for access to them in order to equalize their ability to have children. But these technologies present a variety of moral problems, most of which have remained unresolved (see claim 20).
At the heart of this claim, however, is that the children of gay couples suffer from prejudice on that account. Aha! Finally, a reference to children! But wait. If these children suffer from prejudice, it is almost certainly because their parents are gay and not because they are unmarried. We should eliminate prejudice against gay people, by all means, but legalizing gay marriage would hardly do the trick. Not at a time when the stain of “illegitimacy” has all but disappeared.
This claim for gay marriage can no longer be sustained. Over the past forty years, single parents, especially single mothers, have been glorified on talk shows and in countless made-for-television movies as victims who, according to the lingua franca of identity politics, nonetheless become “survivors.” There is no longer anything unusual, much less illicit, about children who have only one parent. And now, given the fact that many gay people have children from previous straight relationships, there is nothing all that unusual about children who have two mothers or two fathers. Whatever other problems the children of gay parents might have — and they do have some significant ones — this is surely not one of them. Changing the definition of marriage to ease the pain of having unmarried parents, in short, would be like using an atomic bomb to kill a fly.
Well, yes, of course, institutions change. Whether they always change in beneficial ways is another matter entirely. Unless we adopt the mentality promoted by countless ads and commercials — according to these, every product is “new and improved” — we must at least imagine the possibility that some changes might be for the worse. There is no logical connection, in short, between either “new” and “improved” or “changed” and “better.” Marriage has changed for the worse in some (though not all) ways, we suggest, over the past forty years. Not by gay people, of course, but by straight people.
And whether institutions change in all ways is yet another matter. Some features of marriage have not changed; these are universal and therefore, presumably, both necessary and beneficial. Marriage has always been a matter of communal importance, for instance, one that serves more than individual needs. These things are so pervasive and so enduring that they might as well be due to nature itself. We play with them at our peril.
This cynical variation of claim 4 is used by those who find it inexpedient to argue about whether these changes are beneficial or harmful. What matters, they believe, is merely that these changes have already occurred. In that case, it would surely make political sense to adjust accordingly. Maybe so, but would it make any moral sense?
Is this the appropriate time, moreover, to redefine marriage? When marriage is not merely changing but disintegrating under the weight of sentimentality and irresponsibility among straight people? And children are most at risk. Their needs are hardly ever taken seriously in the debate over gay marriage; they have become bystanders in a debate over the rights of adults.
This comparison is false, because it involves the best of one scenario with the worst of another. A legitimate comparison would compare either the best of both or the worst of both. Once again, we suggest that the best of marriage (providing at least one parent or other adult of each sex) is better for children than the best of gay marriage (which provides two parents of the same sex and none of the other).
Even though some countries are indeed overpopulated, others are not. Like most Western countries, for instance, Canada has a rapidly aging population.23 Both the birth rate and the death rate are declining. This will have serious demographic and economic consequences for future generations. To argue that immigration will solve the problem — immigrants, presumably, will continue to have many children and require no encouragement from our government — is to imply that they should be exploited as breeders. Besides, how many immigrants would tolerate or even immigrate to a society that fails to uphold their ideal of marriage, which is always based on the long-term bonding of men and women to provide the ideal setting in which to bring up children?
And even though many people in populous countries are unaware of demographic warning signs, most of those who belong to minority communities are very aware of being demographically threatened.24
This claim is both insidious and overtly ideological. That is because it uses the rhetoric of legal reform (allow gay people to enter mainstream institutions such as marriage) to mask the underlying goal of social revolution (create a radically new society by destroying institutions such as marriage). A good case can always be made for reforming any institution in this way or that. And our society has reformed marriage many times, most recently to improve the position of wives. But there is a big difference between reform and revolution. The claim under discussion here is that heterosexuality makes marriage patriarchal, which is an ideological code word for evil. (We are not being paranoid; that claim has been made by some very influential feminists.)25 To solve that problem, the heterosexual basis of marriage must be destroyed. Legalizing gay marriage could do the trick by changing the definition of marriage and its functions beyond recognition. The result would still be called marriage, but it would in fact be another institution.
Actually, it has had not even one precedent as the norm of any society. Some societies have allowed exceptions to the norm, yes. And some powerful chiefs or kings have defied all norms. But the marital norm for every society has always been heterosexual. It is worth noting at this point that any society could have used culture to mitigate the tendency toward heterosexuality. Any society could have encouraged gay marriage and still reproduced itself; women could always have found ways of procuring sperm, for instance, and men could always have abducted children. But this approach has never been adopted as a norm.
Research on the history and anthropology of gay marriage, so far, has been done mainly with advocacy in mind: supporting gay marriage by finding precedents for it. By academic standards, this material reveals several important substantive and methodological flaws. Some precedents are ambiguous, for instance, because they are merely analogies to marriage. Gay love is said to be like marital love, an initiation ritual into same-sex warrior bonding is said to be like marriage, and so on. Other precedents are taken out of context. It is true, for instance, that some Amerindian societies allowed men to marry other men. But, judging from the information that has been recorded, these societies made sure that only a few men were allowed to do so or that their husbands had already married women and produced children so that demographic survival was not endangered. As for Nero, the Roman emperor, he married a man but in a moral context — a degenerate aristocracy in which murder was rampant and even a horse could be made a senator — that few today would find edifying. Do we really need to take moral instruction from him? Many precedents are irrelevant, moreover, because they refer only to gay relationships, not to gay marriage; the former are not the same as the latter and are not now, in any case, being challenged. Sometimes, moreover, evidence is indirect. Sometimes arguments are made from silence. Sometimes, important information is even ignored (such as subsequent banning of gay marriage).
Even if there were anthropological and historical precedents, however, these would be utterly irrelevant from a moral perspective. Just because something has been done in some other society at some other time, after all, doesn’t mean that it should be done in our society at this time. One obvious example should make this clear. Slavery has been practiced in many societies. Should we therefore consider reinstituting that institution? Doing so would be a moral non sequitur, to say the least.
Actually, it is not. This argument is based on a reductive analogy between racism and heterosexism. Most people today would agree that the state should have no right to prevent interracial marriage, and some now argue for the same reason that it should have no right to prevent gay marriage. Both racism and heterosexism are forms of prejudice. Both are due to a combination of ignorance and malice. Both are evil. But the analogy is seriously flawed, because it assumes that all those who oppose gay marriage, like all those who oppose interracial marriage, are bigots. Some are, but others are not.
Marriage between people of different races was indeed banned because of racism. But that was only one example of a larger phenomenon. We refer to endogamy, marriage only with those from inside the community. And endogamy is not always caused by racism. Sometimes, for instance, it is caused by religion — that is, by the urge to perpetuate a religious culture. These societies ban interreligious marriage but usually accept marriage to converts, regardless of their racial or ethnic origins.
In any case, endogamy is a cultural variable. Many societies practice exogamy, after all, marriage only with those from outside the community. Endogamy cannot be considered a universal feature of marriage and should not, therefore, be required by law in a diverse society. Marriage between men and women really is a universal feature, on the other hand, both historically and anthropologically. And for a good reason: bringing men and women together for both practical and symbolic reasons. The prejudice of some people notwithstanding, in short, there can be a morally legitimate reason for maintaining the heterosexuality of marriage.
Besides, how many advocates of gay marriage would argue for polygamous marriage as well? Some would, no doubt, but not many. Although we do not advocate polygamy, we also do not see anything inherently wrong with it.27 Because a good case could be made for it, following precisely the same logic as that of the case made for gay marriage (see claim 17), it would be dishonest for advocates of the latter to trivialize it due to political expediency.
This argument was made on 5-9 November 2001 by the Ontario Superior Court of Justice in Halpern et al v. Canada (A.G.) et al. and Metropolitan Community Church of Toronto v. Canada (A.G.) et al. Judge Robert A. Blair supported gay marriage even after admitting that good arguments had been made against it. For him, emotion was more important for legal decisions than reason; how we feel is more important than what we think. “The evidence put forward by these participants,” he wrote, “does not reflect the same personal poignancy as that of the applicants.”28 This is hardly surprising in the age of Oprah Winfrey.
Given that mentality, it is easy to understand the driving force behind this demand for gay marriage: the idea that people have some moral (and should therefore have some legal) right to state recognition for their personal identity. This is the heart of the matter because of its implications for democracy. Every democracy, by definition, consists of both a majority and one or more minorities. To argue that life is intolerable merely by virtue of being in the minority, in this case expressed by the exclusion of gay people from marriage, is to undermine the very foundation of democracy, especially in countries that supposedly celebrate their many minorities and promote cultural “diversity.” One analogy should make this point clear.
Jews have lived as minority communities for a long time and managed to maintain their collective self-esteem, often despite prejudice or persecution far more severe and pervasive than anything that gay people must endure in Canada. How? The answer is that self-esteem originates within both the individual and the community. In other words, self-esteem, like human rights, can be neither conferred nor denied by the state. Jews expect the state to provide them with protection from anti-Semitic violence, yes, but not with psychological or even symbolic therapy as victims of minority status. It is true that not every individual Jew has managed to develop a healthy Jewish identity, a problem that Jewish communities have always faced by taking responsibility for promoting their own intellectual, moral, and spiritual resources. Besides, Jews who do have identity problems are usually those who have been most fully accepted by the larger society,29 not those who remain marginal. Canada is a secular state, moreover, but Jews live happily enough even in some officially Christian states such as Britain.
Besides, this argument merely foists the problem of inadequate self-esteem onto another group: single people. If marriage were so vital to self-esteem, after all, anyone who is either unable or unwilling to marry would be more isolated than ever and, to follow the argument in favor of gay marriage, more likely to experience self-loathing than ever before.
This argument amounts to verbal terrorism. By “homophobic” is meant prejudice and hostility, although this word actually connotes the neuroticism of a phobia. The implication is that only evil or sick people can possibly disagree with any claim made by gay people. (Never mind that not even all gay people are in favor of gay marriage.)
Moreover, this is an ad hominem argument. It is easy to trivialize arguments by attacking the personal integrity of those who make them. That way, you need not deal with the argument itself.
Both possibilities, actually, are of dubious value. Either way, after all, the argument for gay marriage is based on a notion of human rights; it rejects what advocates consider unwarranted discrimination. In that context, though, exemptions would make no moral sense at all, let alone legal sense. (Canada upholds the right to religious freedom but upholds, in addition, other human rights; conflict would be very likely.) Exemptions might be politically expedient for the time being, sure, but how long would religious communities be able to withstand the charge of violating human rights by refusing to solemnize gay marriages? And that charge would inevitably be made. If gay marriage were a human right, after all, how could any religious group be justified in denying it? Advocates of gay marriage point to the analogy of ordaining women. So far, the state has not forced any religious community to ordain women, so why expect it to force the performance of gay marriages? But there are signs that religious freedom is fragile in Canada when it competes with other, presumably more important, freedoms. At any rate, religious communities are likely to become even more marginalized than they already are in an increasingly secular society.30
But there would be a worse problem for religious communities: legal challenges to any promotion of heterosexual bonding in the public square, including the public schools. All textbooks, even those of religious schools, would have to include references to gay and other forms of marriage as equally legitimate alternatives. The courts are already moving in that direction.31
Every ethical system is by definition one of “caring and responsibility.” No community has ever knowingly adopted an “ethic of non-caring and irresponsibility.” The claim under discussion is that we do so precisely by refusing to marry gay couples. Which might be true if no other interests were involved. In that case, there could be no moral excuse for denying gay people something given to other people. But other interests are involved, including not only those of children and those of society at large but also those of many religious communities.
Forty years ago, divorce laws were changed to help the few who were trapped in seriously troubled marriages. Divorce, as we say, is now as common as marriage itself.32 Worse, we have replaced one problem with many others. We have not only severely weakened marriage but also, as a result, greatly increased the number of divorces, the number of single-parent families, and the number of children dependent on social-service agencies. This is “caring and responsibility”?
The fact is that we have no better understanding of what might happen as a result of legalizing gay marriage than we did about making divorce easier. To find out, we would have to conduct a massive experiment on the people of generations to come (see claim 20). That might involve “caring” in a purely sentimental sense, but it surely would not involve any sense of moral responsibility.
This argument is somewhat more sophisticated than the others. Most people in democratic societies place a high value on equality, and rightly so. Discrimination can infringe on equality. Therefore, they assume, discrimination is inherently evil. The truth, however, is more complicated.
Consider the word “discrimination.” It is almost always used in public life with the heavily negative connotation of malicious and prejudicial discrimination against this or that group. There are some telling exceptions, though, such as a reference to someone with “discriminating taste” in art. In that case, the word connotes discernment, refinement, or intelligence. And with good reason.
In any case, as we have already observed, there could be no such thing as culture without the ability to make distinctions. We could not exist as human beings, in other words, without establishing collective priorities, choices, preferences. We cannot have it all or do it all, either collectively or individually. We must select some possibilities because of their real or perceived value to society or at least to the majority, which means that we intentionally or unintentionally de-select other possibilities (although we can tolerate some as legitimate possibilities for minorities).
In one sense, discrimination of this kind is unfair. It intrudes on our commitment to perfect equality. But the human condition does not permit perfect equality, which is why so many religious traditions insist that the ideal of perfection can exist only in some realm beyond time and space — that is, in the Garden of Eden, the Messianic Age, the World to Come, the Kingdom of God, the Heavenly Jerusalem, the Pure Land, Vaikuntha, or whatever else religious people have called paradise. Unfortunately, many of the political ideologies that emerged in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries have insisted that, on the contrary, perfection can be attained here and now. In trying to establish their ideological utopias by force or at least the force of law, lamentably, they often created hideous dystopias instead. What they lacked was not necessarily a noble vision but a basic understanding of human nature and the limitations imposed on us by human finitude (a problem compounded by their belief that ends can justify means).
If discrimination in the case of marriage is evil, we suggest, then it is surely the lesser of two evils. In the long run, gay people have as much to gain as straight people from the strengthening of marriage as currently defined. If society is in trouble, after all, it is in trouble for everyone — both straight and gay.
This is the most sophisticated argument of all, because no one can dispute either the value of equality or the fact that gay people are denied it in connection with marriage.
For equality to be more than a pious pipedream or a utopian ideal, at least some allowance must be made for the fact that nature itself knows nothing of equality. Equality is a laudable human ideal, to be sure, but no ideal can ever be completely or perfectly attained. Every moral and legal code, in fact, must be based partly on the universal need to live with ambiguity and paradox. Or, putting it another way, these codes must balance the conflicting needs of individuals and communities with those of society as a whole.
As we have said, all cultures have had to acknowledge biological inequality, or asymmetry between the sexes. Equality, therefore, must be created by culture. If culture defines equality as sameness, then the most obvious way to create it would be, in effect, to eliminate biological asymmetry. With new reproductive technologies, both existing and coming, this could actually be done. Not only can egg cells already be used to create additional egg cells in mice, but even sperm cells can be used to create egg cells. Used in humans, this technology would “blur the biological line between fathers and mothers.”33 Parthenogenesis (fertilizing an egg without sperm) would eliminate men altogether, thus obviating the need for equality in the first place. The advent of ex utero techniques or even artificial wombs, on the other hand, could eliminate the need for female gestation. Stated in these terms, the prospect looks less appealing than many people would have imagined; either eliminate one sex to create equality or eliminate the distinctive feature of one sex to correct for the other’s biological inequality. For decades, the Feminist International Network of Resistance to Reproductive and Genetic Engineering has been agitating against developing an artificial womb and the legalization of surrogacy (which would give men some control over reproduction) but to maintain artificial insemination (which gives women control over reproduction).
If we were to argue that equality permits no exceptions, moreover, then we would be both morally and legally obliged to oppose current laws against polygamy. But consider the analogy more closely, which is not nearly as outlandish as it might seem at first. Polygamy — this usually takes the form of polygyny (many wives) but sometimes the form of polyandry (many husbands) — has been common both historically and cross culturally. Most polygamous societies have found ways to mitigate obvious problems. They have restricted the number of spouses, restricted the institution to those who can afford more than one household, specified the amount of attention that must be paid to each spouse, and so on. It is by no means outlandish, therefore, to suggest that the demand for polygamous marriage would follow directly from the demand for gay marriage, especially in view of the fact that some Muslims and Mormons would approve. But would our society be able to provide as many protective structures as other societies to polygamous families? Given its predilection for individual freedom and chafing at even the restraints involved in marriage as we know it now, that seems very unlikely.
It might be, or it might not be. Any victory heightens group morale, it is true, but this victory could be very problematic in at least two ways.
For one thing, not all gay people want to marry, even though most would want the opportunity to choose. But some gay people, like some feminists, see marriage as an inherently oppressive patriarchal institution and want no part of it. At best, they say, it would confine gay people by encouraging their outward conformity to alien standards. At worst, it would discourage gay people from exploring and expressing their own distinctive sexual models and from living together unencumbered by legal obligations.
Most Canadians approve of gay marriage, according to polls, or will in the near future. It’s just a matter of time, so why not save money on court cases and get the job done? Democracies are always about majorities and minorities, true. And if most people agree to legalize gay marriage, then that fact must be taken seriously. But counting heads has nothing whatsoever to do with right and wrong, wisdom and folly. (And remember that there is a reason why we have representative democracies rather than direct ones; unlike the ancient Greeks, we elect leaders who are charged with the task and presumably equipped with the skill to think more carefully than most people about the complex problems affecting public policy.) After all, as history clearly shows, majorities can make stupid or even sinister choices (which would be worth considering whether most people approve or disapprove of gay marriage). But so can minorities, especially in this age of identity politics. Democracy is based on the assumption that minorities will organize politically in their own self-interest, to be sure, but not the assumption that they will disregard the needs of society as a whole.
Usually, cultural norms are associated with majorities. We have just argued that the majority might or might not be morally justified. In this case, we suggest, it is justified. It is not merely the majority’s passing whim. It is based on countless centuries of human experience all over the world. Sometimes, marriage legislation should be reformed. But in connection with its variable features, not its universal ones.
Claim 20: But gay people are a small minority. Allowing them to marry would mean nothing more than a slight alteration to the existing system and would even add support for the institution. What’s all the fuss about?
This argument is disingenuous, to say the least. If the alteration were so slight, after all, why would (some) gay couples insist on access to marriage? The question is worth asking, because gay couples in Canada34 already have most of the benefits conferred by marriage and more can be added. Ostensibly, only the word “marriage” is at stake.
Neither we nor our opponents can predict now precisely what these consequences would be or when they would appear. And that is our point. Why rush into this? Given more time, we might be able at least to make an informed decision. With this in mind, consider what might indeed change as a result of redefining marriage to include gay couples.
People would not riot in the streets, to be sure, if gay marriage were legalized. In the immediate future, not everyone would even notice the results. Religious communities would be the first big losers, because religious freedom would become increasingly hard to defend. Even if exceptions were initially made so that religious communities would not be forced to marry gay couples, these exceptions would eventually be challenged in the courts. The latter would have to choose, after all, between two competing rights: freedom of religion versus equality. Guess which one is most likely to trump the other (see claim 14).
But the most egregious consequences would not be obvious immediately. Most of these, too, would amount at first to nothing more than continuations of tendencies already present. But in the long run, after several generations, these would bring about a radically different kind of society. Many gay and feminist revolutionaries in our own time would applaud, no doubt, but many liberals — those who have nothing more than traditional egalitarianism in mind — would not. They would do well, therefore, to consider several current tendencies in particular. Unimpeded and acting together, we suggest, these would eventually contribute directly to the gradual fragmentation of society by weakening: (a) the bonds between the individual and the community; (b) the bonds between parents and children; (c) the bonds between nature and culture; (d) the bonds between men and women; (e) any healthy masculine identity; and (f) any healthy democracy.
First, consider the individual and the community. At the heart of this campaign for gay marriage is radical individualism (coupled with, ironically, a form of radical collectivism).35 We are not referring to the kind of individualism that emerged in the eighteenth century and was expressed most effectively by those who wrote the American Constitution. For them, individual liberty was embedded firmly in a context of communal responsibility. Personal liberty was not synonymous, in short, with personal license. Today, individualism has come to mean something quite different, something that approaches the adage that “anything goes” (as long, presumably, as no one is personally injured). The larger interests of society, in short, no longer function as constraints. And this indifference to society as a whole is made clear by those who defend gay marriage. Allowing gay people to marry, they say, would be beneficial to gay individuals (or to the gay community). How could that, they ask, harm straight individuals (or the straight community)? But advocates of gay marriage have made no serious attempt to consider the possible harms and object to those who want more time to assess the evidence from other periods or other cultures.
Whatever might be said about the immediate consequences of radical individualism, the longterm consequences could be dire. One scenario would be the dissolution of society as such — that is, as a unified whole. It would devolve into a collection of adult individuals focused exclusively on their own rights as individuals and tolerating governance only as way of protecting these from other individuals).36 More specifically, in connection with redefining marriage, individuals would come together for copulation and companionship, but enduring bonds would be seen as unnecessary restrictions on personal freedom. Their children would be either shunted from one home to another, depending on arrangements made primarily to suit the changing desires of adults, or reared in institutions run by the state. Marriage has never before been so heavily associated with the wants and needs of adults as individuals. On the contrary, it has always been heavily associated with the needs of both children (expressed as the ideal of interdependence between men and women for the sake of children) and with those of the community (expressed as the ideal of interdependence between men and women for the sake of society as a whole).
The “philosophy” that underlies radical individualism, of course, is hedonism. By that, we refer not to the affirmation of personal pleasure but to the glorification of personal pleasure as an end in itself. Drug addiction, to take only one example, is no longer a result of poverty and ignorance. It is a fashion. Hollywood stars move in and out of rehab as often as they move in and out of marriage. And they are applauded for talking about it to Oprah Winfrey.
Gay people invented neither hedonism nor radical individualism. Although the gay movement has been associated with hedonism,37 for instance, this mentality had never been unknown to straight people and is now at least as pervasive among them as it is among gay people. Nor did gay people invent radical individualism. Although they have adopted it successfully, this political strategy had already become pervasive in the straight world. The campaign for gay marriage was inconceivable, in fact, until both hedonism and radical individualism had already prevailed in the larger society. The chickens have come home to roost, as it were, and straight people have only themselves to thank for any dire consequences.
Second, consider parents and children. At first glance, it would seem that gay marriage and gay parenting would symbolically strengthen the bonds between all parents and children. On closer examination, though, this is unlikely to occur. It should be clear to everyone by now, for instance, that advocates of gay marriage are interested primarily or even only in the interests of gay adults. This is inadequately disguised by disclaimers. Yes, some gay people want children enough to make use of surrogacy or other reproductive technologies. And yes, some gay people have children anyway from straight relationships. But the primary beneficiaries are still adults, not children. Which is why advocates of gay marriage try to argue that children would at least be no worse off with gay parents than with straight ones (or better off with good gay parents than with bad straight ones). The social-science evidence is sometimes ambiguous, but we do know by now that two parents are better for children than one and that families with both mothers and fathers are better for children than those with only mothers or only fathers. That these facts are either ignored or trivialized by advocates of gay marriage — and single parents, whether gay or straight — says something about concern for children in our time.
Consider also the effects of radical individualism and hedonism on children. At the moment, most parents would be ashamed to neglect their children (or at least afraid of the legal consequences). Even now, though, they are relying more openly and more heavily on the state than ever before to protect the interests of children. Not every parent appealing to the court for custody, after all, is motivated entirely or even primarily by “the best interest of the child.” And for whatever reason, more and more parents demand access to day-care facilities for infants. These phenomena have many causes, some of them economic conditions beyond the control of any parent. It is a fact, nonetheless, that the state (along with or in direct connection with cadres of professional psychologists and social workers) has taken over many functions formerly assumed by parents.
Once again, this problem must not be blamed on gay people. Long before gay men were being lauded by journalists for resorting to surrogacy, straight women were doing the same thing by way of artificial insemination. At the moment, surrogacy is still under a legal cloud in Canada. But that could change just as easily and quickly as the definition of marriage.
Third, consider nature and culture. If gay people are going to have children of their own (as distinct from adopted ones), some of them are surely going to make use of reproductive technologies. These technologies will become more accepted than they are now as demand for them rises. The gay demand for marital inclusiveness, after all, would almost inevitably include their demands for reproductive inclusiveness. For instance, it would become very easy on political grounds for gay couples to argue that they are “differently situated” when it comes to reproduction and therefore demand that the state provide them with reproductive services. such as government-sponsored sperm banks for gay women and either surrogacy38 or ex-utero technologies for gay men. Failure to provide these could lead to charges of systemic discrimination against gay people. And gay people would be by no means the only ones to make reproductive demands. The door would be open to everyone seeking reproductive autonomy through technology. Even now, more and more straight single women are choosing to have children but not husbands. All they have to do is go to sperm banks.
Women, whether gay or straight, now have greater access to reproduction than men, thanks to their natural ability to gestate and to the prevalence of sperm banks. For the past several decades, feminists have campaigned for reproductive autonomy and power — for women, of course, not for men. Already under pressure from feminist lobby groups, for instance, Canadians are moving in the direction of banning surrogacy39 and any other technology on the drawing boards — such as an artificial womb¾that might give men the same reproductive autonomy that women demand for themselves. And many American feminists would like to move in the same direction.
Surely, men would largely lose out on reproduction unless they were guaranteed access to children through surrogacy at little or no cost. When gay men find themselves with fewer reproductive possibilities than gay women, they might well file charges of systemic discrimination against gay men. But straight men could well come up with demands of their own. Many already believe that marriage, even common-law marriage, is becoming too risky in view of current laws governing divorce, custody, and child support. Why not redefine the family with their own interests in mind? Why not demand access by single men, for instance, to surrogacy?
Fourth, consider men and women. Inherent in the arguments put forward by advocates of gay marriage are two assumptions of interest here. One is that gender can be explained adequately as nothing more than a “social construction,” which has been popular among feminists for decades and is now supported by postmodernists. The other is that reproductive technologies should be used to compensate for sexual differentiation. With both assumptions in mind, it is possible to argue that men and women are interchangeable. (Early feminists argued that men and women were all but interchangeable, for instance, and thus that women should be allowed to do everything that men were allowed to do.) With the same assumptions in mind, however, it is possible to argue that men and women are autonomous — in other words, that neither sex needs the other. Taking that to its logical (and possible though not yet recognized universally as desirable) conclusion would mean creating sexually segregated communities, or separate communities for men and women (thus reversing the massive cultural effort of every human society at all times and in all places). Gay people did not invent these assumptions; straight people did.
Even now, we are losing the ability to provide public cultural support for heterosexual bonding. This would become official with the legalization of gay marriage. At best, marriage (between men and women) would be nothing more than one “lifestyle choice” among many supposedly equal ones. Any attempt to promote it for the good of society as a whole¾that is, at least partly, reproducing it demographically — as a whole would be denounced as “discrimination” against gay people. It would be not merely politically incorrect, therefore, but illegal as well.
Fifth, consider masculine identity. This has already become a major social problem. Consider the soaring rate at which young men, unlike young women, not only drop out of school but also commit suicide.40 We need no fortune-teller to see that massive social problems, more widespread than the ones we already have, are likely to emerge whenever and wherever boys or young men are unable to feel deeply involved in either the family or society as a whole — or, to put it another way, in the future of society. Over the past few decades, we have seen a resurgence of machismo in its most toxic form. To many boys and men now, it seems clear that even a negative identity is better than no identity at all. This alone should give us pause in contemplating the future. Because fatherhood is the one remaining source of a healthy masculine identity — and we define the latter, once again, in connection with at least one distinctive, necessary, and publicly valued contribution to society — legalizing gay marriage could leave men with a major problem. We are referring to the marriages of gay women, in this case, which would legitimate the notion that fathers are unnecessary.
Finally, consider democracy. In one way, the campaign for gay marriage seems to support democracy. Its rallying cry, after all, is that gay citizens should have the same rights as other citizens. In another way, though, it undermines democracy — which, by definition, involves both a majority and one or more minorities. Gay advocates are confused. They want paradoxically both to be a minority and not be a minority. They want to be different from the majority, in other words, but not to pay a price for being different. But if minority status itself becomes intolerable, if the very fact of difference is said to be inherently degrading and destabilizing, then how can we sustain a democracy (let alone a “pluralistic” one)?
Inherent in the idea of citizenship, moreover, is the idea of adult responsibility. Minors are not full citizens, after all; only adults are — presumably mature adults. But the advocates of gay marriage tell us that the state must confer identity, self-esteem, even mental health on gay people. This is an unwitting insult to gay people. Worse, it is an insult to all citizens (especially in view of the fact that those who believe in marriage as the ultimate source of self-esteem do not care what would happen to the self-esteem of those who would not marry).
We will almost certainly be accused, at any rate, of alarmist rhetoric. And, given historical precedents of societies in the midst of major change, we could refer to even more alarming possibilities. But remember that every morally responsible analysis of social policy must include consideration of the risks. Naiveté is no more a virtue than cynicism is.
No one can predict the future of this experiment. People are not like rats in a lab. Mistakes are much more costly. And unforeseen things are just as likely to happen because of social engineering as they are because of any other kind. We try to fix every problem, but we usually end up replacing one with another. Forty years ago, it seemed like common sense that changing the divorce laws would be an act of compassion for the few but one that would make little or no difference to the many. That was naive, to say the least. Now, we know better. It changed us in ways that no one could have imagined. For better or worse — better for some, worse for others — we now live in a “divorce culture.”42
Most people like to consider their society a tolerant one, and this is certainly laudable. But no society could endure if tolerance were taken to its ultimate conclusion: the belief that “anything goes.” In addition to tolerance — otherwise known as “love,” “caring,” or “compassion” — every society must be guided by wisdom. And that requires citizens to be as reasonable as they are tolerant. Canadians should think twice, therefore, before redefining marriage.
Endnotes: See here for endnotes.
Katherine Young and Paul Nathanson. “Marriage-a-la-mode: Answering Advocates of Gay Marriage.” Paper presented at Emory University, Atlanta, GA (May 14, 2003).
This article reprinted with permission from the authors. This paper will be published shortly by Emory University.
Katherine K. Young is professor of the history of religions in the Faculty of Religious Studies at McGill University where she teaches in the areas of comparative religion, gender, ethics, and Hinduism.
Paul Nathanson, a researcher in the same faculty, is a freelance editor and author of Over the Rainbow: The Wizard of Oz as a Secular Myth of America.
The authors have jointly written Spreading Misandry The Teaching of Contempt for Men in Popular Culture. Katherine Young can be reached at email@example.com. Paul Nathanson can be reached at Wordwatcher@vif.com.
Copyright © 2003 Katherine Young and Paul Nathanson