to Stanley Kurtz for another
provocative and richly argued article. Shall we drill a little
deeper? If I read him correctly, his argument boils down to something
is rooted essentially in "the underlying dynamic of male-female
sexuality." Nothing else can sustain marriage.
2) As a result,
it is simply impossible for same-sex (especially male-male) couples
to be good marital citizens. They may get married, but they won't
act married, and society won't treat them as married.
homosexuals will do a bad job of "exemplifying modern marriage
for the nation" and marriage is in bad enough shape already,
homosexuals should not be allowed to marry.
same-sex marriage anywhere in America at any time is effectively
the same as mandating it everywhere forever. So same-sex marriage
must never be tried anywhere, ever.
Or, to put
it a bit coarsely: "I don't believe homosexuals can handle
marriage responsibly. And they should never be allowed a chance
to prove me wrong. Sorry, gay people, but that's life."
I'll take the liberty of calling this approach, gets four things
wrong. It misanalyzes marriage. It misunderstands homosexuality.
It sits crosswise with liberalism. And it traduces federalism. Other
than that, no problem.
Proposition 1. Kurtz argues that, whatever else marriage is about,
ultimately and indispensably it's about "the underlying dynamic
of male-female sexuality." I'm not sure exactly what this means
beyond saying that marriage must be between a man and a woman, so
I'm not sure how to address it specifically. Here is what I think
marriage is indispensably about: the commitment to care for another
person, for better or worse, in sickness and in health, till death
do you part.
can and often does flourish long after the passion has faded, long
after the children have gone, and (yes) long after infidelity; it
can flourish without children and even without sex. A marriage is
a real marriage as long as the spouses continue to affirm that caring
for and supporting and comforting each other is the most important
task in their lives. A golden anniversary is not a great event because
both spouses have held up their end of a "dynamic of male-female
sexuality" but because 50 years of devotion is just about the
noblest thing that human beings can achieve.
I can't prove
I'm right and Kurtz is wrong. But I think my view is much closer
to what people actually think their marriages are fundamentally
about, and also, by the way, to what marriage should be fundamentally
about. Most married people I know regard themselves as more or less
equal partners in an intricate relationship whose essential ingredient
is the lifelong caregiving contract. Obviously, they'd agree that
male-female sexual dynamics play an important role in their marriage;
but then, they're male-female couples, so they would say
that. If you told them that marriage is fundamentally about (in
Kurtz's words) "a man's responsibilities to a woman,"
rather than a person's responsibilities to a person, they'd look
at you funny.
Why is Kurtz
so reluctant to put commitment instead of sex roles at the center
of marriage? Because, I suspect, he knows homosexuals can form commitments.
To cut off this pass, he claims that in practice homosexuals too
often won't form commitments (Proposition 2). Same-sex couples,
or in any case male same-sex couples, won't act married, and society
won't be bothered if they don't, so marriage will become a hollow
why I believe that a world where everyone, straight and gay, can
grow up aspiring to marry will be a world where gays and straights
and marriage are all better off. Kurtz has explained why he thinks
otherwise. All of that is well and good, but it only gets us so
far, because the key questions are all empirical. How would married
gay couples behave? How would married heterosexuals react? Unfortunately,
we have no direct evidence. One can say that in Vermont, which has
a civil-union law, "the institution of marriage has not collapsed,"
as the governor recently said. One can say that gay men (no one
seems worried about lesbians not taking marriage seriously) represent
probably 3 percent of the population, and that it seems a stretch
to insist that the 97 percent will emulate the 3 percent. But none
of that proves anything. Absent some actual experience with same-sex
marriage, everything is conjecture.
Still, I think
Kurtz's conjecture is based on a view of homosexuality that is both
misguided and at least unintentionally demeaning. His article contains
this arresting phrase: "As the ultimate symbol of the detachment
of sexuality from reproduction, homosexuality embodies the sixties
ethos of sexual self-fulfillment." So there you are. My relationship
with my partner Michael is about "sexual self-fulfillment,"
because, I guess, we can't have children. Let me gently but passionately
say to Kurtz that this is an affront. It implies that a straight
man's life partner is his wife, while a gay man's life partner is
just his squeeze. Let me also gently but firmly instruct Kurtz on
a point that I and other homosexuals are in a position to know something
about. Our partners are not walking dildos and vibrators. Our partners
are our companions, our soulmates, our loves.
I'm not familiar
with the Stiers book he cites and I couldn't get it on deadline,
so I can't comment on it. I can say, though, that I wouldn't be
the least surprised if right now, in 2001, grown gay men and women
often regard marriage as a novelty or a convenient benefits package.
What does Kurtz expect? These are people who grew up knowing they
could never marry, who have structured their whole lives outside
of marriage, and who have of necessity built their relationships
as alternatives to marriage.
I don't expect
that homosexuals will all flock to the altar the day after marriage
is legalized. You don't take a culture that has been defined forever
by exclusion from marriage and expect it to change overnight. I
do think that, a few years after legalization, we'll see something
new: A whole generation of homosexuals growing up knowing that they
can marry, seeing successfully married gay couples out and about,
and often being encouraged to marry by their parents and mentors.
Making the closet culture the exception rather than the rule for
young gay people was the work of one or maybe two generations. The
shift to a normative marriage culture may happen just as fast.
I know, I know.
Kurtz will simply insist that real, committed marriage will never
be normative for homosexuals; gays just don't have that "dynamic
of male-female sexuality" thing. Unfortunately, I don't think
I can persuade him by telling him about all the gay people I know
who have committed their enduring love and care to each other. I
doubt I could persuade him even by telling him about all the men
I know who have fed and comforted and carried their dying partners,
and covered their partners with their bodies to keep them warm,
and held their hands at the end and then sobbed and sobbed. Who
is more fit to marry, the homosexual who comes home every night
to wipe the vomit from the chin of his wasting partner, or the heterosexual
who serves his first wife with divorce papers while she is in the
hospital with cancer so that he can get on with marrying his second
wife? Alas, I think I know what Kurtz would say.
figures on gay men's fidelity and attitudes toward monogamy. There
are lots of problems with these kinds of numbers, but the more interesting
question is: Just what does Kurtz think this kind of data proves?
Exactly how monogamous do homosexuals have to be in order to earn
the right to marry? I'd have thought that being better than 80 percent
faithful would be pretty darn good. Would 90 percent satisfy him?
Maybe 98.2 percent? And if a group's average fidelity is the qualification
for marriage, shouldn't Kurtz let lesbians marry right now? And
why are homosexuals the only class of people who are not allowed
to marry until they prove, in advance, that they'll be good marital
citizens? Last time I checked, heterosexual men were allowed to
take a fifth wife, no questions asked, even if they beat their first,
abandoned their second, cheated on their third, and attended orgies
with their fourth.
homosexuals have been barred from marrying and even from having
open relationships. The message has been: Furtive, underground sex
is all homosexuals deserve. And now Kurtz is insisting (Proposition
3) that homosexuals can't wed because we're not as sexually well-behaved
as married heterosexuals? While also insisting that, no matter how
badly heterosexuals behave, their right to marry will go unquestioned?
Really, the gall!
ill temper on that point. I understand that, to Kurtz and many other
Americans, same-sex marriage seems a radical concept, an abuse of
the term "marriage." What I think Kurtz and too many other
opponents of gay marriage fail to appreciate is the radicalism of
telling millions of Americans that they can never marry anybody
they love. To be prohibited from taking a spouse is not a minor
inconvenience. It is a lacerating deprivation. Marriage, probably
more even than voting and owning property and having children, is
the core element of aspiration to the good life. Kurtz would
deprive all homosexuals of any shot at it lest some of them set
a poor example. I think this is both inhumane and cuts against liberalism's
core principle, which is that people are to be treated ends in themselves,
not as means to some utilitarian social end. I am grateful to Kurtz
for leaving the door open to domestic-partnership programs as a
consolation prize; this is a good-hearted gesture, and I accept
it as such. But surely he recognizes that domestic partnership is
no substitute for matrimony. Surely, indeed, that is his point in
is too important to be approached thoughtlessly. I'm glad that Kurtz
is thinking as strenuously about the possible downsides as I am
about the possible upsides. Where he veers toward something like
extremism is in his demand that homosexuals be denied any chance
to prove his conjectures wrong (Proposition 4). "There is no
such thing as an experiment in gay marriage," he says. "Rauch
seems to think that if his cost-free portrait of gay marriage turns
out to be mistaken, we can simply call off the experiment. But by
then it will surely be too late. Such effects take years to play
out, decades more to measure, and even when measured, agreement
on the meaning of such data is nearly impossible to achieve."
nearly all major social-policy reforms play out over years and decades,
and agreement on how to measure the results is never complete; Kurtz
might just as well say that no state should be allowed to try welfare
reform or charter schools or a "living wage" because the
effects take years to play out, decades to measure, etc. The whole
point of federalism is to allow states to try reforms that might
not work, and to allow states' voters — not me or Stanley Kurtz
— to decide for themselves what counts as working. In rejecting
this principle root and branch, Kurtz emerges as a radical enemy
not just of same-sex marriage but of federalism itself.
I don't have
much new to say about his peculiar claim that, once any state adopts
same-sex marriage, every other state will have to follow, because
Kurtz doesn't have anything new to say defending it. He simply re-asserts
it. "Imagine a married couple, where one spouse is hospitalized
after a car accident in another state, losing visiting rights or
the right to make medical decisions, because their marriage isn't
recognized in that state," he says, as if the situation is
obviously untenable. OK, I've imagined it. That kind of arrangement
would be perfectly manageable. Gay spouses in a state with same-sex
marriage would understand that they will need a medical power of
attorney that's valid out-of-state. None of these complexities is
remotely thorny enough to force any state to recognize same-sex
marriage against its will. It seems to me that what Kurtz really
fears is that one state will adopt same-sex marriage and others
will look at it and say, "Actually, that doesn't seem so bad
— pretty good, even. We don't mind recognizing it even if we don't
adopt it ourselves." What he really fears, in other words,
is not a disastrous state experiment but a successful one.
asserts that federal judges will high-handedly impose one state's
same-sex marriages on all the others. Again I say that there is
— just as he says — plenty of room in the law for determined judges
to decide this legal issue either way, but that any sane Supreme
Court will be determined not to impose same-sex marriage on an unwilling
nation. And if undemocratic judicial fiat is what worries Kurtz,
why does he greet with silence my suggestion that a simple constitutional
amendment — far easier to pass than the one he supports — would
solve the problem?
But all of
this stuff about states' being "forced" to accept same-sex
marriage is a red herring. Kurtz makes it clear that he is no happier
if a state adopts same-sex marriage by legislation or plebiscite
than by judicial fiat. His proposed constitutional amendment accordingly
strips states, and not just judges, of the power to permit same-sex
marriage, even if everybody in some state wants to try it. What
I suspect Kurtz really knows and fears is that as more homosexuals
form devoted and visible unions, and as more of the public accepts
and honors those unions, same-sex marriage will seem ever less strange
and radical, and ever more in harmony with Americans' core values
— which it is. Although he fears that same-sex marriage will come
to pass over the public's objections, he fears even more that it
will come to pass with the public's assent.