it comes to Andrew Sullivan, no question about it, I'm a fan. The
New Republic under his editorship was my dream of a magazine;
I'm a loyal reader of his pioneering "me-zine," andrewsullivan.com;
and I'm proud to call him a friend. Sullivan's intellectual and
rhetorical skills are the prerequisites of his success. They don't
really explain it, though. It's Sullivan's fearless disregard for
ideological orthodoxies of both Left and Right that makes him the
phenomenon that he is. I say this even though I periodically think
the brickbats he hurls at his foes are off the mark (sometimes way
of the campaign for gay marriage, Sullivan has nonetheless fiercely
criticized the excesses of the gay-rights movement. For this, Andrew
has been subjected to vicious personal attacks, all of which he
has parried with pluck and dignity. I know of no better way to pay
tribute to Andrew Sullivan than to firmly but respectfully pursue
our honest disagreement over the issue of gay marriage.
I began that
debate with an article critical of Sullivan in the September 2000
issue of Commentary,
and with several earlier pieces at National Review Online, "
in Hollywood," "Love
and Marriage," and "The
Right Balance." Sullivan has now offered a partial answer
by taking on "Love and Marriage" in his latest TRB column
One of the
glaring weaknesses of that column is Sullivan's refusal to acknowledge
or respond to the full range of arguments that I and others have
made against gay marriage. Sullivan claims that several key arguments
have actually been "abandoned" by the foes of gay marriage.
Yet I myself have only recently offered up extensive versions of
precisely the points that, according to Sullivan, the foes of gay
marriage have forsaken.
Take, for example,
the claim that gay marriage will lead inexorably to polygamy. This
argument was derided by Sullivan and his allies as implausible fear-mongering
when opponents of gay marriage raised the prospect, in a strictly
theoretical way, in 1996, during the debate over the Defense of
Marriage Act. Yet as I showed in my Commentary piece, the
last five years have seen the rise of a movement for "polyamory"
— a form of group marriage. Polyamorists are now organized throughout
the country, with websites and regular conferences, and have gotten
some national publicity. And the polyamorists have a cause celebre,
the case of April Divilbiss, a woman living with two "husbands"
whose child has been removed by the courts.
doubt, then, that gay marriage will bring in its wake suits from
polyamorists seeking the legalization of group marriage? What seemed
laughable only five years ago is already both a practical reality
and a profound threat to the future of marriage.
supreme court will be hard pressed to show why the grounds upon
which it mandated homosexual civil unions (the broad state constitutional
claim that government is instituted for the "common benefit"
of the people) would not also mandate polyamorous marriage. So the
threat of legalized polygamy and group marriage has materialized,
and I myself have put the issue forward in a recent article (several
actually). Sullivan's claim that the polygamy argument has been
"abandoned" by foes of gay marriage is therefore demonstrably
claims that the opponents of gay marriage no longer maintain that,
through an interpretation of the Full Faith and Credit Clause of
the U. S. Constitution, the courts might overturn the Defense of
Marriage Act and impose gay marriage on the entire country after
it is legalized in but a single state. Here Sullivan conveniently
passes over the very serious danger to DOMA posed by a constitutional
challenge based upon the equal-protection clause. And only last
week, in "The
Right Balance," I showed that Sullivan's discounting of
court-imposed gay marriage on "Full Faith and Credit"
grounds is utterly unwarranted. Sullivan has yet to reply to that
and Marriage," I argued that gay marriage would make it
difficult to combat heterosexual promiscuity or the high divorce
rate. In his reply, Sullivan points out that heterosexual promiscuity
and high divorce rates predate gay marriage. But this misses my
point. The changes in heterosexual sex and marriage since the sixties
have been bound up inextricably from the start with changed attitudes
toward homosexuality. While I neither expect nor seek a full restoration
of the social system of the fifties, gay marriage would lock in
and radicalize the post-sixties separation of sexuality from reproduction
within marriage, hampering attempts even to moderate current trends.
that I take too little account of lesbian couples, who are generally
models of monogamy. But as I showed in "Love and Marriage,"
much of the problem of gay marriage is its undermining effect on
the ethos of sexual complementarity — particularly the notion that
men have certain responsibilities to women in light of their sexual
vulnerability and their need for support as mothers. Many lesbian
advocates of gay marriage actually look forward to the prospect
of undermining the ethos marital complementarity, since they understand
it as oppressive to women. (And by the way, this explains why, contrary
to Sullivan's claims, an infertile heterosexual couple is not equivalent
to a homosexual couple. An infertile heterosexual couple embodies
and strengthens the ethos of sexual complementarity. A homosexual
couple does not.)
a sort of arithmetical rebuttal to the claim that the lack of sexual
fidelity in even many of the most committed gay male couples threatens
to separate the ethos of marriage from monogamy. For Sullivan, the
superior fidelity of many lesbian couples balances out the greater
promiscuity of many gay male couples, making same-sex marriage,
so far as its effects on monogamy are concerned, a wash. And if
lesbians marry at a higher rate than gay men, there could even be
a net gain in marital monogamy. Yet, Sullivan's "mathematical"
argument doesn't work, precisely because marriage is so dependent
upon a socially shared ethos of fidelity.
following example. I attended a college renowned for its honor code.
Students signed a stringent pledge, promising not to cheat in any
way, and promising to confront and, if necessary, report anyone
seen cheating to the school's honor council. Having signed the pledge,
students were permitted to take exams unsupervised. There was great
pride in the code, and the powerful ethos of honor gave the school
But what if
a new group of students was admitted to the school, half of whom
were paragons of honesty, but the other half of whom, although willing
to sign the honor code, freely proclaimed their rejection of its
fundamental principles. Suppose this group of new students admitted
that they intended to cheat at will. Indeed, suppose they went further
and rejected the whole notion of "cheating," calling it
outdated and oppressive, and speaking of what had once been called
"cheating" as simply an "alternative form of learning."
What sort of effect would even this small but vocal group have upon
the ethos of honor at this college?
operates according to a code of honor — a code, as it happen, that
forbids cheating. And that code of honor is enforced, not so much
by the intervention of concerned individuals (although that is important)
as by a shared ethos — an ethos that is powerful precisely because
it is shared, and known to be shared. It is the delicate dignity
and reputation of the institution (be it a college, or the institution
of marriage itself) that confers honor upon those who publicly pledge
to make the sacrifices necessary to maintain the code. Yet it would
take only a small group willing to openly subvert the code, to break
the spell, so to speak. That is why Sullivan's "arithmetical"
defense on the question of sexual fidelity will not do.
When he is
not putting forward his "mathematical" argument, Sullivan
assumes that only those gay couples who embrace the traditional
ethos of monogamy will marry. But this is almost certainly a mistaken
assumption. As I showed in my earlier piece, "Point
of No Return," there is every likelihood that many homosexual
couples who reject monogamy will nonetheless marry — for the sake
of the financial and legal benefits. And many of these couples hope
to use their marital status to actively subvert conventional cultural
notions of marital honor.
pressure from my arguments in "Love and Marriage," Sullivan
now claims that even gay male marriages will be at least as monogamous
as straight ones. But this claim clearly contradicts Sullivan's
own position in his book, Virtually
Normal. There, Sullivan actually praises the "openness
of the contract" that characterizes so many gay male unions
and offers it as something that might actually strengthen
marriage as an institution (pp. 202-203). While I strongly disagree
that the "openness" of gay male marriage will do anything
but weaken marriage for heterosexuals, the point is that, in Virtually
Normal, Sullivan actually concedes what he now denies — the
carry over effect on marriage from gay sexual "openness."
And like those hypothetical collegiate advocates of "alternative
modes of learning," Sullivan even attempts to redefine cheating
by turning it into a plus. If even the conservative Sullivan once
openly put forth this argument, just wait until large numbers of
married gay radicals get to work.
But for the
really serious "subversion" to begin, the radicals will
need full-fledged gay marriage, not simply civil unions. Only when
gay couples are formally married will everything they say and do,
in the nature of the case, work a change within what marriage actually
is. That's one reason why Sullivan's pointing to the seeming
lack of negative effects from Denmark's system of "registered
partnerships" doesn't begin to show us what full-fledged gay
marriage will actually mean for the institution of marriage itself.
But the deeper
reason why we aren't even close to the point where the real effects
of gay marriage will become evident is that the shared moral ethos
that supports an institution doesn't generally change in simple
or strictly incremental fashion. It will take a few years of full-fledged
gay marriage in several Western cultural centers to reach a critical
mass of "subversion" sufficient to set off the next big
implosion in the institution of marriage. In Virtually Normal,
Sullivan himself describes a parallel effect when he speaks of the
relative collapse of the belief in the sinfulness of homosexuality
(p.53). To reach the point where claims of the perverse or sinful
nature of homosexuality no longer "worked their magic"
on the public at large, it was first necessary to create substantial
zones of disagreement about what homosexuality was. Once the issue
was thrown up for discussion, the old codes and exhortations (which
were powerful precisely because they were taken for granted) lost
much of their effect.
But isn't the
institution of marriage itself vulnerable to just such a collapse?
After reaching a critical mass of social space in which the link
between marriage and monogamy is actively questioned, don't we risk
precipitating a radical disenchantment of the old codes of honor?
And by the time we reach that point, it will be far too late to
turn back. It will take a few years, but once advocates of gay marriage
have got what they want and no longer need to be on their best behavior,
Hollywood's cutting edge directors and television producers will
quickly discover that the "edgiest" topic in town is the
new kind of marriage being pioneered by homosexual couples who combine
emotional commitment with sexual "openness."
great strength is also his weakness. Even as Sullivan defends the
gay-marriage movement, the particular arguments he employs put him
at some distance from the cultural and political heart of the gay
community. It is precisely Sullivan's tendency to understate the
persistence and influence of gay cultural radicalism that gives
rise to his unduly sanguine claims about the positive effects of
gay marriage upon the institution of marriage itself. Yet that is
something about which, as a society, we simply cannot afford to