February 05, 2004,
On Wednesday, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court unambiguously mandated the granting of marriage licenses to same-sex couples. The decision will take effect in about three and a half months. The time will come to debate the tactics of the gay-marriage battle. Right now is a moment for sober reflection on what is at stake.
At issue in the gay-marriage controversy is nothing less than the existence of marriage itself. This point is vehemently denied by the proponents of gay marriage, who speak endlessly of marriage's adaptability and "resilience." But if there is one thing I think I've established in my recent writing on Scandinavia, it is that marriage can die and is in fact dying somewhere in the world. In fact, marriage is dying in the very the same place that first recognized gay marriage.
In setting up the institution of marriage, society offers special support and encouragement to the men and women who together make children. Because marriage is deeply implicated in the interests of children, it is a matter of public concern. Children are helpless. They depend upon adults. Over and above their parents, children depend upon society to create institutions that keep them from chaos. Children cannot articulate their needs. Children cannot vote. Yet children are society. They are us, and they are our future. That is why society has the right to give special support and encouragement to an institution that is necessary to the well being of children even if that means special benefits for some, and not for others. The dependence intrinsic to human childhood is why unadulterated libertarianism can never work.
The "discrimination" inherent in the legal institution of marriage is relatively minor. Single people are "discriminated against" by the benefits granted to married couples. Those who prefer to live with multiple lovers are also "discriminated against" by the institution of marriage. So, too, are same-sex couples "discriminated against" by marriage. Each of these groups is now demanding redress from this "discrimination." Such redress will spell the end of marriage.
The difficulties and challenges of gays are special precisely because they do not derive from the "discrimination" of marriage. The real source of the challenges of gay life is the problem of sexual difference. It is terribly difficult to grow up with a different sort of sexuality than most of the world around you. Marriage does not cause this problem, and it cannot solve it.
Yet, out of understandable compassion for the sorrows and difficulties of gays, many Americans want to offer marriage as a kind of consolation or remedy for the challenges inherent in the gay situation. The increased social tolerance for gays in America is largely a good thing, as far as I'm concerned. But using marriage to accomplish a purpose for which it was not intended and which it cannot fulfill will not fundamentally alter the situation of gays. It will, however, spell the end of marriage, and of the protection marriage offers to vulnerable children who cannot vote or articulate their interests. The number of children potentially endangered by the collapse of marriage is far larger than the number of gays or "polyamorists." The number of single people who will never marry is substantial and growing, yet society is right to "discriminate" against these single people in ways that are relatively modest but which sustain an institution that protects children.
THE ROOT CAUSEI believe I have established that marriage in Scandinavia is dying. No one has disputed this. Instead it is objected that gay marriage is not a cause of this demise, but only an effect. I would like someone to explain how gay marriage could be only an effect of the decline of marriage, without also being a reinforcing cause. How can a change that becomes imaginable only after marriage has been separated from parenthood fail to lock in and reinforce that very separation?
In Sweden, where marriage was already radically separated from parenthood, and largely equalized with cohabitation in legal-financial terms, gay marriage was more effect than cause. But in Norway, where the decline of marriage was only partial, gay marriage had a greater role as a facilitator of marital decline than it did in Sweden. In the United States, the effect of gay marriage would be massive.
As of now (and in substantial contrast to Scandinavia), the legal distinction between marriage and cohabitation in America is strong. Yet important proposals from the American Law Institute would put us on the Scandinavian path. In America, gay marriage would be the leading edge of the Scandinavian system not the tail-end, as it was in Sweden. Gay marriage would accustom us to think about marriage in Scandinavian terms to think of marriage as substantially unrelated to parenthood. And that would lead us to adopt legal reforms that already loom reforms that would lock us in to the Scandinavian pattern of marital decline.
Everywhere, gay marriage is both an effect and a cause of marital decline. But in America, gay marriage would have even more causal impact than it did in Norway and far more than in Sweden.
Andrew Sullivan has responded to my "Slipping Toward Scandinavia." I'm struck by what Sullivan does not say. He does not meet my points about causal arguments. He continues to withhold comment on the failure of Scandinavian gays to embrace the "conservative case" for gay marriage. And Sullivan has no response to the three questions with which I ended my piece. Sullivan has no real answer to my point that he himself has used Scandinavian registered partnership and Vermont's civil unions to draw conclusions about gay marriage's effect on heterosexual marriage. (While we're at it, Sullivan has never offered anything close to a serious response to my earlier piece, "Beyond Gay Marriage.")
Instead of meeting my points in "Slipping Toward Scandinavia," Sullivan focuses on early reports that Scandinavian registered partnerships showed lower divorce rates than heterosexual marriages. Even if true, that would not meet my central point about the effect of gay marriage on heterosexual marriage. But it turns out that the divorce rate among same-sex registered partners in Sweden is substantially higher than the rate among heterosexuals. European demographers Gunnar Andersson and Turid Noack report that male same-sex partnerships in Sweden have a 50-percent higher divorce rate than heterosexual marriages. Perhaps surprisingly, female same-sex partnerships in Sweden have a 170-percent higher divorce risk than heterosexual marriages. What Andersson and Noack call this "super risk of divorce" holds true even when controlling for various demographic variables.
Nonetheless, this information on high divorce risk for same-sex couples may be less significant than the fact that we are dealing with a strikingly small population too small to draw clear conclusions. In Norway, same-sex registered partnerships form only .68 percent as often as heterosexual marriages. In Sweden, registered partnerships form only .55 percent as often as heterosexual marriages (i.e. about one half of 1 percent as often). The symbolic effect of registered partnerships on the meaning of Scandinavian marriage has been great stimulating major national debates that continue to drag on (over issues like gay adoption, and rainbow flags on churches). But the actual number of Scandinavian registered partners is exceedingly small even taking into account that gays represent only a few percent of the population.
In addition to some preliminary indications that same-sex registered partnerships may not be as stable as heterosexual marriages, it's of interest that a much higher proportion of same-sex spouses tend to be over 40 years of age. In Sweden, for example, half of all male partnerships are entered into by at least one spouse over 40. In contrast, only 14 percent of opposite-sex marriages involved such senior spouses. This suggests that even when same-sex couples do marry, the effect on sexual behavior is minimal. That's because they wait until their later years to wed. True, some of this age discrepancy may be due to same-sex couples who might have married at younger ages "catching up" after legalization. Even so, the age discrepancy is striking, and may have more general significance.
In short, current data on same-sex registered partnerships in Scandinavia suggest that the effect of marriage on gay monogamy will be minimal. Exceedingly few couples marry. Those few who do marry are significantly older. And in Sweden at least, same-sex couples divorce at a significantly higher rate. But the biggest imponderable here is Sullivan's assumption that marriage does in fact indicate monogamous behavior or even monogamy as an ideal among same-sex couples. In my earlier piece, "Beyond Gay Marriage," I showed that this can by no means be assumed. So in Scandinavia, exceedingly few gays marry at all. And we don't even know if those very few who do marry practice or strive for monogamy.
TEXAS VS. MASSACHUSETTSIn response to my pointing out that marriage has virtually disappeared in the most gay-marriage friendly districts of Norway, Sullivan offers a comparison between marriage and divorce rates in "pro-gay" Massachusetts and "anti-gay" Texas. It turns out that more people marry and fewer divorce in Massachusetts than in Texas. So, says Sullivan, by "Kurtz's Norwegian logic," we all ought to imitate socially liberal Massachusetts.
Actually, the Massachusetts/Texas contrast has a lot to do with differences in relative levels of education and wealth. Other factors play in as well, like relative stability of residence in Massachusetts, and relative residential transiency in Texas. But probably the most interesting and important factor at play in the Massachusetts/Texas contrast is the strong presence of Roman Catholics in Massachusetts. Catholics tend to divorce at significantly lower rates than other religious groups. The public in Massachusetts is split on gay marriage, and the large Catholic population generally opposes it. So Sullivan is actually holding up the marital behavior of Catholic opponents of gay marriage as a model.
In comparison to the polyglot populations of large American states, Norwegian counties like Nordland and Nord-Troendelag are socially homogeneous. The social liberalism of these Norwegian counties can be linked to their high out-of-wedlock birthrates far more reliably than low divorce rates can be linked to social liberalism in Massachusetts.
Finally, Sullivan claims that however desirable it may be to connect marriage and parenthood, the empirical reality of marriage in America is that most married couples have no children. This is a deeply misleading statistical trick. Sullivan tries to deflect criticism here by conceding that at least some cases of married couples without children at home may simply be older couples whose children are now in school. But Sullivan's statistics disguise just how profoundly marriage and child bearing are still are still connected in American culture.
Justin Katz nicely dissipates Sullivan's statistical fog. Katz shows that it is clearly the norm for married American women of child-bearing age to have children. Most people who get married are planning to have children. The fact that older couples have kids off in college does nothing to change that fact. The striking thing about Americans and it's evident immediately on comparison with Scandinavia is just how closely we continue to associate marriage with parenthood. Every time Andrew Sullivan makes his case that marriage and parenthood are not connected, he is harming marriage. I know this is far from Sullivan's intention (and I respect his intentions). But the harm to marriage is real nonetheless.
The debate will go on. I believe the coming weeks and months will show that we are just beginning to learn what is really at stake in the gay-marriage controversy. The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court has acted precipitously, and without due regard to the immensity and complexity of the institution they are tampering with. The mere fact that the real situation of marriage in Scandinavia and Europe as a whole is almost entirely unknown in the United States should be enough to give us pause. Unfortunately, we are now obliged to do battle against judges who haven't the foggiest notion of the real implications of their actions (much less respect for the democratic process).
Some say this battle is lost. I don't think it is. The coming year or two will tell the tale. There are surprises yet to come, and moments when those of us who see gay marriage as a mistake will have a chance to rally and turn the tide. The stakes are nothing less than the survival of marriage itself.