Tuesday, March 14, 2006

S-squared, Sykes and same sex marriage

If recognition of gay marriage threatens, as I think it clearly does, to put additional pressure on "the rule of two," on law that mandates financial interdependence of married couples and on the notion that children are best served by living with their married biological parents, how much of a threat is this? If there is a more remote threat that legalized gay marriage will put pressure on the idea of conjugal marriage, on the norm of sexual exclusivity and on the idea that heterosexuality is normative, are the risks associated with those possibilities enough to warrant the continued exclusion of same sex couples from the institution of marriage?

Before assessing the risk of change, we need to examine the harm imposed by the status quo. I understand the desire of same sex couples for validation and I cannot entirely dismiss the notion that the extension of marriage or some equivalent status to same sex couples will help some people.

But much of the practical benefits of such an extension can be achieved in other ways. While I appreciate the desire of same sex couples to be treated "the same," much of the rhetoric of the proponents of gay marriage seems hysterically overwrougnt. To say that two men cannot be married is not the equivalent of sending them to Auschwitz ( as Ragnar, with his invocation of Niemoeller, implies) or even sending them to the back of the bus. Wisconsin does not (at least not until the courts tell us otherwise) recognize gay marriage, yet it does prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. To draw an analogy between the America of Brokeback Mountain and Queer Eye for the Straight Guy and the circumstances of blacks in the Jim Crow south or Jews in Nazi Germany reflects, and I say this with the most careful consideration, an obscene lack of perspective. It is beyond ridiculous.

The observation that homosexuality has morphed from the love that "dare not speak its name" to the love that "won't shut up" belies the notion that gays are a persecuted class.

I have said before and will say again that strengthening marriage is more important than any other anti-poverty strategy we might adopt. Trillions of dollars in social spending has not substantially reduced poverty, yet it remains the case that, in the United States, if one wants to avoid poverty, one need only work, be married and wait to have a child until one is married. I have seen too much misery and destitution resulting from the decline in marriage and the increase in out of wedlock births to countenance the risk of more simply to avoid being thought of as homophobic.

If gay marriage will weaken marriage, we shouldn't permit it. But the question remains: Will it do so?

One thoughtful commentator, identifying himself as Todd, argues that all of the potentially adverse effects I identify seem speculative and I sympathize with that. I don't know - none of us can know - where changing a millenia-old institution in such a fundamental way will lead.

But there are all sorts of reasons to think that these risks are real. Indeed, many of the legal theorists supporting gay marriage believe that these things will absolutely come to pass and that it will be a good thing. Many of the proponents of gay marriage are also proponents of a movement to end the privileging or, in the words of one, "fetishization" of marriage. We ought to decouple parenting from marriage, recognizing that families come in all types and that all are equally good. We should remove government support for "conjugal" relationships and instead recognize each individual as a fully autonomous agent who may define and redefine his or her life without regard to whatever impermanent relations he or she may choose to enter at any given time.

Given that we are contemplating such a radical change at such a dizzying pace, there really can be no social science research that conclusively proves anything about this. There have been too few children raised in same sex families over too short a period of time to know what the implications of a wider incidence of this would be. While I am certain that there are some sex-same couples who are such loving people that any child they might raise will probably come out all right (I think I know a few of these couples) and others who may provide a better alternative than any other possibility open to certain children, we really can't say much about the results of same-sex parenting. Given the unique role of gender in the construction of our identities, it seems counter-intuitive to think that it will be "just the same" as the traditional family.

Beyond that, part of the problem is that gay marriage reinforces and is reinforced by the notion that marriage and parenting need not go together. Many of my liberal friends celebrate the liberating aspects of that separation, but they ought to look at the price paid in misery, poverty and dysfunction.

Stanley Kurz is a conservative scholar who has argued that we can distill some of these adverse impacts on marriage in Scandanavia and the Netherlands. It would take multiple posts to state his reasoning, the criticisms of that reasoning and his response to those criticisms. Commenting on one of my earlier posts, one of my favorite liberal foils, Jay Bullock, thinks he has put Kurz to rest and some of the points that he makes are fair. But Kurz has more to say than Jay allows. Kurz does not say that gay marriage or civil unions alone have caused the decline of marriage in those countries but that they have contributed to it and are part and parcel of a movement that separates parenting from marriage. The one thing that seems indisputable is that the end result that he describes is spot-on accurate. Marriage is dying in those countries.

In the end, I think the way in which one views the threat has to do with 1) how much you value the norm of children being raised by their mothers and fathers in the same household and 2) your disposition toward radical social change.

I value that norm highly so that even the slightest threat to it is to be viewed with extreme skepticism. I understand that all children cannot be raised in an Ozzie & Harriet family. I was not and, for reasons beyond my control, my own son was not. I would not wish to denigrate the efforts of those who cope with less than ideal situations. But I am also not going to pretend that they are not less than ideal.

Tinkering with marriage is dangerous stuff. We have done enough of it in the last 40 years and it is a stretch to say that the results have even risen to the level of "mixed."

Nor am I comfortable in saying that we can have the slightest idea of how adopting a changing the most fundamental institution that we have in a way that would have been unimaginable thirty years ago will turn out. We live in an imperfect world populated by imperfect people. The most significant impacts of what we do are often the ones that we did not intend.

In important respects, I come from the '60s and early '70s. I won't say that the Age of Aquarius was a fraud, but it was hopelessly naive. I am a conservative and being a conservative entails a recognition of our fallen nature. If we have learned anything in the past 40 years, it is that the brave new world of the Brady Bunch (not divorced; but that was not the point) and Murphy Brown doesn't work like we thought it would.

The best argument I can think of against the threats that might be posed by gay marriage is that there just aren't enough gay people to make a difference, But the push toward gay marriage has had an impact wildly disproportionate to the handful of people who are gay. Given the risks we are taking, this just isn't sufficient comfort.

This is a question on which both sides have good things to say. Taking all of it into account, my best judgment is that we ought not to change the definition of marriage to open it to same sex couples. Because activist courts who have damaged the legal concepts of equality and liberty are not unlikely to impose such a change, a constitutional amendment to foreclose that possibilty is warranted.

But that doesn't address the "second sentence." This post will go on.


Anonymous said...

A couple quick responses.

First, a majority of the people of Hawaii agreed with you in the late 90s, and this is what they put into their constitution:

The legislature shall have the power to reserve marriage to opposite-sex couples.

The Hawaii amendment does everything you seem to want: halts what you consider to be too much change too quickly; and takes the issue out of the courts.

Why did the authors of Wisconsin's amendment write one so radically different from this, the first of the marriage amendments? Why indefinitely preclude marriage equality in the constitution? Why indefinitely preclude civil unions?

Second, I think your postings have been for the most part quite sensitive and considerate (if, at times, supported by unrealistic claims about gay people), but your claim that gay people (or representations of gay people) won't shut up seems to me to be unthoughtful and insensitive.

Shows like Queer as Folk, Will and Grace, In Living Colour, Queer Eye, and the like, are not made for gay people and are not remotely about gay people's love or lives. They are designed for nongay people to laugh at gay people. They are like minstrel shows in that they do nothing to advance gay rights or to make everyday Americans more comfortable with gay people. If anything, they make us more alien.

So I'd flip your equation, and say that nongay audiences seem to have an endless appetite for stereotypical gay representations -- an appetite that, contrary to your claim, works to silence the vast majority of gay people who recognize nothing of ourselves when we switch on the television.

Finally, the social science research has looked thousands of children raised by hundreds of couples over decades. It's good enough for all the major organizations that work with children and make children's well being their central priority. These, moreover, are all the organizations that are most familiar with social science research on children's well being and on what kind of research enables conclusion.

These include: the Child Welfare League of America, the North American Council on Adoptable Children, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Psychiatric Association, the American Psychological Association, the American Psychological Association and National Association of Social Workers.

Anonymous said...

Sorry to hog so much of your comment space, but seeing as others remain so quiet, perhaps you won't begrudge me another point or two.

I agree that most comparisons between the treatment of gay men and women now and African Americans in the first half of the century are largely unfounded. The most thoughtful proponents of marriage equality are very specific when they make comparisons: the analogy is between current laws and anti-miscegenation laws, which is why the language in Loving v. Virginia has proven so powerful and resonant to contemporary readers.

Moreover, we shouldn't neglect to compare similarities between denigrating representations of persecuted minorities. There are historical reasons, for instance, that a school like Bob Jones is anti-black, anti-Catholic, and anti-gay. And there are reasons that Ralph Ovadal is anti-Catholic and anti-gay.

Second, Kurtz's claims are very serious, and they deserve to be considered carefully. I've done this, and I agree with his opponents, the most thorough of whom posts his article here. Kurtz seriously misrepresents his data; looking closely at his writing, it's clear that he puts the carriage in front of the horse. Any econometrists or other similarly number thirsty statisticians can do their own crunching with the raw data Kurtz uses, which is posted here.

Anonymous said...

The original posts on this subject by the blogger are among the most tediously boring I have seen posted. No one can follow them.

Anonymous said...

Hey anon #1
If you can't understand them (try the huffpo) or find them dull, just move on buddy. Noone is forcing you to read this blog. Some of us find his views interesting and educational.

Seth Zlotocha said...

I've read all of your posts, Rick, and I don't see how same-sex marriage would diminish the connection between marriage and parenthood.

In fact, same-sex marriage would have the effect of strengthening the connection between marriage and parenthood by allowing all of the same-sex couples who are currently parents the right to marry.

The "fetishization" of marriage is not the issue here. If there is a movement among people to separate parenting from marriage, that will occur regardless of whether the government allows same-sex couples to marry (as it already is).

Rick Esenberg said...

Anonymous ? I'll try to dumb them down for you.

Todd and Seth

Your comments are thoughtful and I am going to return to some of them later. Maybe I can this thing into double figures