Monday, January 03, 2005

The conservative approach to gay marriage

Over the course of the year 2004 voters in thirteen states have passed initiatives forbidding gay marriage in their jurisdictions. Harshly, some of these measures even ban civil unions. This unsettling development represents a reality check for the gay-marriage enthusiasts, who arguably provoked some of the backlash by their aggressive and antidemocratic tactics. Judge shopping on the part of judicial activists and the spectacle of the San Francisco "guerrilla theater" (the mass marriages orchestrated by Mayor Gavin Newsom) produced an unfortunate effect. They seemed to reflect an effort to push the development too far too fast. A more organic approach, allowing for gradual change in public opinion, would have been far preferable. As matters have developed, the pro-gay marriage folks may have handed their cause a setback.

The roots of this setback lie in part in the deepening fissures between the "blue" (liberal) states and the "red" (conservative) ones. Massachusetts, with gay marriage, and Vermont, which invented the concept of civil unions, are deep-blue states. Connecticut, New Jersey, and California--all blue--seem to be moving into this camp. However, the defeat in Oregon, which passed an initiative against gay marriage on November 2, suggests limits to the advance even in blue states. Public opinion—and the voters—in the red states are resolutely opposed. This split is important because only if gay marriage becomes a nation-wide phenomenon can it be said to have succeeded. Massachusetts has marriage in name, but those who tie the knot there are deprived of as many as 1000 federal benefits, at least according to some calculations.

We were led to expect that the experiment in Massachusetts, which implemented gay marriage on May 17, would convince skeptics that this change is wholesome and beneficial--and no threat to heterosexual marriage. And so it has turned out--for citizens of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Acceptance in an ultra-blue state does not translate into success in the large portions of the country that remain unconvinced and recalcitrant.

Another token of the national dichotomy is the fact that so far the major gay-marriage advocates have been members of the elite from the two coasts. Their entreaties seem to fall on deaf ears in the heartland. As we shall see, an effort to heal this rift has been made by suggesting that gay marriage is in fact a conservative step, which will help to strengthen marriage as a whole. Yet by and large those targeted by this appeal aren’t buying it.

To be sure the gay-marriage movement has advanced under the cover of a formidable set of arguments. These assertions have largely framed the national debate, which is much more prominent than anyone could have predicted even ten years ago. One can readily access the arguments in articulate books by such scholar-advocates as Jonathan Rauch, Andrew Sullivan, and Evan Wolfson. Having advanced the idea in his Harvard Law School thesis as early as 1983, Wolfson can claim to be the movement’s godfather.

Of the arguments that have come forward the only conclusive one (in my view) is the one that relies on the principle of equity. Let me illustrate. Suppose we had a society in which only one segment of the society can legally drive automobiles. This is not a mere hypothetical example, for in Saudi Arabia only men are permitted to drive cars; women cannot. Presumably those who defend this restriction employ some form of the argument from prescription. "You see, as far back as recorded history informs us, in our culture women were not permitted to drive chariots or to lead camel caravans. Our present-day custom simply affirms this venerable practice, harmonizing as it does with the central values of our culture."

Restricting marriage to heterosexuals is indeed an age-old practice in our own society. But is it just? Clearly not. So same-sex marriage must come to America. But it will probably not be a reality—on a national basis, the only one that counts—for a good many years.

Some arguments for gay marriage have raised unrealistic expectations. Will marriage become the norm for gay people? While a majority of gay men and lesbians hold that same-sex marriage must be permitted, most will probably not personally have recourse to it. Preliminary evidence from the Netherlands suggests that only about 12% of the eligibles will elect it. So while the option ought to be available to everyone, there should be no stipulation that we must elect this path. Many of us are comfortable with domestic partnerships or civil unions—or perhaps nothing at all.

Yet this laissez-faire approach is strongly opposed by one segment of the gay-marriage movement. These advocates may be termed "transformationists." These writers seem to subscribe to the alarmist view common some years back that the decline of marriage represents a significant danger to our nation. Too many, we are told, have been tolerant in the face of this unfortunate development. The spread of "Murphy Brownism," mothers having children out of wedlock, must be deplored. Vigorous government intervention is required. So said the critics. But is their view really compelling today? Many of the social ills discernible in the 1980s era have moderated. One sign is that pregnancies by unmarried teenage girls are now much less common. More broadly, marriage is declining in the US, but as Scandinavia shows this evolution is not necessarily a prelude to disaster.

According to the 1990 US Census there were 3.2 million unmarried couples. Ten years later the number had surged to 5.5 million. Heterosexuals are abandoning the dinosaur of marriage. Why should the mass of gay men and lesbians embrace it? Other data suggest that young heterosexuals, those in their twenties, are particularly marriage-averse. These are the folks who are most accepting of gay marriage, possibly because, in this era of “hooking up” young people do not care much about marriage anyway.

This erosion notwithstanding, transformationists insist that, when it comes, gay marriage must not be simply an option but a necessary obligation. Gay men desperately need the blessings of the institution. Indeed, our virtuecrats hold that gay men are in a bad way. Gay men are too promiscuous, hedonistic, and uncaring. They must be t a m e d by being encouraged to marry. Only through this transformation, enshrining marriage as the central feature of gay culture, can the self-destructiveness of gay men be curbed. (This argument entails the tacit concession, generally unchallenged, that lesbians do not need to be improved in this way.)

Will marriage really have a taming effect on gay men? Observation suggests that coupledom and stability come to most men only a f t e r a sustained period of sexual extravagance. That is, they evolve, if they do, towards stability and monogamy in a gradual fashion. The evidence we have so far from Massachusetts suggests that marriage is not so much the cause of stability but a culminating recognition of it. That is, the causal chain is achieve stability first, get married after—not the reverse.

In this light coupledom, to be sanctioned by marriage, is not a sudden, magical acquisition, guaranteeing the beneficial effects that have been claimed. Achieving maturity is a long process. Marriage is not a shortcut eliminating this arduous process, it can only crown it.

To be sure, HIV and now crystal meth addiction are serious problems in the gay-male community. Yet every minority has comparable problems, and focusing on them obscures the achievement of the vast majority of gay men who, against great odds, have been able to create satisfactory lives for themselves, often aided by their partners.

In short, the transformationist argument reinforces the perception that it is supposed to resolve. For the gaycon virtuecrats seem to regard gay men as deficient creatures. One of them has opined that because gays cannot have children with each other, they will always suffer from a disability. In this view the deficits of gays are permanent. They can only be attenuated, not eliminated. The wild self-destructiveness of gay men will linger as an enduring scourge, though one that can be mitigated by herding them into marriage. Some advocates of the social-policy argument (as gaycon virtuecrats prefer to call their approach) have objected to my use of the term "herding." Yet when they propose to abolish domestic partnerships and civil unions as soon as same-sex marriage has been achieved, what else can one call it? A wide range of benefits, including partner’s medical coverage and hospital-visitation rights, are only available through such arrangements. Why should marriage be the only avenue to such necessities?

To be sure these advocates do not hold that every gay and lesbian person should get married. Yet they seem to believe that, as of old, stigma must attach to the bachelor state. Feeling the force of this stigma, gay people will develop a deep yearning for marriage even if they do not end up choosing it. This introjected sense of inadequacy recalls the earlier efforts by psychiatrists and others to make homosexuals feel that they were inadequate, simply because they were homosexuals. Only if they accepted a cure could they become "normal." The boundaries of the normal have shifted somewhat, but they are still there. Now we learn hat "marriage is the norm." Those who reject it are effectively inferiorized.

There is more. A system of incentives and disincentives will be established, under the aegis of the state, to reward those who marry and punish those who don’t. And divorce will be hard to get. These provisions suggest the proposals of the gaycon advocates of same-sex marriage are not exempt from nannyism.

As the above discussion has indicated, most prominent transformationists are gay conservatives. Initially, they thought that their message of "sound social policy" would entice prominent heterosexual conservatives to rally to their cause. To my knowledge those who have done so can be counted on one hand. The most noteworthy is the columnist David Brooks, who was raised in Greenwich Village. As we go into 2005 the appeal of same-sex marriage to this constituency, always modest, approaches the vanishing point. By and large the expectation of solidarity from heterosexual conservatives has been falsified.

Experience has shown that it is hazardous, perhaps presumptuous to speculate on the motives of others--especially of those with whom one disagrees. I am not an admirer of Freudian or any other psychoanalysis. Yet I may be perhaps allowed a suggestion based on introspection. The course of human life presents many challenges. This is especially true if one finds oneself cast among a minority that has long been despised. To take the worst case, being relegated to a slough of despair not of one’s making naturally fosters a longing for succor and healing. In this sense, seeking to join the majority in their redoubt of comfort (or so one perceives it) is not dishonorable. Whether the majority is as comfortable as we think—that is something else again. To speak in somewhat grand terms, we are impelled to a search for something that may be called transcendence. The great religions have sought to address this basic human need.

Still, acknowledging all these human factors, I doubt that gay marriage is the solution. In this respect it is a bit like that shiny new bicycle that we thought would solve all our problems at a certain stage of childhood. Instead, the achievement of true personal integrity is always a site that is “under construction.” At best we travel in the right direction; we do not arrive. Consummatus non est. Least of all can our arrival be conjured up by the performance of a single rite, such as matrimony. Presto-changeo. But it doesn’t work that way.

The longing for quick fixes is perhaps inevitable in our harried, stressed-out society. A plethora of self-help books offer the prospect of becoming a better person—in no time at all. Sad to say, attaining personal stability does not lend itself to this approach.

Setting such observations aside, let us return to the present situation. Developments over the last calendar year require an agonizing reassessment of the case for gay marriage. The effort to secure it, at base a sound one, must proceed more slowly, methodically, and modestly. One of the ideas that must be discarded is the notion that marriage must effect a major transformation in the behavior and ethos of gay men. Imposing a coercive social-engineering policy is not the appropriate path to this goal. Only gay men themselves can accomplish their self-improvement. And this beneficial process is indeed occurring, as more and more of us develop coherent life plans that are suited to our own nature, while we make steady progress in implementing them.

To resort to an old expression, it is "no accident" that many of the prominent virtuecrats who discern transformational power in same-sex marriage have also been supporters of the Iraq invasion and occupation. The same premises of social engineering undergird both enterprises.