Monday, December 8, 2003

How much difference can one person pressing an argument make? In the case of Andrew Sullivan and marriage rights for gays, the answer is a huge and perhaps decisive difference. In the eight years since he published “Virtually Normal,” which concluded with a call for gay marriage rights, he has refined his argumenttoforcethose confronting it tomakea choice among three options: 1) accepting gaymarriage; 2) stating a moral objection to homosexuality and homosexual life itself; and 3) incoherence.

At one point, the Sullivan argument concerned itself withsuchmattersas whether or not gay marriage was a good thing for gay people (it was), whether gays should desire marriage (they should) and how well the characteristics of heterosexual marriage (monogamy, permanence) would translate into a context of homosexuality (insofar as these characteristics are ideals, they translate perfectly well as ideals; insofar as the ideals are actually implemented in real marriages, married gays would do no worse than married heterosexuals).

All of this is perfectly debatable, as we can see from the robust discussion and diverse conclusions among gay and lesbian couples over whether to get married if one day they can. It’s also beside the point, at least as Mr. Sullivan now frames it.

Thequestionisnot whether gays should get married. It is: On what basis do you oppose marriage between two people of the same sex who desire it? In this, we are no longer having an argument about gay marriage as such, but the right of gays to marry if they wish to do so. This turn makes a huge difference.

There are, it seems to me, two apparent kinds of answer to that question, but in actuality only one. The first to present itself in the elite discussion of the subject today is a social/cultural objection to gay marriage. It is that gay marriage would (at least potentially) have adverse consequences for the institution of marriage, which remains of vital social importance and is already embattled as a result of a variety of influences such as no-fault divorce.

The problem here is that we have two people before us, Mr. X and Mr. Y, who assert no more than their right, based on their dignity as human beings, to be treated on an equal basis with other human beings, who in heterosexual combination are free to marry or not whom they wish as they please. The argument about the adverse social consequences of gay marriage pretends that it never gets to this question, for the prudential reason that society must impose (and always has imposed) certain restrictions on freedom for the good and perpetuation of society itself.

In fact, however, the shift of the argument to adverse social consequences implicitly concedes the premise of Mr. X and Mr. Y, insofar as that were homosexual marriage to be found to be without adverse social consequence, of course, Mr. X and Mr. Y would be fully entitled to the equal treatment they seek. We are now squarely embarked on a debate about those consequences that inevitably comes down to this: Will the union of Mr. X and Mr. Y in particular, who want only to be married, be any worse for the “institution of marriage” than any number of existing unions that fall far short of the social ideal, or for that matter fail altogether? This is an impossible contention.

And if not, again, on what basis do you deny Mr. X and Mr. Y their claim to equal treatment? If the social institution of marriage must be defended, why does its defense begin with them, with the denial of their equal dignity, when they want only to abide by the norms of the institution and when so many other, bigger things have long been contributing to the undermining of those norms?

I think that once you grant the essential premise, namely, the presumption of equality, there is only one basis for saying “no” to Mr. X and Mr. Y, and that is that what they are doing is wrong. The only serious basis for claiming that gay marriage undermines marriage (the union of a man and woman) is that the problem lies not with the “marriage” part of gay marriage but with the “gay” part. Thus, one denies the status of marriage to those whose union, being sinful or immoral, is precisely not that of holy matrimony.

The principal source of Mr. Sullivan’s brilliance in waging this campaign has been his insight that a moral argument against homosexuality as such doesn’t travel well any more. Oh, to be sure, it’s what many people think, and one can still hear it articulated in traditionalist religious circles. But by and large, people are at least a little embarrassed at the thought of voicing such a view.

In the public square these days, we find very few moralists and a great many sociologists, the latter articulating their opposition to gay marriage (even if it is ultimately moral opposition) in terms of its supposedly deleterious social effects. The weakness of this argument is becoming obvious.

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