Grotesque Anatomy
Wednesday, October 29, 2003
  And Now For Something Completely Same-Sex
Well, as promised, Eve Tushnet has organized her thoughts on same-sex marriage into a more readable form on her blog, so I suppose I'd better keep my promise and address her arguments.  First, here are links to her blog entries on same-sex marriage in order:
I'm not sure I'll address all of Eve's points.  In fact, given how much she's written on this topic, there's no way I can cover her entire output in one entry.  But I will try to hit on what I consider the major features (and major flaws) of her position.  And even if I don't fully do justice to Eve's thoughts on this issue, I hope that responding to her writings will at least allow me to set out my position on SSM, something I haven't tried to do in writing for quite some time.  (Or in other words:  Thanks, Eve:  Your blogging serves as motivation to articulate my own position!)

I suppose I'll start out where Eve ends -- by laying out my own background and/or biases.  Eve, responding to emails asking why she spends so much time thinking and writing about SSM, reveals that one reason is because she's queer (bisexual) so perhaps people who would otherwise dismiss an opponent of same-sex marriage will listen to her.  Eve also reveals in the queer link that she's Catholic and chaste.  So going by labels at least, Eve and I differ on pretty much every score:  I'm a straight, married atheist (although I was raised Catholic, including eleven years of Catholic school and several years of service as an altar boy).  I'll let the reader decide if these identifications render my position overly partial.

With that out of the way, I'll turn my attention to Eve's actual arguments.  One of the first things that struck me about Eve's arguments is that they rely very heavily on what I'd consider macro-level considerations:  How would SSM affect the societal institution of marriage?  Would SSM weaken any of the state's interests in promoting marriage?  Would marriage become a less effective method for raising children?  On the one hand, I can certainly understand why one would want to focus on the larger societal ramifications of a change in public policy.  On the other hand, it seems strange that so little attention is given to micro-level considerations:  What about individuals' rights to self-determination, personal autonomy, and the pursuit of life, liberty, and happiness?  Eve appears to brush aside such concerns in her post on her basic position:  "Americans still think the debate over same-sex marriage is about gay people.  We still think it's about your best friend who's just said she's a lesbian, or your son who's just come out. We still think it's about whether homosexual acts are sinful.  It's not.  The same-sex marriage debate is about marriage, above all else."  I agree that the SSM debate requires that we spell out just what it is that we mean by marriage.  And I'll gladly agree that we should be at the point by now where we can assume homosexuality is not sinful.  But I also think the SSM debate is about equal rights, above all else.  True, as Eve states, marriage is itself a kind of "special right":  Something that, as Eve puts it, "a relationship earns because of what it gives society."  But access to that right should be granted equally, and denying same-sex couples the right to marry violates that principle. 

The debate over same-sex marriage is about equal rights.

So what is it about marriage that confers special societal status on that arrangement above all others?  My take on the matter is that marriage is privileged because it's seen as providing stability, which in turn benefits the state.  The types of stability are varied, but certain ones stand out in my mind:  Married couples are able to support each other in times of financial difficulty or hardship.  Marriage stabilizes a man's sexual drive by focusing his efforts and energy on one partner.  Finally, for those couples who chose to start a family, marriage provides a stable framework in which to raise children.

Eve answers the question a bit differently, but I think there are some similarities in our approach.  Here's Eve's take:
Why do we give marriage more societal honor than we give these other, often deeply important, relationships [best friends (which many women will recognize as the closest relationship they've ever had); mentors; grandmothers; beloved teachers]? Because we recognize that marriage has evolved to do more than these other relationships do for society. These relationships do less (not nothing, just less) to nurture children; to bind the young to the old; to corral the often destructive forces of desire into productive and loving channels; to bring people from youth to adulthood; and to align the interests of parents and children, rather than forcing tragic choices between the two. Marriage gets "props" from society because it does all these things more than any other institution does, or could.

Marriage developed over centuries to meet several specific, fundamental needs: children's need for a father. A couple's need for a promise of fidelity (and consequences for breaking that promise). Young people's need for a transition to manhood or womanhood. And men's (and women's, but mostly men's) need for a fruitful rather than destructive channel for sexual desire--a way of uniting eros and responsibility. In other words, marriage developed to meet the needs of opposite-sex couples. Why would same-sex couples expect that this institution would meet their very different needs?
In Eve's view, same-sex marriages would fall short in meeting these specific, fundamental needs:
At best, marriage only addresses one need of homosexual couples: sexual fidelity. Even there, it should be obvious that same-sex couples will be less likely to insist on physical fidelity than heterosexual couples. If your man might make babies with someone else, you're more likely to see the point of restrictions on male sexuality. If you can get pregnant, you're more likely to see the problems that might result if the father isn't legally tied to you. So the connection between sexual fidelity and the institution of marriage is a basic consequence of the fact that when men and women--but not same-sex couples--have sex, babies often result. When the institution is no longer responding to opposite-sex couples' needs, we can expect the emphasis on sexual fidelity to weaken.
I think one of the reasons SSM scores so low on Eve's scale is because of the way in which she weights the original measurements.  Because she builds the premise as "children's need for a father" of course same-sex couples (particularly lesbian ones) will fall short.  But what if the salient detail in marriage isn't children's need for a father but children's need for two supportive parents?  Just as couples support one another during times of financial strain, married couples can balance and support each other in parenting:  When one parent is too lenient, the other can be more of a disciplinarian, regardless of each parent's sex.  Simply to assume that children need a father seems to beg the question at hand.  (To be fair, Eve does return to the point of children needing fathers later in the section titled "Heather Has No Daddy" but I fail to see the force of her position.  Again, she simply seems to posit that children need daddies without really arguing for it.  I suspect that much of her position has to do with her more general point about humans seeking to be defined in terms of gender, something I'll try to address later.)

Next on Eve's list is marriage's role in fulfilling a couple's need for a promise of fidelity.  Eve grants that same-sex marriage would satisfy this need for same-sex couples, but, at the same time, she assumes that same-sex couples will be less likely to insist on physical fidelity than opposite-sex couples, mainly because pregnancy is not a possibility when same-sex couples have sex.  Although I understand how pregnancy can play a part in expectations of sexual fidelity, I fail to see how this neatly resolves the matter.  Yes, women have reasons for wanting to be married when they are pregnant.  But this doesn't mean that pregnancy will always result in increased demands for physical fidelity, or that pregnancy is the only factor which can influence desire for monogamous arrangements.  A woman may have gotten pregnant by one man but have no desire to marry him; she may chose a spouse other than the biological father.  In fact, legally a woman could conceive a child with a man other than her husband, but her husband would still be the presumptive father.  In both cases, the woman may want marriage and the support/stability it brings, but she may not want to marry the biological father of her child.  Further, once married, a woman may not require physical fidelity from her spouse, so long as she has the stability provided by marriage.  (I'm not making any claims about the relative likelihood of such scenarios, only pointing out the logical possibility of divorcing the benefits of marriage from the act of procreation.)

Coming at the matter from another perspective, I can imagine same-sex couples insisting on physical fidelity just as strongly as the most devoted opposite-sex couples.  As I see it, the degree to which any couple demands (and honors) fidelity depends on the beliefs of the individuals in the relationship.  I can imagine same-sex couples who remain faithful to each other just as much as I can imagine opposite-sex couples who are lenient on this matter, so long as the marriage is preserved.  But these thought experiments all revolve around the character of my hypothetical couples.  Aren't there any "real" reasons for homosexual couples to remain faithful?  I think one of the most obvious reasons a same-sex couple (or an opposite-sex couple, for that matter) would have to insist on martial fidelity would be the threat of sexually-transmitted diseases.  And I'm not trying to insinuate that AIDS is a "gay disease" or anything like that.  I just think that this is a factor that would encourage monogamous couples to remain faithful.

Another important function that marriage serves for Eve is acting as a marker for a young person's "transition to manhood or womanhood."  Eve doesn't seem to think that same-sex marriages would fulfill this role, but it's not clear why:  Couldn't marriage serve as a rite of passage into adulthood regardless of one's sexual orientation?  Wouldn't straights and gays alike start assuming all of those adult responsibilities traditionally (but not essentially) tied to marriage, such as paying the mortgage, opening shared financial accounts, and arguing over whose family to visit for the holidays?  I'm guessing that Eve wouldn't dispute these points.  Instead, she would worry that allowing same-sex marriage would weaken the gender-specific concepts of manhood and womanhood.  But this takes us into Eve's views on gender identity, and I'd like to postpone that discussion until later.

The final point in marriage's favor according to Eve is "men's (and women's, but mostly men's) need for a fruitful rather than destructive channel for sexual desire--a way of uniting eros and responsibility."  By this I assume she means a way of channeling (mostly) male sexual drive into a more stable framework than simply having sex with as many partners as possible.  I think similar points can be made here as made above in the "fidelity" section:  Yes, women have reason to want their mates to stay with them and devote their resources toward raising their offspring, rather than siring more offspring with other women.  And presumably society breathes a collective sigh of relief whenever an individual man outgrows his wild "sowing oats" days and decides to settle down to mow the lawn and fix the faucet.  But wouldn't society also benefit from this "calming" influence of marriage on its homosexuals? 

Well, one of Eve's worries appears to be that the flow of influence will backfire and non-monogamous (but married) gays will weaken not only the institution of marriage but straight men's confidence in their masculinity as well.  Let's consider these in order.

First, how would the existence of same-sex marriages where the spouses sleep around weaken the institution of marriage?  Eve's answer:  "SSM will change the cultural ideals of what it means to be a good husband. If you tell men that husbands who sleep around with other men are a-okay, you lose an important self-image tool (I won't do this because I want to be a good husband) that societies have used for centuries to rein in tempted men."  This answer bothers me for several reasons.  One, I don't think straight guys need to see gay guys engaging in adultery to get the idea about cheating on their wives.  I think straight guys have pretty much figured out the concept of cheating, even without gay guys to show them how.  In fact, married men cheating on their wives is a fairly constant staple not only in fact but in fiction as well.  I still remember being introduced to the concept of unhappy marriages by watching old Hitchcock films, and there cheating wasn't even the worst that could happen when a husband lost interest in his wife.

Two, I'm not sure why Eve seems to presume that SSM will tell men that it's OK to sleep around.  Although the same-sex marriage debate is a topic that interests me, I'll admit that lately I haven't been following it that closely.  Perhaps I missed the part where gays stated they want the right to marriage "but without all that stuff about monogamy and fidelity."  Perhaps I'm reading Eve uncharitably here, but her arguments seem to paint same-sex couples in a bad light while opposite-sex couples come across as as basically good but struggling to resist the evil forces threatening to tear them apart.  I think the truth of the matter would be considerably more complicated than that.  I think both types of couples would end up representing the range from wonderful relationships to horrible failures, with all the messed-up but sticking-at-it marriages in between.

I think Eve may be worrying that more radical camps within the GLBT community may push for more expansive definitions of what marriage is.  Perhaps there are activists arguing that gays should not wed themselves to a "straight" concept like monogamous marriages.  Even if this were true, so what?  Heterosexual couples went through periods of sexual experimentation in the Sixties and Seventies (key parties, wife swapping, "open" marriages, etc.) but marriage as an institution survived these "threats."  As Eve notes, monogamy and fidelity are becoming "hip" again.  I think marriage would be able to withstand the challenges its new members might bring to the concept.

Moving on to Eve's concern that seeing homosexuals marry will queer straight men on the whole concept of marriage, we finally begin to touch on Eve's theories of gender identity.  As Eve sees it, the problem is that "[s]ame-sex marriage is unisex" so "[m]arrying a woman is significantly less proof of one's manhood when a woman can do it!"  How exactly this would work is unclear.  Reading it, I pictured grade-school children on the playground squealing in disgust, "Ewww!  I'm not marrying a girl if a girl can do it!  That's so gay!!"  And perhaps young children would react in such a manner to news that same-sex couples could marry, but hopefully the passage of time might allow for the eventual maturation of such an opinion.

Actually, I'm probably being unfair.  I think I can see what Eve is trying to get at; it's just that it strikes me as so crude that I have a hard time holding it my mind in order to respond to it seriously.  I'll attempt to set out why Eve's position (as I understand it, which may be part of the problem right there) rubs me the wrong way:
Honestly, I find it a bit surprising that someone like Eve -- whose identity as a gay, chaste Catholic opposed to SSM is pretty non-traditional -- seems to favor such rigid, standardized concepts of identity.  I would think she'd have an appreciation for the endlessly possible permutations of identity.  And I'm not sure how advocating greater flexibility in identities equates to "fewer role models and ideals."  Wouldn't such an advocate be offering more role models, not fewer?  Eve seems to think that more possibilities will lead to more confusion on the part of married couples looking for guidance on how they're supposed to act.  See this entry, for example, where she rails against Michael Kinsley for suggesting that married people "set their own rules" regarding children and finances:  "How could anyone look at marriage in America today and think it needs to become more ad hoc, more centered on the individual contracting adults and not on the children and the wider society, more do-it-yourself?"  I can sympathize with the concern to an extent:  Even something as mundane as choosing a digital camera can feel overwhelming when presented with a multitude of options.  But I guess that if I had to choose, I think it's better if people are able to pick the marital methods and models that work for them rather than forcing everyone into the same "one size fits all" structure, ignoring individual needs or preferences.  I know married couples who have individual financial accounts (checking, savings, credit cards, etc.) and while it may seem strange to me, if it works for them...

Oh, god -- there's so much more:  So much more to address; so much more to write.  But this is already getting so long that I fear no one will read through it all.  I'll end by tossing out a couple points I wanted to make but didn't get to yet:
In closing, I think that Eve is right to wonder about the difficulties extending marriage to same-sex couples might raise for society.  It's certainly wise when changing public policy to think about the impact to society at large.  I just happen to think that none of the difficulties Eve raises are insurmountable deal-breakers.  I understand that the uncertainty surrounding such changes can be unsettling.  I don't think we should be blind to such complexities, but I don't think we should let our worries blind us either.
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