Gay marriage: equating a tree with its shadow

April 25, 1996|By Peter A. Jay

HAVRE de GRACE -- Gay marriage is the new issue du jour on the cutting-edge political menus. It's on all the talk shows and in all the ideological magazines, and it's floating around in the state legislatures, where it tends to bring out the worst of both its enemies and its advocates.

Whether or not Hawaii, as it has been threatening to do, gives legislative sanction to the concept of same-sex marriages, and thereby forces the other 49 states to confront it as well, it's an idea we're going to hear discussed a lot in the months and years ahead.

Social guerrillas

This could be an interesting and constructive debate, and conservatives who dismiss gay marriage as simply the latest in a long list of screwball proposals by left-wing social guerrillas will be missing an opportunity if they don't participate. And the rest of us will be missing an education if we decline to listen.

Some eloquent voices have been raised on behalf of the principle, usually described as a civil right, that what the state does for the unions of heterosexual couples it cannot legitimately deny to homosexuals. Andrew Sullivan, who is leaving his job as editor of The New Republic, devotes much of his last issue of the magazine -- the May 6 edition -- to this argument.

In a column, Sullivan cites a prescient 1959 essay by Hannah Arendt -- considered highly controversial at the time -- which attacked the ''anti-miscegenation'' laws against interracial marriages then in effect in most states. (Maryland's, though not enforced, wasn't repealed until 1967.) ''The right to marry whomever one wishes is an elementary human right,'' Ms. Arendt wrote, a statement with which few Americans today would disagree.

Reason for hope

Mr. Sullivan, who argues ''the centrality of gay marriage to every American's equality,'' sees the gradual acceptance of interracial marriage in law and in practice as reason for hope that homosexual unions will eventually be accepted as well.

But is there really a parallel? And does society, which has an obvious stake in marriages likely to produce children, have an even remotely similar stake in same-sex unions? I'd say no, firmly, to both questions, but advocates of gay marriage can offer some spirited arguments which traditionalists had better be prepared to rebut.

In the above-mentioned issue of The New Republic, Jonathan Rauch argues that the welfare of children is only one of three socially desirable functions of marriage. The other two he describes as domesticating and stabilizing men, and providing reliable care-givers for the aged and ill -- benefits he declares gay marriages can provide as well as conventional ones. (He doesn't mention increased security for women as another important function of marriage, whether lesbian or heterosexual, but he could have.)

For the fertile only

Furthermore, Mr. Rauch asks, if the possibility of children is the only reason for the state to grant a special status to the marriage union, then why does it not deny marriage licenses to post-menopausal women and make them and their spouses settle for some other form of contract?

This last question, while provocative, is little more than a clever debating point. Privacy concerns alone dictate that the state not inquire whether marrying heterosexual couples are able to procreate, or intend to. And if what the gay-rights movement really wants is equal treatment under the law for all sterile unions, then it ought to be lobbying for a ban on all marriages of people over 60. No doubt the various organizations of militant seniors would be eager to express themselves on that idea.

As to the other point, that society has an interest in stable households whatever the gender of the couples who form them, of course that's true. That's why gay and lesbian domestic partnerships are not only tolerated in most communities, certainly including all the ones I've lived in, but encouraged. They're not, however, the same as marriages.

The eyes of society

After all the lawyerly arguments, all the poignant rhetoric, all the emotion and civil-rights evocations, what the gay-marriage movement seeks simply isn't obtainable. It is equal status in the eyes of American society for gay unions and procreative ones, and that simply isn't going to happen.

Gay people can and should be able to live together, make civil contracts with one another, be respected couples in their communities, and take care of one another in sickness and in health. Their straight neighbors will honor them in life, if they deserve it as individuals, and weep for them in death. Their rights as individuals should be inviolate.

But the unions they form with one another, no matter how stable and loving, can no more be equated with a marriage than the shadow of a tree can be equated with a tree. Marriage in America is obviously in trouble, and needs to be strengthened. But extending it to homosexual couples, even in the holy name of civil rights, will simply trivialize it to the point of no return.

Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer.

Pub Date: 4/25/96

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