Here Comes the Groom . . .

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Love and marriage, says the old song, go healthy, may well elect to remain unhitched, together like a horse and carriage. and the shiny new carriage may soon be These days, however, the horse, though abandoned by the side of the road. In 1994, people who were divorced or had never married together constituted almost 33 percent of the adult population, and the proportion of children living in one-parent families reached 31 percent.

With the institution of marriage thus in a dangerously weakened condition, along comes a proposal to change its very definition—to permit members of the same sex to wed. Proponents, such as Andrew Sullivan, author of Virtually Normal (1995), contend that this would be good for homosexuals and good for society. Opponents, such as political scientist James Q. Wilson, author of The Moral Sense (1993), argue that such a change could further undermine an already wobbly institution.

The issue appears to be coming to a head. Hawaii’s Supreme Court held in 1993 that denying marriage licenses to same-sex couples is at odds with that state’s constitution, which bars discrimination on the basis of sex. Even as Hawaii’s courts reconsider the issue, Congress has been pondering a bill that would free the states of the Constitutional requirement to recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states. The bill also would deny federal recognition to such unions. President Bill Clinton has said he would sign such a measure if it reaches his desk.

"Let them wed," argue the editors of the Economist (Jan. 6, 1996). "Homosexuals need emotional and economic stability no less than heterosexuals—and society surely benefits when they have it.... Homosexuals do not choose their condition; indeed, they often try desperately hard, sometimes to the point of suicide, to avoid it. However, they are less and less willing either to hide or to lead lives of celibacy. For society, the real choice is between homosexual marriage and homosexual alienation. No social interest is served by choosing the latter."

For the government to withhold its sanction from same-sex marriages, maintains Andrew Sullivan, former editor of the New Republic (May 6, 1996), is to make "the most profound statement our society can make that homosexual love is simply not as good as heterosexual love; that gay lives and commitments and hopes are simply worth less."

But a marriage license "is not a prize for good citizenship, not a recognition of personal integrity, not a symbol of equality," observes Margaret O’Brien Steinfels, editor of Commonweal (Sept. 22, 1995). "It is the hope and provision for future citizens." Men and women are "licensed" by the state, she says, "to form marriages into which children are born, cared for, educated, and raised to be good citizens, and in which a stable family provides material and spiritual resources for both its members and its community."

Sullivan and others liken gay marriage to a childless heterosexual union: if the latter sort of wedlock is permitted, why not the former? The fact that some couples go childless or divorce, says Steinfels, does not alter the defining purpose of marriage as an institution. If the marriage bond is first of all a procreative one, then it necessarily must involve a man and a woman.

But marriage serves important social purposes other than rearing children, Jonathan Rauch, author of Demosclerosis: The Silent Killer of American Government (1994), points out in the New Republic (May 6, 1996). These purposes include "domesticating men and providing reliable caregivers. Both purposes are critical to the functioning of a humane and stable society, and both are much better served by marriage—that is, by one-to-one lifelong commitment—than by any other institution." Whether the marriage joins people of different sexes or the same one is immaterial. So-called domestic partnerships, recognized in some places as a sort of "marriagelite" for homosexuals, and qualifying them for health insurance, inheritance rights, and other benefits, are rejected by leading proponents of gay marriage. The concept of "domestic partnership" is so vague, Sullivan pointed out long ago in the New Republic (Aug. 28, 1989), that all sorts of "partners" who live together, gay or straight or not even in a sexual relationship at all, might qualify, getting "a vast array of entitlements" at little cost. Gay marriage "places more responsibilities upon gays."

Elizabeth Kristol, a Cincinnati-based writer, is skeptical about the advocates’ portrait of gay marriage. Reviewing Sullivan’s book in First Things (Jan. 1996), she points out that he fails to address the difference in behavior between most lesbians and most gay men: that the former tend to form long-term monogamous relationships, whereas the latter do not. On what marriage between gay men would be like in this regard, "Sullivan sends us a mixed message." On the one hand, she says, he portrays homosexuals "as sharing the same emotions, longings, and dreams as heterosexuals," but on the other, he says that in gay relationships, there is (in Sullivan’s words), "more likely to be a greater understanding of the need for extramarital outlets between two men than between a man and a woman; and again, the lack of children gives gay couples greater freedom."

Gay marriage would likely seem a parody to most people, one that could further weaken an already beleaguered institution, James Q. Wilson suspects. Writing in Commentary (March 1996), he observes: "To me, the chief limitation of Sullivan’s view is that it presupposes that marriage would have the same domesticating effect on homosexual members as it has on heterosexuals, while leaving the latter largely unaffected. Those are very large assumptions that no modern society has ever tested."


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