My own thinking on this topic has gotten, if anything, more conservative over time, and this disturbs me. I have a number of close gay friends; I know gay parents whose kids are wonderful, extremely well-adjusted people. I have no reason to believe that gay couples would be unable to form stable families. I'm convinced that for an irreducible core of individuals, homosexuality is not a choice but a destiny, and I think it is cruel to say to such people that they must hide who they are from shame. Believing all this, I should be an advocate of gay marriage. And I was, until fairly recently.
What changed my thinking had nothing to do with the nature of gay people or my sense of what was fair and just. What changed my view was thinking hard about the meaning of marriage, how that meaning has been debased, and how the case for gay marriage as currently articulated makes it extraordinarily difficult to restore what is essential about marriage; how it will, in fact, close the door on the possibility of restoration of what has been lost.
What has been lost, he suggests, is the expectation of marriage, i.e. the institution's status as a social norm. You'll need to read the original post to see why this is important, as I doubt my selected excerpts will do it justice. But here's the core idea:
Because marriage is a difficult good, we cannot count on young people to choose it on the merits. The principal way that a culture increases the short-term value of a difficult good, making it much more attractive to pursue, is by according it status... the way the culture sends the message that to be married is to achieve status is by saying that marriage is normal and that people who fail to marry are, in some sense less than whole people. Marriage is articulated not as an achievement, but as a stage in life that everyone, more or less, is expected to achieve; like learning to walk, learning to read, getting a driver's license, graduating high school, getting a job. Sure, some people will never learn to drive and some people will never marry. But they will be understood by all to be exceptions, in some sense, to a general rule.
He worries that marriage will never be the norm for gay people, and that "those who marry will do so because they chose to, not because they understood it was expected of them." He continues:
[A]ssuming that gay marriage really is taken seriously (and I give gays sufficient credit that this will be the case), gay male couples are likely to consider marriage in roughly the way that people consider entering the clergy. Marriage will be recognized as a meritorious lifestyle, one to be admired - one superior, perhaps, to the footloose ways more gays will follow. But there will, of course, be no censure for not marrying, any more than there is censure for not becoming a priest or minister. Even if the conservative case for gay marriage is fulfilled, and gay marriages are as stable as straight ones, and the existence of gay marriage as an institution makes such marriages more common and exerts a stabilizing influence on gay life generally, it seems very unlikely to me that marriage will ever become a norm among gay men.
He concludes: "Straights will learn from gays that while marriage may be rewarding for some, it requires extraordinary sacrifice and discipline, and really isn't for everyone."
The first thing to be said about all this is nicely articulated by Bob McGrew:
It's the alternatives to gay marriage that pose the most threat to heterosexual marriage... Living together is increasingly being defined not as a trial period before marriage but as an alternative to marriage itself. Most large companies offer benefits to unmarried couples just as they do to married couples, and almost all do so for opposite-sex partners as well as same-sex partners... Yet there is one way to get rid of domestic partnerships with a single stroke, saving marriage from its single greatest competitor. That way is making gay marriage legal.... By restricting benefits to marriage, [corporations] will still be able to attract gay employees without losing straight employees. Domestic partner legislation would wither on the vine after losing its most important constituency.
In other words, it is the current exclusion of gays from marriage that teaches the rest of us that marriage is not necessary -- even for couples in a committed monogamous relationship.
A big part of Gideon's complaint concerns the conception of marriage commonly found amongst advocates of SSM. He writes:
Gay marriage is discussed as a right, part of the right to freedom of sexual expression and equality of treatment. And if those are the terms of its acceptance, then I don't see how we can ever go back to talking about marriage as a norm.
This ties in with his insistence that "marriage is not all about love":
[M]any people I know did not marry for "love" in the sense that you see in the movies. They married because they were ready to get married. If they were in a "relationship" of one sort or another, they proposed to their girlfriend - or, in one case, ditched her and quickly found someone more marriageable. If they were not, they actively sought out the right sort of man or woman - the sort they could imagine living with even after they grew wrinkled or fat - and, if the other party was willing, married them... This is the unromantic perspective that marriage is made of, far more than of love, sex or romance - far more, even, than of friendship, which is a different thing; also precious, and one's wife or husband really ought to be one's friend, but not the same at all. But this is not how the advocates of gay marriage talk about marriage...
As with everything before, the assumption that marriage is fundamentally about love (with the corollary that if love fades, presumably so should the marriage - after all, there might still be time to actualize oneself through another, yet more thrilling love!) does not originate with the campaign for gay marriage; far from it. But again, acceptance of gay marriage entails explicitly understanding marriage in this way, and therefore bars the way back to a more realistic appraisal.
Jason Kuznicki is a clear counterexample to the posited "entailment". Jason compellingly argues that a deep sense of 'nurturing' is the true purpose of marriage:
It cheapens the covenant to say that marriage is just about sex, or just about rights, or just about children. Marriage is about all of this — and more. Marriage is a complete, all-encompassing, nurturing relationship. It’s about care for the whole person, so much so that no one else in all the world is quite as important.
In response to the crucial question of why government has an interest in marriage (if not for the babies), Jason explains:
Protecting the right to nurture requires more than merely looking the other way because the nurtured are vulnerable and because nurturers do things for them that non-nurturers must never be trusted to do. Our natural right to designate (or act as) a nurturer therefore leads directly to a contractual right wherein the government distinguishes between nurturers (who may make decisions for us) and non-nurturers (who must not be allowed to pose as something that they are not)...
To respect the desire of two individuals who wish to nurture one another, a government must make certain that its laws do not interfere with the types of behavior that a reasonable person might want a nurturing caregiver to perform:
–The government has an obligation to respect our determinations about who should make medical, legal, and financial choices for us when we are incapacitated; about how we wish to dispose of our property on death; and about our decision to share childrearing responsibilities.
–The government ought not to compel the separation of nurturing partners merely because one is a foreign national; the citizen in the relationship must be expected to help the alien adapt to our culture.
–The government ought not to expect testimony from one nurturing partner against another; having developed (or at least promised) the lifelong habit of looking out for one’s partner, impartial testimony cannot be expected.
–The government ought to institute a formal process for initiating a nurturing relationship, if only so that the above rights may be unambiguously secured. This should ideally be an act distinct from the various religious rites of marriage.
–The government ought to institute a formal process for ending a nurturing relationship; while marriage for life is generally recognized as the ideal, some mechanism should exist for those who have determined that they will never reach the ideal owing to insuperable obstacles...
This, to me, describes the heart of marriage, its reason for being, and its connections to sex, family, spirituality, and the state.
So far I've been highlighting some potential internal criticisms, responding to Gideon's post on its own terms. But from a liberal perspective, I'm also concerned about some of his assumptions. In particular, his claim that "we cannot count on young people to choose [marriage] on the merits" strikes me as disturbingly paternalistic. Once the benefits are clearly articulated, we should trust individuals to judge how best to live their own lives. No need to "censure" those who don't conform. Ick.