The Institution of Marriage: Gay, Lesbian, and Straight

2013-06-18 gay marriage

So I said a while ago that I was going to write a long post about gay marriage. This is not that post, but it’s related to that post.

Two of the most common arguments in favor of gay marriage I see are:

  1. If Britney Spears can get married for 55 hours and that’s just fine, then obviously heterosexual marriage isn’t so sacred after all.
  2. Allowing same-sex marriage will have no impact on your specific heterosexual marriage.

The problem with these arguments is that they appear to be responding to concerns of those who oppose gay marriage, but they do not. First of all: I don’t know of anyone who is concerned about gay marriage who thinks that it would be the first attack on an otherwise perfect institution. As a society, the traditional family is already in serious trouble from two factors: divorce and absent fathers. I will say that that gay marriage debate has certainly put a renewed focus on what families mean to society, and that’s been the most positive aspect of the debate. I don’t think it’s politically viable just yet, but I’ve seen an increasing number of those who oppose gay marriage also start to question prior “reforms” like no-fault divorce. No-fault divorce was heralded as a way to end domestic abuse and unhappy marriages by making it easier for couples to divorce. It succeeded in making divorce easier–so divorce rates skyrocketed, taking a terrible toll on the innocence of childhood–but it completely failed to increase marital happiness or reduce domestic abuse rates. This is because the appearance of an “easy out” puts additional strain on even healthy marriages in times of stress. It’s one of those initially counter-intuitive findings that actually make a lot of sense once you see the evidence and think through the logic carefully.

As for the second: the idea has never been that if the gay couple down the street is allowed to get married it will somehow have a direct causal impact on my relationship with my wife. That is, of course, absurd. The idea is rather that what marriage means to society as an institution is heavily influenced by how we define it. Traditional marriage proponents have long believed that homosexual relationships are not really interchangeable with heterosexual ones, and it’s vital to note that this doesn’t necessarily imply any judgment of superiority.

I’m not going to pretend that traditional marriage proponents don’t add judgment in quite frequently, but it’s not necessitated by the logic at all. In fact, one reason that I’m skeptical of gay marriage arguments is that they seem to assume that what’s good for straight couples is automatically good for gay couples, and that doesn’t seem like a fair assumption to gay couples. Marriage is an institution that has evolved in a straight world where homosexuality was largely repressed and persecuted. Why does it make sense to assume that such an institution would serve the interests of gays and lesbians? I’m afraid that in an interest to seek dignity and equality for homosexuals (very important goals), same-sex marriage has been swept up in the movement without really thinking it through.

But is this just speculation, or do we have solid, hard sociological evidence to suggest that gay relationships are different than straight relationships? It turns out, we do. Mark Regnerus, writing for the Witherspoon Institute, outlines some of the findings

1. Lesbian Relationships Are Dynamic

The headline stat here is that “62% of civil union dissolutions (i.e., divorces) in the UK are between women despite the fact that lesbian relationships only represent 44 percent of civil partnerships in that country.” So lesbian relationships are less than 1/2 the total, but make up 2/3rds of the divorces, meaning that a lesbian relationship is about twice as likely to end as other relationships. This isn’t just an isolated finding, however, Regnerus claims that “the elevated breakup rate among lesbian couples has been an open secret for a long while,” and cites a variety of additional articles and studies which seem to agree that gender differences explain the disparity. Regnerus cites experts who claim reasons such as women’s “high standards of equality” or the fact that “women are just picky, and when you have two women, you have double the pickiness.” In any case, the dramatically higher rate of divorce remains even when accounting for factors like income and the presence of children.

2. Gay Relationships Are Monogomish (Not Monogamous)

Regnerus cites more stats and articles about the nature of fidelity in male homosexual relationships, starting with Dan Savage. Savage  has stated that he and his husband have had nine sexual partners outside of marriage between the two of them, and concludes that “monogamy just doesn’t fit very many men.” In fact, in a survey of gay couples, less than 1/2 had committed to monogamy. More had verbally stated the opposite: that it was an open relationship. And, while Dan Savage may have been referring to all men (not just gay men), in reality gay men have sexual partners outside of the relationship nearly twice as frequently as straight men. This is where the term “monogamish” comes from, by the way: it’s the idea that a gay couple can have a stable relationship without total exclusivity.

Regnerus’s point is that if we include these kinds of relationships–relationships that differ from the “marriage” ideal–under the same umbrella as marriage we’re changing the nature of marital expectations for our society. Of course you could argue that gay marriages will be seen as different than straight marriages and thus straight marriages will be insulated from the tendency towards accepting even higher divorce rates and greater rates of infidelity, but that gets right to the point, doesn’t it? That gay marriage argument is that same sex marriage should be marriage. That is to say: the exact same institution as heterosexual marriage. By the logic of the gay rights community, no such firewall can exist.

Obviously, Regnerus deplores these shifts because, as a traditional marriage proponent, he espouses not just the idea that only straight people can marry, but also that marriages ought to be monogomous and til death do you part. But there’s another consideration: if lesbian relationships are cherished for being short but intense and passionate and if gay relationships are cherished for being tolerant and open, why would we want to shoehorn them into a heterosexual framework that enshrines the opposite? Without making any judgment call about either of these issues (duration or monogamy), it seems reasonable to think that perhaps gays and lesbians would be better served by creating their own institutions.

I realize that there’s an unpleasant whiff of segregation about that idea, but it doesn’t necessarily follow. First: what about the idea of multiple-choice relationships that are open to all. Marriage would continue to come with the life-long commitment and expectation of monogamy, but civil unions could be term-limited (with renewal options, an idea Robert Heinlein wrote about decades ago) or drop the requirement for exclusivity. Straight, gay, and lesbian couples would be able to opt between these relationships without regard for sexual orientation. This would preserve the distinct nature of marriages that social conservatives care about, open the door for same-sex couples, and also create an institution that may be a better fit for their demographic realities. I’m not sure this would be Plan A for me, and I’ll get into that later, but I like it a lot more than the current debate.

I think there are a lot of possibilities for constructive discussion here, and in the end what really concerns me is that we’re not even discussing them. Very few people are talking openly about whether the same-sex marriages envisioned by gays and lesbians are really compatible with current expectations for marriage and no one (that I know of) is seriously considering open-ended discussion about what would really be best for the future of marriage. It’s as though we’re locked into this either/or dichotomy and–come Hell or high water–nothing else will be considered.

I’d hazard a guess that–along with the fact that I see the gay marriage debate as largely an offshoot of the larger campaign for acceptance–there’s the additional factor that social liberals (who are most likely to support gay marriage) are also the most hostile to the idea that there are innate and important differences between the sexes. If you assert as part of your politics that gender is a social construct and that sex means essentially nothing in terms of personality or identity, then clearly you can’t have a discussion about the differences between lesbian and gay relationships because you are ideologically committed to the idea that there can be no such distinctions. This blindness to the reality of the social and interpersonal importance of biological sexual dimorphism leads to blindness in the same-sex marriage debate.

I’ll write more about my feelings on this complex, sensitive, and controversial topic soon. What I hope I’ve conveyed here, however, are a combination of genuine respect for all people regardless of sexual orientation and legitimate concerns of a social conservative about the future of marriage. As far as the first goes: respect for all human beings is part of what it means to be pro-life. As far as the second goes: not all traditions are worth preserving, but some of them perform vital functions in our society. Nothing is more important or sacred than the way we bring new life into this world and raise our children, and so it’s a matter that should be addressed with real caution. It should not be assumed that because I have trepidations about the impact of same-sex marriage on society that these must flow from bigotry or fear rather than from respectful concern. Although I concede that bigotry has played a shameful and inexcusable part of the opposition to same-sex marriage, it’s not the only motivation of social conservatism.

6 thoughts on “The Institution of Marriage: Gay, Lesbian, and Straight”

  1. Interesting thoughts, Nathaniel. I think I’d do better having this conversation with you in person, simply b/c of the back and forth such a conversation would facilitate. I wonder, for instance, about those gays and lesbians who want to get married because they want an institution not just similar to marriage but exactly marriage: monogamy, not monogamishness (or whatever it would be called); the chance to raise a child in a stable (as defined by the legal contract) home; etc. Just because so many lesbian couples divorce and just because male couples are more likely to cheat on each other than males in heterosexual relationships doesn’t mean, obviously, there aren’t lesbians and gay men who believe in their marriage every bit as much as I do. I’m sure you’re not arguing otherwise. I’m just trying to imagine a gay/lesbian couple saying, “Hm. Good points. Our passion might be intense and short-lived, or I might cheat. So okay… no marriage.” Rather, don’t most people, regardless of gender, enter marriage with the highest of hopes? Is the lower divorce rate among heterosexual couples (and the sample sizes of heterosexuals vs. homosexuals are nowhere near similar, so I’m not sure how the comparison really plays out; and heterosexual couples are also more likely to have children, thus often prolonging such marriages) really reason enough not to allow gay marriage?

    I’m sincerely not arguing. I’m just extending the discussion. Like I said: better done in person perhaps. But your post definitely has me thinking about issues in the debate I haven’t thought of previously. I also appreciate, by the way, that your discussion isn’t based on any sort of moral assertions.

  2. Sorry Nathanial, tolerance and civility are no longer enough – that is so 1990s – approval is all that is accepted these days.

    I’m afraid your call for a civil discussion will go unheeded. If you think in the aggregate there is something uniquely beneficial that both a mother and father can offer a child and hence society, and that some form of preferential treatment of heterosexual marriage is and was okay. Or, at least that expanding/eliminating this preferential treatment should be done with extreme prudence, caution, and robust free and open debate, well then you are a backwards bigot and should be silenced and condemned with righteous zeal.

  3. Caleb-

    then you are a backwards bigot and should be silenced and condemned with righteous zeal.

    I think that I’m detecting sarcasm tags around your comment, but I have to be honest: I wrote an entire serious reply and almost hit “Post Comment” before I hesitated. In either case, be sure you check out this earlier post of mine: What Dads Are Good For. It outlines several specific ways in which a father’s interactions with his children are unique compared to those of a mother.

  4. It’s the monogamy thing that really gets at me. Marriage without an agreement of monogamy is no marriage at all. I read an interview with Alan Cumming (bisexual, married to a woman, now a man), who said that there’s no question of monogamy in his gay marriage.

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