Saturday, November 22, 2003

Brooks - Gay Marriage Strengthens the Institution

David Brooks has a pretty persuasive conservative argument in favor of granting gays and lesbians entry into the institution of marriage.

Marriage is in crisis because marriage, which relies on a culture of fidelity, is now asked to survive in a culture of contingency. Today, individual choice is held up as the highest value: choice of lifestyles, choice of identities, choice of cellphone rate plans. Freedom is a wonderful thing, but the culture of contingency means that the marriage bond, which is supposed to be a sacred vow till death do us part, is now more likely to be seen as an easily canceled contract.

Still, even in this time of crisis, every human being in the United States has the chance to move from the path of contingency to the path of marital fidelity ? except homosexuals. Gays and lesbians are banned from marriage and forbidden to enter into this powerful and ennobling institution. A gay or lesbian couple may love each other as deeply as any two people, but when you meet a member of such a couple at a party, he or she then introduces you to a "partner," a word that reeks of contingency.

Like it or not, the institution of marriage is in flux. And, although you'd never know it from the current iteration of the hubbub, this is not a new phenomenon. To the continued chagrin of social conservatives, the development and social acceptance of effective contraception changed the nature of marriage over 40 years ago. That horse has WAY left the barn.

And what goes mainly unspoken in the discussion is that their sacred nuclear family is a recent and arguably "unnatural" arrangement. Years before the sexual revolution, the extended family was going through its final death throes. I sometimes wonder how many social conservatives would trumpet "the traditional family" if they were forced to live with their mother-in-law? Gays are not responsible for the decline of the traditional family. Blame modern agriculture and the industrial revolution.

It's bloody hard to stay married without social (and I don't mean STATE) support. Without brothers, sisters, cousins, and the rest of the tribe to support, guide and enforce your vow of commitment, it's hard to know how to make the damned thing work and all too easy to call it quits. It is impossible to insulate marriage from the increasing spectrum of choice brought about by technology. Without the additional bond that offspring bring to the mix, I don't know how anyone makes it through.

Brief digression... one thing that fascinates me. Why is there SO much opposition to forms of marriage that diverge from monogamy? It may very well be that our rapid technological development (and the choices/limitations it brings) will drive us to other forms of socially sanctioned union. Maybe I read too much Heinlein in my youth, but polygamy and polyandry make as much sense as the current model. It wouldn't work for everyone. Hell, given our socially reinforced biological tendency toward monogamy, it wouldn't work for most. But for those who can thrive, raise well-balanced and healthy children and thereby create "home' in the larger world with such an arrangement... who are we to judge?

Another.. . pretending that children have nothing to do with the institution of marriage is more than a bit disingenious. As a human being on the straight and narrow path of marital fidelity for 22 years (as my wife says: "...4 of the happiest years of my life..."), I'm not sure why one would want to marry today without the prospect of children. I'm not talking about civil commitment here. Everyone has heard the horror stories of a gay man who is not allowed to visit his dying long-time partner because the patient's parents forbid it. Social and financial contracts with others should be (and to a great extent ARE) available to adults regardless of whether or not they rub selective body parts together. I'm talking about marriage... cleaving only to... 'till death do us part... for better or for worse... the whole 9 yards.

I can't help thinking that in some ways that many gays and lesbians want it... because they can't have it. I'll be curious to see what the divorce (or dissolution of civil commitment) rate will be for gay men.

With all due respect to Andrew Sullivan... be careful what you ask for... you just may get it.


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