The Magazine

Husbands and Wives

What gay marriage won't change.

Aug 2, 2004, Vol. 9, No. 44 • By TOD LINDBERG
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IT IS POSSIBLE that at the end of the day, gay marriage will be an enduring reality, at least in some places. This troubles many people, even as others hold it up as an important element in the recognition of equal human dignity. But how much, really, will be changed by gay marriage? With all due respect, I think both proponents and opponents overstate the likely effects. Gay marriage will neither be especially dangerous to marriage as such, as opponents fear, nor will it usher in equal recognition for gay and lesbian couples, as proponents hope.

Some opponents of gay marriage take their position on the basis that homosexuality as such is morally wrong. This position provides an intellectually consistent grounding for opposition to gay marriage, but it is nowadays rarely the basis of arguments made in the public square. Instead, opponents of gay marriage generally argue that the expansion of the use of the term "marriage" to gay couples as well as the extension to them of the legal and customary rights of married couples will diminish the sanctity of marriage and weaken an institution that is of vital importance to the rearing of succeeding generations. In short, gay marriage will have a bad effect on marriages of the traditional man-woman variety.

That the institution of marriage has changed over the course of a century or so is undeniable, as is the direction of the change: in favor of more freedom for individuals at the price of a less-binding tie. It seems unlikely that we will ever see sufficient political enthusiasm for a return to the laws and mores of marriage 19th-century-style. No, rather, the question is whether the changes will stabilize at a tolerable level or whether we have embarked upon a spiral that will lead to social ruin--and if the latter, whether the spiral will inevitably run its course or whether we can stop it or at least slow it by political action (such as a constitutional amendment).

That there is some sort of downward spiral--that marriage, in general, isn't what it used to be--critics of gay marriage have amply shown. But, in fairness, one must balance that loss against what we got in exchange for our family troubles: namely, greater individual freedom. It seems likely, for example, that women's increasing workforce participation had something to do with the current state of the family, to pick one element of this directional change that seems settled in favor of the greater freedom granted now. And we await a discussion that disentangles gay marriage from other factors contributing to the downward social spiral of the family. That's partly because it's a difficult thing to show. But the difficulty itself ought to serve as a warning flag that we may have trouble with some basic concepts here.

CRITICS OF GAY MARRIAGE regard marriage between a man and a woman as something higher than could ever be represented by a union of two men or two women. For purposes of argument, let us accept the view of the critics. But if man-woman marriage is truly higher, how is it threatened by something lower? If what's lower can cut marriage down to the size of the low, then what is the basis of the claim that marriage of the man-woman sort is higher in the first place? After all, the fact that some marriages are not good marriages across the full panoply of modern dysfunctionality does not mean that no marriages are good marriages (and therefore, presumably, of a higher sort). The higher sort are not undone by the existence of a lower sort.