Marriage is a conservative social institution. The best argument for gay marriage is rooted in a conservative idea that marriage itself is good because it is stabilizing.
There are, however, academics and political activists who support gay marriage for radical reasons: they hope it will destabilize many of the traditional sexual, relational, and familial values associated with marriage. For example, the late Professor Ellen Willis of NYU argued that gay marriage might “introduce an implicit revolt against the institution [of marriage] into its very heart, further promoting the democratization and secularization of personal and sexual life.”
Opponents of gay marriage love to quote these pro-SSM radicals. In his new book, The Future of Marriage , David Blankenhorn writes that “people who have devoted much of their professional lives to attacking marriage as an institution almost always favor gay marriage.” They support gay marriage, he observes, “precisely in the hope of dethroning once and for all the traditional ‘conjugal institution.’ ”
Pro-SSM radicals are useful to opponents of gay marriage because what they say frightens people. Identifying some tangible harm from gay marriage has been the elusive Holy Grail of the antigay marriage movement. Now they can say, effectively, “See, even supporters of gay marriage admit they’re destroying marriage with this reform. We’ve exposed their real agenda.”
However, there are multiple problems with using pro-SSM radicals to show gay marriage will harm marriage.
First, pro-SSM radicals are surely a small minority of those supporting gay marriage, though they are over-represented in the op-eds of gay newspapers and in universities. I doubt most gay-marriage supporters have any desire to fight for access to a “dethroned” institution.
In fact, supporting gay marriage does not require one to be anti-marriage. One could both support gay marriage and believe that (1) marriage is not an outdated institution, (2) it is generally better for a committed couple to get married than to stay unmarried, (3) adultery should be discouraged, (4) it is better for children to be raised within marriage than without, (5) divorce should be harder to obtain, and so on.
Second, a policy view is not necessarily bad because some of the people who support it also support bad things and see all these bad things as part of a grand project to do bad. Some opponents of gay marriage also oppose the use of contraceptives (even by married couples), would end all sex education in the schools, and would re-subordinate wives to their husbands. But it would be unfair to tar opponents of gay marriage with all of these causes, or to dismiss their arguments because opposing gay marriage might tend to advance them.
Third, regardless of what pro-SSM radicals hope gay marriage will do to undermine marriage, they may be mistaken. Gay marriage may end up disappoint
Conservative opponents of gay marriage ignore the large and complex debate on the left about whether gay marriage is really worthwhile and what effects it will likely have. While some marriage radicals support gay marriage because they think it will undermine marriage, others oppose it (or are uncomfortable with it) because they expect it will strengthen marriage and traditionalize gay life.
Paula Ettelbrick, in a very influential and widely quoted essay two decades ago, argued that marriage is “antithetical to my liberation as a lesbian,” would lead to “increased sexual oppression” of unmarried gays, and would “mainstream” gay life and culture. “If the laws change tomorrow and lesbians and gay men were allowed to marry,” she wondered, “where would we find the incentive to continue the progressive movement we have started that is pushing for societal and legal recognition of all kinds of family relationships?”
Since then, many other activists and intellectuals have written a stream of books, articles, and essays expressing similar assimilation anxiety and other concerns about gay marriage. Rutgers Professor Michael Warner has argued that gay marriage would “reinforce the material privileges and cultural normativity of marriage” and thus be “regressive.”
Here’s gay writer Michael Bronski: “The simple fact remains that the fight for marriage equality is at its essence not a progressive fight, but rather a deeply conservative one that seeks to maintain the social norm of the two-partnered relationship—with or without children—as more valuable than any other relational configuration.”
These anti-SSM radicals , as we might loosely call them (some don’t actually oppose gay marriage), are worried that gay marriage will enhance the primacy of marriage, cut off support for alternatives like domestic partnerships and civil unions, de-radicalize gay culture, gut the movement for sexual liberation, and reinforce recent conservative trends in family law.
If those things happened, conservatives would cheer. But these anti-SSM radicals aren’t useful to anti-SSM conservatives, so what they say is ignored.
The point is not to argue that any of these radical writers are correct that gay marriage will have the effects on marriage they predict. Activists on both sides of the issue tend to exaggerate the likely effect of adding at most three percent to existing marriages in the country. Gay marriage may have a big (and conservatizing) effect on gay families, but it is unlikely to change marriage itself. Heterosexuals simply don’t model their relationships on what homosexuals do.
The point is that both support for and opposition to gay marriage spring from a variety of complex ideas, experiences, emotions, and motives. The debate will not be resolved by dueling quotes from marriage radicals.
Writing from the conservative side, Dale Carpenter began his column for OutSmart in 1994, when he lived in Houston. Now residing in Minneapolis, Carpenter is a University of Minnesota Law School professor.