Can Marriage Be Saved?
FAMILY-VALUES CRUSADER JAMES DOBSON warns that "for more than forty years the homosexual activist movement has sought to implement a master plan that has had as its centerpiece the utter destruction of the family." To the familiar slippery-slope jeremiads that same-sex marriage "will lead inexorably" to polygamy, group marriage and incest, Dobson adds the specter of marriage "between adults and children" and "between a man and his donkey." Such apocalyptic rhetoric from opponents signals their desperation.
Gay marriage is a fait accompli. It was no joke on April 1, 2001, when the Netherlands became the first nation to ratify this irreversible, world-historic family transformation. Same-sex marriage seems likely in Catholic France, and possibly in Spain and areas of the global South. Now it is legal in Massachusetts, the original Puritan colony.
A fait accompli--but what will be accompli, for whom, and at whose expense remains to be determined by political struggles. Ironically, feminists and gay liberationists find ourselves defending gay marriage against the conservative backlash. For although only a handful of conservatives like David Brooks and Andrew Sullivan seem to get it, marriage is a conservative institution, no matter the gender mix of mates. It favors the interests of the propertied and privileged. That is why marital stability correlates with employment, income and education, particularly for men. Admitting same-sex couples to this primarily bourgeois club will likely intensify discrimination against the unmarried and their kin--the explicit goal of marriage-promotion campaigns now directed at welfare recipients. It will replace sexual-orientation discrimination with even harsher discrimination by marital status.
Paradoxically, virulent right-wing resistance to gay marriage opens a door for promoting more democratic scenarios. An unlikely hopeful prospect appeared in April. Paul Loscocco, a Republican state representative in Massachusetts, and Deborah Glick, a progressive Democratic assemblywoman in New York City, both recognized that sharing the name of marriage with gays incites more opposition than conferring its benefits. Both proposed taking their states out of the marriage business entirely and offering "civil unions for all" instead. "We in the legislature," Loscocco explained, "have the power to call what has commonly been known as marriage anything we want. We could pick the word liverwurst if we wanted to."
Perhaps as startling, self-described "marriage nut" David Blankenhorn expressed support for the proposal: "I've spent my whole public life arguing that marriage is an important public institution in the interest of children, but we may have reached a point in our society where we can no longer sustain a common legal definition." I agree, and with less regret. If one size of family never did fit all, never has the reality of family diversity been more apparent. A progressive family agenda should support not just gay unions but the many-colored rainbow of de facto families in our midst. It should challenge discrimination against the unmarried and advocate equal treatment for "all our families." Public policy should foster care-giving and commitment in creative shapes, sizes and colors. We could borrow a maple leaf here from our northern neighbors. In 2001 the Canadian government published Beyond Conjugality, an inspirational blueprint for this enlightened agenda.
The liverwurst solution allows progressives and conservatives an uncommon opportunity to forge common ground seeking to fortify the thinning blue line between church and state. Churches would remain free to define, discriminate and demand whatever prerequisites for entering marriage they choose. States, as Loscocco declares, should be free to affix whatever label they fancy, including liverwurst, to legal recognition for intimate bonds. Personally, "civil union" strikes me as an excellent, even a lofty, term for starters. Imagine a state that fostered civility and union in its challenged families and nation. Decidedly more appetizing than liverwurst!
Judith Stacey is on the faculty of sociology and at the Center for the Study of Gender and Sexuality at New York University. A founding member of the Council of Contemporary Families, her current research focuses on gay family issues.