The Traditionalist Case — Individualistic Benefits to Gay Couples and Individuals:

When marriage is strong our society is strong: married people are on average healthier, wealthier, and happier than unmarried people. Marriage materially helps families in at least three different ways: there are legal benefits, caretaking benefits, and social benefits. It obviously also benefits the individuals in these families in ways material and, importantly for the traditionalist, moral.

1. Benefits to gay couples

First, the legal benefits are numerous and important, and they come from all levels of government and even from private sources like employers. Most of them help couples during the hard times, as when a spouse is sick, injured, or dead: the right to inherit from one another without estate taxation (even without a will), orderly division of property upon dissolution, rights to child custody and support payments, state and federal tax advantages, the right to visit a sick or dying spouse in the hospital, the right to make medical decisions for a spouse in the event of incapacity, the right to bring a wrongful death action, benefits to a surviving spouse and children through Social Security, testimonial privileges, and immigration rights, to name a few. Public and private employers link marriage to all manner of benefits, from family medical leave policies to care for a sick spouse to health insurance for marital families.

No, marriage is not just a bundle of goodies, like Santa Claus arriving after the ceremony. But the legal rights and obligations attached to marriage come into play when you need them most. Try keeping your house when the tax bill comes after your “unmarried partner” dies and kindly transfers her interest to you. Who gets the child you’ve been raising, the child who’s only ever known you and your unmarried partner as parents, when only she was the child’s legal parent? The destabilizing effects of these problems should be obvious, and they are visited on all of us eventually. Gay couples trying to stay together and support their families need legal support, and could benefit from it, much as straight couples do. (I realize that these and other legal benefits could be given to gay couples seriatim, but that runs into other difficulties like, which should be granted and which denied, and why? Plus, for reasons I’ll discuss Friday, a “menu” approach to marital benefits for non-marital couples raises problems of its own for the traditionalist defender of marriage.)

Second, the caretaking benefits are at least as important. Marriage, by social expectation and custom and in some ways by law, makes one other person responsible for your well being. This provides you with an on-the-scene doctor, police officer, and firefighter. It’s better than any government program could be at serving this caretaking function.

Gay families have problems like everyone else. Gay people have just as great a need for love and affection as straight people; gay couples are just as capable of loving one another, of sacrificing for another, of committing to one another, as straight couples. Encouraging the formation of gay-couple households through marriage will make it more likely that another person will be there when trouble comes in life, as it always does.

Third, there are the social benefits. In our culture, marriage is the way couples signal the ultimate commitment to one another; and through marriage they communicate this deep commitment to their families, to their friends and co-workers, and to their communities. That commitment is then reinforced by the web of familial and other relations, created by marriage, that they have around them. This reinforcement helps strengthen their bond, and therefore their family. It helps keep them together, especially in tough times.

Gay couples need this sort of reinforcement and suffer for the lack of it. As of now, no gay relationship can reach the cultural pinnacle signified by the words, “Will you marry me?” Telling your families and friends that you are “partnered” will not, usually, signal the same depth of commitment that marriage would. And if they doubt whether you have invested heavily in your relationship, why should your families, friends, and communities invest heavily in it?

The benefits of each of these categories – legal, caretaking, and social – can be obtained to some extent by gay and straight couples outside marriage. An unmarried couple can approximate some of the legal benefits of marriage through wills, trusts, powers of attorney, and so forth. They can, of course, pledge to take care of one another and many do. Their families and friends will often respect and be happy about their relationship. Gay families in particular, given the obstacles they have faced, have done a truly heroic job keeping themselves functioning.

But nothing substitutes completely for marriage on any of the dimensions I’ve listed; surely no traditionalist advocate of marriage would think they could. For example, obtaining a measure of legal protection through contract is expensive, time-consuming, and incompletely protective. If the legal, caretaking, and especially social benefits of marriage were not significant, many fewer opposite-sex couples would bother to marry. On average, not surprisingly, marriages last longer and are more stable than unmarried cohabitation. This disparity is at least partly due to a symbiosis: what marriage gives to the married couple and what they give to their marriage.

2. Benefits to individuals

So far, every gay person has lived without the prospect of ever marrying the person she loves, to whom she is committed, and with whom she wants to form a family in a commitment that carries the prospect of a life-long bond. The marriage exclusion denies gay Americans the most powerful social and legal institution we have for encouraging the kind of commitment that makes for a better and richer life. Maybe the exclusion can be justified, but we must acknowledge that it is a serious deprivation.

To the extent gay relationships thrive under a regime of marriage, the individuals in them should be better off in several material ways: more healthy, more wealthy, more happy.

But they may be better off morally as well. Traditionalists are not concerned simply with the material well-being of our society, or with the material well-being of the individuals that comprise it. They are concerned with the moral well-being of our society and its individuals. Traditional morality favors monogamy over promiscuity, stable relationships over unstable ones, marriage over non-marriage. Gay marriage offers the sexually active gay person who wants it the chance to live as morally traditional a life as is possible for him. It is not, for traditional morality, an ideal, since it is still homosexual and sexually active. But it is the closest approximation such a person can come to that moral traditionalist ideal.

Some moral traditionalists will object that no sexually active homosexual can lead a moral life, even one committed monogamously in marriage to one other person, because traditional morality also favors heterosexual acts over homosexual acts. (Full disclsoure: I do not myself share the view that homosexual sex is intrinsically immoral.) A moral traditionalist friend of mine once remarked that it would be better, from the perspective of his religious faith, for a gay person to commit 1,000 sexual acts with 1,000 strangers than to commit 1,001 sexual acts with one partner with whom he shared a marital, monogamous, loving, life-long commitment.

There’s nothing, finally, that I can say to that objection if you are really committed to the idea that there is no consideration of degree here, no thought to be given to the context in which otherwise morally objectionable acts are to occur. But I suspect that to very many moral traditionalists, the moral choice involved in the above example is clear and that it favors the marital, monogamous, loving, life-long commitment. The moral preference here is what we might call a form of moral satisficing, whereby we sacrifice the optimal result, which seems likely to be unattainable (heterosexual marriage for the homosexual), in order to achieve a satisfactorily good result. Perhaps not many married gay couples will attain this moral satisficing ideal (many straight couples do not attain it, either), but at least they will have the opportunity to attain it. Until now, they have been denied even this moral possibility in their lives.

In short, we can reasonably say that gay marriage will bring identifiable benefits to hundreds of thousands of identifiable families and millions of individuals in this country. We have reason to wonder just how large these benefits will be. That’s a question I’ll try to address tomorrow after presenting the communitarian benefits. But I cannot see a reasonable argument under which there would be absolutely no benefits at all.

I certainly don’t want to make gay marriage sound like a government benefits program for a downtrodden people, like it was the forgotten element of the New Deal or the Great Society. Gain to gay couples and individuals is a necessary but not sufficient part of the case I’m making. The public interest in gay marriage must also be identified. But to the traditionalist, who cares about the stability of society and families, the presence of any such benefit must at least be counted for something in the scales. What’s more, the children being raised by these families should benefit as well. That’s for tomorrow.

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