Marriage has many possible private and public purposes. The private purposes can include expressing love and commitment to another, fulfilling a religious obligation, and acquiring the benefits associated with the legal status. These private purposes are what actually motivate many people to marry. But it is the public purposes of marriage that justify its existence and support in civil law.
Marriage does not have to have one single public purpose. One obvious public purpose of marriage is that it encourages procreation and child-rearing within the marital bond. Sex often makes babies, society needs babies, and all of us benefit when those babies are raised within marriage. Let’s call this the “procreative purpose.” Gay couples cannot procreate as a couple and so might be thought incapable of fulfilling this basic public purpose. The story is more complicated than that, but that’s a subject for tomorrow, when I begin to address the arguments against gay marriage.
If gays can’t procreate as a couple, is there any public purpose in recognizing their unions in marriage? Many people seem to think that the only interest in recognizing gay marriages would be the purely private one of helping satisfy their needs for adult intimacy or the non-marital one of advancing the cause of gay rights as a general matter. There is little public purpose in using marriage to achieve these ends.
But there are identifiable public interests, public purposes, in uniting gay families in marriage. With one exception (the last one I list below), these public purposes parallel exactly the kinds of public purposes that justify the recognition of sterile opposite-sex unions through marriage. Neither sterile gay marriages nor sterile opposite-sex marriages can fulfill the procreative public purpose in marriage, but they can satisfy many others, and so we have a public interest in them. I will call these the communitarian benefits of gay marriage, and list them in order of their persuasiveness and likelihood.
1. Communitarian benefits flowing from individualistic benefits.
I have already laid out the ways in which uniting gay families in marriage will produce some measure of individualistic benefits to individuals, couples, and children. Individuals in gay marriages should be healthier, wealthier, and happier, on average, than if they were single or simply cohabiting. They may also lead more traditionally moral lives. Their children should do better in school, commit fewer crimes, and be less likely to use and abuse drugs, among many other advantages, than if their gay parents live alone or cohabit.
The whole community benefits to the extent that each of these individualistic benefits obtain. The community is better off when the individuals that comprise it are better off. More couples united in marriage should mean more stability, less promiscuity, more people connected by a web of familial relationships, more parents invested in the health of schools, and so on. More children raised in marriage should mean less crime. Healthier, wealthier, and happier people are better citizens, more involved generally in maintaining the life of the community, less atomistic. Less “bowling alone.”
2. Communitarian benefits from limited government.
Since married people are better off than single people or unmarried couples, married people make relatively fewer demands on state welfare services, on emergency services, and on the health-care system. Once they’re allowed to marry, gay couples can be expected to make correspondingly fewer demands on the state for all the kinds of support they need when there’s no personal caretaker there for them. This serves the goal of limited government, which is something conservatives support.
You could, of course, see marriage in general as involving massive government involvement in citizens’ lives. I doubt this is the whole story, since in the absence of marriage I’d predict we’d need a huge government to deal with all the resulting social ills. As long as we’re going to have marriage, there’s an expected service-reduction effect from the recognition of any particular marriage.
3. Communitarian benefits to the institution of marriage.
Obviously, there are problems with marriage today: an almost 50% divorce rate, 1/3 of children born out-of-wedlock, too many children raised by single parents and unmarried cohabitants, too much domestic abuse, and so on. (Notice that these problems with marriage were not caused by gays.)
There is a movement in the country toward strengthening marriage and there are signs it is having limited success. That is healthy. The question is, will gay marriage have no effect on this movement, a negative effect on this movement, or a positive effect on it? A full answer to this question depends on consideration of the argument that gay marriage might somehow undermine heterosexual marriage, which I’ll start addressing tomorrow.
But for now, let me note one way in which gay marriage could slightly strengthen the norm of marriage in our society. (I say “slightly” because any harm or benefit from gay marriage to marriage as an institution would have to come from what will be a small proportion of marriages.)
We are in the midst of a project to revive the idea that marriage is the gold standard for relationships and for having and raising children. Consider that it may be somewhat harder to convince people that marriage is the gold standard for relationships, that marriage and raising children really go together, if a subclass of the population is carrying on life entirely without marriage, including procreating and raising millions of children outside marriage, and appearing to be quite successful at it. At the very least, the children of marriage-less gay parents are more likely to see marriage not as some “gold standard” but as one option among many, an equal among equals.
Gay marriage, both by example generally and by instruction to children being raised in gay homes, could help reinforce the idea that marriage is the normative status for people who are willing to make the legal and social commitment it entails. To the extent that heterosexual couples look to homosexual role models at all, which I seriously doubt, allowing their homosexual role models to marry – rather than simply to cohabit, as they do now because they cannot marry – might strengthen the norm of marriage. A married homosexual couple is a rebuke to the idea that simply cohabiting is the optimal way to structure a relationship and to raise children. Far from destroying marriage, gay marriage could be a small part of the project of saving it.
So instead of conceiving gay marriage as a threat to marriage we ought to see it as part of this movement to revive, protect, and strengthen marriage. But as I say, this conclusion depends on an argument I’ll make soon: that there’s no good reason to believe that gay marriage will undermine marriage for heterosexual couples.
4. Communitarian benefits to gay culture, especially gay-male culture.
We have all seen the destructive effects that come when a sub-class of people live without marriage. Traditionalist theory rightly predicts that such a sub-class will experience high levels of single-parent families, children born out-of-wedlock, promiscuity (and all the ills, including STD’s, that come with it), high rate of substance abuse, crime, and a host of other social pathologies.
In much gay male culture, as that culture is manifested in bars, publications, and on the Internet, there is much that this conservative social theory would predict about a marriage-less culture: relatively less respect for relationships, monogamy, and long-term commitment, than is given to these values inside marriage-opportunity culture. This is a point Andrew Sullivan made quite persuasively in his pathbreaking book, Virtually Normal: An Argument About Homosexuality. I agree that some, perhaps much, of this is the artifact of male sexuality and not of the denial of marriage itself. But at least some of it is plausibly the product of the fact that our law gives gay men absolutely no incentive to settle down with one other person. Lesbians may not need this incentive nearly as much (though marriage is even more important to them in other ways, since they’re more likely to raise children), but gay men surely do.
American law embodies a huge asymmetry. It says to gay people, “You may have as much sex as you like.” (And it said this, in practice, long before the Supreme Court struck down the few remaining unenforced sodomy laws in 2003.) In the very same breath, it says to gay people, “There will be nothing available to you to encourage you to channel all this sex into productive and healthy long-term and monogamous relationships.” I cannot think of another significant sub-class of the population to whom that asymmetrical message is sent.
While the absence of the proper incentives does not itself make men sexual, it surely doesn’t help matters. Marriage should produce more gay couples, more gay couples who will be visibly, and in fact, somewhat more monogamous, and who will be more likely to commit to one another for the long-term. It will generate role models that gay youth, in particular, have simply not had up to now. The effects of this will probably take many years, maybe generations, to be fully felt. But felt they will be.
Perceptive sexual liberationists and some feminists see this clearly and have feared precisely this consequence of gay marriage. Michael Warner argued in his appropriately titled book, The Trouble With Normal, that gay marriage would valorize and privilege some sexual behaviors and relationships (long-term, faithful, two-person) over others (one-night stands, open relationships, and polyamorous ones). This, he suggested, would be another form of discrimination, potentially changing the whole tenor of gay life.
Precisely so. What sexual liberationists fear traditionalists should cheer. To just the extent that gay marriage has this traditionalizing effect on gay culture and the individuals who comprise it, all of us should be better off. Traditionalists, in particular, should welcome any movement in that direction.
I must admit, however, that this fourth communitarian benefit is the most speculative of the group since the factors that go into producing a “culture” are very complex. I expect marriage to help the cause of those in the gay community who want to see the values associated with marriage elevated, but I cannot say how much, or whether marriage can blunt the effect of the forces pulling the other way.
One more post later today dealing with the expected magnitude of the individualistic and communitarian benefits I have outlined. Tomorrow and Thursday, I’ll start to respond to the arguments about how gay marriage might produce harms that must also be considered.