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by John Corvino
Ross Douthat’s recent New York Times op-ed (http://nyti.ms/cp6K5O) against marriage equality is notable for many things, not least its frank rejection of some standard bad arguments against same-sex marriage.
Douthat denies that marriage “has always been defined as the union of one man and one woman” and that the nuclear family “is the universal, time-tested path to forming families and raising children.”
“What we think of as ‘traditional marriage,'” he rightly notes, “is not universal.”
But Douthat’s piece is also notable because he offers a relatively clear version of a less familiar anti-equality argument. Briefly, the argument is that heterosexual relationships differ in important ways from both gay relationships and lesbian relationships, and that stretching marriage to cover all three kinds of pairings (male-female, male-male, female-female) would dilute its purposes.
In Douthat’s words, preserving lifelong heterosexual monogamy as unique and indispensable “ultimately requires some public acknowledgment that heterosexual unions and gay relationships are different: similar in emotional commitment, but distinct both in their challenges and their potential fruit.”
To his credit, Douthat is not simply making the argument that “Straight people are really special and they need a special institution to honor how special they are” (though at times he does seem oblivious to heterosexual privilege, and correspondingly, to the needs and interests of gays and lesbians). Rather, he’s worried about the unique stakes of heterosexual relationships, especially that they make babies. In a follow-up post, he cites the celibate lesbian Catholic writer Eve Tushnet:
“If you have a unisex model of marriage, which is what gay marriage requires, you are no longer able to talk about marriage as regulating heterosexuality and therefore you’re not able to say: Look, there are things that are different about heterosexual and homosexual relationships. There are different dangers, there are different challenges, and, therefore, there are probably going to be different rules.”
It’s the combination of an obvious point with a blatant non-sequitur that makes this argument so specious.
The obvious point is that straight relationships, gay male relationships, and lesbian relationships each have distinct challenges. (They also share many of the same challenges, a fact that Douthat mostly ignores.)
And yes, among the unique challenges of heterosexual relationships is that they create babies. No surprise there.
The non-sequitur is his move from the reasonable premise about distinct challenges for heterosexuals, to the conclusion that extending marriage to gays and lesbians would render it unable to address those heterosexual challenges. Tushnet goes so far as to claim that we would no longer even be able to say that there are differences between heterosexual and homosexual relationships, much less maintain marriage in a way that addresses them.
What amazes me about this conclusion is not just its apparent ignorance of gay and lesbian relationships, and the significant ways in which our challenges – of commitment, care, childrearing, intimacy, security, and so on–overlap with those of our heterosexual neighbors.
What really amazes me is its apparent ignorance of the great diversity of heterosexual relationships, with their “different dangers … different challenges, and … different rules.”
To take just one example, consider a pair of elderly widowed heterosexuals who marry. Does anyone imagine that their challenges are exactly similar to those of young newlyweds? Does anyone presume that, by treating them as married, we lose the ability to acknowledge that the stakes are different for them (and for society) than they were in the case of their first marriages?
The fact is that we acknowledge a wide variety of relationships as marriages that are nevertheless “distinct both in their challenges and their potential fruit”: some with children, some without; some involving young lovebirds; some involving mature companions; some domestic, some long-distance, and so on.
Gays and lesbians make up a relatively small minority of the population – smaller, certainly, than infertile and elderly heterosexuals. (Douthat notes that infertile and elderly heterosexuals grew up “as heterosexuals” – which is true, but irrelevant to the point that we can acknowledge their “distinct challenges” while still addressing the needs of the fertile.)
In order to make his position plausible, Douthat would need to show that the stakes are so radically different for gays or lesbians that any form of marriage that includes this small minority can no longer do the requisite work for (fertile) heterosexuals.
But at this crucial point Douthat’s argument becomes hopelessly vague. He simply asserts that extending marriage to same-sex couples would weaken its ability to address the thick “interplay of fertility, reproductive impulses and gender differences in heterosexual relationships,” but he never explains why or how this would happen.
This is not an argument – this is a panic.