First published at Between The Lines News on March 12, 2009
Recently I wrote about a proposed compromise by David Blankenhorn, who opposes gay marriage, and Jonathan Rauch, who supports it.
On the Blankenhorn/Rauch proposal, the federal government would recognize individual states’ same-sex marriages or civil unions (under the name “civil unions”) and grant them benefits, but only in states that provided religious-conscience exemptions, allowing religious organizations to deny married-student housing to gay spouses at a religious college, for example, or to refuse to rent out church property for gay-related family events.
The Blankenhorn/Rauch proposal has prompted much discussion, including a counter-proposal from Ryan Anderson and Sherif Girgis at the conservative website thepublicdiscourse.com.
Anderson and Girgis—who unlike Rauch and Blankenhorn, come from the same side of the debate—reject the original proposal as granting “too much to revisionists and too little to traditionalists.” As they see it, traditionalists don’t merely seek to secure their own personal religious liberty, but to promote what they see as “a healthy culture of marriage understood as a public good.”
They believe that the Blankenhorn/Rauch proposal undermines that public good, because
“it treats same-sex unions (in fact, if not in name) as if they were marriages by making their legal recognition depend on the presumption that these relationships are or may be sexual. It thus enshrines a substantive, controversial principle that traditionalists could not endorse: namely, that there is no moral difference between the sexual communion of husband and wife and homosexual activity—or, therefore, between the relationships built on them.”
Anderson and Girgis instead propose the following: “revisionists would agree to oppose the repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), thus ensuring that federal law retains the traditional definition of marriage as the union of husband and wife …In return, traditionalists would agree to support federal civil unions offering most or all marital benefits.” But these unions “would be available to any two adults who commit to sharing domestic responsibilities, whether or not their relationship is sexual,” provided that they are “otherwise ineligible to marry each other.”
In other words, there would be federal civil unions for gays—but also for other domestic pairs: elderly widowed sisters, for example, or bachelor roommates.
At first glance, their claim that Rauch and Blankenhorn base their proposal on “the presumption that these relationships are or may be sexual” seems strange. After all, Rauch and Blankenhorn never mention sex, and the state neither knows nor cares (nor checks) whether people are having sex once they’re married or “civilly united.”
On the other hand, people generally assume (with good reason) that marriages and civil unions are sexual, or more broadly romantic. Romantic pair-bonding seems to be a fundamental human desire—for straights and gays—and part of what marriage does is to acknowledge pair-bonds. It does so not because the government is sentimental about such things, but because it recognizes the important role such bonds have in the lives of individuals and the community.
Anderson and Girgis are correct that there are other important bonds in society, and we may well want to extend more legal recognition to them. There is no reason that two cohabitating spinsters shouldn’t be granted mutual hospital visitation rights if they want them.
But the question remains whether we want to extend “most or all” federal marital benefits to any cohabitating couple otherwise ineligible to marry, as Anderson and Girgis propose.
And this question prompts additional ones: why limit such recognition to couples? Mutually interdependent relationships don’t only come in twos. Oddly, Anderson and Girgis seem to have more in common with radicals who seek to move “beyond marriage” than they do with anyone in the mainstream marriage debate.
Also, why limit such recognition to couples “otherwise ineligible to marry”? Can’t an unrelated man and woman have an interdependent relationship that’s not sexual/romantic?
Anderson and Girgis write that, “Our proposal would still meet the needs of same-sex partners—based not on sex (which is irrelevant to their relationship’s social value), but on shared domestic responsibilities, which really can ground mutual obligations.”
And there’s the crux: Anderson and Girgis assume that sex has social value only when open to procreation. But that’s just false, and most Americans know it. We acknowledge sexual/romantic relationships not merely because they might result in children, but also because of their special depth. Sex doesn’t merely make babies; it creates intimacy—for gays and straights alike.
The problem is that Anderson and Girgis divide couplings into two crude categories: (1) married (or marriageable) heterosexuals, and (2) everyone else: committed gay couples, elderly sisters, cohabiting fly-fishing buddies, what have you. They then implausibly suggest that those in column two are all of equal social value.
As David Link writes at the Independent Gay Forum, “The authors of this proposal are quite honest that they find it impossible to view same-sex couples in the category of marriage. But if these are the two categories offered: aging sisters or married couples, I’m betting more Americans who don’t already have an opinion, would view same-sex couples as more like the married couples than the sisters. With apologies to the traditionalists, the days when a majority of Americans simply closed their eyes to the loving—and sexual—relationships of same-sex couples are coming to an end.”
As they should.