February 2010

First published at 365gay.com on February 26, 2010

Okay—so I promise that this is my last column for a while on the definition of marriage. Four out of five in a row is enough. http://www.365gay.com/archive/?id=15&logo=t

But I’ve learned a lot from writing these, especially because of comments from various marriage-equality opponents. Three points stick out.

First, the definitional argument is deeply important to them. Perhaps this shouldn’t surprise anyone. But it does surprise me that even those who explicitly acknowledge that marriage is an evolving institution place great weight on what marriage has been, as if that would settle the question once and for all of what marriage can or should be. It doesn’t.

Second, marriage does not lend itself to a pithy definition. Whatever marriage is, its definition won’t be like, “A triangle is a three-sided plane figure.”

That’s because marriage is both evolving and multifaceted. Marriage is, among other things, a social institution, a personal commitment, a religious sacrament, and a legal status. It looks different from the spouses’ perspective than it does from the outside; it looks different respectively to anthropologists, philosophers, theologians, lawyers, and so on.

Each of these perspectives can tell us something about what marriage is; none of them is complete or final. Any definition they provide, however useful, will be partial.

Third, those who emphasize the definitional argument, when they’re not simply begging the question against marriage-equality advocates, often invoke a false dichotomy: Either marriage is a social institution for binding parents (and especially fathers) to their biological offspring, or else it is an adult expression of love—an expression that these opponents variously dismiss as selfish, empty, or “fluttery”.

Contrast this with the actual view of most marriage-equality advocates, which is that marriage is both of these things, and then some.

Yes, marriage is the cross-cultural institution that has provided for the needs of children. But how? What makes marriage so suited to this purpose?

I’ll hazard a guess: it does so because it is also an abiding commitment between the spouses. It binds them together “for keeps,” thus creating a stable environment for any children who arrive.

So the view that marriage consists in abiding love between adults is not merely COMPATIBLE with the view that marriage serves children’s welfare; the former actually helps explain the latter.

There’s nothing “fluttery” about this. The abiding love of marriage is not just a vague feeling or promise—it’s an ongoing activity. I’m reminded of the words of St. Augustine, “Dilige, et quod vis fac”: “Love, and do what you want.” Augustine knew that true love is challenging; it takes work.

After one of my recent columns, a prominent same-sex marriage opponent wrote:

“I invite you to look back at the entire world history of anthropological thought on the topic of what is marriage, and point out to me even ONE example of ONE scholar who has, based on ethnographic data, said, actually or in effect, since recorded history began, that marriage in human groups is properly defined as the promise of abiding love. If you can identify even one reputable scholar in the history of the world who has made such a statement or implied such a thing, I will grovel before you in abject intellectual humility and gladly buy you the lunch of your choice…”

Well, I couldn’t find an anthropologist who said that. Actually, I didn’t bother looking. Anthropologists define marriage by its cultural function, and “abiding love” isn’t really their angle. But I did find this:

“The inner and essential raison d’etre of marriage is not simply eventual transformation into a family but above all the creation of a lasting personal union between a man and a woman based on love.”

What radical, “fluttery” activist wrote these words?

Actually, it was Pope John Paul II.

Of course the late pope defines marriage as “between a man and a woman.” No shock there. But the interesting thing is that he writes that marriage is “above all…a lasting personal union…based on love.”

Perhaps he was distracted when he wrote this. Perhaps the Radical Gay Agenda had begun to infiltrate the Vatican.

Or perhaps the pope realized what most people know. Marriage is fundamentally a lasting personal union based on love—which is not to say that it is ONLY that.

As I said above—and it bears repeating—any neat definition of marriage will be partial and imperfect. There are counterexamples to this characterization, ways in which it is both too broad and too narrow.

But “marriage” is not definable in the way “triangle” or “bachelor” is.

And when marriage-equality opponents feel compelled to repudiate characterizations of marriage that The Gay Moralist, the previous pope, and most married couples all find obvious, you know they’re in trouble.

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First published at 365gay.com on February 19, 2010

An opponent writes, “What’s YOUR definition of marriage? If you’re going to use a word, you need a definition of the word.”

I doubt that.

After all, most English speakers can competently use the word “yellow,” but ask them to define the term (without merely pointing to examples) and watch them stammer.

And then try words like “law,” “opinion,” and “game” just for fun. It’s quite possible to have functional knowledge of how to use a term without being able to articulate the boundaries of the relevant concept.

Alright, you say, but as someone deeply involved in the marriage debate, surely the Gay Moralist has a definition to offer?

Yes and no. I have definitions to offer, not a definition.

The word “marriage” can refer to many different things: a personal commitment, a religious sacrament, a social institution, a legal status.

And even if we focus on one of those—say, the social institution—there are other challenges. As David Blankenhorn puts it: “There is no single, universally accepted definition of marriage—partly because the institution is constantly evolving, and partly because many of its features vary across groups and cultures.”

Blankenhorn makes this point in his book _The Future of Marriage_. It’s an interesting concession, since he spends much of the rest of the chapter railing against marriage-equality advocates for offering “insubstantial” and “fluttery” definitions that emphasize personal commitment over marriage’s social meaning.

Not surprisingly, his own definition emphasizes children:

“In all or nearly all human societies, marriage is socially approved sexual intercourse between a woman and a man, conceived as both a personal relationship and an institution, primarily such that any children resulting from the union are—and are understood by the society to be—emotionally, morally, practically, and legally affiliated with both of the parents.”

Putting aside the odd claim that “marriage is…sexual intercourse” (rather than, say, a context for such intercourse), this is actually a pretty good description of what marriage typically is.

But the “typically” is key. On the very next page, Blankenhorn acknowledges a counterexample (raised by Christian theologians, no less): Marriage can’t be essentially sexual, since if it were, the Virgin Mary’s “marriage” to Joseph would not be a marriage. (And one could point to plenty of contemporary sexless marriages that are nevertheless marriages.)

Moreover, Blankenhorn’s own definition includes the hedge-word “primarily,” acknowledging that marriage has goals beyond providing for children’s needs.

My fellow philosophers are often enamored of analyses that provide “necessary and sufficient conditions” for concepts: definitions that capture all, and only, the members of a class. But I have yet to see anyone on either side of this debate do that for marriage, and I doubt that it’s possible.

The definition would have to be broad enough to include unions as disparate as King Solomon’s polygamous household; Elizabeth Taylor’s marriages to her various husbands; my maternal grandparents’ arranged marriage; Bill’s marriage to Hillary; Barack’s marriage to Michelle. It would have to make sense of metaphors such as the claim that nuns are “married” to Christ (traditional profession ceremonies even involved wedding dresses). And yet it couldn’t be so broad as to include just any committed relationship.

Are there necessary conditions for a union’s being a marriage? Sure. For instance, there must be at least two persons. (I say “at least” because polygamous marriages are still marriages, whatever other objections we might have to them.)

Beyond the “at least two persons” requirement, we find a host of features that are typical: mutual care and concern, romantic and sexual involvement, a profession of lifelong commitment, the begetting and rearing of children.

But “typical” does not mean “strictly necessary,” and for any one of these features, it takes very little imagination to think of a genuine marriage that lacks it. A “marriage of convenience” is still a marriage, legally speaking. A childless marriage is still a marriage. A marriage on the brink of divorce is still, for the time being, a marriage.

I am not suggesting that any of these scenarios is ideal. But our opponents’ objection isn’t that same-sex unions aren’t “ideal” marriages. It’s that they’re not marriages AT ALL. And that objection is much harder to sustain when one surveys the various overlapping arrangements—some with children, some without; some intensely romantic; some not—that we call “marriage.”

So what is marriage? For me, the standard vow captures it nicely, though of course not perfectly or completely. These are the words my parents used, and the same words I used with my partner Mark:

Marriage is a commitment “to have and to hold; from this day forward; for better, for worse; for richer, for poorer; in sickness and in health; to love and to cherish; ‘til death do us part.”

“Fluttery?” Maybe. But real, and important, and good.

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First published at 365gay.com on February 12, 2010

Since my recent column [http://www.365gay.com/news/corvino-the-right-is-wrong-about-gay-marriage/] discussing the “definitional argument” against marriage equality, I’ve learned something unsurprising:

There is no single, standard “definitional argument.” There are, rather, various definitional arguments, and part of the problem is pinning down which one our opponents intend.

In the hope of advancing the debate—or at least of showing that the moving target is indeed moving—I’d like to distinguish, and briefly respond to, four versions. I’ll give them names for convenience:

1. The “Logical Impossibility” Version:

This, in some ways, is the purest definitional argument against same-sex marriage. It is also the silliest. Here’s Alliance Defense Fund attorney Jeffery Ventrella:

“[T]o advocate same-sex ‘marriage’ is logically equivalent to seeking to draw a ‘square circle’: One may passionately and sincerely persist in pining about square circles, but the fact of the matter is, one will never be able to actually draw one.”

And again,

“The public square has no room for square circles, because like the Tooth Fairy, they do not really exist.”

Notice that people don’t normally bother arguing against square circles or passing constitutional amendments banning them, precisely because they do not—and cannot—exist.

Are same-sex marriages similar? Surely SOMETHING exists that people refer to as “same-sex marriage,” and the question at hand is whether they should persist in doing so. Ventrella’s “square circles” argument doesn’t answer that question: it begs it.

In other words, Ventrella is assuming what he’s supposed to be proving.

2. The “Obscuring Differences” Version:

This version, which is related to the first, states that same-sex relationships and opposite-sex relationships are so different that using the word “marriage” to apply to both would obscure a fundamental distinction in nature. As Maggie Gallagher puts it, “Politicians can pass a bill saying a chicken is a duck and that doesn’t make it true. Truth matters.”

Note that the objection is not that using terms this way would have bad consequences—confusing the butcher, for example—but that it would fail to divide up the world correctly. Even if nobody noticed or cared, such usage would blur a real boundary in nature.

The problem (as I argued previously [http://www.365gay.com/news/corvino-the-right-is-wrong-about-gay-marriage/]) is that marriage is a human institution, the boundaries of which are drawn and redrawn for human purposes.

3. The “Bad Consequences” Version:

But what if such redrawing had bad consequences? This, I think, is the real concern driving the definitional arguments. Gallagher, for example, thinks that defining “marriage” to include gays and lesbians would ultimately erode the institution.

David Blankenhorn has similar concerns. Indeed, his own version of the argument makes the consequentialist undercurrent apparent: instead of square circles or duck-chickens, Blankenhorn asks us to imagine what would happen if the word “ballet” were used to refer to all forms of dance.

Of course redefining “ballet” that way would be bad. But that’s because doing so would frustrate human aims. If you go to the theater to see ballet and end up getting Riverdance instead, you’ll likely be upset or disappointed.

Would extending marriage to gays and lesbians frustrate human aims in a similar way? Marriage-equality opponents like Blankenhorn and Gallagher certainly think so. Specifically, they think it would sever marriage from its core function of binding children to their mothers and fathers.

But now it seems that the definitional point is no longer doing any argumentative work. The real objection here is that same-sex marriage harms society. If that’s the objection, let’s focus on it directly.

4. The Constitutional-Law Version:

There is, however, a fourth version of the definitional argument, one specifically related to the constitutional debate.

Legal advocates for marriage equality—such as Ted Olson and David Boies, who are challenging California’s Prop. 8—often argue that gays and lesbians deserve the freedom to marry because of the Fourteenth Amendment’s equal-protection and due-process guarantees. But if same-sex marriage involves CHANGING the definition of marriage, opponents contend, the Fourteenth-Amendment argument falters.

According to this version of the definitional argument, gays and lesbians are not being denied equal access to an existing institution, they are asking for an existing institution to be re-defined. There may well be good reasons for redefining it. But that is a matter for legislatures to decide, not courts.

This version is more subtle than the others, and addressing it fully requires more space than I have here. But my quick response would be that marriage caselaw over the last four decades suggests that male-female isn’t a defining element in the way this argument requires.

Consider for example Griswold v. Connecticut (1965), which affirmed the right of married couples to purchase contraceptives, and Turner v. Safley (1987), which affirmed the right of prisoners to marry. Marriage is defined by its core purposes, and those purposes do not necessarily require (actual or potential) procreation.

The fact is that same-sex couples fall in love and commit their lives to each other for better or for worse, for richer or for poorer, until death do they part.

And if it looks like a duck and walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, then legally speaking it ought to be treated like a duck.

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First published at 365gay.com on February 5, 2010

Brian Brown throws around the term “irrational” quite a bit.

Brown is the Executive Director of the National Organization for Marriage (NOM), an anti-gay-marriage organization (Maggie Gallagher is its president). I first came across his name last summer when the Washington Post profiled him, describing him as “pleasantly, ruthlessly sane” and “rational.”

From the profile, it appears that “irrational” is Brown’s favorite term of abuse.

For example, he claims it’s irrational when polls indicate that most young people support equal marriage rights for gays and lesbians. Or when people argue that marriage equality is ultimately inevitable. Or when they describe his position as bigotry:

“I think it’s irrational that up until 10 years ago, all of these societies agreed with my position [and yet now they’re changing]” he tells the Post.

However, the term “irrational” was given new meaning in Brown’s most recent fundraising letter, in which he uses a new Department of Health and Human Services study, the “Fourth National Incidence Study of Child Abuse and Neglect (NIS-4),” to argue against same-sex marriage.

Brown cites the HHS study as stating that

“Children living with two married biological parents had the lowest rate of overall Harm Standard maltreatment, at 6.8 per 1,000 children. This rate differs significantly from the rates for all other family structure and living arrangement circumstances.”

Brown goes on to argue,

“All parents working hard to raise good kids…deserve our respect and help. But there is no call to wipe out the ideal itself, rooted in Nature and Nature’s God, and replace it with a man-made fantasy that same-sex unions are just the same as the one kind of union that best protects children.”

Got that? Children do best with a married biological mother and father. Therefore, we ought to oppose same-sex marriage.

I felt like I was missing some steps—maybe I was being “irrational”—so I went and read the study Brown cites. And I learned a few interesting things.

First, the 455-page study says not a word about gay and lesbian parents. Zero. Zilch. Nada. Which makes it essentially useless for anyone wanting to do a three-way comparison between children of married straight parents, married gay parents, and unmarried gay parents.

The study does indeed find that, on average, children living with married biological parents are at substantially lower risk of maltreatment than children in other family structures studied: namely, those with “other married parents” (not both biological but both having a legal relationship to the child), unmarried parents (biological or other), single parents with an unmarried partner, unpartnered single parents, and no parents.

What follows from this finding is quite simple. My fellow gays and lesbians should stop snatching children away from married biological parents who are raising them. As the Gay Moralist, I hereby call for an immediate cessation of this horrible practice. It’s bad for the kids. Stop it. Thank you.

Back on Planet Earth, where gay and lesbian people are generally not kidnapping children from their married biological parents, the relevant conclusion is rather different.

To the extent that the study teaches us about gay and lesbian families at all, it is to suggest that children in them would do far better IF THEIR PARENTS COULD GET MARRIED.

Are you listening, Mr. Rational? The study actually shows the OPPOSITE of what you’re using it for.

But wait—there’s more. Everything I’ve said thus far (and indeed, everything in the HHS report) assumes an “all else being equal” clause. But of course, all else is often not equal.
Which is why the report looks at factors beyond family structure, and notes that, for example

• Children of the unemployed are at a 2-3 times higher risk for maltreatment.

• Children in large households (four or more children) had more than twice the incidence of maltreatment than those in two-child families.

• Children in families of low socio-economic status were 5 times more likely to be victims of maltreatment than other children.

Somehow, however, I don’t expect Brown to oppose marriage for the poor, or for his fellow conservative Catholics (who tend to have large families).

Or maybe to ask wealthy lesbians (Ellen and Portia?) to revive that imaginary kidnapping trend.

The general problem here is familiar: making the best the enemy of the good. Brown’s argument presupposes that the only people who should be allowed to marry are those whose marriages would create ideal scenarios for children.

By that logic, NOM’s own president wouldn’t have been allowed her current marriage, since that marriage created a stepfamily. Logician, heal thyself.

Meanwhile, there are several million American children being raised by gay parents. What (if anything) can the HHS study tell us about them?

According to the study, children living with “other married parents” (at least one non-biological) are at LESS THAN HALF the risk of maltreatment compared to children living with a single parent and an unmarried partner.

So if we really care about these children’s welfare, we should let their parents marry. It’s only rational.

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