Gay Marriage, Straight Marriage and La Difference

First published at on September 17, 2010

Some weeks ago I wrote a piece [] responding to a Ross Douthat column which draws on the celibate lesbian author Eve Tushnet. Tushnet had written,

“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.”

My ultimate complaint was (and remains) that neither Tushnet nor Douthat explains why extending marriage to gay people would somehow warp it to where it could no longer meet the needs of straight people—especially since gays and straights share so many fundamental needs and challenges.

In a recent blog post, Tushnet responds. [] Her response is organized around four points. I’ll address each of them briskly here, with the hope that I might delve into some of them at greater length later.

First, she responds to my chiding her and Douthat for ignoring the myriad differences that exist WITHIN the category of heterosexual relationships—some with children, some without; some involving young lovebirds; some involving mature companions; some domestic, some long-distance, and so on.

Tushnet complains that my perspective requires one to believe that sex/gender difference is just one difference among others, rather than THE difference. As she puts it, my view requires denying that sex difference is “iconic.” She writes,

“I genuinely believe that sex difference is sublime in a way that age difference, for example, is not. Its sublimity stems in part, though I think only in part, from its danger, its potential for horror, and its simultaneous potential for exceptional beauty.”

I’m not sure that Tushnet is aiming at my central complaint here. But if she is, then she’s saying that the problem with extending marriage to same-sex couples is that doing so renders it unable to express the “iconic,” “sublime” and “beautiful” male-female difference it traditionally expressed.

It’s hard to respond to that, except to note that it depends on a radically different worldview from mine: As I see it, of the many important purposes of marriage, iconography is pretty low on the list.

I value marriage because of the concrete ways in which it recognizes and fortifies families, helping them to sustain relationships that do them—and society—palpable good. It serves people’s deep needs for intimacy, care, support in childrearing, and so on. Gay and lesbian people have those needs, too.

So if it’s a choice between marriage-as-iconography and marriage-as-meeting-concrete-needs, I’d pick the latter every time.

Second, Tushnet complains that “If lots and lots of differences are as important to marriage as sex differences, or sex differences are as unimportant to marriage as lots and lots of differences, it’s exceptionally difficult to understand how marriage could be an institution which regulates sex at all.”

No, it isn’t. Sex (the activity) is a powerful and risky force, and thus there are reasons to regulate it in and through marriage. (Of course the stakes are higher when that activity can also result in children.) Furthermore, sex brings people together, and marriage helps keep them together, even as their sexual interest waxes and wanes. What’s so difficult to understand?

Here Tushnet proffers the usual false dilemma: either marriage is solely male-female or else it “means whatever you want it to mean.” But there’s plenty of reasonable middle ground between those polar (and false) alternatives.

Third, Tushnet speculates about my worldview. (She could have asked; I’m not that hard to find.) She suspects that, for me, men and women are nothing more than functions: “If we can figure out the function of a father, we can replace biological fathers with father figures or male role models and no harm done.”

I hold no such thing. Indeed, I’ve written about the fact that I believe biological bonds are special [], which is not to say that they are the only kind of parent-child bond deserving of support.

But what I also believe—and have repeatedly argued—is that it’s unfair to saddle marriage-equality proponents with the donor-conception debate. Tushnet does this again in her fourth point, where she complains that members of the “’family diversity’ movement” lack “aesthetic sensitivity” to biological connectedness.

If she’s right, she’s only half right: it’s in part BECAUSE of such aesthetic sensitivity that some gay couples—as well as many infertile straight couples—choose donor-conception over adoption. (There are other reasons, including the hurdles placed in front of gay couples seeking to adopt.)

I understand why Tushnet worries that some individuals’ desires for “their own” biological children renders them less sensitive to children’s interest in “their own” biological mother AND father. But I cannot see how she (or anyone) convincingly connects the dots between that premise and the conclusion that gays shouldn’t be allowed to marry.

It’s not about iconography. It’s about the real needs of gay and lesbian individuals, couples, and families.