First published at on October 22, 2010

In my work as “the Gay Moralist,” I often pursue dialogue with opponents of LGBT equality. I do this for various reasons: to understand them better, to help them understand us better, to help bystanders understand the controversy better, to promote truth more generally, and ultimately to win equality.

This work gets me labeled either as a “bridge-builder” or an “apologist,” depending on the labeler’s taste for it. I think the work is more important than ever. It’s also harder than ever.

Consider, for example, Dan Savage’s recent column [] responding to someone who “loves the Lord and does not support gay marriage” but was also “heartbroken” to hear about recent gay teen suicides. Her message to Savage was that he ought not to make blanket judgments about Christians and bullying.

Savage responds, “I’m sorry your feelings were hurt by my comments. No, wait. I’m not. Gay kids are dying. So let’s try to keep things in perspective: Fuck your feelings.”

He says more than that, of course, but the general theme is pretty straightforward:

“The kids of people who see gay people as sinful or damaged or disordered and unworthy of full civil equality—even if those people strive to express their bigotry in the politest possible way (at least when they happen to be addressing a gay person)—learn to see gay people as sinful, damaged, disordered, and unworthy,” Savage writes. The result is that they bully and harass those people—sometimes with fatal results.

But isn’t it possible to love the “sinner” while hating the “sin”?

Increasingly, in this particular case, it seems not. A huge part of loving the “sinner” is striving to be sensitive to the “sinner’s” needs and interests. It’s hard for me to understand how people who do so can nevertheless maintain that homosexuality is a sin. At the very least, the evidence of our lives ought to give them some cognitive dissonance.

But even if we put that aside—even if we grant (as I do) that reasonable, decent people can disagree on homosexuality and marriage without being bigots—there’s a glaring problem of proportion.

As Savage bluntly reminds us: gay kids are dying.

Today I learned that a nineteen-year-old gay student at a nearby university—someone with whom I have several mutual friends—just took his own life.

Earlier in the week, a young close friend of mine was brutally attacked outside a gay bar in Washington D.C., suffering a fractured right jaw, fractured lower left ribs, and contusions on his arm and back. His attackers repeatedly called him “faggot” while beating him with a metal rod.

A standard “Christian” response to all this is to say, “That’s terrible. Everyone should be treated with respect. But…”

Stop right there.

“That’s terrible, but…” won’t cut it right now. I know you want to reassert your Christian beliefs about the nature of marriage. While I think those beliefs are flat wrong, I’ll strongly defend your right to share them. I’m not interested in putting a gag order on your expression of your convictions.

But it doesn’t follow that every moment is an appropriate time to do so. It doesn’t follow that every conversation about homosexuality is an opportunity to showcase your theological position on marriage (as opposed to, say, your theological position on the dignity of all persons).

If Christians would spend even half as much time denouncing anti-gay violence as they do denouncing gay marriage, I might have more sympathy for Savage’s letter-writer. But the denunciations of violence are usually tepid, and they’re too often followed by a “BUT.” BUT we want to make it clear that we still think gay sex is wrong. BUT marriage is for a man and a woman. BUT we Christians are persecuted too, you know.

Even if one accepts the premises, such responses exhibit skewed priorities. They’re akin to saying that you are really concerned about feeding the starving, but first you want to make sure that they’re not going to burp at the dinner table.

It’s not just Fred-Phelps-style Christians who exhibit these skewed priorities. It’s not just Focus on the Family, which opposes effective anti-bullying legislation on the grounds that it promotes the “homosexual agenda.”

It’s every Christian who spends less time on the “equal dignity” message than on the “gay sex is wrong” message. And that’s a huge percentage. Hence Savage’s point.

“Fuck your feelings” is not really my style. But if I were responding to Savage’s letter writer, I’d say this:

If you really love the “sinner,” the best way to show it would be to prioritize the fight against the sins that are killing him. Back up your concern with action. No buts.

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First published at on October 15, 2010

Republican New York gubernatorial candidate Carl Paladino’s recent remarks [] about homosexuality have been widely decried—even by his fellow East Coast Republicans—as offensive. They are certainly that.

But upon reading the text and watching the YouTube video [], I had an additional reaction.

Here’s what Paladino said, speaking before an Orthodox Jewish congregation in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn (the text is worth quoting in full):

“We must stop pandering to the pornographers and the perverts, who seek to target our children and destroy their lives. I didn’t march in …the gay pride parade this year. My opponent did. And that’s not the example that we should be showing our children, certainly not in our schools. [APPLAUSE] And don’t misquote me as wanting to hurt homosexual people in any way; that would be a dastardly lie. My approach is live and let live. I just think my children, and your children, will be much better off, and much more successful getting married and raising a family. And I don’t want them to be brainwashed into thinking that homosexuality is an equally valid or successful option. It isn’t. [APPLAUSE].”

The speech is offensive, yes—especially in opening with reference to “perverts, who seek to target our children and destroy their lives.”

And it’s insensitive, coming in the wake of a wave of gay teen suicides and a brutal hate crime against at least three gay men in The Bronx.

And it’s pandering, clearly designed to play to Paladino’s ultra right-wing audience at the event. The speech appears to have been written largely by Paladino’s Orthodox hosts, and he seemed uncomfortable delivering parts of it. At the last minute, he eliminated the line “There is nothing to be proud of in being a dysfunctional homosexual,” which appeared in the distributed written version. One of those hosts, Yehuda Levin, has since denounced Paladino for what he perceived as the latter’s backpedaling on the statement. []

But the biggest problem with Paladino’s speech—and the one that is likely to cost him the most votes—is the way in which it appears thoroughly out of touch with reality. Specifically, the reality of gay and lesbian lives.

And that’s why the word that jumped out most at me was not “perverts,” or “brainwashed.” It was “successful”—as in his claim that children will be “much more successful getting [heterosexually] married and raising a family” and his denial that homosexuality “is an equally valid or successful option.”

Paladino delivered his speech on the eve of National Coming Out Day, when LGBT people across the country witness to the reality of their lives, and amidst Dan Savage’s brilliant “It Gets Better” Campaign, which powerfully chronicles the lives of successful gay adults.

Paladino has a gay nephew. In follow-up interviews, asked whether being gay is a choice, Paladino responded , “I have difficulty with that….My nephew tells me he didn’t have that choice.” He added that being gay is “a very, very difficult life. Most of them don’t choose it. … The discrimination that they suffer is very, very difficult and I’m totally sensitive to it.”

No, Carl, you’re not.

Anyone sensitive to the reality of gay and lesbian lives would understand that there are gay people in the world; that such people flourish in same-sex relationships, not heterosexual ones; that pressuring them to marry heterosexually is a recipe for the very opposite of success; and that the obstacles to their success are not intrinsic to homosexuality but rather the function of misguided opposition.

Opposition just like that expressed in that offensive, insensitive, pandering, ignorant, and morally tone-deaf speech.

Paladino has since apologized for the speech—sort of—standing by its content but regretting his “poorly chosen words.” []

He has also complained that media reaction to his speech has been unfair. But please, don’t misquote me as wanting to hurt Paladino in any way; that would be a dastardly lie. I just think his children, and your children, will be much better off, and much more successful, if we base our politics on the reality of people’s lives rather than on myths about them. And I don’t want anyone to be brainwashed into thinking that gay-baiting is an equally valid or successful option. It isn’t.

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First published at on September 24, 2010

Once upon a time, in a land far away, a Council of Elders convened to ponder the challenges of human relationships. Noticing that male-female relationships frequently involve sex, and that sex often makes babies, this “Relationship Council” decided that an institution was needed to regulate adults’ behavior for children’s benefit. Thus marriage was invented.

The Relationship Council is, of course, a figment of my imagination. But not just mine, apparently: conservative opponents of marriage equality often seem to believe in something very much like it.

I’m referring to their tendency to speak of THE purpose of marriage, as if this rich social institution had one unitary, fixed, transcultural and transhistorical purpose—a single problem which it was designed to solve—rather than arising, as human social institutions typically do, in a far messier way.

So for example, in their recent cover story “The Case for Marriage,” [] the editors of National Review confidently declare, “The reason marriage exists is that the sexual intercourse of men and women regularly produces children.”

Not “a” reason, or even “the most important” reason, but THE reason. The Relationship Council must have declared it so.

An even stronger version of this implicit myth suggests that marriage was not invented at all, but rather discovered, much as one might discover blood types or other natural divisions. On this view, our legal and social institution of marriage merely tracks something already present. Assuming that it does so correctly, alterations to it would not merely be unwise—they would embody a kind of falsehood. (The National Review editors, like most conservative commentators on the issue, seem to vacillate between the weaker and stronger myth.)

Needless to say, I find this understanding of marriage absurd, both philosophically and historically. Whatever else it is, marriage is an evolving social institution. Like virtually every other, it has multiple overlapping purposes—most of which reinforce one another, some of which exist in tension. (Compare, for example, modern marriages of choice with traditional European arranged marriages.)

But the myth gets worse. For it appears that the Relationship Council’s ultimate concern wasn’t about children at all, since infertile heterosexual couples may marry whereas same-sex couples—even those with children—may not. Why not? According to the National Review editors (who sound an awful lot like Princeton’s Robert P. George),

“The philosophical answer boils down to the observation that it is mating that gives marriage its orientation toward children. An infertile couple can mate even if it cannot procreate. Two men or two women literally cannot mate.”

Got that? Marriage is for mating.

The idea that marriage=mating looks even worse when you consider its implications. It implies that married heterosexual couples who are having sex but aren’t “mating”—because, for example, they’re engaging in orgasmic oral sex, or because they’re using contraception—are pursuing a kind of “counterfeit” intimacy.

But wait, there’s more. Imagine a heterosexual couple, deeply in love, where the male is paralyzed from the waist down. Can this couple marry?

They cannot, on this view, for they cannot “mate.” Thus the male’s sexual stimulation of the female could achieve no more than “an impermissible illusion of (a counterfeit experience of) true one-flesh union, not its reality,” as one of George’s students recently put it to me.

This view of marriage is not just false. It’s not just foolish. It’s inhumane.

If this were all, it would be bad enough. But as if they wanted to make extra-sure that their argument was unsound, the National Review editors did not rest content merely with a false premise (namely, that the purpose of marriage is “mating”). That would have been too easy. Instead, they took that false premise, and proceeded to draw an invalid inference from it. That is, they argued from what is not true to what does not follow.

Purely for the sake of argument, let us grant that the purpose of marriage is mating. Indeed, let us grant that this is obviously so, as obvious as that ears are for hearing.

It is simply a non-sequitur to move from that premise to the conclusion that marriage may never be used for other purposes, such as recognizing, fortifying and protecting same-sex couples and their families.

After all, ears are for hearing, but they are also quite useful for keeping one’s eyeglasses from slipping down one’s nose. They can do that even for those who do not or cannot use them to hear (i.e. the deaf).

Securing their eyeglasses is something the National Review editors ought to try. For then they might better see what is crystal-clear to growing numbers of Americans: Same-sex couples, too, have needs that marriage serves well, and society has an interest in promoting stable family units for all its members. Even those whose sex doesn’t count as “mating.”

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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.

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First published at on September 10, 2010

In my marriage debates, I am often asked what I think about critics on the left who argue that marriage is a fundamentally flawed institution which gays and lesbians would be better off avoiding.

Answer: I think they’re ultimately wrong.

There are several such critics, though the ones that come quickly to mind are my fellow philosopher Claudia Card and the queer theorist Michael Warner. Their objections vary, but a common theme is that marriage necessarily involves the state discriminating between different types of relationships, privileging some (the married) at the expense of others (the unmarried).

Marriage pressures people in subtle and not-so-subtle ways, they argue, including economic incentives such as health-care, employment, and tax benefits. It grants status. Those who remain single are stigmatized or pitied, as are those who pursue alternative family forms. Card is also especially concerned about the legal access marriage gives spouses to each other, access which can make partners (especially women) vulnerable to abuse.

Such criticisms are not without merit. There was a time (thankfully past, but not by long) when married women could not defend themselves against rape by their husbands, because of a legal system which treated wives as essentially their husband’s property. Marriage does grant status, and married people sometimes flaunt it obnoxiously. And it’s unfortunate that single people have a harder time getting affordable health care than their married counterparts—though that is more because we attach health insurance to employment than a problem with marriage per se.

But I don’t see how solving these problems requires dismantling marriage, and I certainly don’t think we should delay the marriage-equality debate until we’ve addressed all other issues. Yes, marriage puts some pressure on people; that’s part of what makes it work as a social institution. Yes, sometimes that pressure goes too far. Yes, there are other valuable ways in which people organize their lives, and some of these deserve more attention than they get. But meanwhile, gays and lesbians are excluded from a fundamentally valuable institution—and that’s wrong.

Consider an analogy to another valuable social institution, college. One could make many of the same critiques of college that my fellow professors Card and Warner make of marriage. It privileges some life choices over others; it grants status; it unlocks a variety of economic and social benefits. We pressure young people to attend college and (unwittingly) stigmatize those who don’t. We claim to recognize that college isn’t right for everyone, and yet we do very little to support alternatives.

Now suppose that gays and lesbians were excluded from college. The correct response would not be to insist that college is imperfect and that we ought to forgo the “college-equality” debate until after we’ve fixed all of these other problems. The correct response would be to fix what we can, including the inequality.

Card has anticipated and responded to a similar argument. Imagine a society, she writes, which for sexist reasons allows men but not women to own slaves. Card argues that the way to repair such a society would be, not to extend slavery to women, but rather to abolish it altogether. She is surely correct about this. But the analogy only works on the assumption that marriage (like slavery and unlike college) is necessarily unjust, rather than only contingently so. I find that assumption absurd.

So while I agree that the marriage debate provides an opportunity to re-examine the weaknesses and strengths of marriage, as well as other life-choices, I remain convinced of the fundamental value of the institution. To this I would add a pragmatic point: Marriage is not going away—despite its radical critics’ hopes and its right-wing defenders’ fears. We would all be better off if it included gay and lesbian couples.

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First published at on August 27, 2010

In some circles, Ken Mehlman’s coming out as gay this week was about as shocking as Rosie O’Donnell’s coming out in 2002, or Ricky Martin’s coming out earlier this year. Others were quite surprised. Still others asked, “Who’s Ken Mehlman?”

Answer: Ken Mehlman is, according to the Atlantic piece that broke the story, “the most powerful Republican in history to identify as gay.” He’s the former chair of the Republican National Committee, and he was George W. Bush’s campaign manager in 2004.

Which means that Mehlman, 43, has spent a good chunk of his adult life contributing to a party and to campaigns that engaged in explicit gay-baiting. Recall that during the November 2004 presidential election, anti-gay marriage amendments passed in eleven states—part of Karl Rove’s strategy to draw out conservative evangelical voters.

Does Mehlman regret his role in all that?

Sort of, it seems. The Atlantic piece claims that Mehlman tried to scale back the marriage-equality attacks in “private discussions” with senior Republicans, and that he acknowledges that his coming out sooner might have mitigated some of his party’s homophobia.

But the quotations from Mehlman suggest that he doesn’t fully grasp his complicity. From the Atlantic piece:

“What I do regret, and think a lot about, is that one of the things I talked a lot about in politics was how I tried to expand the party into neighborhoods where the message wasn’t always heard. I didn’t do this in the gay community at all.”

He said that he “really wished” he had come to terms with his sexual orientation earlier, “so I could have worked against [the Federal Marriage Amendment]” and “reached out to the gay community in the way I reached out to African Americans.”

Here, Mehlman sounds at least as concerned (or more) about his failure to educate gays about Republican values as he does about his failure to educate Republicans (including himself) about gays.

In the interview, Mehlman also claims that former President Bush is “no homophobe,” which is true if by homophobe you mean someone viscerally uncomfortable with gay people. I lived in Austin when Bush was Texas Governor, and I knew people who knew him well. Gays were part of the Bushes’ social circle for years.

But homophobia doesn’t always come with open disgust, any more than racism always comes with hoods and pitchforks. Publicly, Bush, Rove, and Mehlman treated homosexuality as at best unspeakable, and at worst a threat to family and civilization. In doing so, they perpetuated the notion that gayness is a dirty little secret, something shameful and unholy.

Such homophobia is far more insidious—its damage far more pervasive—than any “God Hates Fags” rally. As someone who has experienced the closet firsthand, Mehlman ought now to understand that.

The reason that LGBT people are angry at Mehlman is that he was a key player in an organization that fostered and exploited such homophobia. The Republican party’s gay-baiting in 2004 didn’t just lead to a wave of discriminatory amendments: it also drove countless LGBT youth into the shaming closet that Mehlman is now gratefully escaping.

That’s what I want to see front and center on his regret list.

Which doesn’t mean I’m going to join the pile-on of those who say that there’s absolutely nothing that Mehlman could ever do to redeem himself. Quite the contrary.

Mehlman can’t change his past; no one can.

But if we want people to make better choices in the future, we hardly encourage their reform by telling them that they’re beyond redemption—as various bloggers have suggested regarding Mehlman.

Mehlman could easily have spent his life, as do many closeted Republicans (and Democrats, and Independents), covertly seeking romance with people who either don’t know or don’t care about his past. He has plenty of money; he could have afforded a nice closet.

By coming out in The Atlantic he has rejected that path. Good for him.

Instead, he wants to devote his energy to the fight for marriage rights. He has become actively involved in the American Foundation for Equal Rights, which is working to overturn California’s Prop. 8. His professional history puts him in a unique position to reach out to Republicans and others traditionally opposed to marriage equality.

If he continues these efforts—if he uses his strategic know-how to win political battles for equality, if he goes behind “enemy lines” to fight the homophobia that his party so deftly exploited, if he works to dismantle the crippling shame of the closet—then he should be congratulated, not shunned.

It won’t erase his past. But it’s a start at a much better future. I wish him well.

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First published at on August 20, 2010

Ross Douthat’s recent New York Times op-ed [] 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.

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First published at on July 16, 2010

Last week a U.S. District Court judge in Boston ruled portions of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) unconstitutional, prompting the usual cries of “judicial activism” from conservatives. Among the responses was a statement from Roman Catholic Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz of Kentucky, chair of the U.S. Bishops’ Ad Hoc Committee for the Defense of Marriage.

“Marriage exists prior to the state and is not open to redefinition by the state,” Kurtz said. “The role of the state, instead, is to respect and reinforce marriage.”

Archbishop Kurtz is partly right—but he’s also wrong in interesting ways.

He’s right that marriage is not something the state invents out of thin air. There is a social institution of marriage pre-existing any particular legal incarnation, and part of what legal marriage does is to acknowledge and protect this prior social institution.

But it doesn’t follow, as the archbishop and other opponents insist, that marriage for gays is therefore impossible by definition. That conclusion is a non-sequitur for several reasons.

First, legal marriage doesn’t MERELY track the social institution, and it can thus have different boundaries. For an analogy, consider the notion of legal parenthood, which is based in a pre-legal reality of biological parenthood but can vary from it. (Indeed, “legal parenthood” is often most important in those cases where the legal parents are NOT the biological parents.)

Second, and related, the causal arrow between the legal institution and the social institution goes both ways. The legal reality reflects the social reality and vice-versa.

That’s one reason why marriage equality scares opponents: the change in legal meaning is bound to effect change in social understanding. Sure, marriage-equality opponents can still teach their children that marriage “really” means something narrower—just as, for example, they can teach their children that a “real” marriage must originate in a church—but the broader legal definition makes those lessons more challenging to impart.

Third, and perhaps most interesting, there is an emerging social institution of marriage that includes gays. It’s time for the law to catch up to that.

Last month I participated in a same-sex wedding for some dear friends. The Presbyterian church hosting the ceremony called it a “holy union,” but just about everyone else called it a wedding—including the grooms’ families. There were tuxedos and champagne and cake and presents and all the other usual markers, including teary-eyed families witnessing solemn vows.

The state where this event occurred (Michigan) forbids legal marriage for gays and lesbians. But each groom’s parents have begun referring to their son’s partner as their “son-in-law,” and everyone around them understands why they do so.

It’s not a legal reality. But it is a personal and social one.

A growing number of people know gay and lesbian couples who have been together five, ten, fifteen, twenty years or more. Legally these couples may not be married, but in virtually every other way they are.

When people vow themselves to each other in the presence of friends and family, set up a household, and build lives together, they create a marriage. That’s how it happened for straight people long before the state started getting involved. And that’s how it’s happening for gay and lesbian couples now.

So the argument that marriage has a culturally determined meaning, independent of words assigned by law, cuts both ways.

Archbishop Kurtz is right when he says that “Marriage exists prior to the state.” He’s just wrong to think that it’s solely heterosexual.

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First published at on July 9, 2010

In vetoing Hawaii’s civil unions bill, Gov. Linda Lingle noted that the bill was “essentially marriage by another name.”

She has a point.

Of course I don’t agree with her decision, and I don’t buy her excuse that the issue was too important to be decided by “one person sitting in her office.”

In fact, that’s exactly how Lingle decided the issue when she chose to veto a measure that not only had passed both houses of the Hawaii legislature, but also had broad polling support of Hawaii’s citizens. Hawaii voters gave the legislature the power to define marriage (let alone civil unions) in 1998, and the Governor’s attempt to deflect responsibility for her veto was as shameful as the veto itself.

When I say that she has a point, I’m talking about her claim that the bill was “essentially marriage by another name.” Indeed, the bill explicitly stated as much: “partners to a civil union … shall have all the same rights, benefits, protections, and responsibilities under law … as are granted to spouses in a marriage.”

Like most civil-unions legislation, this bill was an attempt to grant marital rights and responsibilities without using the “M word”—a compromise that, for whatever strange reason, satisfies many opponents of marriage equality. Polls across the country show substantially greater support for civil unions than for marriage equality, even when the statewide rights and responsibilities would be legally identical in theory.

(Note that I said “in theory.” In practice, the “separate but equal” status of civil unions tends to fall far short of equality—even at the state level.)

I have long tried to make logical sense of this disparity. It’s not even quite like giving us half a loaf. It’s more like trying to give us a (virtually) full loaf while not calling it bread. (Also, don’t even think about carrying that loaf across state lines.)

As best as I can tell, the insistence on different names stems from the Definitional Objection to marriage equality—the view that marriage is “by definition” between a man and woman. On this view, calling a same-sex couple “married” is as confused as calling a married man a “bachelor.”

Okay, but suppose we grant identical legal boundaries to the relationship. Wouldn’t it then be a marriage, legally speaking?

Here’s where marriage-equality opponents get pushed into a corner. If they answer “yes,” they have to give up the argument that legal same-sex marriage is impossible by definition. If they answer “no,” they find themselves saying that a legally identical relationship isn’t legally identical.

The only way out of this logical pretzel is to distinguish between two senses of “marriage”—a legal sense, the boundaries of which are drawn however the law says they’re drawn, and a religious or metaphysical sense, the boundaries of which exist independently of human intentions.

The religious/metaphysical sense is surely what people have in mind when they say that same-sex marriage is impossible by definition. But the law isn’t—or shouldn’t be—in the business of religion or metaphysics. It should be concerned with the legal boundaries, period.

The problem is that some marriage-equality opponents are so wedded (pardon the pun) to their own religious/metaphysical notion of marriage that they cannot abide a legal understanding that deviates from it.

Nevertheless, many of these opponents recognize that same-sex couples form loving households and families, that they exist in relationships of mutual care and support, and that the government’s failure to grant those relationships legal recognition has consequences ranging from the inconvenient to the inhumane.

For these folks, “civil unions” are the ticket. The “civil unions” status allows them to grant the legal recognition without challenging their religious/metaphysical understanding.

At least, it allows them to do so as long as they don’t think about it too carefully. Because once they do so, they end up precisely where Lingle did: realizing that civil unions are, from a statewide legal standpoint, “essentially marriage by another name.”

And if the state ought to grant gays and lesbians marriage by another name, wouldn’t it make as much (or more) sense to grant them marriage, period?

Yes, precisely.

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First published at on July 2, 2010

I’m at a wedding for a same-sex couple, in the chapel anteroom before the service, and the grooms are sweating profusely.

It’s not because they’re nervous. It’s because they’re wearing black wool tuxedos, it’s a humid 90-degree day, and like most old churches, this one isn’t air-conditioned.

Why would anyone schedule a large ceremony in a non-air-conditioned venue in late June? I’m not religious, but if I were, I’d either schedule my wedding in October or convert to a denomination with modern facilities.

This church was not the grooms’ first choice. Or their second or third, for that matter. But they wanted a traditional church wedding, and most local churches declined to do a same-sex ceremony.

The demurring pastors weren’t hostile (though my friends didn’t bother asking those from conservative denominations). Indeed, several were quite apologetic, explaining that they supported the idea but needed more time to acclimate their congregations. Perhaps they were just making excuses to cover their own discomfort, though they seemed sincere.

So this particular church gets points for courage and open-mindedness. Just not climate control.

The church is Presbyterian, and they’re calling this event a “holy union.” In the weeks preceding it, some friends have been calling it a “commitment ceremony.” But most of us keep calling it a wedding, because that’s what it feels like, and that’s what it is.

Indeed, it’s not just a wedding, it’s—by my lights—a big wedding, complete with rehearsal dinner, organ and violin music (the harpsichord couldn’t be tuned due to the heat) and a reception for 160 guests. The grooms registered at Williams-Sonoma, Crate & Barrel, and Macy’s; they sent out multi-part invitations with useless sheets of tissue paper inside.

“Why do you want such a huge production?” I asked them one day.

A few reasons, they told me. Partly it was because one groom’s siblings all had big weddings, and both grooms love big parties. But mainly it was a way for them to signal to family and friends, “This is real. We mean it. Take it seriously.”

Rarely in the marriage-equality debate, as we reflect on the question “Why marriage?” do we stop and ask the question “Why weddings?”

Weddings are, at one level, absurd affairs: the gaudy pageantry, the forced intimacy with distant relatives and acquaintances, the cheesy running commentary from the DJ. They’re expensive, sometimes outrageously so. One designer friend of mine has done a wedding with a $38,000 budget—for the flowers alone. (Not all the decorations, he assured me—just the flowers.)

We dress in clothes that we’d never wear otherwise (despite what they told you about the bridesmaid dress you just bought); we rent limousines and grand reception halls; we send out invitations requesting the “honour” of people’s presence and the “favour” of their reply, as if we’ve all suddenly become members of the British royal court. Why do we make such a fuss?

We do it because, like these grooms, we want to say “This is real. We mean it. Take it seriously.” Yes, we can do that with simple affairs, and we can certainly do it with American spelling. But fanfare has its uses. If friends and relatives are going to fly from all around the country and buy you expensive presents and sweat through a long service that’s all about you, you’d better be pretty damn sure about what you’re doing.

In that way, weddings are not just a way for the couple to tell the world “Take it seriously;” they’re also a way for us to tell them the same. They create a cooperative web of expectation and support. They’re a time-honored ritual for turning partners into spouses; a relationship into a marriage.

And that’s what we’re doing here today. Despite the fact there is no bride. Despite the fact that this relationship is not legally recognized. Despite the fact that the church has replaced all references to “marriage” in the traditional service with “holy union.”

It’s a wedding, and it’s a marriage, because the love is real, the commitment is real, the family support is real, the sweat and the tears (of joy) are real. They mean it, and we mean it.

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