The Illusion of Gay Marriage
Departments of Government and Philosophy University of Texas–Austin
See, I have set before you this day life and good, death and evil.
Deuteronomy 30:15 (RSV)
I propose to defend the traditional understanding of marriage, but let me be clear from the outset what kind of defense this will be. I don’t know if I can persuade you not to redefine marriage. Probably not. What I can do is point out that the redefinition of marriage would not achieve what its advocates think it would.
To be helpful, words must square with things. Things do not change natures just because we change the words by which we refer to them. We might decide to call dogs “cats,” but we would not thereby succeed in turning dogs into cats, because dogs and cats are different kinds of realities. In the same way, we might decide to call same-sex liaisons “marriages,” but we would not thereby succeed in turning these liaisons into marriages because they too are different kinds of realities.
You might think that if what I say is true, and the characteristics of things are not changed by the words that we use for them, then it makes no difference what words we use for them. Not so. It does make a difference. Although we cannot change dogs into cats, we can confuse ourselves by calling dogs cats. In the same way, although we cannot change same-sex liaisons into marriages, we can confuse ourselves by calling them marriages. Since marriage is not just any sort of reality, but a reality into which human persons voluntarily enter, the right ordering of which is crucial to their happiness in this life, it is important that we not be confused —that we understand what kind of reality it is that we are entering so that we can care for it properly. Otherwise we will dissipate ourselves in futility and vexation, wondering why nothing hangs together.
The traditional Christian understanding of marriage is:
A mutual and binding promise between one man and one woman, before God, to enter into a procreative and unitive bond, with each other alone, for life.
Every word in this definition is indispensable. The promise is mutual because the parties must both agree. It is binding because it creates inviolable duties. They promise because they commit their wills. A man and woman are required because that which marriage establishes cannot subsist between two persons of the same sex, as I hope to make clear. The promise is enacted before God because human marriage was His idea, a part of the plan of Creation; therefore the parties seek His blessing and are answerable to Him for unfaithfulness. We speak of the parties’ entrance into marriage because they do not invent it around themselves; rather they choose to take upon themselves a preexisting possibility. We call marriage a procreative partnership because marriage is the unique source of families, the unique way in which we participate in the continuation of the species, the only thing we know that gives a child a fighting chance of being raised by a mom and a dad. Indeed that is why law protects it, for you will note that the law does not protect my relationship with my lunch partner, or define my duties toward my fishing buddy. We call marriage a unitive partnership because in joining, the man and woman become one flesh—there are still two bodies, but they function as the complementary parts of a single procreative organism. We say they have a bond because this union, this organism, is not merely sentimental, metaphorical, or euphemistic; rather it is the concrete reality in which the other dimensions of their intimacy are consummated. They enter marriage with each other alone because polygamy and unfaithfulness confuse and undermine not only their own relationship but their relationship with the resulting children. Finally, the marriage is for life because although many things may impair it, only death can truly sever it. The procreative partnership persists even after the children are grown, because then the spouses help their children establish their own new families, and when their powers at last fail, their children in turn take care of them.
The fact that same-sex unions violate the terms of this traditional Christian understanding is trivially obvious, but convinces no one. The reason it convinces no one is that the traditional understanding is precisely what homosexual activists protest. Yet although they consider it wrong, they say it is not very wrong; they say, in fact, that the traditional understanding of marriage is defective in only one respect. It keeps them out, and they—in their view quite reasonably—want in. If only it were corrected to let them in, then it would be all right.
Let’s take them at their word and see what kind of correction would be required. I think we will find that a whole series of corrections is necessary, raising grave questions about what is left at the end.
It may seem as though the only thing we have to do in order to satisfy the simultaneous demands of logic, reality, political correctness, and unappeasable desire, is delete those words man and woman from the definition of marriage. That is what most people think “gay marriage” is about. They imagine that homosexuals are demanding access to the same thing that heterosexuals enjoy.
But of course, if marriage is a procreative partnership, then homosexuals are in principle unable to enjoy it, and conversely, if they are able to enjoy it, then it is not a procreative partnership. So we have to delete the word procreative too.
Many of you will ask, “So what?” Contraceptives have made us accustomed to the idea that sex and marriage have nothing to do with procreation. Moreover, it is a philosophical commonplace of our times that things have no natural purposes, that the purposes of things are in the eyes of their beholders, that you can’t get an ought from a natural is. It takes a certain double-mindedness to believe such things. If we go to the doctor because of emphysema, it never occurs to us to suppose that the purpose of breathing might be in the eye of the beholder, that you can’t get an ought to breath from the is designed for breathing, and that therefore it might be just as good to use lungs for sniffing glue as it is to use them for respiration. Nor do we doubt that the purpose of the heart is to circulate the blood, that the purpose of the eyes is to see, that the purpose of the esophagus is to take in nourishment—or that these purposes are binding upon us. Why do we make an exception for the sexual powers?
Some object that the purpose of sex is not procreation but pleasure. It is certainly true that sex is pleasurable, but the exercise of every voluntary natural power is pleasurable. It is pleasurable to take a deep breath. It is pleasurable to flex a muscle. It is pleasurable to eat. By activist reasoning, then, the purpose of breathing, flexing muscles, and eating is also pleasure. It would seem to follow that if I can get greater eating pleasure by consuming a meal, purging, and consuming a second meal, I ought to do so. Nonsense. Pleasure may motivate me to eat, but the purpose of eating is nutrition, and it is the purpose, not the pleasure, which regulates when I should eat and when not. So also with sexual intercourse.
As I say, I do not expect to convince most of you about procreation; we live in an antilife culture, and the reason we are confused about homosexuality is that we are already confused about heterosexuality. I merely point out that if you strike that word “procreation” from the definition of marriage, you are no longer talking about the same reality as before. Now let’s see what other changes in the definition this last change requires.
After excising reference to procreation from the definition of marriage, the definition becomes “a mutual and binding promise between two people, before God, to enter into a unitive bond, with each other alone, for life.” The idea of procreation is gone, but the idea of union remains. This definition is probably what most people think they mean when they speak of “same-sex marriage.” For that matter, it is probably what many confused people have in mind when they speak of traditional marriage.
The problem is that such a definition isn’t what it appears to be. Although it seems to eliminate all reference to procreation, really it eliminates only explicit reference to procreation. An implicit reference to procreation is contained within the idea of a genuinely unitive bond.
For remember my comment about the word “unitive” in the traditional definition of marriage: The man and woman become complementary parts of a single organism with two personalities. In the case of all other biological functions, only one body is required to do the job. A person can digest food by himself, using no other gullet but his own; he can see by himself, using no other eyes but his own; he can walk by himself, using no other legs but his own; and so with each of the other functions and their corresponding organs. It’s true that we can’t live well without other people, and so we are rightly called social; we can, however, simply live. Each of us can perform every vital function by himself. Except one. The single exception is procreation.
What this means is that among human beings the male and female sexual powers are radically incomplete and designed for each other. If we were speaking of respiration, it would be as though the man had the diaphragm,the woman the lungs, and they had to come together to take a single breath. If we were speaking of circulation, it would be as though the man had the atria, the woman the ventricles, and they had to come together to make a single beat. Now it isn’t like that with the respiratory or circulatory organs, but that is exactly how it is with the generative organs. The union of opposites is the only possible realization of their procreative potential; unless they come together as a single organism, as one flesh, procreation does not occur. This union of biological opposites is what the unitive dimension of marriage is about; each spouse contributes what the other lacks. Therefore, inorder to make the previous changes in the definition of marriage work, the definition must be changed yet again. We must replace the word “unitive” so that no one can say marriage requires biological complementarity.
If biological complementarity is gone, then only psychological complementarity is left. Very well; then the definition of marriage becomes “a mutual and binding promise between two people, before God, to enter into a bond which promises psychological complementarity, with each other alone, for life.”
At this point we reach a puzzle. What is “psychological complementarity”? We know what it is in the case of a man and woman, for the difference of the sexes is not merely physical. In conjugal union, their hearts and minds and spirits cooperate with their bodies. The spouses are united not only in their bodily dimension, but in every dimension. This unity also helps prepare them to be parents, and the hope of children, in turn, joins them in solidarity with every past and future generation. But where is the psychological complementarity of a pair of men or a pair of women?
Some people claim that the union of psychological opposites does not require difference of sex, because people can be psychologically different in other ways too. One young lesbian wrote to me,
I was born and raised in [America]. My girlfriend spent the first 13 years of her life [overseas]. That in itself is a difference. We have very different personalities—I’m vocal and emotional, she’s quiet and analytical. We look very different—I weigh, literally, almost twice as much as she does. We are of different religions—I’m a Vodoun/Witchcraft syncretist, she’s a Gnostic Christian.
The claim under examination is that although homosexual liaisons lack the sexual sort of complementarity or balance, they may enjoy other sorts. But this misses a crucial point. Homosexual liaisons don’t just lack sexual balance; they aggravate sexual imbalance. A man and woman can provide to each other what each by nature lacks. By contrast, two mutually sexualized men, or two mutually sexualized women, can only reinforce what each by nature already has. Rather than balancing each other’s sexual tendencies, they reinforce each other’s sexual tendencies. Male sexuality is outward-directed. [I am not claiming that men are naturally promiscuous: promiscuity is a perversion, due to the Fall, of our natural outward-directedness. What I mean by outward-directedness is this.’] An unmarried man pursues the beloved; a married man protects the home and beloved from external threat. By contrast, female sexuality is inward-directed. An unmarried woman makes herself attractive to pursuit; a married woman establishes her home on the hearth. When you pair the outward-directed man and the inward-directed woman, they are in equilibrium. But what happens when you sexually couple the outward-directed man with another outward-directed man? The gay subculture manifests exactly what theory predicts: explosive promiscuity. For analogous reasons, when you sexually couple the inward-directed woman with another inward-directed woman, you get implosive emotional dependency. This may be the most important reason why the rates of mental illness are also so much higher among homosexuals than among heterosexuals.
If we excise even reference to psychological complementarity from the definition of marriage, then what do we put in its place? Perhaps we can get some help from considering one of the things that the man and woman promise each other in the traditional wedding vow. Forsaking all others, they promise to love each other until death—love being an enduring commitment to the true good of the beloved. So perhaps the definition of marriage should be revised to read as follows: Marriage is “a mutual and binding promise between two people, before God, each to pursue the true good of the other, with each other alone, for life.”
The difficulty is that no matter how much the parties to a homosexual liaison may wish to pursue each other’s true good, that is just what they cannot do, for precisely the reasons just explained: their relationship is psychologically dyscomplementary. But the problem can be seen in the physical dimension too. Neither male nor female homosexual behavior is particularly healthy; male homosexual practices are especially damaging because the male reproductive organ and the male bodily openings are not made for each other. It is hard to see what is “loving” about acts which cause chronic tearing, stretching, bleeding, choking, death, disease, and pain, and which are so unsuited to our bodies that they introduce fecal contamination into the bloodstream. And we wonder why disease rates are so high.
For both reasons—psychological and physical—a promise to pursue a homosexual relationship is more like a promise to pursue each other’s true harm than like a promise to pursue each other’s true good.
If we remove the idea of commitment to the true good of the other from the definition of marriage, what is left is love in the merely sentimental sense—the emotional tenderness the parties may have for one another. The definition of marriage now becomes “a mutual and binding promise between two people, before God, to enter into a bond of affection, with each other alone, for life.”
Unfortunately, no promise can guarantee the affections. You can bind the will, but you cannot bind the emotions. They do not submit to us in that way. No one can promise to go on feeling the way that he feels, for life.
Speaking of things like promises, the so-called committed gay relationship is a myth. When activists say “let me tell you about my committed relationship,” don’t believe them. To quote from the National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality, “Although long-term gay male relationships do, indeed, exist, studies consistently show them to be promiscuous. In fact, gay researchers and writers most typically say that a sexually open arrangement is essential to a gay male relationship’s survival.”2 Other research confirms that homosexuals with partners don’t stop cruising, they just cruise less.3
The argument is sometimes offered that if only homosexuals were allowed to “marry,” they would become more like heterosexuals; their bonds, though not lifelong, would at least be more enduring than they are now. The most well-known advocate of this view is gay activist Andrew Sullivan, who says that the extreme instability of homosexual relationships is due to social disapproval.
I suggest that no one really believes this, including gay activists themselves. In the final chapter of his book Virtually Normal, even Sullivan lets the cat out of the bag. It turns out that he doesn’t expect so-called gay marriage to change homosexual behavior so much as to change heterosexual behavior. According to Sullivan, social approval of homosexual liaisons would be good for straight culture because gays can teach straights something. And what can they teach them? There is “more likely to be a greater understanding of the need for extramarital outlets between two men,” saysSullivan, “than between a man and a woman.”
Recognition of the need for extramarital “outlets” is supposed to be something good. In another book, Love Undetectable, Sullivan releases an even bigger cat from the bag, for as he explains in a letter to Salon magazine, the book defends “the beauty and mystery and spirituality of sex, even anonymous sex.” By the time we reach this stage of redefinition—a stage which, logically and empirically, we cannot avoid —the game is over. A promise to remain in an affectionate relationship with outlets, and for just as long as it shall last, is a promise of exactly nothing. There is no remaining ground for distinguishing marital from nonmarital sexual relationships. The redefinition of marriage turns out to be the destruction of marriage.