It’s a credit to your honesty that you admit that your opposition to marriage rights for gay and lesbian Americans is inextricable from your opposition to most of the other changes in marriage for the last 35 years. But I am a little taken aback by the extent of your hostility, as I’m sure other readers will be. Do you really think that working women should return to the kitchens of the 1950s or that domesticated men are a grave threat to the social fabric? Are you saying that the end of rigid sex roles in many heterosexual marriages is a reason for rising levels of divorce and illegitimacy? Or that love should not be a primary part of the motivation to marry? I can see why you might want to define marriage back to an institution that put procreation ahead of love, that encompassed rigid notions of a wife’s role and a husband’s duty, and that eschewed the companionship of equals–because it’s the only way you can redefine marriage to exclude homosexuals. But this is surely a somewhat eccentric view, even among conservatives. Indeed, it’s only by thinking through the radicalism of your assault on the state of sex relations in America that I have begun to understand better why the Republican right has come to seem so marginal to the country’s real debates these days.
But much as it might be interesting to debate you on the alleged failures of heterosexual America (I think it’s doing a better job balancing freedom and responsibility than you do, as recently improving statistics on divorce suggest), our conversation here is about something a little more specific: whether we should allow homosexual citizens the same right to marry as their heterosexual peers. I begin with a simple observation. This is 1997, not 1962. Barring an unprecedented and sudden groundswell back to ‘50s-style sexual inequality, what we are addressing as a practical matter today is whether homosexuals should be excluded from marriage as it exists now. If, as you concede, modern marriage is not very gender-specific, if it does not demand the production of children or rigid sex roles, if it is not the model of 1962, then why should homosexuals be excluded from it?
So far as I can tell, your only argument is that same-sex marriage is the straw that will break the camel’s back, and that homosexuals should be excluded from marriage because heterosexuals have already made such a mess of it. Homosexuals, in other words, should be excluded from marriage because they would make explicit the very lack of strict gender roles that heterosexuals have already embraced. I wonder whether you have pondered for very long what this argument implies. Are you saying that a group of people, who have played no part in the alleged decline of this institution, who have petitioned for 30 years to be a part of it, should now bear the burden of rescuing it from collapse? And they should bear that burden by willingly accepting their exclusion from one of the most basic civil rights our society provides? Maybe you are numb to the crass unfairness of this, or you have become so used to thinking of homosexuals as objects manipulable for larger social purposes that it doesn’t even occur to you that there’s something wrong here. Be that as it may. Let me propose a deal: I will join you in a campaign to restigmatize adultery and tighten no-fault divorce, if you will join with me in fighting for the right of lesbian and gay citizens to marry on just those terms. That way we can both do our bit to rescue marriage, and homosexuals can stop being the scapegoats for any other social decline you wish to mention. What could be fairer than that?
In any case, your premise about the social agenda of most gay men and women who want the right to marry is completely misplaced. Most of us have no intention of transforming the existing institution into a responsibility-free zone. We don’t want to “bulldoze the [country] club and build a subdivision in its place.” We want the opposite. We are seeking the responsibilities that marriage both recognizes and encourages. Many of us would gladly join you in helping to shore up the institution, if you would only let us in. Most of us were born into families we love and cherish and want to sustain. Most of us do not mistrust organized religion; we practice it. Most of us do not want to make life worse for children; we want to protect our own and others in our families and give hope to a generation of gay children who are told from an early age that their lives will never fully appear in their family albums. Your distortion of my phrase “radical autonomy” typifies your blindness on this point. I’m clearly referring there not to the responsibilities of marriage itself, but to the radical ability to choose a partner with whom to live the rest of one’s life. This radical autonomy is not a social given. Thirty-five years ago, remember, in the age you eulogize so lovingly, African-Americans were not allowed to marry whites in many states–and social constraints forbade mixed marriages of many kinds. No doubt you’re glad that that convention has changed, although it was approved of at the time by “everybody–the priest, one’s relatives, the teachers at your children’s school, the grocer, the cleaning lady.” So let me reiterate what I think is the lesson of that reform and the reform now before us: Everyone should be radically free to choose the person he or she marries. But the marriage itself should carry with it all the responsibilities and obligations it traditionally has. Why do you–as a conservative who allegedly upholds equal opportunity for all Americans–have a problem with that?