July 3, 2003
First of two columns
This is the lull before the same-sex marriage storm.
Last week the Supreme Court ruled that states may not criminalize homosexual sodomy, and strongly implied that no sexual relationship between consenting adults may be legally disfavored. That sweeping decision is sure to be cited by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court if it rules this month, as many expect it will, that gay and lesbian couples in the Bay State have the right to marry. That in turn will trigger a nationwide explosion of litigation, trepidation, and condemnation. What Newsweek calls in its current issue "The War Over Gay Marriage" will be underway.
In truth, same-sex marriage is not an issue about which Americans are ambivalent. Most surveys taken since the issue first emerged in the late 1980s confirms that they are firmly against it. Six times between 1989 and 1998, for example, the CNN/Time poll asked whether marriages between gay men or lesbian women should be legalized. No more than 31 percent ever said yes; no less than 64 percent ever said no. Similarly, same-sex marriage was opposed by 68 percent of respondents in a 1996 Gallup poll and by 62 percent when Gallup asked again in 1999 and 2000.
"Solid majorities . . . do not endorse legally sanctioned gay marriage," concludes Karlyn Bowman, an expert on public opinion at the American Enterprise Institute. In a recent compilation of surveys dating back to 1973, she shows that Americans have in many ways become more accepting of homosexuality. They are far more likely to have homosexual friends, and to affirm the right of gays and lesbians to equality in job opportunities. Polls find majority support for homosexual teachers, doctors, politicians -- even clergy. But not marriage. Americans adamantly resist the idea of men marrying men or women marrying women.
And they are right to resist. For if same-sex marriage is made lawful, marriage itself will be gravely harmed.
It is not by coincidence or on a whim, after all, that human societies since time immemorial have restricted marriage to opposite-sex unions. That restriction is part of a system of social taboos whose purpose is to protect families from the caustic power of unrestrained sexuality. Together with the ancient taboos against adultery and incest, and the Western taboo against polygamy, the heterosexuality of marriage helps shield women and children from exploitation, cements the union between fathers and mothers, and bolsters the ethos of monogamy on which the dignity of marriage depends.
Weakening those traditional norms boosts sexual freedom, but as sexual freedom rises, the stability of families and marriage declines. The slippery slope is real, as America's experience since the sexual sevolution has made all too clear. Is that a reason to condemn anything and everything that expands sexual options? No. (How many Americans want to return to the era before reliable birth control?) But we should recognize that those options aren't free. We pay a price when we weaken common standards, especially those that pertain to marriage and sex. And the price of same-sex marriage -- as even some "queer" theorists openly predict -- may be the ruin of traditional family life.
Ah, but to say that is to run smack into what has become a familiar taunt: How does my committed gay relationship threaten your marriage? Puh-leez! Do you seriously imagine that legalizing same-sex weddings will have married heterosexuals flocking to divorce court? I defy you to produce even a shred of evidence that marriage for gays will harm anybody else.
Well, here's a shred of evidence: The Boston Globe reports that in the three years since Vermont extended near-marriage status to same-sex civil unions, nearly 5,700 gay and lesbian couples have registered their relationship. Of those couples, close to 40 percent, or more than 2,000, include at least one partner who used to be married.
Just a shred -- but a jarring one. Of course it doesn't mean that Vermont's civil-union law broke up 2,000 straight couples. It does mean that where there used to be 2,000 traditional marriages, there are now 2,000 ruptured ones -- and 2,000 gay or lesbian unions in their place. Were some of those marriages doomed from the outset? Probably. But it's also probable that some of them weren't. In another time or another state, some of those marriages might have worked out. The old stigmas, the universal standards that were so important to family stability, might have given them a fighting chance. Without them, they were left exposed and vulnerable.
Vermont's experience with civil unions is just a ripple compared with the tidal wave of change we will see if same-sex marriage is legalized outright. The structure of norms and taboos on which healthy marriages depend will be buffeted beyond anything we can imagine. Just how many conventional marriages will founder under the pressure of that wave, just how many more will never be formed in the first place, we have no way of knowing in advance. Americans are right not to want to find out.