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“Reflections on Same-Sex Marriage”

As a way to expand on some of what I posted yesterday and have written before on the topic of same-sex marriage, I’m pasting below the fold an essay on the subject that I wrote for Culture11 but which, sadly, never saw the light of day. I’m not at all sure that I endorse wholeheartedly everything I say in it, but I’m happy to put it forward as a reasonably approximate summary of my present views nevertheless.

ADDENDUM: I ought to add that I’m really, really grateful to Conor Friedersdorf for all the work he did editing this piece and wading through the morass of its many earlier drafts.

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Reflections on Same-Sex Marriage

A Catholic conservative’s mixed emotions about Proposition 8.

By John Schwenkler

When my friend looked up from his beer and asked me whether he and his boyfriend should think about getting married, I immediately found myself at a loss for words. I had been asked for similar advice before, but always concerning … well … other guys’ girlfriends, and usually with an eye towards sacramental marriage, rather than the civic licenses that California was soon to begin extending to same-sex couples.

It was, in fact, I who had broached the subject of same-sex marriage, remarking that the perceptions of anti-gay hostility engendered by the campaign against it made me worry that such advocacy may ultimately do Christian moral teachings more harm than good. But now, with the focus of the conversation having moved from abstract principles to personal decisions, the issue was cast in a very different light.

As it happens, my friend’s and my attitudes toward same-sex marriage are similar in several important respects. My own hesitancy about the practice is rooted, I think, in the admittedly vague sense that just as “parent” naturally suggests “child”, so “husband” suggests “wife”, and vice-versa. That our language has this sort of structure enables us to make a number of significant distinctions — to display right on the surface of our speech the ways in which a certain sort of relationship is a distinctive sort of relationship.

This is not to say that relationships of this sort are essentially better than any others, nor is it to say that homosexual relationships cannot embody a class of goods that deserve to be seen as privileged in their own way. (My friend, who has been in one such relationship for over 20 years, affirms as much.)  But while words can and very often do change their meanings, the way we speak about homosexual and heterosexual relationships should, I think, ideally be ones that acknowledge and respect the genuine differences between them.

In similar fashion, my friend has described to me the strangeness of seeing homosexual couples, once they have taken on the title of “marriage,” begin to slide into the gender roles with which that institution is conventionally associated. Whether or not this is done consciously, there is something forced about it — to him, it often looks like an attempt to prove to the world (or to themselves) that this is a real marriage, and not merely some other sort of relationship attempting to co-opt the name. Only the most extreme gender denialist could doubt that a married man and woman will usually comport themselves in ways distinct from same-sex partners, and forcing these modes of behavior on a homosexual couple can be deeply harmful.

And so, despite having felt firsthand the painful reality of our society’s animus against same-sex relationships, the prospect of attempting to push back against that animus by calling his relationship a marriage is one that my friend, too, can’t help but regard with real trepidation.

Hence my friend and I agree, I think, that the ideal response to homosexuality would be one that could find a way to acknowledge the very real goods of committed homosexual relationships without failing to distinguish them from the corresponding heterosexual ones.

But we also agree that this cannot be done if we insist on resorting to the corporate language of “partnerships,” the hollow legalism of “civil unions,” or—worst of all—the childish language of “boyfriends” and “girlfriends” to describe same-sex couples.

Andrew Sullivan’s reflections on the one-year anniversary of his own marriage are instructive here: what he and his husband found in this hallowed institution was not just a legal recognition of their relationship, but also a way for their family and friends to speak about the two of them without falling into empty and awkward banalities. The possibility of turning to the language of “fiancé” and then of “husband” came as a relief — uncomfortable at first, but then an increasingly natural way to welcome a new member into their family, to speak and think of him as someone whose presence among them warranted the full extent of their joy and celebration.

Sullivan’s story helps, then, to bring out a crucial challenge for my friend’s and my tentative position on same-sex marriage: for right now the language of marriage is the only language we have for speaking about loving and exclusive relationships between adults. (The nearly-forgotten Christian tradition of “wedded friendships” provides a window into a terminology we have lost, and indeed one which does not deny that homosexuals may be called to an especially challenging sort of chastity.) And because of this, any unwillingness to classify homosexual relationships as marriages is necessarily felt as a callous treatment of such relationships as second-class, a refusal to acknowledge their goodness and an insistence on treating them instead as worthy only of disapproval or pity.

As a consequence, one of the central struggles for homosexual couples like my friend and — for lack of a better word — his partner is that, short of turning to the institution of marriage, they presently have no natural way to present their relationships to the outside world. And it is hard for me to comprehend how challenging this must be: imagine, for example, being a non-biological parent in a society with no non-demeaning ways of speaking of adoption—and a majority of your fellow citizens trying to insist that they not refer to you as “mom” or “dad.”

And so, when I first saw the faces of those couples who were married in my adopted home state during its earliest rounds of same-sex weddings, I was struck most of all by the joy that their expressions conveyed. This was not the angry, in-your-face “pride” of gay rights marchers, nor was it mere activism, intent on undermining traditional institutions in the service of a false equality. Rather, these are pairs of people who are simply in love with one another. They are celebrating that love, and rejoicing in its recognition by the state — the pronunciation of marriage lifts, for at least a few moments, the deeply felt stigma against having (I almost wrote suffering from) same-sex attractions. And perhaps more than anything, it gives them a way to speak of what they are: not just friends or partners, but husbands and wives, however awkward that language may initially seem.

This is, I think, clearly a good thing in its own right. It can also be good for the cause of preserving traditional attitudes toward sexuality and the family: for the minds of gay people, and the many Americans sympathetic to them, will be forever closed to the socially conservative agenda if it seems like nothing more than a callous vehicle for conferring shame.

Of the huge class of desires that are in some sense natural to many human beings, very few find their outward expressions as frequently mocked, marginalized, and misunderstood as homosexual attraction. As a consequence, such opposition is perceived as harsh, imposing, and improperly sectarian, despite the fact that much of it is rooted in the same sort of religious-cum-philosophical framework as most other political convictions. When the direct effects of campaigning against gay marriage include the further marginalization and closeting of homosexuality and the perception (again, whether real or illusory) of the use of hostility as a tool for partisan advancement, it is not at all clear that even political “successes” in such endeavors are better than simply standing in place.

This is not to say that fear of being seen as bigoted (or — ludicrously — “homophobic”) should force religious and social conservatives to keep quiet about their deepest convictions. To the contrary, such commitments have central and indispensable roles to play in our public life. But they are far more likely to be heard, pondered and responded to when presented as challenges to the lives of individuals, rather than loud and angry calls for political reform.

Given the Catholic bishops’ strong stance on Proposition 8, I decided to sit out the California vote on the constitutional amendment last November 4 — and despite my misgivings about the campaign against gay marriage it was hard not to feel that the voters’ decision to ban it was a predictable reaction to the courts’ invention of a new class of rights.

But social conservatives who think that the passage of this amendment is an unqualified good for their cause would do well to take a step back.

For even ifrecognizing same-sex relationships as marriages is not the ideal societal response to homosexuality, it may still be that conservative opposition to same-sex marriage does more harm than good to the values most social conservatives want to promote.

Times like these call for cultural diplomacy, not the endless waging of a culture war. And no mere word is worth fighting over when the wounds of battle run too deep.

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