The Lawrence decision has come and gone, and it is now legal in Texas to commit homosexual sodomy-not because the electorate that twice bestowed the governorship on George W. Bush decided this was enlightened social policy, but because the Supreme Court found that the Constitution would have it so. When will gay marriage come to us, by this or some other route?
The two sides are already patrolling the no-fly zone of intellectual discourse, spying on each other’s positions and bombing select targets. So far, most of the war of words has been devoted to the effects that gay marriage would have on gays and on society in general.
Partisans of gay marriage make the case that the possibility of formal unions would have an uplifting effect on gays themselves. Gays already have available the superficial trappings: Anyone can exchange rings, write vows as tacky as those written by young men and women, and even find hip clerics to bless the proceedings. But when the sanction of law is applied, these rituals will have a new meaning. Marriage will be the light at the end of the tunnel of discrimination and pathology-a chance to act as equals, and to stop acting out.
Opponents of gay marriage fear one more blow against an already shaky institution. For while millions of marriages occur every year, millions also dissolve in acrimony and indifference, with the state clumsily trying to pick up the pieces, as represented by underpaid single mothers and ill-raised children. Family turbulence has a million causes, from the pursuit of happiness to MTV attention spans, but one great cause is the law, which increasingly treats marriage not as an institution prior to specific forms of government, but as a contract-as serious as a car loan, maybe, less serious than a mortgage. Adding new sexual permutations to marriage will make it more malleable, less sturdy.
The debate over effects is both passionate and interesting, but it’s clouded by uncertainty. To know the effect on gays, one would have to know something about gays, and who knows that? The philosopher Sidney Hook once asked, “What do homosexuals do?”-meaning “How do they have sex?” Hook knew everything about Karl Marx and John Dewey, but he didn’t know what used to be illegal in Texas.
We laugh, but are we any the wiser? Gays-even our gay friends, to the extent we think of them as gay-are figures of heterosexual fantasy: monsters, liberators, arbiters of elegance; the list goes on and on. Gay spokesmen hammer at the bad stereotypes and leave the positive ones alone. Every gay person knows heterosexuality better than any straight person can ever know homosexuality, because every gay person had parents. How many gays will wish to repeat their parents’ marriages?
The effect of gay marriage on marriage depends on the potency of small numbers. Gays are some small percentage of the population; some fraction of that fraction will choose marriage. What splash will that drop make in the great bucket of the republic? But physics teaches us the power of interrelation: A butterfly beats it wings, and a typhoon blows in the Pacific.
The presumed effects of gay marriage will be used to persuade others, and to rationalize one’s own position. It seems to me that people hold one of three basic positions.
The first is pride. Why should there be something gays cannot do? To deny them marriage degrades them in their own estimation. Never scant the role of pride in the modern world. The political scientist Francis Fukuyama, who wrote the seductive and wrongheaded essay about the end of history, expanded it into a less seductive book that made one arresting new point: The drive for self-rule in the world comes from people’s notions of their own worth. Every political movement, from the noble to the grotesque to the murderous, from Polish shipbuilders to Palestinian terrorists, is fueled by pride. Gay Pride is one subset.
The second position is: Huh? It is the conservatism of incomprehension, the judgment that is made before the question is posed. Who ever heard of such a thing as gay marriage? The late scholar John Boswell wrote a whole book trying to prove that there had been gay marriages in the late ancient world. He was looking for unicorns. Gay sex, gay love, gay love poems go back to Sappho and beyond, but no one ever thought of marrying men and men, and women and women, and we won’t think of it now.
The third position is politeness, the great unwillingness-seemingly liberal, actually WASP-to disoblige one’s acquaintances. Other cultures divide the world into kin and enemies. We acknowledge the people we shake hands with; with them, we do not wish for raised voices or awkward scenes. We may not know what gays do, but we know gays. They are one of us.
I doubt very much that we will extend the same consideration to Mormon polygamists. Now there is a tough subculture: Harassed by the world that lynched its prophet, Joseph Smith, then betrayed by their fellow Mormons when they decided that polygamy would have to be put on ice, the diehards retreated to rural Utah, Idaho and Arizona. Every once in a while, some cantankerous old goat is hauled into court, his 10 wives in tow. Don’t look for any sympathy for them if they try to take the Gay Train, to raise their social status by aping Larry Kramer. Mormon polygamists worship a god, and breed like rabbits. They are not one of us.
The great question, which none of the three positions can convincingly address, is: Are we bodies, and if so, what effect does that have? Emerson wrote about “the iron wire on which the beads are strung.” He thought the iron wire that controlled our destinies was temperament. Is there also a dash of biology in the alloy? Do our bodies give us options, and limit options? Are we discarnate souls, or dying animals? And should the law care?