A Gay Marriage Opponent Responds

First published at 365gay.com on September 14, 2009

Last week I wrote about marriage-equality opponents’ “Always and Everywhere” argument—the claim that since marriage has “always” been heterosexual, we ought not to tinker with it now.

In response, a prominent same-sex marriage opponent e-mailed me to explain what was “logically and philosophically wrong” with my critique. In particular, she argued that my claim that “each new same-sex marriage is a living counterexample to it” fails, because it misunderstands the rationale behind “always and everywhere.”

According to this opponent, the “always and everywhere” argument is not intended as a straightforward descriptive claim—in which case, a single counterexample would indeed refute it—but rather as a tool to uncover the REASON why society after society constructs marriage heterosexually.

As she put it, “Why do they keep stumbling on this idea that it’s important to unite male and female in public sexual unions that define the responsibilities of male and female parents to their biological children? Is that reason still valid today?”

Interesting. Is this the right way to understand the “always and everywhere” argument? And if so, does that affect my assessment? To these questions, my answers are “Maybe” and “Absolutely not.”

It’s probably misleading to talk about THE right way to understand the “always and everywhere” argument, unless one is considering a specific instance of it by a particular marriage-equality opponent. After all, the claim that marriage has been heterosexual “always and everywhere” has been used by different people at different times for different purposes.

But let’s suppose one is using the claim to flush out why marriage has been the way it is—that is, typically heterosexual almost everywhere. Why, indeed, has marriage been this way?

One huge reason is the misunderstanding and oppression of gays throughout the ages, or what we might call “heteronormativity.” It is therefore no surprise that as scientific and moral understanding of homosexuality evolves, so does acceptance of same-sex marriage.

What’s more, it’s not clear that the reasons for heterosexual marriage would be in any way invalidated by acknowledging reasons (perhaps similar, perhaps different) for homosexual marriage. This is not a zero-sum game.

But what if there’s a reason for making marriage EXCLUSIVELY heterosexual—as most (but not all) societies do? According to marriage-equality opponents, there is such a reason. It is to bind parents, and especially fathers, to their biological children.

I have two responses. First, talking about THE reason for marriage is even more misleading than talking about THE purpose of the “always and everywhere” argument. While there may be an embedded practical logic in social institutions, the underlying justifications for them are nearly always complex. Marriage looks the way it does today because of a varied and often messy history.

Second, even granting that one important reason for marriage is binding parents (especially fathers) to their biological children, it is not clear why this reason requires marriage to be exclusively heterosexual. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: same-sex marriage never takes children away from loving biological parents who want them.

And here’s where same-sex families provide a living counterexample in the strongest sense. It’s not just that they falsify the claim that marriage is always and everywhere heterosexual (by announcing, in effect, “Not anymore it isn’t!”). It is that they falsify the patently absurd claim that binding parents to their biological children is the sole justification for marriage.

No one actually believes this claim, which is why it continues to amaze me that marriage-equality opponents suggest it with a straight face. Marriage surely binds children to parents, but it also binds spouses to each other—for better or worse, richer or poorer, in sickness and in health and so on. Generally, that’s good for the spouses and good for society—even where children are not present.

Alternatively, opponents will make the more limited claim that this particular purpose of marriage (binding parents to children) trumps the others. But again, even if that were true, it’s not clear what follows. How would allowing gays to marry make straights any less bound to their biological children?

Imagine the thought process: “Yikes, Adam and Steve are getting married! Kids, I’m outta here.”
In short, whether we take the simple reading of the “Always and Everywhere” argument (“Never before, therefore not now”) or this supposedly new and improved one (“Almost never before; therefore, there must be some good reason for ‘not now’), the anti-equality conclusion doesn’t follow.