Why I Changed My Mind About Same-Sex Marriage

Back in 2003, I wrote a really long blogpost about same-sex marriage that I have since substantively repudiated. Every time I mention that I’ve changed my mind, I am asked, reasonably enough, why. So I’m going to try to answer that question.

First, let me be clear about a few things. Back in the 1990s, I favored same-sex marriage, for all the usual reasons that Andrew Sullivan could tell you. I remember being very excited in the Vice Presidential debate in 2000 when the subject came up. While neither Lieberman nor Cheney would straight-up endorse same-sex marriage, neither did they reject it, both instead giving a kind of emotional support to the idea while refusing to commit themselves on the question of what the law should say.

Then I changed my mind. Not that I changed it all that much. At the time I penned my anti-same-sex-marriage piece, I opposed “don’t ask don’t tell,” opposed the Defense of Marriage Act, needless to say opposed the Federal Marriage Amendment, favored a robust civil unions law at the state level comparable to what Vermont had at the time, and, though we’re wandering a bit afield now, favored some kind of commitment ceremony for gay couples and the ordination of openly gay rabbis within the Conservative movement of Judaism, my denomination. So I would describe my change of heart as happening within a basically gay-friendly context – or so I thought to myself, anyway.

But the emotional tone of my piece was wildly different from anything I might have written on the subject years earlier, had I been moved to do so (I started blogging in 2002).

In any event, I started changing my mind back within a year or so, at first tentatively and then more forcefully. When I look back, any explanation of the second change of heart depends on an understanding of the true reasons for the first change.

There’s no way to make this other than personal, so I’ll just say it straight out: my anxieties about gay marriage had little really to do with real, practical concerns about “the state of marriage in America” and certainly nothing to do with “fears” of “teh gays” but, rather, with very real anxieties about my own marriage and my own ability, as a flawed human being, to sustain it in the face of adversity. I looked at myself, and I told myself: I need something more than I have in me to make this work for the long term. And I found it in what I guess I’d have to call the “ideology of marriage.”

The ideology of marriage basically sets up a kind of universal template for a life narrative. If you follow these rules, you’ll be happy, content, settled – most important, you’ll be defined, you’ll have an identity that is clear and crisp and that will ground you.

But, of course, no ideology can provide that. You can’t follow a set of rules to some guarantee of happiness nor can you construct an identity by any such means. Your identity emerges from the constellation of actions you take and relationships you nurture over a lifetime. And it has an irreducible core that is substantially inborn, that was there before you knew it, that you cannot fundamentally change and that you need to get to know, one way or another.

The ideology of marriage serves as a substitute for the absorption of unconscious lessons about life and how to live it from actual, living married couples, ideally one’s parents. And so, in an age when there are so many broken marriages, it’s not surprising that an ideology of marriage would take root. There was and is a palpable hunger, in many people besides me, that the ideology aimed to satisfy.

What is the ideology of marriage? I’ve tried to tease it out of my own mind, since it’s not something that I was taught and memorized like a catechism. It’s something that was in the background of my thinking, not fully disclosed, and that I’ve only belatedly tried to put into systematic form.

In any event, here’s my best stab at it.

In the marriage ideology, marriage is about the apotheosis of the self through the subsumption of the self.

Marriage is, legally, a contract, imposing obligations on both parties. That’s what it was for almost all of human history – something about property and rights, not about love or the self. The great revolution in human affairs that began in the Renaissance was to imagine that romantic love and marriage could have something to do with one another – that one ought to marry one’s true love. (Before this, the cult of courtly love valorized adultery as the true expression of love; marriage was dictated by family and property questions, so if romantic love was to have any expression, it would only plausibly be through adultery.)

But true love . . . well, who knows what it is? Who can be sure to have found it? Who can say where it goes if it flies, whether it will return? Anyone haunted by those hobgoblins of epistemology might reasonably say: isn’t there another meaning to marriage besides the expression of love? Some kind of ideal that might be more sure, precisely because it didn’t actually depend on the identity of the other person? And to this the marriage ideology says: yes, there is.

In the marriage ideology, marrying isn’t primarily about love, or any other aspect of the relationship between two people; it’s about the creation of a third thing, different from either spouse, greater than either spouse, into which they pour themselves and are dissolved. This union finds its material expression in children, the product of a fertile marriage that cannot be torn asunder even in divorce, and who thereby give sign to the world that you and you are now parts of a larger whole, and if you break that whole it will not restore you to yourself, but merely leave the world broken.

But the self cannot be escaped so easily. The marriage ideology is not really that different from other romantic ideologies that have sought to assuage a sense of loss of self by subsuming the self in a larger, purportedly organic whole, and substituting this whole for the actual self. Nationalism does this with the nation, various religious ideologies do this with a religious group, etc. Not marriage itself, but the marriage ideology, is pernicious for the same reasons these other ideologies are.

The corollary to the above is that, in the marriage ideology, marriage is not really a choice; it’s a destiny.

Once upon a time, we did not choose our mates; they were chosen for us, by our parents, by the tribal chief, by someone in authority. Marriage had all kinds of consequences for property, for clan relations; it wasn’t something to take lightly. All the various interests that could be brought to bear were brought to bear. And we lived with the choice that was made for us. In more enlightened families and eras, we were also consulted, and not made to marry against our will. But to marry entirely to satisfy our own will – that would be unthinkable.

And then, the world changed, and we could marry who we would – indeed, we were expected to marry who we wanted to marry. We might seek advice of those wiser or more experienced than we, but we were the sovereign arbiters of our fate. And who else, really, could be?

But this meant that the burden of a mistake fell squarely on our own shoulders. If marriage were a choice, then its fatality would be too terrible to accept. Because in the marriage ideology, the failure of a marriage is the failure of a human being, in a deeply fundamental way, something that forever marks them as fallen. In the sphere of choice, if you choose wrongly, you can undo it, choose again without moral opprobrium. If deep shame is supposed to accompany the decision to choose again, then a choice cannot really be a choice. And so, marriage is not a choice. A bad marriage is not the result of a terrible choice you made that you will have to live with the rest of your life. It’s just your destiny. You’re in a bad marriage. Now learn to live with it. Much easier to do than to blame yourself. And it should be clear why, if marriage is not fundamentally a choice, talking about the right to marry might seem like something that would open the floodgates.

That’s the ideology in a nutshell, as best I can understand. And it’s all false, all an attempt to set up an artificial ideal to replace the only thing that is real, which is people, how they treat each other, care for each other, feel about each other.

And so, now, let’s turn to my original argument against gay marriage. It consisted of three parts:

1. Marriage, to be marriage, must be a social norm, not one lifestyle choice among many, and gay couples, when they marry, will not understand marriage this way.

Well, leaving aside whether the last point is true or not, not to mention whether straight couples in fact already see it that way now, this is pretty unadulterated marriage ideology, right? It’s not a choice. It’s not something you want. You have to do this. I sincerely hope my son never goes into marriage thinking that.

2. The sexes are equal, but not identical. The story we tell ourselves about marriage is a story of the complementarity of the sexes, and same-sex marriage makes it impossible to tell this story.

There’s some truth in there, but buried in it is a lie, and the lie is more important than the truth. Yes, there are statistical differences between men and women, both physiological and psychological, but (a) those differences are on average, not uniform; (b) many things we once thought were inherent differences aren’t; and © no reason is given why the law should presume upon the meaning of any differences that do exist.

But that’s not what I mean about a buried lie. The buried lie is an about how to become a man.

Let me quote from myself:

It is not obvious that men and women should live together as life partners. It is difficult. We are very different creatures; we like different things; we smell different. We try to dominate each other in ways that drive us crazy. It is far easier for a man to take his pleasure and go than to stay and build a nest; it is, in some sense, more natural. Telling him that men and women were made to live together in marriage is a way of getting him to stay by teaching him that this is part of manhood.

Now, how on earth do you communicate that in a culture that embraces the notion that marriage is the love-union of any two individuals who desire it? Love is, after all, such a feminine thing. How do you explain to an ordinary straight 14 year-old – not explain; how do you build it into his deep assumptions about the world, such that it is second-nature – that he will fully become a man not when he beds his first woman but when he weds her, if we can no longer talk about weddings in terms of men and women, but only in terms of people in love?

“[H]e will fully become a man not when he beds his first woman but when he weds her” – there it is. But the truth is: nothing can make you a man but your own recognition of yourself as such. Maybe you first felt you were a man when you finally stood up to your drunk stepfather. Maybe you first felt you were a man when you left home and began paying your own way, never turning to your family for help. Maybe you first felt you were a man when you held your infant daughter in your arms and realized that you were responsible for nurturing and protecting this little life. And sure, maybe you first felt you were a man when you stood with your wife-to-be before a duly-ordained member of the clergy. Then again, maybe you felt you were a man for years – until your wife cheated on you with your best friend, or you got laid off from the job you held for twenty years and had to live off your wife’s salary, or your son stood up to you for how you better not treat mama that way anymore or he’s big enough now to make you stop, or, for a kinder scenario, your own father died, and you broke down, realizing you still needed him, that you’d been living your life all that time just to please him and make him proud – something happened, and all of a sudden you were not a man at all, not in the only eyes that matter.

There’s no magic man-dust you can sprinkle on yourself, no path of life that will make you a man if you aren’t one. I understand the intentions of the marriage ideology in this regard. Its adherents just want to raise the psychic rewards for being good, for being true, to stand some ideal up against the myriad other false ideas of manhood that seduce young men, ideologies that can be more directly destructive. But the only effective opposition to these false ideas is good people. You can’t make men of these boys by saying: here, do this and you’ll be a man. You can only make men of them by showing them actual men, and giving them the time to learn from them, and from their own experience, how to be one.

I’ve got a son myself. I want him to grow to be a man. I hope to do my small part to teach him what that means, by example. I want him to marry when he already knows he is a man, and ready to make mature choices and assume mature responsibilities, not to marry in order to prove to himself that he’s a man.

3. Marriage is not all about love, but also – even primarily – about commitment, companionship, raising children, etc. And so, if the justification for gay marriage is that it’s wrong to say you can’t marry the person you love, that’s not good enough justification.

There are so many things wrong with this part of the argument that I don’t even want to bother pointing them all out. Let me just say this: if your spouse writes an article earnestly explaining that marriage is not fundamentally about love, please, please, pull him or her aside and have a serious chat. Sounds to me like you might need one.

The case for gay marriage is extremely . . . um, straightforward. It is the state recognizing that marriage-like arrangements already exist between gay couples; they cohabit, own property jointly, raise children together, support each other in sickness and in health, etc. Hundreds of years ago, when marriage required a clergyman and not every settlement had one, priests would come through distant villages and one of the things they’d have to do is solemnize “common law” marriages. Numerous gay couples today live in what are effectively common law marriages. The state should allow them to be solemnized and treat them no differently from straight couples who have so done. I don’t think it’s fundamentally a question of whether marriage is “good” for gay people – honestly, I think Andrew Sullivan’s “conservative” case for gay marriage partakes way too much of unprovable assertions about how the law shapes behavior. Nor do I think it’s fundamentally a question of whether same-sex marriage is “bad” for straights – honestly, if our own marital commitments really did depend on excluding gay people, that would just mean we’ve got a whole lot of work to do in our own corner of things; we can’t ask gay couples to bear our burden for us. It’s fundamentally a question of recognizing the reality of lived lives, and of treating people fairly. Nothing I wrote seven years ago rebuts that basic case.

I’m still glad I wrote it, because having done so I can reread what I wrote, learn something about myself and, I hope, what animates opposition. But I was wrong. There it is.

(As a footnote, whatever other problems I have in my life, my wife and I are still in love with one another, and still happily married. And I didn’t mean to suggest by any of the angst-ridden passages above that we aren’t. Okay, darling?)