Since last week, I have been trying to sort out my thoughts on the beginnings of same-sex marriage in Utah--and at about 10 pm on Friday 27 December, I sat down to write them. It is now 5:06 am and I have just finished my first draft. Which I have decided to publish as is, with apologies for any typographical errors, incoherent passages, and missing hyperlinks to studies I meant to go find. Apologies also for my failure to condense my thoughts down under 3,000 words:
Last Friday, a federal court decision by district judge Robert Shelby made Utah the 18th state to recognize committed same-sex relationships as marriages. By now, you have probably either read—or carefully ignored—a wide variety of reactions to that news.
Because I have deep-running feelings about the issue, I have tried to keep some track of what the ruling has meant to individual people. I've been hoping to sense the threads in the rope of this debate, you could say. I’m trying to have eyes to see how the noble sentiments on each side are intertwined with the ugly, the insightful bound together into one taut cord with the shallow and the smug.
The practical joy I've seen so many express over relationships solemnized is tied together with the arrogance of those who hold the ruling over the heads of social and political opponents. The honest concerns about the ruling I've seen and share lie side by side with raw expressions of alienating anger.
Maybe there’s no other way this could go. The debate over same-sex marriage is a debate over the nature of family, and for many of us, families are more important than the governments they interact with. If you hold a more traditional view of marriage, you probably feel like your voice has been shoved out of the conversation over a part of the social contract you take more seriously than the Constitution itself. If you hold the emerging dominant view of marriage, you probably feel sick to the stomach of people who balk at giving legal recognition to committed love as the most basic bond human relationships are woven from.
I would describe myself as a marriage traditionalist. If you would describe yourself as an advocate of marriage equality, you may have already put that last word in scare quotes—“traditionalist.” You may feel, as someone recently told me on Facebook, that traditionalists like me “need to be rejected, and quickly, before their tired worldviews do any more damage than they already have.” Your metaphors for me may be drawn from a long list of historical bad guys: Nazis, segregationists, religious extremists. Or you may just think of me as an everyday, run-of-the-mill self-righteous jerk.
I do not, of course, see myself in those terms. I see myself as a fairly sincere and honest person with a long term concern for the place of family in our culture and law. I see myself as an heir to a long legacy of Abrahamic values, and I believe those values have blessed the world far more than they have harmed it. I see myself as someone willing to stand up for difficult truths about what is sustainable and what is not.
Maybe I’m wrong about marriage. Maybe my values and I really can be trampled over with no social cost.
Or maybe I’m wrong about myself. Maybe I defend traditional marriage primarily to feel holier-than-my-generation, or because I’m lacking in basic empathy, or because I got started by my mother and then became more interested in defending my position than in doing good.
God alone knows the truth about the world and our hearts. If I am wrong with good intentions, may God forgive my wrong conclusions. And if I am right but with wrong intentions, may God save me from my pride.
Judge Shelby’s ruling is currently being appealed to the Supreme Court. There is a fairly high chance the Supreme Court will hear the appeal, and a pretty low chance they will overturn his decision—especially with so many marriage licenses already issued. I’m fairly convinced that same-sex marriage is in Utah to stay, and the arguments I have against Shelby’s legal reasoning aren't going to change that. But I’m going to try to lay out where I stand through dialog with his ruling anyway.
I believe that a culture of marriage ought to be built around customs of procreation and child-rearing within the relationship between husband and wife.
In his ruling, Judge Shelby dispatches this notion by pointing out that we don’t give people fertility tests before we allow them to marry. If I really believed marriage was about procreation, he says, I wouldn't want the state to recognize old women’s relationships as marriages. And since I have not objected to postmenopausal marriages, he says, it’s clear that I actually share his view— that marriage is simply a loving, intimate relationship two people form and society has a fundamental obligation to recognize.
If I could respond, I might point out that not all couples start their marriages with love. So by his own reasoning, love is not an essential characteristic of marriage. And that we allow people like prisoners to marry without any immediate hope of practical intimacy. So intimacy must not be important either. I might go on to use counter-examples to show that every definition of marriage falls apart once you try to whittle down the definition of marriage through counter-examples. And I might point out that rational judges in the past, recognizing that marriage is more a set of valuable cultural norms than an algebraic legal formula, have ruled that marriage can have procreative norms without demanding fertility from every participant.
If I could respond to Judge Shelby, I might go on to point out that one difference between same-sex couples and infertile couples is that the members of most same-sex couples are individually fertile. While a postmenopausal women is unable to fulfill my stated central goal for marriage by conceiving and bearing a child within a marriage relationship, she is equally unable to undermine my stated goal by conceiving a child outside of it. But the experience of some of the first same-sex couples to win marriage recognition suggests that marriage actually makes them more likely to produce biological children outside of their marriage.
Take the example of Andrew Solomon. He and his husband, John, are not able to have biological children together because they are both men, but each is biologically capable of procreating with a woman. The recognition of their relationship as a marriage seems to have heightened their interest in procreation, possibly because the culture of marriage still has strong procreative norms, and they have now both fathered children. John has been a sperm donor twice: once for each partner in a lesbian couple he knew through work. Andrew has fathered two children he also has the legal rights of fatherhood for. His biological daughter was conceived when he gave sperm to a divorced female friend who wanted a child. That daughter lives with her mother and her mother’s new husband, but Andrew takes an active parental role in decision-making in her early life. Andrew’s biological son was conceived with a donated egg which was then implanted and carried in the womb of one of the women who had used John’s sperm to produce her own child. The son lives with Andrew and John, who share custody of him. Together, Andrew Solomon refers to this as his “extended nuclear family” of five adults and four children in three states. (The math is a bit tricky, though: if you were to count Andrew’s daughter’s mother’s new husband it’s six adults and if you were to count the egg donor, it’s seven adults and possibly four states.)
Now, I am not saying a state government couldn't choose to encourage the formation of such “extended nuclear families.” But it seems clear to me that Judge Shelby’s assertion that same-sex marriage will not affect the culture of marriage and procreation in any way is naïve even in light of the limited data sets we have for same-sex marriages so far. Same-sex marriages are not interchangeable with post-menopausal marriages. The biological realities and their long term cultural implications are fundamentally different.
How did Judge Shelby miss that possibility? Probably because he has thought a lot more about law in and of itself than about culture—and the complex relationships between law and culture.
As it happens, many of the very people whose positions Judge Shelby ruled as having no rational basis have spent significantly more time thinking about the culture of marriage than he has. Recent Pew Research indicates that Latter-day Saints are far more likely than average Americans to rank marriage and parenthood as top life priorities. Utah’s population, as it happens, is heavily influenced by people with a strong culture (by American standards) of marriage and procreation within marriage.
In fact, if we were to assume that there is no God, Latter-day Saint leaders are people who on their own and without any divine help guide a community of fifteen million people with a strong culture of marriage and procreation within marriage. From a secular standpoint, LDS Church leaders ought to be considered among the world’s top authorities on how to maintain such a culture and ought to have a respected voice in the public sphere on issues involving family and procreation.
That is assuming, of course, that government has anything to do with family and procreation in the first place. Is maintaining a culture of procreation within marriage really a rationally legitimate government purpose?
If I were able to sit down with Judge Shelby, I would go over studies that identify family stability as a central predictor of income mobility and family instability as a central predictor of poverty. If there is a legitimate government interest in alleviating poverty, I would argue, measures that nudge people toward procreation within marriage and family stability ought to be on the table.
I don’t wish to embrace any overnight apocalyptic tone toward same-sex marriage, of course. I hardly except Americans to descend into poverty all at once because we shift slowly toward what Andrew Solomon calls "reproductive libertarianism" But I do think Judge Shelby is premature in saying that my concerns have no rational basis.
And it would be nice, as conversations over our culture move forward, if at least three or four Supreme Court justices take advantage of an opportunity to officially agree with me. If just a few people could say in an official capacity that giving people the space to pursue same-sex relationships and merging the norms of those relationships with the norms of traditional marriages are two very different things, and that the people of a given state do have some right to think about how they want to legally recognize different types of relationships.
I don’t really hope for more than three or four, though. I imagine that five justices have already decided where they stand on the Utah case and may well be mentally preparing their legal rationales for overturning all state laws designed to clarify the definition of marriage as between a man and a woman.
Where does that leave someone with my views? Should I protest the legal changes to marriage? Should I riot in the streets over the issue? Should I campaign vigorously for the deeply problematic and demographically decaying Republican Party?
No, thank you.
This particular political and legal struggle is all but over. As a person who cares about the future of marriage, I feel that my energy will be far better used preparing for the next major cultural or legal struggle, which may or may not directly involve same-sex marriage.
I cannot allow my perspective to be reduced to opposition to same-sex marriage. I need to show proactively what my core underlying interests and guiding principles are, and I need to help them become a part of current cultural conversations in a way that will shape the next unforeseen debate.
Of course, I can’t know what that debate will be. But I have a feeling that the following three principles will be continue to be challenged in different ways and that affirming them will continue to have utility:
Principle #1. Biological parents will be accountable to their children; children have a right to responsible biological parents.
The day I adopted my oldest daughter, who is now nine, was one of the best days of my life. But the relationship we share doesn’t relieve her of the emotions she will have to work through or with over the biological father, still living, who hasn’t seen her since she was three.
I believe strongly that children have a right to their biological parents and that biological parents are accountable to their children. In some cases, such as abandonment or serious parental unpreparedness, it is far better for children to be raised by loving and stable adoptive parents than by their biological parents. But it is better still when children are born to parents who are solidly committed to each other and to them. Children deserve that.
There are many ways, of course, to deprive children of stable biological parents. The oldest and most common is for individuals to have children outside of committed relationships. But recent technologies have provided several other options.
I once knew a single woman with serious depression problems who decided to undergo artificial insemination in order to have a child. There was a lot in that woman I admired, but that particular decision of hers devastated me. I have serious reservations about women undergoing artificial insemination out of wedlock.
When I had testicular cancer (shortly after I met the woman who later became my wife), doctors advised me to bank some of my sperm in case treatments affected my fertility. In the process, I had to sign documents giving the sperm bank permission to destroy my sperm in the event of my death—or else to fill out alternate documents providing a beneficiary.
It took a moment for the implications to sink in for me. We have the technology now for posthumous conception. It is entirely possible to imagine some near-future society in which a male celebrity’s sperm is sold for private use after his death. How would we respond if the posthumous use of sperm became a major cultural or legal issue? I hope we would follow the principle that children have a right, whenever possible, to be conceived and raised by committed biological parents.
Principle #2. Fatherhood and Motherhood still matter as distinct roles. Communities succeed when they find the proper balance of guidance and flexibility in preparing the young for these vital roles.
I believe that Fatherhood and Motherhood matter in two distinct senses. First, I believe there are underlying differences between the ways most men and most women process reality and that each approach lends fathers and mothers a special niche in childrearing. Second, I believe that communities serve the needs of tomorrow’s children best when they prepare today’s children for parenthood and that some flexible form of gender role is a valuable cultural technology in helping pass on essential training to children.
Around the time the Proposition 8 case reached the Supreme Court, I was privileged to have a detailed exchange of views with an old friend of mine in Ohio who believes strongly that committed same-sex relationships should be recognized as marriages. I had no desire to change his mind on the same-sex marriage issue given his broader view of marriage (which was consistent with the emerging dominant romantic/companionate view), but I did want him to understand how my community values and fundamental understanding of marriage differed from his.
Naturally, we ended up spending a significant amount of time on the idea of gender roles. He and I turned out to agree that some degree of specialization is positive in a partnership or marriage, and both of us agreed that individual couples needed flexibility to find the right division of responsibilities for their relationship, but we had an important disagreement about how to reach that flexibility. My friend felt strongly that partners should begin to determine their roles after becoming a couple. As a parent, I told him I felt strongly that children should be raised with some gender-based specific preparation and expectations as a baseline for marital negotiations.
That is to say: I am raising my daughter with a clear sense that focusing on nurturing her children is a worthy and important goal, and will likely be a defining responsibility in her life. I am raising my sons with the skills to nurture children but also with an expectation that they will likely be responsible for providing economically for their families.
As I raise my children, I feel there’s a delicate balance to be achieved. What if the basic roles I am teaching them turn out to be poor fits for their life situations? I need to teach them the flexibility to adjust as needed. A relative of mine, for example, found that his specific anxiety condition made it difficult to work outside the home. He and his wife do far better by having him use his talents in the somewhat more contained sphere of nurturing their children during working hours, while her training has been sufficient to provide for their family financially. But there’s a difference between teaching flexibility and teaching procrastination. Assuming adults will successfully choose their own roles without any modelling or preparation strikes me as naïve.
Just as individual parents can strive to find the right balance of preparation, accountability, and flexibility, I think communities succeed when some sort of broad positive roles are available for modeling and adaptation.
Gender roles are under fire, but I’m not prepared to give up on them. Fathers and mothers matter, and they aren’t made starting from the wedding day.
Principle #3. The link between sexuality and procreation is not incidental.
Over the past sixty years, our ideas about procreation and our ideas about sex have been drifting apart. It is now quite possible to have babies without sex, and simpler than ever for a fertile person to consistently have sex without babies. It is easier than ever to use sex for power, for pleasure, to override unwanted emotions, to negotiate identity or to pursue goals of self-discovery without thinking about the creative potential of intercourse.
And yet what have we gained from wide-ranging sexual freedom? It seems to me that anxiety and isolation are the two most common fruits of our prevailing sexual culture.
I believe that human sexuality serves two main purposes: it enables procreation, and it builds and nourishes powerful bonds of trust. Those chemically-fortified bonds strike me as an ideal asset for raising children. Why not restore and strengthen customs that connect the two?
It seems to me that treating sex as primarily about pleasure rather than about bonding creates all kinds of dysfunction. It’s quite common for young couples to prioritize the physical pleasure of sex, which is easier to recognize at first than the trust/bonding chemical effect sexual relations produce. But failing to take the bonding function of sex seriously complicates numerous relationships: in cohabitation situations, for example, the lack of firm commitment coupled with the bonding impulses of sex often seem to create major relationship anxieties that drive partners apart.
It’s also worth noting that the sheer intensity of sexual arousal combined with the wide availability of pornography has made sexual arousal a common form of attempted self-medication for young people with emotional difficulties. In the same way that veterans have often used the physical and chemical intensity of a bar fight to distract them from feeling of anxiety, depression, or loss of control, many people seem to be turning to pornography to override uncomfortable feelings they don’t know how to confront. Like most systems of self-medication, though, pornography typically only delays the emotional problem and creates an addictive pattern in the process. It’s becoming a major health issue.
All of which is to say bringing the procreative and bonding functions of sexuality back to the forefront of conversation about sexuality strikes me as an important cultural contribution of people with my views on marriage.
Rather than focusing on a single issue like same-sex marriage—which appears to be completely out of our influence and control—traditionalists might benefit from stepping back to articulate their underlying values.
We need to watch the culture and do what we can to be involved early in the next major conversations to arise.