Married With Children

A Response to Andrew Sullivan

By Shelby Steele

The New Republic Online

April 14, 2004


I thank Andrew Sullivan for his considered response in TNR Online to my recent Wall Street Journal article on gay marriage. I have long respected Sullivan for his eminently sensible and often fresh writing on so many cultural and political issues. In fact, I thought of him frequently as I wrote the article on gay marriage, and wondered what his response might be. Now I know, and would like to briefly respond to him.

Sullivan disagrees with my contention that gay marriage is not really a civil rights issue by referring to the famous Loving v Virginia miscegenation case in which Earl Warren says, "Marriage is one of the basic civil rights of man." Sullivan then adds an addendum of his own: "The right to marry whomever you wish is a fundamental civil right." This, of course, is simply not true and in no way reflects Warren's meaning. You may not marry your sister or your pet even if you wish to, and this bar to your wishes is not considered a denial of civil rights. Because marriage is defined as a heterosexual institution, its exclusion of gay unions doesn't really qualify as a denial of rights. Gays have the same right to marry as heterosexuals as long as they marry the opposite gender--as many do. If the gay marriage movement succeeds in expanding the definition of marriage to include gay unions, and if gays are then still prohibited from marrying, then we would have a clear civil rights issue. As things stand there really is no precedent or "jurisprudence" on the side of gay marriage, only on the right of all citizens to heterosexual marriage. The Loving case only made the point that interracial marriage is no bar to this right.

Sullivan then compares the old arguments against interracial marriage to my argument against gay marriage. And this points to an important theme of my argument: Racial difference is an innocuous human difference that in no way redefines the heterosexual nature of marriage or effects its procreative function. Interracial marriage has no effect on the institution of marriage. But when marriage is redefined to include homosexuality, it ends the heterosexual definition of marriage and moves marriage farther away from its grounding in procreation. It effectively makes marriage an institution more purely devoted to romantic love and adult fulfillment than to the heavier and more selfless responsibilities surrounding procreation. Of course, adult love and the responsibilities surrounding procreation are not mutually exclusive, but the gravity of marriage as an institution comes from its demand that love be negotiated through these larger responsibilities.

To be sure, there are childless heterosexual couples and homosexual couples with children. But to define an institution as important to society as marriage by exceptions to the norms of both sexual orientations--rather than by the norms themselves--makes little sense. It could be argued that marriage is quite literally an outgrowth of heterosexuality itself, an institution that follows from nature's requirement that men and women sexually merge to perpetuate the human species.

Sullivan argues that marriage encourages "stability, fidelity, and family among homosexuals." I don't know. It is certainly doing less and less of this among heterosexuals. But, in any case, the stabilizing features of marriage have evolved over the millennia to protect children and procreation from the vicissitudes of adult love. How many 50's style marriages found stability only for "the sake of the children"? How many 70's, 80's, and 90's marriages ended because children and procreation became secondary to adult fulfillment? The point is that marriage offers the features Sullivan wants for homosexuals only when it is very narrowly--often repressively--grounded in heterosexuality, procreation, and the socialization of children. When it is defined, as Sullivan says he would have it be, around "the unifying experience of love," it becomes nearly as fickle as love itself--a nasty fight, a single betrayal away from dissolution. Marriage brings "stability" to love by humbling it, by making it often less important than the responsibilities to family and community.

When love and fulfillment are of first importance, marriage weakens as an institution, as the high divorce rates of recent decades illustrate. Homosexual unions are, by nature's grace, naturally less burdened by the very responsibilities that heterosexuals have been running from in marriage for decades now. The truth is that heterosexuals have been moving marriage toward the more exclusively adult-focused relationships that gays have always had--relationships that turn more narrowly on love, attraction, and fulfillment. Cohabitation is now virtually a norm among young heterosexuals, and adult happiness is more the test of marriages today than family stability. So the conundrum for the gay marriage movement is that marriage has already declined from its more selfless and stable era into something very much like what gays already have.

So what, then, is the big deal? Why not gay marriages if society has already moved to a place where romantic unions--of all kinds--are now first of all about adult love? One answer is that marriage, despite its decline, will always be the basis of the single most important institution in the human condition--the family. This is the institution that socializes human beings, prepares them (or fails to) for all other human activities. Just because marriage has now declined is no reason to push it even further toward the self-preoccupations of adult love and away from its family focus.

The black American family has sadly become an international model of what happens when marriage and family weaken. It was the black family that brought blacks through slavery and a century of segregation. But now, 40 years into freedom, we are a striking example of how impossible it is to help communities where marriage and traditional families have all but disappeared. Black women marry at half the rate and divorce at twice the rate of white women. Without the bedrock institution of family, there is no apparatus for outside interventions to attach to or be supported by. What social program will compensate for a nationwide black illegitimacy rate of 70 percent--and nearly 90 percent in certain inner cities?

Sullivan could reasonably say that the black experience is no argument against gay marriage. But it is precisely the rather dreamy ideology of marriage by which he supports gay marriage that would further weaken the institution for the most vulnerable. He wants marriage to "integrate" disparate groups into a common community out of its "impulse to unity" and its dedication "to affirming what we have in common." Homosexuality should not be "balkanized" and "separated." But marriage has no obligation whatsoever to "integrate" gays, blacks, or any other group into society. Moreover, it has no power to do this. Its functions are at once narrower and more profound: the perpetuation of the human species, the launching of family life, the nurturing and socialization of youth, and even the survival of whole peoples and nations when tyranny and cataclysm collapse all other institutions. But marriage does not do equality or social engineering. It is not a democracy or a social leveler or an intervention.

Marriage will always be heterosexual because it exists to manage the explosive natural force of male-female sex. It socializes that inherently creative force into that most fundamental of human institutions, the family. Heterosexuality is not imposed on marriage as an exclusionary ideology; it is the same thing as marriage. Homosexuality, on its own, would never generate all the complex social and cultural apparatus of family. It is impotent precisely where heterosexuality is potent; and marriage evolved out of a struggle with this potency. Without this potency, homosexuality is naturally skewed more toward adult love and fulfillment. There is nothing wrong with this. But marriage today is already declining from too much emphasis on love and too little on its role as a civilizing institution.

I will stand by my original point, that stigmatization--not the inaccessibility of marriage--is the great oppression in gay life. Stigmatization prevents the integration that Sullivan rightly hopes for. It is what "balkanizes" and "separates" gays even in their own families--families that fear the stigma reverberating to them. I believe the stigmatization of homosexuals is evil and in no way contributes to the moral health of society. But marriage will not end stigmatization. The instant gays marry, the popular culture will invent a litany of ugly names for such unions, which will then be marked out and stigmatized in their own right.

We blacks won our civil rights decades ago, but we still face stigma. And we, too, keep making the mistake of thinking that we can overcome stigmatization as inferiors by fighting for civil rights. But it doesn't work. We will have to become individuals, making the kind of life we want for ourselves without apology or recrimination or conceit. And then one day, the stigma will look absurd for its distance from reality.

Sullivan accuses me of backtracking as an integrationist. But I think I will accuse him of the same thing, of backsliding a little from his usual faith in freedom and the individual. I always liked that he didn't wear being gay on his sleeve. But the gay marriage debate has drawn him into clamorous protest. At the end of his piece he generously holds out hope for me, and now I will return the favor. I hope Andrew Sullivan will continue to be a model of the individualism and responsibility that made him such an unself-conscious refutation of his group's stigma.


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