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29 March 2013

From Sexual Outlaws to Sexual In-Laws



By Walter Russell Mead

In case you hadn’t heard, the Supreme Court this week is entertaining two gay marriage cases. On Tuesday, the Justices heard oral arguments about Proposition 8, the California ballot proposition that mandated that only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California. On Wednesday they hear arguments about the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), a federal law that defines marriage as between one man and one woman for federal purposes. The decisions on the cases won’t be handed down until June, but virtually the entire commentariat has been jumping in. On homosexuality as well as on marriage, everyone is an expert.

We’re no exceptions here at Via Meadia. WRM’s Twitter profile states our corporate motto. “Opinions are like love; the more you give away, the more you have.” And like everybody else in the United States, we have opinions about gay marriage.

But before getting into the marriage question, there’s one thing that needs to be said very clearly. You can be for gay marriage or you can be against it, but the hating and the bullying must end. The climate of bigotry, brutality and violence that so many gay people have had to live with in the past was clearly an evil. It’s a terrible thing when teenagers are driven to suicide by fears that their own families will reject them over homosexuality. Gay bashing and discrimination have no place in a civilized polity. The emerging American consensus to put all this behind us is a step into the light. Those who want to attack gay marriage and complain about the destruction of traditional morality need to reflect on how evil the old ways sometimes were and remember that some traditions need to be smashed.

Now when it comes to gay marriage, our point of departure is that, whether you like it or not, it’s coming. As a democracy, America is basically a common sense country. That is, the laws of the land must reflect the common sense of the people. It’s increasingly clear that in the past few years the country has been taking a hard look at the question of gay marriage. And the more people have looked, the more they have come to the conclusion that it should be allowed. We’ve reached a tipping point where gay marriage is becoming more and more widely accepted in society, and therefore sooner or later it will be accepted in law. There are legitimate arguments to be made about how the question should be settled. Should the Supreme Court rule that “marriage equality” is a fundamental right and that state and federal laws against it have no standing? Should legislators make the call, and if so, should they do it at the state or the federal level? Our general preference is for questions like these to be settled by legislators or by the public directly, and for state rather than federal action. We wish abortion had been handled this way, and we think in the end this approach is both less contentious and more likely to produce a result that reflects the settled will of the people. The tide has set in favor of gay marriage and as more and more states recognize it, the pressure will rise on the holdouts—from, among others, businesses who will want their employees treated consistently from state to state.

One way or another, it’s coming. The question, now, is what difference it will make. Opponents fear that recognizing gay marriage will undermine the vanilla kind and weaken the importance of the family as the basic building block of human society. Perhaps it will, but the great experiment has begun, and we will just have to wait and see. The family has been in decline for some time in the United States. The precipitous decline of traditional family arrangements in lower income levels tends to perpetuate and intensify social inequality and for that reason among others, we at Via Meadia view it with concern.

It is, however, hard to draw a causal connection between the growing public acceptance of homosexuality and the decline of lifetime heterosexual monogamy as a social and personal ideal. The timelines don’t match, for one thing: greater acceptance of divorce, remarriage, heterosexual cohabitation and unmarried parenthood preceded public acceptance of gay marriage. Overall it seems to us that the weakening of the family and the acceptance of homosexuality and gay marriage both reflect the growing individualism of our culture. Americans are becoming more libertarian and are less patient with social pressure to conform and with legal restraints on their freedom of action. That is pretty much what has been happening since the colonial era, and we don’t see it ending anytime soon. That trend in some ways is positive and liberating; in others it creates some serious problems. Either way we can’t see gay marriage as some kind of independent variable driving the country over the cliff or into utopia.

In any case, a number of people make an interesting counter-argument to the case that gay marriage undermines the old fashioned kind. They claim that gay marriage could bolster marriage as a social institution. At The Daily Beast, Megan McArdle argues that the new popularity of gay marriage signals the end of the sexual revolution:

This is a landmark victory for the forces of staid, bourgeois sexual morality.  Once gays can marry, they’ll be expected to marry….

When traditional marriage, with its expectations of monogamy and longevity, no longer means excluding gays, expect it to get more popular among affluent urbanites.

To be sure, it’s already popular—affluent urbanites are now quite conservative in their personal marital habits.  They’ve just been reluctant to shame those who don’t follow suit.  But with marriage freed from the culture-war baggage, we now have an opening for change….

The neo-Victorian morality will protect who you want to marry—male or female, or maybe even something in between. But the wider open marriage is, the less necessary it becomes to defend the right to carefree sex—or children—outside of marriage.
We don’t take a position on whether gay marriage is a victory for sexual traditionalism or its final defeat. But it’s certainly remarkable to see how bourgeois homosexuality has become. We are old enough to remember when John Rechy’s angry book of gay protest, The Sexual Outlaw, shocked the nation. The Sexual In-Law will probably be less controversial, and Naked Lunch will be less disturbing when repackaged as an elegant brunch. Domesticity with cats in Rittenhouse Square is probably not what either John Rechy or William S. Burroughs had in mind as the homosexual ideal, but it’s exactly what many of today’s gay activists want. Try as we may, it’s hard for Via Meadia to see middle aged couples redecorating townhouses as a threat to the Republic, and we can see McArdle’s point that enlisting a formerly alienated sexual minority on the side of bourgeois domesticity may stabilize rather than undermine the structures of American life.

On the assumption that whatever the Court does this year we are headed for gay marriage in the not so distant future, there are two policy issues that need to be addressed. (We see a flourishing market for gay prenups, gay wedding planners, and gay divorce lawyers, but that’s not going to raise too many policy issues.) The first is something we need to do anyway, and progress on this front will help reconcile opponents of gay marriage to the new status quo.

The family, however we define it, needs support. By support we don’t primarily mean government checks, though there are certainly circumstances when those matter. A society that isn’t nurturing its kids and preparing the next generation to live wisely and well is a failure no matter what else it is doing. We need to think much harder about what we can do to make it easier for young people to establish families and raise kids. The very large majority of children will emerge from households where the alternatives are either heterosexual marriage or single parenthood; recognizing homosexual marriage as legal does not end the need for our society to help the next generation establish the 90-plus percent of marriages that will be the old fashioned kind.

Let’s hope gay couples will join the Marriage Lobby now that they have a float in the parade. But whether or not that happens, Americans need to do more to ensure that the next generation gets the start it needs in life. Fordist society is not very favorable to strong families; as the country moves toward a new social model, we need to think about how new work, education and career patterns can strengthen the elemental bonds between human beings.

The other policy question we face is the question of what to do about the substantial minority of Americans who continue to think gay marriage is a bad idea. The Roman Catholic Church and many evangelical churches, as well as many Jewish, Islamic, Buddhist, and Hindu groups aren’t going to change their historical doctrines just because the secular Zeitgeist has changed. The American people is not a flock of starlings who sweep in unison around the sky, all changing direction at just the same moment. If the laws recognize gay marriage, many religious groups will dissent against these laws, refuse to recognize the religious validity of these marriages, and continue to discourage the practice of homosexuality by their members.

Some gay rights advocates will believe that society needs to punish and repress these beliefs. Just as we don’t let segregated schools enjoy tax benefits and deny racists the “right” to discriminate in hiring and promoting, shouldn’t we hand out the same treatment to those backward bigots who refuse to move with the times?

At Via Meadia, we think that’s wrong. The distinction we would draw is between those who promote violence and bullying, and those who dissent from the new laws on moral grounds.

Think of divorce. Many churches and religious groups, for example, don’t believe in divorce and they believe that when divorced people remarry they are committing a serious sin. The civil laws recognize these unions as valid marriages but leave each religious group the right to define valid marriages within the group. If you are divorced and want to remarry, without an annulment you can’t get married in the Catholic Church. That’s not a violation of your civil rights, and the Church’s objection to your marriage has nothing to do with the legal position of the couple.

It gets a little more complicated when it comes to questions of employment. Can divorced and remarried people teach in a Catholic school? Can a religious (or secular) organization opposed to homosexuality refuse to hire a gay man or a lesbian woman? It’s not cut and dried. One might recognize the right of a bishop to refuse to appoint a gay priest to lead a congregation, but can the church refuse to hire a gay man as a bingo caller? Or can a church charity that receives money from the government refuse to hire or promote a lesbian social worker?

There will also be arguments over hate speech. It is certainly hate speech to say “Kill the faggots!” Is it hate speech to say that 2,000 years of Christian teaching rooted in the letters of the Apostle Paul assert that homosexual behavior is immoral and that no living person has the authority to overturn this long-established doctrine? To condemn the call for violence is easy; to condemn the second statement is to criminalize the practice of a substantial number of important religious traditions.

There are going to be a lot of issues of this kind, and we predict a bright future for discrimination and First Amendment attorneys. But it seems to us overall that the best way to handle these issues is to go slow and to leave room for reflection and compromise. America, thankfully, is a pluralistic society in which many people have different points of view. It’s more important that we find a way to get along than that we reach a consensus on every divisive social issue. In recognizing and protecting the rights of sexual minorities, we should not forget to honor and respect the rights of religious dissenters as well.

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