Part 6: In Which I Finally Get to Gay Marriage

[ 44 ] Comments

by James Goldberg

This essay is the sixth and final in a series about Gay Marriage and Proposition 8.

4 GenerationsMarriage evolved early to protect the vertical relationships between generations and only more recently to protect the lateral relationships between partners. So what will happen if we take the vertical and lateral legal framework of marriage and apply it to lateral same-sex relationships that haven’t attempted to serve a vertical function in any previous generation? Three different court rulings in California have sidestepped this question by asserting that since men and women no longer have legally-defined gender roles, there is no difference between a same-sex and an opposite-sex relationship.

I wish sometimes we’d approach social engineering more like we approach actual engineering. Gay marriage proponents have pointed out that in the five-month window during which California did recognize same-sex marriages, nothing drastic happened to suggest that the fabric of society had been fundamentally changed, and have used this to extrapolate a future free of negative consequences. But what would happen if we used the same reasoning to approve oil drilling technologies? No one would have a right to be upset at BP over the massive Gulf oil spill. Our nuclear safety laws could be held in court as having no rational basis.

But engineers don’t aim for five months of safety. My uncle, who’s a chemical engineer, has a job where the acceptable projected major incident rate is once every 30,000 years. So if engineers are going to incorporate a new building material or configuration into a plant design, they consider numerous possible consequences first. If we are going to incorporate same-sex couples into the old category of marriage, we ought to be considering what stresses the design change might put on marriage as a category and on same-sex couples as a group.

It seems to me that there are two possibilities. The first is that expanding the definition of marriage to include same-sex couples could decrease the vertical emphasis in marriage, which may have broader social implications. The second is that marriage’s vertical dimension is strong enough not to be affected, in which case using the term marriage would likely increase the pressure on same-sex couples to focus more on vertical relationships.

Would including same-sex relationships under the legal umbrella of marriage affect vertical relationships in the long term? Is it reasonable to be concerned about the effects of gay marriage on procreation and parenting?

Judges have dismissed such fears when it comes to procreation, but the truth is that we don’t know. Some people will exclusively pursue lateral same-sex relationships no matter what the legal or cultural context is. Others will have children and invest significant energy into vertical relationships no matter what the legal or cultural context is. But we don’t know what will happen in the marginal cases in between: whether, for example, same-sex marriage rights will change the opposite-sex married fatherhood rates of men who are roughly equally attracted to members of both genders. Especially if there’s an imbalance between the number of male-male unions and female-female unions, is there reason for concern?

These sorts of unknowns may not matter to secular, highly-educated, white, middle-class voters. But then again, that’s a demographic with a fertility rate below replacement levels and where intergenerational family concerns arguably already take a backseat to individual career and experiential concerns. Among many of the racial minority and religiously conservative communities that have fertility rates above replacement levels and more communally-oriented cultures, fears about the possible consequences of gay marriage are much more prevalent. Is this just ignorance and prejudice, or a product of pro-natal values that are perfectly compatible with the Constitution?

Come Together

The parenting question is more sensitive. For most of history in most cultures, parenting models have been based on ideas of the two genders as complementary (yin and yang, if you will), but parenting styles that rely on gender roles in America today are controversial. Do mothers and fathers matter, or are loving adults essentially interchangeable as parenting units? We also don’t know how much the social roles of father and mother (as opposed to parent) influence the types of relationships men and women have with their children. Will the final erasure of gender-influenced role language affect the structure of our intergenerational relationships?

On a practical level, I’m not opposed to some experimentation. After all, there are plenty of children without stable and loving parents at all; even in the absence of a historical precedent for gay parenting, I think it’s better for children to be raised by adults who want them than by adults who don’t. But judges aren’t ruling that we should open a door to experimentation on gay parenting right now; that’s already been done fully in California and some other states, and half-done in most states through authorization of single-parent adoption. The courts so far have ruled that differentiation between opposite-sex couples and same-sex couples has no rational basis and violates the United States Constitution, ruling effectively that it’s prejudice to consider opposite-gender parents preferable to same-gender parents.

If the mother-father model is based entirely in social constructs, that’s no problem. But if there turns out to be a meaningful biological component to the mother-father model, we might as well wish ourselves luck getting biology to change in response to a court order.

It may be instructive to consider another parenting controversy in which progress and biology seem pitted against one another as a reference point. Yes: just in case gay marriage isn’t enough to start a fight in the comments, I’m going to touch briefly on infant formula vs. breastfeeding.

For most of human history, babies were breastfed, if not by their mothers then by a wet-nurse. During the 20th century, when our collective respect for technology and industry overtook our respect for tradition, infant formulas became increasingly popular. In the 1920s, studies that suggested formula-fed babies fared as well as breast-fed babies led to the first significant formula boom. By 1950, roughly half of American babies were being raised on formula and by the early 1970s, the percentage was up to three-fourths. Whenever evidence suggested breastfeeding might have inherent advantages, scientists simply attempted to create more advanced formulas.

Eventually, though, the body of evidence for the advantages of breastfeeding (both nutritional and psychological) grew large enough to inspire a counter-movement. Four decades and billions of dollars in public awareness campaigns later, three-fourths of American mothers start their babies on breast milk, though only a third are still exclusively breastfeeding by even the three-month mark. And pushing for more breastfeeding can be tricky, despite the body of evidence. Campaigns like the “Breast is Best” one are accused of being judgmental or devaluing mothers who choose formula.

Now, do I think we should ban formula? Absolutely not! But would I be nervous if a court ruled that infant formula and breastfeeding are no different from one another? Yes.

Do I think we should keep same-sex couples from building lives together, or keep determined same-sex couples from parenting together? No. But do I think we can treat traditional marriage and same-sex marriage as identical without affecting the strength of our vertical relationships in some way? Well, let’s just say I think there’s sometimes a fine line between progress and hubris.

So far, though, my structural analysis has focused on how ruling Proposition 8 unconstitutional might affect the next generation. A good engineer would also carefully consider whether there will be unintended effects for the current generation of same-sex couples.

Let’s assume that marriage as an institution would not be affected by being expanded to include same-sex couples. Would same-sex relationships be benefited or harmed if they were expected to do the same work of connecting generations that marriages have traditionally done? Again, we don’t know. My general impression is that few same-sex couples before, say, 1990, felt like parenting or grandparenting were vital missing dimensions of their romantic relationship. Is it optimal for gay couples to have norms based in heterosexual relationships projected onto them without any adjustment? How would it affect gay men, in particular, to have adoption and parenting as common social expectations of their long-term relationships? Will it be good for same-sex couples if their parents immediately ask when grandbabies are going to come?

I don’t necessarily have a problem with social engineering, but hastily redefining a core building block of society seems like really shoddy engineering work. I agree that we need to do something in this country to protect gay Americans, but is trying to leverage social acceptance by redefining marriage really the best solution?

And will anyone really benefit in the long term if we decide it’s hate or prejudice to believe that same-sex and opposite-sex relationships aren’t quite the same?

Read the 6-part series

About James Goldberg

James Goldberg's family is Jewish on one side, Sikh on the other, and Mormon in the middle. Goldberg co-edits the Everyday Mormon Writer literary website, teaches composition and creative writing courses at BYU, and blogs at Mormon Midrashim. His debut novel, The Five Books of Jesus, was published in September 2012.

44 Responses to Part 6: In Which I Finally Get to Gay Marriage

  1. Deborah says:

    I believe that few have no clue as to the treacherous consequences that will derive from calliing good, bad and, bad, good. Disobedience was never happiness [in my understanding]. Wonderful writing !

    • I hope we already know not to assume that American law and morality are the same thing.

      I think it’s also important to emphasize that good and bad don’t separate clearly on most political issues. As I mentioned in part three of this series, I think most advocates of gay marriage are motivated by fundamentally good desires to help others. But I also think most critics of gay marriage are motivated by a reasonable investment in pro-natal values sets rather than by hate or stupidity, as is often alleged.

  2. Paul says:

    Regarading the benefits of breastfeeding: it would appear the federal government agrees. The Affordable Care Act mandates funding of breast pumps by health insurance beginning January 2013.

    You indicate that prior to 1990 few same-sex couples were interested in parenting. Is there evidence to support that view? Although I know a few gay men with whom I work, I know only one gay couple who live in my neighborhood. They have four sons (from whose prior marriages I do not know), and parenting is a cruicial element of their relationship. Of course, that’s just a sample of one family.

    Fascinating series of posts.

    • Since the bulk of this post was based on reading I did last March, I don’t have a citation for you. My broad understanding is that the main issue for gay Americans was sexual freedom in the 1960s and 1970s and health in the 1980s. It seems to be more in the 1990s and early 2000s that interest shifted toward marriage-related issues for the group as a whole–though of course there would have been individual exceptions.

      To give one statistical reference point for the present: half of gay women under 50 who live alone or with a partner (presumably as opposed to with parents or roommates) are currently raising a child under 18, while only 20% of gay men in the same age/circumstance set are. See

  3. Jeffrey T. says:

    Fantastic series! I respect your approach and I’ve learned a lot from this. Thanks for writing this!

    One quick comment. You made a comment: “If the mother-father model is based entirely in social constructs, that’s no problem. But if there turns out to be a meaningful biological component to the mother-father model, we might as well wish ourselves luck getting biology to change in response to a court order.”

    As a student of theoretical psychology, I observed almost everywhere a dichotomy between social construct vs. biology. Either something is an arbitrary social construct, or it was designed and therefore inherent in biology.

    I’m not sure those options exhaust all the possibilities. Could there not be a social construct or social practice—which may not have any echoes in our physiology or biology—that has been divinely revealed as preferable? Do we really need to establish a biological basis for social constructs in order to defend them as preferable to other options?

    I say this only because I fear investing our defense of treasured social practices and customs into a biological basis for human behavior that may or may not bear fruit. I personally don’t think that traditional gender roles have strictly biological origins, but I do see them as a social practice preferable to alternatives, because I believe that God has taught them to us.

    • Point well taken. We tend to use “social construct” dismissively–but without some sort of social constructs, we would have no society.

      I will be more respectful to the idea of social constructs in the future.

    • Brittany says:

      Good points, Jeffery T. Some people today say that their gender identity doesn’t align with their biological sex (transgender), and in a few, the intended biological sex is not clear (intersex). I don’t think any of this changes the fact that I believe gender is an eternal characteristic. Where exactly is the delineation between the Lord’s eternal destinies for men and women vs. what He built in to at least most of our biology’s vs what the world tells us about what roles men and women should play? We don’t really know.

  4. Jeffrey T. says:

    Also, I feel like you’ve reached into this quagmire and touched the heart of the issue that concerns modern day prophets and apostles. The overfocus on the lateral component of marriage—and defining marriage solely in terms of that lateral component—and dismissing the vertical component is, I think, one of the key dangers of normalizing same-sex marriage and one of the key threats to families at large (which hinge on a societal understanding of the preeminent obligations of spouses to their children, and the bearing of children as the formost purpose of intercourse).

    • Re: the purposes of sexual relationships.

      My personal perspective is that the emotional and chemical effect of functional sexual relationships is to build strong bonds of trust between two people. It’s quite interesting to me that the linguistic roots of faith and fidelity are the same–both coming from the notion of trust.

      So my religious perspective is that sexuality broadly and intercourse specifically are not only to conceive children, but also to build a relationship of trust in the parents that will help nurture them. I understand from history that the strong bonds that often accompany sexual relationships can be used for other purposes–which is why I suspect that God has restricted them to family-oriented marriages.

      It is already a challenge for Latter-day Saints to live in societies where vertical relationships are taken less seriously than our beliefs demand. I suspect it will be significantly harder to live in a society where our pro-natal values are derided as narrow and restrictively hetero-normative. We’ll be OK, of course, but it is worth naming the challenge.

  5. Why did I just find this blog today? (Through a friend’s link on Facebook, fwiw.)

    This is one of the few cogent, non-hysterical (on either side) such discussions I’ve seen. I look forward to reading back through the whole series.

  6. templegoer says:

    I’ve loved your previous posts, it’s great to put this issue in a historical context.

    But I’m puzzled. Are you implying that those marriages that do not result in children are less valid? I’m really unsure as to what’s being said here. I think marriage has always been about companionship also and many of our biblical reference points for marriage did not produce children for long passages of time.

    Whilst I think it’s important for a child to have experiences of both genders as they grow up, it’s hardly unusual for a child or children to grow up in a household of women. Things often turn out to be less than optimal, and that makes for adults with particular strengths, as well as particular weaknesses.

    I imagine that the issue for most of us is actually religious. I’m fine with that but I think we need to be transparent about it. I think that the root concern is that the state might force the church to perform same sex marriages in the temple. I actually see that outcome as impossible as it would then mean that both the islamic and catholic community would also be compelled to perform same sex marriage, which would alienate large sections of the population. Of course it is important to express our position, but I think once we become aware that we are actually a minority we need to act as a force for civility and accept the majority position.

    I do believe that marriage should ideally be a covenant relationship, but that is not how the state defines it. I accept that I live in a less than optimal society, and that since I have a testimony I am responsible for my own choices.

    It’s been interesting to have this conversation in a less inflammatory environment. Thanks.

    • I do believe that marriages which don’t desire children are incomplete.

      I am saddened by the occasional modern practice of couples marrying with no desire to have children. I think from a gospel perspective, such couples are missing the point of marriage. And I think it will be bad if intentionally childless marriage becomes a major norm.

      I understand that many couples who want children are unable to have them. And I think that’s a trial that can yield spiritual growth–not simply something that’s no big deal.

    • Ali says:

      “Of course it is important to express our position, but I think once we become aware that we are actually a minority we need to act as a force for civility and accept the majority position.”

      So do you feel this way about the Word of Wisdom, law of chastity, modesty etc??

      We as members of the church will always be in the minority when it comes to morality, does that mean we need to accept the majority position? I say NO! The Lord’s people have always been ridiculed for being different, but different an peculiar are not bad things. I will use my voice and not let the vocal minority rule.

      I have gay friends and family members who I love. I treat them with love and respect. Their relationships are valid. But I do not believe marriage should be redefined as men/men women/women. Marriage is the fundamental unit of society and must be preserved.

      “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” (Edmund Burke

      • Paul says:

        I don’t think accepting the majority position means changing our behavior. I do not partake of alcoholic beverages, but I also don’t demand that my non-LDS friends abstain. Nor do I lobby for prohibition.

        • Cheryl says:

          In my opinion the ramifications of same sex marriage are far greater than alcohol and prohibition. It is the redifinition of the most basic institution in society.

          God’s plan for his children is about families, it is about bringing spirits down to earth to fulfill their mortal probation. This is in complete opposition to that plan.

          I don’t demand that my non LDS friends live my standards either, but when I see a moral issue that can redefine the very fabric of society I will speak up.

          Get government out of marriage. I agree with giving gay couples civil rights and insurance, and power of attorney for one another etc. I don’t doubt they love each other, but to completely redefine marriage is a slippery slope.

      • templegoer says:

        I don’t feel I’m doing nothing as I choose to live a covenanted life, I hope I’m walking my talk.

        I am concerned that speaking loudly leads to incivility which escalates to the point of temples being picketed.When the vocal minority become the quiet majority then it’s time to settle down I think and let the storm pass over us.

        I’d really rather avoid the contention being brought into my sacred spaces-it’s my instinct to keep that space uncontaminated.

  7. Susanne Nielsen says:

    Your thoughts make sense to me, James. Thank you for taking on this subject and treating it so respectfully. I feel the analogy with breastfeeding and understanding the vertical challenges are important components of the discussion that are often overlooked.

    I have a daughter who is married to a transexual and one of the things I see missing in their relationship, as you so ably share, is the vertical component. I think it changes the overall tenor of this debate, too.

  8. prometheus says:

    Here are a few thoughts.

    First, and most radical, get the government out of the marriage business. Let people incorporate themselves as they wish for tax and economic purposes and leave it at that. Totally separate the civil and relational aspects of the thing. (Yes, one would have to work out custody procedures in the event of minors, but the philosophy of the idea is intriguing, nonetheless.)

    Second, and less radical, but perhaps more agreeable: stop limiting the concept of children to two person households. No reason we can’t have more of a village raising a child approach. Comments like this, “I do believe that marriages which don’t desire children are incomplete,” seem to judge others’ satisfaction by one’s own perspective. One can be quite happy contributing to the well being of other people’s offspring without the sole responsibility of care. And, quite frankly, some people just don’t like children at all and ought not to have them. Let each participate in the perpetuation of the species according to their desires and talents.

    In effect, I am suggesting here a broadening of your vertical aspect – one which reduces the preeminence of the family line of DNA, and opens up a more general concern for the species as a whole.

    Third, I thoroughly reject gender-based social roles – society does not get to tell me that because I am a man, I must like fixing cars, shooting guns and drinking beer. Nor does it get to tell the girls and women in my life that their value lies in their reproductive ability alone, and who must love children and mothering to the exclusion of everything else. Social roles are subject to agency, and cannot be fully explained by or controlled by biology (which is perhaps a dubious ideal to aspire to, in any case). Again, let people be who they are and stop demanding an orchestra filled with piccolos, to borrow a phrase.

    At the end of the day, James, I have to say that focusing on nuclear families and DNA dynasties seems to be as self-focused as you claim lateral relationships are. You are still dividing the world into us and them, when there is no them at all.

    I find it sad that we insist on belonging to tribes and groups and nations and separating ourselves from each other, all the while missing the point that we are all, every one of us, part of one family. Just one.

    • SilverRain says:

      As someone who relies heavily on “the village” to help raise my children, I can testify that it is no substitute for a faithful, dedicated, two-parent family, any more than the parents alone are substitute for the wider community. They have equally important but separate functions.

      • prometheus says:

        okay, how about a dedicated three parent family? or a dedicated four parent family? my point is that limiting ourselves to exactly one possible envisioning of the perpetuation of human DNA is breaking everyone who doesn’t conform to that mold. This, despite the fact that that particular mold is both historically and culturally situated.

        • Bonnie says:

          prometheus – there is a difference between limiting families to a model and defining an ideal. Elder Holland has spoken quite clearly to patterns. If you are suggesting that the pattern of a two-parent house has no validity whatsoever, you are coming out in opposition to prophetic pronouncement. Just to clarify.

          The idea that government shouldn’t be involved in marriage at all is definitely open to debate. I think James makes the point that society has a vested interest in the stability of its citizens, which is one reason marriages are registered – the state long having accepted that stable families are fundamental building blocks of society. James’ point seems to be that society (sometimes through government) stabilizes structures that it wishes to encourage, as common goods. The line between stabilizing and interfering is a challenging one to maintain, to be sure.

          • prometheus says:

            Sorry for the confusion, I am not suggesting that two parent families are invalid, simply suggesting that they are not the be all and end all of family structure, that there are alternatives that also work.

            I hear you on the government bit – stability is necessary, but the line to walk is difficult to see most of the time.

    • Giving a vertical role to same-sex couples is a new experiment: we don’t know much about how it will turn out long term.

      But when you talk about replacing biological parents with the community as a whole, there are actually plenty of past experiments you can look at. I know the Oneida community tried that. Several of the early kibbutzim in Israel.

      I’m not aware of any community that has sustained such a system over multiple generations, but you can take a look at what’s been tried if you’re interested.

      • prometheus says:

        I am not intending the replacement of biological parents at all, but rather a broadening of valid family structures (extended family, adoptions, gay parents, etc). An expansion, rather than a contraction.

        It would be intriguing, if I had the time, to do an in depth study on familial structures, historically and geographically. But that is neither here nor there in my schedule. 🙂

        Anyway, thanks for challenging my world view. 😀

  9. This was extremely eye-opening to me and I think you handled it so well. It didn’t seem disrespectful and the points were well made. Very great analogy between breastfeeding and formula. It makes me happy to see something written on this topic that doesn’t make us as LDS people seem rude or prejudice. I will be checking back!

  10. SilverRain says:

    Thank you for this series. It articulates very well the reason I changed my stance from pro-gay-marriage to “get the government out of marriage” to realizing that the government has reasonable investment only in potentially procreative relationships.

    If sexual relationships were only horizontally bonding, the government truly has no interest in it. But if a sexual relationship can and intends to bring life into the world, the government has an interest in enforcing the responsibility of the couple to their children, the future citizens. Adoption is not the same thing, as it is making right something that already went wrong. Any way we can improve the lives of those children is better than what they have. But marriage is more about creating security for the child beforehand, about encouraging a safe environment where vertical bonds are being created.

    • Steven B says:

      I would argue that the government has an interest in relationships that are nurturing and supportive, because it can help shift the burden are care-taking from government programs to the individual care-taking partners.

      I would also argue that the government, and society in general should have an interest in the sexual aspect of relationships. If parters are fulfilled emotionally and sexually, they will be more stable and less likely to be spreading sexually transmittable diseases.

      After the sexual excesses of the 70s the gay community was devastated by the arrival of the HIV virus. It seems to me that society should want to encourage the male homosexual population to settle down into stable, monogamous relationships. The availability of legal marriage and the encouragement to marry would go a long way toward that societal goal.

      • Bonnie says:

        In my mind, Steven, you’re confusing effects with responsibilities. The effect of decreased government dependence that is derived from increased family stability is a good that the government can strive for, but that beneficial effect does not give the government either the right or the responsibility to engage in any compulsion toward that end. The role of the government is to “promote the general welfare” – it’s only provisionary role is to “provide for the common defense.” If our government better understood that line we would be in better shape all around.

  11. Excellent series. Thanks for re-sharing. I agree with the argument that if we restrict gay marriage we should also restrict marriage with no current desire or ability to produce children. The difference is that a two-gendered marriage has the potential for children, no matter what the current intent or medical determination. Intentions, circumstances, and medical understandings can change, so at some point that potential can be fulfilled.

    I’m curious as to your arguments concerning the association of same sex marriage to interracial marriage. Being something that became an issue over the last century or so and was (for the most part) resolved in recent memory, how is the denial of same gendered marriage not the same as the denial of interracial marriage?

    • Paul says:

      It’s interesting to me that at least one of the concerns of the interracial marriages was the vertical component — the fruits of the marriage would be bi-racial. The horizontal / vertical discussion removes this element of comparison for me.

      • Paul,

        I think it’s a vertical concern if people were against interracial marriage because they were afraid it would disrupt relationships between parents and children. Which probably happened in many individual families when the prospect of an interracial marriage arose.

        But I think interracial marriage laws were intended not to protect family relationships but to protect broader social segregation systems. The real problem many people saw with biracial children was not that they’d have complicated relationships with the parents–it was that they’d muddle the society’s system of racial community divisions.

        Interracial marriage laws were not about the definition or functions of marriage, I believe, so much as about perpetuating the American system of race.

    • Steven B says:

      Same sex individuals generally are not infertile and same-gendered marriages have the potential for children as well, either through adoption or by assisted reproduction. To say that same-sex relationships are are merely lateral is to ignore the sizable portion that are currently raising children.

      • I hope I didn’t say “merely” but rather “primarily.”

        Marriage has traditionally been primarily vertical and recently become roughly equally vertical and lateral. Same-sex relationships over the past fifty years seem to have formed primarily out of lateral concerns and only gradually developed an increased interest in serving vertical functions.

        It’s entirely possible that opposite-sex and same-sex couples will converge, with opposite-sex marriage becoming more lateral and same-sex marriages becoming more vertical.

        I don’t think we can say yet, though, whether that will happen and whether having same-sex couples take on strong vertical expectations for the first time in history is really ideal for anyone.

    • Good question. My grandfather and grandmother ran into this–when they got married, there was an Arizona law banning marriage between a white woman and a “Hindoo” (=Asian Indian) man. So they had to find a way around it.

      A few quick thoughts:

      1) Everyone knew interracial marriage was marriage–the laws were written to bar certain couples who were otherwise inside that definition. Traditional marriage advocates don’t think same-sex marriage is a bad marital match; they actually believe it’s not a marriage.

      2) People’s main fear about interracial marriage was procreation: they were afraid of mixed-race babies. If procreation in and of itself was a key interest of society in marriage, there was no doubt interracial marriages fit. Prohibitions on interracial marriage were not designed to preserve a core purpose of marriage–they were designed to preserve another social institution, hierarchical racial segregation, which was clearly against the social contract of the 14th amendment.

      In brief: I think social norms of procreation are tied up with marriage and that there’s a rational, constitutionally permissible argument for trying to keep it that way. In many states, racial laws were passed around marriage (but not as part of the fundamental definition of marriage) which served to further an agenda of hierarchical racial segregation. An agenda which became constitutionally difficult to defend after the civil war and 14th amendment.

  12. Steven B says:

    Whenever I hear the issue of gay marriage framed using the term “redefined” it strikes me as being dismissive of gay people’s place in society. Because those who speak in terms of “redefining” marriage, in my opinion, really want to define “society.” The reason I say this is that so much in society was built on the assumption of the heterosexual normative family. Everything from gym memberships to eternal salvation assumes a heterosexual family. Taxes, inheritance, hospital decisions, immigration, insurance, all assume a traditional family.

    So here we have a significant segment of society that simply doesn’t fit that binary-gender mold, yet which citizens are similarly situated. So if we limit marriage to the traditional heterosexual model, we are effectively limiting those many related social structures, privileges and opportunities to the heterosexual portion of society.

    The issue is less about the definition of marriage and more about the place of gay people in society and in the church.

    In fact, I would take it even further and say that those who preach of God making Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve, really want to “define” humanity as being entirely heterosexual. But that is simply not the reality of the world in which we find ourselves, nor the extent of the Creator’s diverse vision.

    • I’ve heard estimates that a full 1% of the population may be asexual.

      Does that demographic’s presumed disinterest in marriage mean that asexual people have no place in society?

      I hope not. I think asexual people make wonderful contributions to society. But I don’t think we should recognize their closest friendships as marriages.

      I think we do ourselves a disservice by assuming that everyone has to play the same roles to have the same fundamental worth.

      • Andrew S says:


        It’s important to note that 1) asexuals (and even if sexual folks who just don’t want kids, since I think that is the issue that was originally being addressed) do face social stigma (and are going to be inclined to “define society” to reduce that stigma) and 2) asexuals’ closest friendships, if they are between opposite sexed folks and the asexuals care to seek to elevate their relationship to that level, can be recognized as marriage. The government (and most people) do not bat an eye at people marrying without the intent to have children. (it seems strange to me to presume that asexuals would be disinterested in *marriage* – I will get to this later on in my comment, but I think you have a lot of stuff packed in with the word “marriage” that I, and I think many other people, wouldn’t pack into the term. I don’t think most folks would link marriage too closely with sex, so asexuals marrying would not seem strange.)

        I guess that’s the main issue with this series (forgive me, I only read it years ago when it was posted on your own blogging, so I could be missing a bit)… The vertical, pro-natal envisioning of marriage sounds great, but I would say most folks – – even many who would normally say they are for traditional views of marriage, do not actually see marriage in vertical terms. So, what is assumed to be traditional, anchored in how society had always done things, etc., instead seems foreign, antiquated, and regressive… The causes for why marriage has become seen more in horizontal terms (which certainly weren’t be because of gay folks) are not things that most want to “roll back.”

        As a result of a number of issues, marriage has a mismatch to children — you can’t necessarily assume that people getting married are doing so with the intention of having children, and if you look at where the children are, they are increasingly not coming from traditional marriage situations. And I understand the concerns that this decoupling could and does have unexpected and often undesirable outcomes, but it seems to me that to address this, we can’t go back to “the way things were”, but we have to make plans for the future based on the way things *are*.

        • Andrew,

          Thanks for the comment. Many good talking points there, but for now I want to focus on the question of whether it’s still viable to talk about marriage in vertical terms.

          I absolutely agree with you that many people see marriage specifically and sexual relationships generally as mostly about two people’s love, not about intergenerational relationships. But I think that’s mostly because people no longer think much about vertical relationships. Our society hasn’t forgotten them entirely; they’ve just moved to the blurry periphery of our collective vision.

          When people do pay serious attention to the vertical aspect of relationships, traditional marriage has outperformed tested alternatives. People debate whether marriage or cohabitation is better for individuals and couples, for example, but there seems to be broad consensus that marriage is better for children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. People have experimented with some of the collectivist alternatives to childrearing Prometheus mentions in his comments above, but none of those arrangements has performed well from the viewpoint of strong intergenerational relationships.

          So we do certainly have the option of simply accepting that, whether straight or gay, most people seem to care about the interpersonal side of marriage first and the intergenerational side as an optional addition. We can accept gender-free definitions of marriage. We can accept cohabitation as an equally valid norm for couples who want to share their lives.

          We also have the option of hoping that a traditional definition of marriage isn’t actually necessary to promote strong intergenerational relationships. Or hoping that we can shift to a genderless version of marriage and keep all the intergenerational richness through adoption, artificial insemination, etc.

          But here’s the thing: even if intergenerational relationships are less important to our norms now, I believe we are paying and will continue to pay a steep social price for that neglect. And even if it’s possible that genderless marriage will be fine for those relationships, I’m not convinced yet.

          I care deeply about intergenerational relationships. I want a solution designed to give them weight and I don’t see any modern alternative I can advocate that gives them more weight than is left in traditional marriage.

          • Andrew S. says:

            (oops. the nested comments is now so far to the right that it’s cutting off part of the comments…but I’ll try posting anyway)

            I think that to say that marriage and relationships now tend to put vertical relationships on the periphery has to be coupled with another statement — the vertical relationships that we do have are increasingly on the periphery of marriage.

            So, I’m ultimately saying that those who care about vertical relationships ought not look primarily to a traditional marriage structure.

            Like, to take what you say here:

            We also have the option of hoping that a traditional definition of marriage isn’t actually necessary to promote strong intergenerational relationships. Or hoping that we can shift to a genderless version of marriage and keep all the intergenerational richness through adoption, artificial insemination, etc.,

            Non-traditional forms of marriage is where we are and where we are continuing to go. So, it’s more a matter of whether or not we are going to support the people who already are in non-traditional relationships but who are capable and in many cases already engaged in vertical relationships (adoption *already is a thing* — this is not something that we would need to “shift to”), or if we aren’t (because we are holding out for an ideal, even if that is becoming functionally less ideal given a whole load of other social phenomena.)

            Additionally, you use the term “genderless” marriage…but I don’t think this is precise. I mean, it’s not like the people engaging in marriage are agendered — in fact, gay marriage isn’t about ‘non-gendered’ marriage but the fact that two very gendered (that’s how we know they are two men or two women…) folks are marrying. What is changing is the gender role expectations of the marital participants. But this is not something that only applies to gay marriage. This is something that — even if gay marriage is not legalized in any state — is *already here* because straight people are renegotiating gender roles already in their relationships and marriages.

            {I would also point out that when we talk about “traditional marriage” or the “traditional family”, we still have to ask, “What kind?” Our western nuclear family seems problematic in contrast to extended families in other cultures, although it is true that those too are being eroded by externalities — economic capitalism, etc., But that may also be for another post}

          • Re: Traditional Family
            As to the “what kind” of traditional family–my thinking is definitely influenced by the large extended Punjabi family I belong to on my mom’s side. Which is based on different assumptions than current American norms in many ways for good and ill. But yeah, I am personally a believer in extended family as a worthwhile social good.

            Re: Genderless definition of marriage
            I’ll revise “genderless” to “gender-role-free” and say that I’m against completely eliminating gender roles. We can renegotiate them, yes, but that’s different than abolishing them. At a minimum, I think women are better at the roles of pregnancy and childbirth and that those roles are important in a family. And I think I have a specific potential as a father that goes beyond my general potential as parent.

            Re: Adoption
            Adoption is wonderful when biological parents aren’t able to raise their children–but there’s also a reason why we don’t just hand a random baby from the nursery to each couple when they leave the hospital.
            I am all for supporting people as they parent in a wide variety of circumstances. But I also understand that certain types of unlimited affirmation change norms and make it easier for people to get into difficult situations. So I’m much more comfortable honoring single mothers for making the best of a non-optimal situation than I would be saying there’s no broad difference between single-parent and two-parent families. And I’m much more comfortable having adoption norms and laws that allow same-sex couples to experiment with joint custody than with having norms and laws that assume that there’s no difference between a child being raised by two biological parents and by a same-sex couple which includes at most one of the child’s biological parents.

            Now, I can we can rationally disagree about whether gender roles should exist in any form in marriage, whether biological parenthood matters, etc. My point in this series is largely that my side of the debate should be viewed as a legitimate debate position rather than as animus against gay people. My concern over the continuing Prop 8 debate in the legal system and popular culture is that my position is often being ruled out of bounds for reasonable public debate.

  13. MSKeller says:

    I believe that the government ought to simply get out of the marriage business all together. Let folks create civil unions consisting of whomever they wish. Tie themselves financially to whomever they trust the most, and let churches retain the rights to marriage. Even so, as your series clearly points out, so many do not see the unintended consequences of “Just let two people who love each other do their thing” mentality. If we are going to fundamentally change our society, at least be honest about it and what it will mean.

  14. Andrew S. says:


    I had a more detailed comment, but I lost it…I’ll just say this:

    Now, I can we can rationally disagree about whether gender roles should exist in any form in marriage, whether biological parenthood matters, etc. My point in this series is largely that my side of the debate should be viewed as a legitimate debate position rather than as animus against gay people. My concern over the continuing Prop 8 debate in the legal system and popular culture is that my position is often being ruled out of bounds for reasonable public debate.

    I totally agree, and do think that there should be more awareness brought for the legitimate case to be made here. But I think that it’s kinda like many nonreligious folks’ problem with more reasonable religious folks — the more reasonable religious folks often appear to shield and enable not quite as nuanced religious positions. In this case, I think that even if there are reasons to support traditional marriage that aren’t derived from anti-gay animus, there is also anti-gay animus that latches on to these points. In other words, “your side of the debate” doesn’t necessarily equate with the entire “anti-gay marriage” or “pro-traditional marriage” position.

  15. New Iconoclast says:

    I think you’ve put this extremely well (by which I probably mean, “you seem to agree with my view on the subject :)) . I especially liked the engineering analogy, since it puts into words something I’ve been trying to articulate over the inchoate cries of “Bigot!” from my neighbors, namely, that this is a pretty darned serious social experiment to be undertaking, without more than the faintest shred of evidence for its safety, and the consequences if we’re wrong are devastating.

    They don’t buy the next part, which is “. . . and that’s just what the Adversay is hoping for.”

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