October 23, 2005

Who's Doing the Damage?

Oh hilarious. Here's the much-mocked Maggie Gallagher's take on the real problem with legalizing gay marriage:
If the principle behind SSM is institutionalized in law… then people like me who think marriage is the union of husband and wife importantly related to the idea that children need moms and dads will be treated in society and at law like bigots.
Awww… poor thing. Sign gay marriage into law and suddenly people might not be allowed to gay-bash on the radio anymore, for fear of sounding like bigots and having their broadcast licenses revoked (I really don't think she needs to worry here); and future schoolteachers will brainwash their students into thinking that the gay rights debates of yore pitted a few noble crusaders for equality against a wall of old-fashioned and mostly stodgy bigots. Liberal elites can be so cruel! Really, though, I wanted to comment on this, somewhat less-goofy, paragraph:
The most important fault line in the marriage debate is between a) people who think SSM will help a small number of gay couples and not affect anyone else and b) people like me who think this is going to change fundamentally the nature of marriage.
Is that really the fault line? Neither of these propositions is testable unless we just go for it and legalize gay marriage—or, alternatively, we could just look at Europe's experience and note that Option A looks like the likely result. Alternatively, though, one could throw in a third option—that gay marriage will change marriage, yes, but for the better. I don't see why this argument's any less implausible than the other two. Insofar as legalizing gay marriage can send out a signal that being married is preferable to not being married, it could easily strengthen the institution, which, I take it, is Andrew Sullivan's argument. That's why you have more than a few feminists on the left opposed to the whole idea, seeing as how it would bolster what they see as a patriarchal and mostly oppressive institution. And they're probably right.

But let's also take Gallagher's fears seriously for a second. My guess is that keeping gay marriage illegal will do far more to erode marriage than anything else in the near future. Corporations and states, after all, are increasingly creating partner benefits for gay couples—it's hard to stop the states from doing this, and even harder to stop companies from doing it. (I guess you could try to pass an amendment, but that seems difficult.) And once there are benefit systems in place for gay couples, straight couples may as well sign on too, forgoing marriage. If companies increasingly extend healthcare and retirement benefits to "domestic partners," well, that's one less incentive for everyone else to get married, isn't it? I think Jonathan Rauch once warned that without gay marriage, "every unmarried gay couple"—especially those with kids—"will become a walking billboard for the joys of co-habitation." Not good for Gallagher. This seems like the greater "threat" to marriage, and unless we plan on banning all gay people everywhere from even looking at each other—and even in America this seems like a daunting task—allowing gay marriage is probably the best way to avert the inevitable "erosion" at work here.

We can add another loop too. Just as Gallagher seems to fear, young people increasingly do seem to see the backlash against gay rights as a form of bigotry. How much respect will those kids have for an institution they see as discriminatory? Not much, one would think. This should really be what gets Gallagher nervous. Granted, it's near-impossible to test any of these arguments—I guess we can see what happens in Massachusetts and, inevitably, California in the coming years—though my gut feeling is that it would be impossible for gay couples to screw up marriage any more than straight couples have already done.

(Granted, in real life I think it's right to allow gay marriage even if it does somehow affect straight couples—just like it was right to end racial discrimination among employers even if the net effect is to pull down white wages—but this seems to be one of those cases where doing what's right and doing what's beneficial for the majority are actually aligned.)
-- Brad Plumer 9:43 PM || ||