Keeping Marriage Straight
debate over same-sex marriage suffers grievously from a sort of
national imbecility about institutions. It might force clarity into the
discussion if we banned the word rights. Then again, some people
seem to prefer banning clarity.
The issue of marriage goes far beyond the commitment of two people of the same sex, writes David Mixner in Time magazine. It goes to the civil rights of gay and lesbian Americans. The effort to ban same-sex marriage would deny us the basic right accorded to our neighbors and friends. The issue involves immigration, taxation, family leave, health care, adoption, Medicare, and numerous other benefits and rights. And yes, he ascribes opposition to same-sex marriage to fear of change among people who are frightened by homosexual love.
Like most gay advocates, Mr. Mixner implies that the nature of the institution doesnt matter; only vaguely defined rights do. These include government entitlements. But how could nonhomosexuals be prevented from contracting same-sex marriages to cash in? Or would only homosexuals be permitted to contract such marriages? This is only one of many practical problems, most of them unforeseeable, that would surely arise from basing an institution on alleged rights instead of actual social needs. If that prospect doesnt excite fear of change, it ought to.
To hear the gay version, youd think that marriage was created to endow heterosexuals with special rights that were denied to homosexuals a total, and lugubrious, misconception. The institution is prior to the rights attached to it.
Nearly every society has some version of marriage, simply because the institution is necessary for the care of women and children and for the orderly distribution of property. This social necessity isnt a matter of creating rights, but of defining pretty basic obligations. The people on whom these obligations must be imposed are, obviously, those who are capable of having children.
The people most apt to want the pleasures of marriage without the obligations are, as you may have observed, young men. Men complain about marriage. Women dont complain about marriage; they complain about men.
The relation between marriage and rights is much more complicated than the gay version suggests. In most societies marriage is less a right than a duty, and the failure or refusal to marry can bring shame and other penalties on the unmarried. In many societies parents choose spouses for their children or, even more commonly, reserve the power to veto their childrens choices. The notion that marriage is merely the natural and proper conclusion of romantic love is a recent and dubious Western idea.
Arranged marriages seem heartless to us, but the parents who do the arranging usually do so with full consideration of the welfare of their children, as well as the interests of the family. And their choices may be more prudent than those the children might have made on their own. Not that the parents are always wiser, but the conception of marriage as an individual right is by no means the only view of the matter. At any rate marriage didnt originate with the idea of the individuals pursuit of happiness an idea that, in fact, has proved subversive of the institution and its obligations.
The simplest refutation of the gay version is that some societies have been very tolerant of homosexuality and pederasty, like ancient Greece and Rome, without feeling any need to institute same-sex marriage. In fact, it apparently never occurred to Greco-Roman homosexuals and pederasts to demand such a thing. They seem to have been content with their informal arrangements, since procreation wasnt involved.
Institutions have their own purposes and inner logic. That is what makes them institutions. Their definitions make them more or less exclusive; a Baptist can hardly complain if he is rejected by a Catholic seminary. To say that Baptists ought to be accepted is really to say that Catholic seminaries shouldnt exist. You can argue that they shouldnt exist in the first place; but you cant argue that if they accept non-Catholics they remain Catholic.
Marriage means a permanent union between people of opposite sexes. Thats the whole idea. The advocates of same-sex marriage arent really complaining about discrimination; theyre complaining about marriage.
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