Dispatches from the Creation Wars

Dale Carpenter continues his brilliant fisking of David Blankenhorn’s Weekly Standard article at the Volokh Conspiracy. This time he’s focusing on the argument that you often hear from gay marriage opponents that claims that gays aren’t really interested in getting married, they just see gay marriage as a means of undermining the institution of marriage. Blankenhorn writes:

[P]eople who have devoted much of their professional lives to attacking marriage as an institution almost always favor gay marriage. . . . Inevitably, the pattern discernible in the [international survey data] statistics is borne out in the statements of the activists. Many of those who most vigorously champion same-sex marriage say that they do so precisely in the hope of dethroning once and for all the traditional “conjugal institution.”

And he goes on to cite a few radical thinkers who want to do away with marriage completely, and pretends that they speak for everyone who supports gay marriage. Carpenter deftly dismantles this absurd argument. He makes three powerful arguments. The first is obvious:

First, as Blankenhorn well knows, it is not necessary to the cause of gay marriage to embrace the “cluster” of beliefs he and I would both regard as generally anti-marriage. One could, as many conservative supporters of gay marriage do, both support SSM and believe that (1) marriage is not an outdated institution, (2) divorce should be made harder to get, (3) adultery should be discouraged and perhaps penalized in some fashion, (4) it is better for children to be born within marriage than without, (5) it is better for a committed couple to get married than to stay unmarried, (6) it is better for children to be raised by two parents rather than one, and so on.

The second turns the logic of Blankenhorn’s argument around on him to show why it’s a non sequitur:

Second, a policy view is not necessarily bad because some (or many) of the people who support it also support bad things and see those other bad things as part of a grand project to do bad. Some (many?) opponents of gay marriage also oppose the use of contraceptives (even by married couples), would recriminalize sodomy, would end sex education in the schools, and would re-subordinate wives to their husbands. And they see all of this – including their opposition to SSM – as part of a grand project to make America once and for all “One Christian Nation” where the “separation of church and state” is always accompanied by scare quotes and is debunked by selective quotes from George Washington. These are, one might say, a “cluster” of “mutually reinforcing” beliefs that “do go together.” But it would be unfair to tar opponents of SSM with all of these causes, or to dismiss the case against SSM because opposing SSM might tend to advance some of them.

And the third points out how selectively Blankenhorn and other gay marriage opponents cite only those radical voices that paint the picture they wish to paint of gay marriage advocates, ignoring that other radical voices make the exact opposite argument against gay marriage:

Third, in citing and quoting these pro-SSM marriage radicals, Blankenhorn and other anti-gay marriage writers ignore an entire segment of the large debate on the left about whether marriage is a worthwhile cause for gays. While there are many writers on the left who support SSM because they believe (erroneously, I think) that it will deinstitutionalize marriage, there are many other writers on the left who oppose (or are at least anxious about) SSM because they think it will reinstitutionalize it. Let me give a just a few examples that Blankenhorn, Gallagher, and Kurtz have so far missed.

And he cites 3 prominent writers who take the same anti-marriage position that Blankenhorn publicizes and tries to tar gay marriage advocates with, but who argue that pushing for same sex marriage will result in foisting what they see as oppressive norms on a gay community that should be trying to break down and undermine those norms rather than joining them. So by Blankenhorn’s reasoning, using such quotes, those who want to destroy marriage are in league with the opponents of gay marriage. I’ll let Carpenter sum up the argument:

The point is not to argue that any of these writers are correct that gay marriage will have the significant reinstitutionalizing effect they think it will have. I think both the anti-SSM marriage radicals and the pro-SSM marriage radicals Blankenhorn cites are far too taken with the transformative power of adding an additional increment of 3% or so to existing marriages in the country. So are anti-gay marriage activists generally. I think all of them – including Blankenhorn – are mistaken if they imagine that straight couples take cues from gay couples in structuring their lives and relationships, if they think straight couples may stop having children, or if they predict straight couples will be more likely to have babies outside of marriage because gay couples are now having and raising their children within it.

The point is that both support for and opposition to SSM well up from a variety of complex ideas, fears, hopes, emotions, world-views, motives, and underlying theories. The debate will not be resolved by dueling quotes from marriage radicals. SSM will have the effects it has – good or bad – regardless of what marriage radicals with one or another “cluster” of beliefs hope it will have.

Well said.


  1. #1 valhar2000
    March 30, 2007

    The concluding paragraph expresses well what I have always thought about SSM. It is simply silly for people to talk about it as though it were something with far reaching effects, because it won’t be. I don’t think any of the people who are opposed to it, and very few of those in favour, will be affected by it in any way.

    Arguments that depend on the possible “effects” of SSM on society are therefore entirely irrelevant.

  2. #2 Stuart Coleman
    March 30, 2007

    That was quite a good article, although I really can’t believe that people think gay marriage would be bad for the gay community. That seems stranger than the people who are against it and say it will destroy society.

  3. #3 Todd O.
    March 30, 2007


    The argument is complex but important. Gay men and women have spent the last 50 years forging out a place for themselves, creating communities and modes of loving and relationship beyond and outside of society’s purview. Where we ended up is a community where relationships are always negotiated, where aspects of the relationship are always on the table for discussion, where the purpose of relationships is for the mutual fulfillment of the partners. They come in all shapes and sizes, ranging from a pair to multiples, across age and racial gaps, various degrees of sexual openness., etc. The point is, that the gay community has fostered an open and productive kind of relationship-building that would be endangered by subjecting it to the normative social expectations of marriage, which carries with it a whole set of cultural rules and regulations anathetical to the kinds of relationships we have struggled to create. [See Anthony Giddens, _The Transformation of Intimacy: Sexuality, Love and Eroticism in Modern Societies_ for a good explanation of the sociology of gay relationships and an argument for why heterosexual relationships should be emmulating gay relationships, instead of the inverse.]

    Personally, this argument is extremely important to me. The cost of integration for the gay community (and other minorities) is the loss of the autonomy necessary to be able to create our OWN meanings, rather than have them dictated by the dominant culture. My research about gay male community building in the 1960s shows that what allowed the gay community to thrive was when they took the power to define their own lives regardless of the desires of the dominant culture. I fear that in our efforts to have full equality, we are problematically being forced to become “like” straight culture, which should NOT be a condition of equality, but has been the unintended effect of the fight.

    Nonetheless, I am in favor of the legalization of gay marriage. In a liberal democracy, you must not treat citizens unequally. What I like about legalizing gay marriage is that it takes the simple step of treating people equally under the law, and opens up the possibility for those gays who choose to go the more ‘traditional’ route to have that option open to them.

    I also believe that, most likely, the gay men and women will treat the institution of marriage as a legal and financial protection and many will reject all the rest of the cultural baggage that comes with it. In other words, I would wager that most gay couples (if not all) will take the institution of marriage and integrate it into their already-existing patterns. But I still think the danger is high that by legalizing gay marriage, gay men and women will then be held to the norms of society, which will exert yet more pressure to conform, or at least appear to conform in public. [Kenji Yoshino’s recent critical legal study _Covering: the Hidden Assault on Our Civil Rights_, although not specifically about gay marriage, does a good job talking about this kind of pressure to conform and its affect on homosexuals and other minorities.]

  4. #4 Dr. X.
    March 30, 2007

    I usually suspect a hidden agenda when I hear that someone opposes same-sex marriage because some opponents of gay marriage (e.g., Muslims and members of some Mormon sects) believe that polygamy is okay. Of course, if we continue to insist that marriage be limited to heterosexuals, before you know it there won’t be any limit on the number of wives a man can have. After all, the more wives a man has, the more he is supporting heterosexual marriage, or so they would insist.

  5. #5 DougT
    March 30, 2007

    Todd O. And yet there are plenty of us who wish to assimilate, indeed who have assimilated. It’s easy to decry the corrosive effects of the dominant culture while ignoring the effects of the dominant subculture. When I was coming out in the late 1970’s I did not choose to embrace the then-dominant gay culture. Was I therefore marginalized within that gay culture? You betcha (though I didn’t much care). One consequence is that I lived to tell the tale. I’m hardly alone. There are plenty of us folks living quiet, assimilated lives in the suburbs who want marriage not as a means of either enabling or resisting some sort of radical societal change but because we’re, well, already married. Our lives look very much like those of our straight neighbors and we like it that way. We want the rights that go along with the responsibilities that we have already taken on. No, I don’t believe that my approach is right for everyone. But it exists, and, from the evidence I’ve seen, it’s growing.

  6. #6 GH
    March 30, 2007

    not as a means of either enabling or resisting some sort of radical societal change but because we’re, well, already married.

    No your not married and thats the point. You have all the components to make a successful marriage and as such that is why it is silly to deny you the same benefits as heterosexual couples. Lets not confuse the relationship with the institution. You have one and desire the other and the protections it brings.

  7. #7 DougT
    March 30, 2007


    We are actually in substantial agreement here. Technically, in my case it’s most correct to say that my marriage is not recognized in this country. My partner and I are married- in Canada. In terms of your broader point, it’s not really that I am confusing the relationship with the institution. I believe that the institution is made up of many parts, the realtionship and the legal rights and responsibilities being two important ones. I use the language that I do, in part to remind the anti-marriage folks that although they can try to deny me the legal stuff, they can’t deny me the relationship. Plus, it seems to kinda piss them off. It’s a guilty pleasure, but I do enjoy that.

  8. #8 Todd O.
    March 30, 2007


    I don’t mind people choosing to assimilate, as you put it, and would argue that it should be one of the choices available to an individual. I would also never argue that a minority culture doesn’t exert a certain degree of power over its members, which can be stifling if not suffocating to a given individual. As I said, I’m in favor of legalizing same-sex marriage.

    I do not think that giving up what you hate about your minority community by conforming to the dominant culture is necessarily “freedom” in any sense, although I would defend an individual’s right to do so.

    My concern isn’t that individuals will “leave” the gay community or that individuals will (and have always had) a wide variety of ways of being gay. My personal end-in-view would be to establish a society where gay men and women would have a full range of possible life choices, from full separatism to full integration and anything in between. My concern is that the dominant culture will reclaim (or perhaps strengthen is a better word) its power to define and control us from the outside, wresting from us the hard-won victories that have allowed us to define ourselves, our lives, and our relationships, albeit within a society that treats us as second-class citizens (at best). The fact of the matter is that the very existence of the minority community (as suffocating as it may feel to you or me at any given time) is what enables the ongoing creative process for individuals to define their own meanings of gayness. If that community disappears in favor of “assimilation,” we lose the social context necessary for self-definition.

  9. #9 gwangung
    March 30, 2007

    Todd, I like that formulation, not only for gays, but for other minorities in this culture. It’s a very good way of stating what people want out of a multicultural society. It is, after all, a part of the wider society–but there will ALWAYS be subgroups within a society, and it is not neccesarily a bad thing.

  10. #10 kehrsam
    March 30, 2007

    ToddO: Forgive me if I’m misunderstanding you, but it seems as if you’re arguing that gays have created a culture outside of establishment marriage and that therefore assimilation into conventional marriage equals a relingquishment of freedom rather than a step forward. To the extent that there exists a black and white marriage/non-marriage dichotomy, you are correct. Outside of the subburbs, I’m not sure that dichotomy exists.

    The fact that most straights get married at some point in their lives does not mean that marriage is the defining standard in hetero relationships. Between serial monogamy and the “hooking up” culture, I see little evidence that the old-fashioned views of sex are prevailing. In fact, I would argue that the reactions of cultural conservatives proves otherwise.

    Therefore, it appears that the face of marriage will be changing rapidly to keep up with the culture for the forseeable future. My estimate is that domestic law runs 20-40 years behind actual change.

    So I don’t think you have too much to worry about. Yes, in the early stages of SSM, it will be conservative gays getting married, but they were not part of the broader lifestyle anyway. By 2050, lots of folks will be getting married, but by them SSM will be inclusive of many of the lifestyle options you are fearful of losing.

    The sociology of the situation is fascinating, and I’m sure you are better versed on it than i will ever be. Cheers!

  11. #11 dogmeatib
    March 30, 2007

    The simple fact is, no one should have a right that everyone else has denied to them simply because someone else doesn’t want them to. Because homophobes find same sex marriage “icky” doesn’t give them the right to deny constitutionally guaranteed legal rights to others.

    DougT, about the anti gay marriage crowd, please make sure to keep pissin’ them off ’cause they sure piss me off. ;o)

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