A review of Gay Marriage: Why it is Good for Gays, Good for Straights, and Good for America. By Jonathan Rauch

Times Books, 2004.

This is the most compelling book so far to make the case for same-sex marriage (SSM). However, as a defense of gay marriage, Jonathan Rauch’s Gay Marriage suffers from a number of flaws.

First however it can be said that Rauch offers a good understanding of traditional marriage. He rightly points out that marriage is not just a private transaction but a public institution. Marriage is more than a sheet of paper. It has social, symbolic and legal significance. Moreover, marriage is not just about benefits, but duties and responsibilities as well. And love, sex and marriage stand or fall together. They should not be treated separately. Marriage is our most important social institution. So far, so good. But he wants in on the action.

He goes on to say that there are no compelling arguments whatsoever to exclude same-sex couples from the hallowed institution. Same-sex couples should not be excluded from marriage, and everyone would benefit by SSM. Rauch argues that various objections raised against SSM are in fact arguments against marriage itself, and to strengthen marriage we need to stress its inclusive nature.

His full case deserves a reading. He deals with most objections, and offers plenty of rational argumentation. However, his logic seems to break down at a number of crucial points. Some key assumptions are made by Rauch that may require further justification, and some valid arguments against SSM he either sidesteps or dismisses.

Consider one major point he makes throughout the book. Marriage, says Rauch, in order to be universal and the norm, must allow no exclusions and no exceptions. It must be for everyone or for no one: “we can’t preserve marriage as a norm if only some people can marry”. (38) Conservatives, he says, “can defend marriage’s normality or its exclusivity, but not both.” (93)

But why not? Why can’t something be both normal, binding, and universally available, while buttressed by certain restrictions, or exceptions? Many examples come to mind. In democracies like America, freedom is the norm and freedom is universal. But there are plenty of restrictions and exceptions to unfettered freedom.

Rauch says equality before the law demands that there be no exception as to who can marry. He illustrates his point by saying that in the US, “homosexuals cannot legally marry anyone they love. There is no heterosexual in this position.” (96) This of course is just blatantly false.

As a married male, I cannot marry another woman (at least not while my current marriage is binding). I cannot marry my son. I cannot marry my pet dog. I cannot marry a group of people.

It is of course fully possible for me to deeply love another woman, my son, my dog, and a select group of people, perhaps even at the same time. But that love does not mean I can marry the object of my love.

This is one of the fundamental flaws in Rauch’s book. The very same arguments he uses for SSM can be used for the legal recognition and celebration of any number of loving sexual relationships, be it incest, polygamy, bestiality, and so on. The same arguments apply.

Of course Rauch deals with these objections, but dismisses them as lacking in merit. He says such “anything goes” arguments are easily dealt with. The promotion of incest or group sex are not in the same league as the case for SSM he says, and argues that they can be opposed on other grounds. He concludes by saying that  “when heterosexuals get the right to marry two other people or a sibling or a dog or a Volkswagon, homosexuals should get that right also. Until then, there is no reason to discuss it.” (127)

But there is. When de facto or cohabiting relationships first received equal recognition under law, making them equal with marriage (at least here in Australia), conservative voices warned that this would be the thin edge of the wedge. People in other types of relationships would soon be demanding the same benefits of marriage.

We were of course scoffed at and derided for suggesting such way-out possibilities. Well, those possibilities have now become realities, and there is plenty of discussion on the Web, in gay newspapers, in academia, and elsewhere, for these other sorts of relationships to be formally and  publicly recognised as well. True, such voices may now be in the very small minority. But so were advocates of SSM thirty years ago. Indeed, Rauch does admit later that “legalization of same-sex marriage might lessen resistance to other forms of change.” (134) And that is a very legitimate concern.

Rauch, like other gay marriage proponents, is happy to speak about equality before the law, a fair go for all, and the horrors of discrimination. He wants to appeal to our natural sense of justice and fair play when he makes his case for SSM. He wants us to see how unfair it is for homosexuals to be denied this great institution. He wants us to know how wrongfully discriminatory it all is.

But as I said in a debate with a homosexual activist not long ago, helpful and welcome discrimination takes place in society all the time. My homosexual sparring partner made a similar claim to that of Rauch. He said that as a homosexual he was the object of all kinds of economic and social discrimination based on his sexuality. He bewailed the fact that as a taxpayer he was denied access to all kinds of government benefits because he was gay. He challenged me to name just one area where I as a heterosexual was being discriminated against.

Had I been given enough time to reply, I could have produced a very long list. There are all kinds of benefits that I as a taxpayer also do not get. I do not receive the youth allowance. I do not get a single parenting allowance. I do not get a widow’s pension. I do not get maternal health benefits.

The point is, as a married heterosexual male, there are all sorts of benefits that I am not qualified for. Yet I am a tax payer like everyone else. I am just as much a victim of discrimination in this regard as is any one else. Yet I do not hear of male taxpayers saying they will withhold part of their tax because they do not directly get the benefits of breast cancer screening or gynecological services.

Moreover, no homosexual is denied the right to marry, if he should so choose to marry someone of the opposite sex. Of course Rauch dismisses such an argument, and says homosexuals cannot help it, they have no choice in the matter, and nature has made them that way. This is another major flaw in his book. Not only is there no clear scientific evidence available for any sort of genetic basis to homosexuality, but some of the more honest gay activists have admitted that there is a real element of choice in the gay lifestyle. This and similar arguments I have extensively documented elsewhere.

Yet Rauch repeatedly says gays have no choice in this area. They are born that way and that is all there is to it. And he simply dismisses talk of therapy for gays, the reality of ex-gays, and so on. But to simply dismiss something because you don’t want to acknowledge it is no argument at all. The truth is, there are hundreds of centers around the world devoted to helping gays who want to go straight. And there are many thousands of ex-homosexuals who have given up on their lifestyle. Some have gone on to heterosexual marriage and have had children. I know some of these people. But for Rauch they simply do not exist. For someone who wants to base his case on logic and evidence, Rauch is quite selective in what material he draws upon.

Another major shortcoming of the book is Rauch’s contention that most homosexual males are basically like himself, living in a stable monogamous long term relationship. What he presents is a very sanitised and sugar-coated version of what the homosexual lifestyle is largely all about. He doubts that most gay men are promiscuous, and doubts that most gay men will not eventually take a liking to the restrictive practice known as marriage. But the evidence, from purely untainted (non-conservative or non-religious) sources (eg., the gay community itself, and government publications, etc.), makes it quite clear that male homosexual promiscuity is much more severe a problem than male heterosexual promiscuity, and that many, if not most, homosexuals value their sexual freedom too highly to give it away.

In fact, the homosexual lifestyle is inherently risky and dangerous. In Australia around 85 per cent of all cases of HIV are due to male homosexual activity. Many other severe health problems are closely associated with male homosexuality. Governments should not be in a position of condoning or promoting such a high-risk life style. Marriage would certainly send the signal that the homosexual lifestyle is fully acceptable and has the full blessing of government and society. It should not.

There is a related problem with this book’s argumentation. Rauch admits that it may take time, but he believes that most gay men will embrace marriage. He really believes that his case for SSM is shared by most of his fellow homosexuals.

But there is a huge debate in the gay community about this issue, with many gays opposed to the idea altogether, and many quite happy to settle for types of civil unions, and so on. And even those who do favor marriage, like Andrew Sullivan, admit that their version of marriage is quite different from the traditional understanding. Sullivan for example speaks of the need for “extra-marital outlets” in his version of marriage. Of course any marriage that includes with it the right to sexually roam outside of marriage is no marriage at all.

But many pro-marriage advocates have something quite different in mind when they make their demands for SSM. At least Rauch is clear about what he wants and what it should entail. But many fellow homosexuals take a very different view on these sorts of issues.

Nonetheless Rauch seems to think that he speaks for the majority of homosexuals on this issue. My reading of the evidence is that he does not. In this I think I have the agreement of many in the gay community.

And one needs to ask why it is that some homosexuals do want marriage so much. Rauch makes his case quite clear as to what he is after and why, but it is not the same case that all gays are making. As many homosexuals themselves admit, a major reason why they want marriage is not so much to be like heterosexuals, or because they want to abandon their more free and promiscuous lifestyle, but because of its symbolic value. It will give them public recognition, approval and acceptance. This has long been the overriding goal of the homosexual lobby: complete social and public endorsement and approval. Thus by getting marriage rights, and, in turn, the last hurdle for gays, full adoption rights, homosexuals will have achieved their longstanding goal: legitimizing the gay lifestyle.

And Rauch admits that this will be an important effect of SSM: “it will ennoble and dignify gay love and sex as it has done straight love and sex”. (71) But as I said, such a dangerous threat to public health and safety should not be ennobled or dignified, certainly not by governments who have the duty and responsibility to promote the health and wellbeing of all its citizens.

Rauch also admits that “male-male couples put a somewhat lower value on sexual fidelity within a relationship than do male-female couples” but says the “somewhat” may not be that much of a big deal. (146, 147) He says he thinks the “gap will narrow in favor of fidelity, over time”. (147) In a number of places in this book he gives such wishful, hopeful glimpses of the future. He predicts for example, without any supporting evidence, that “homosexual culture will become more relationship-orientated” if SSM is allowed. (78)

He really thinks that most gays will embrace gay marriage. He really wants to believe that most gays will become sexually monogamous. He firmly hopes that marriage will tame the male wanderlust. That is a lot of “I hope so’s” to base such a radical social experiment on. But what if all his sugary sweet predictions turn out to be woefully wrong? What if conservative predictions of very real negative social consequences prove to be true?

He does admit that when we tinker with tradition, we never know what might happen. “A catastrophe cannot be ruled out” he concedes. (169) Yet abounding optimism and wishful thinking characterise his argument. He really thinks and hopes everything is going to turn out just fine if we allow SSM.

This hope that everything will turn out all right is found in many stages of his argument, as I said. For example, he states a number of times that gay marriage will tame the cruising gay male, domesticate him, and make him more committed in relationships. Thus SSM will be good for gays and the rest of society. But as Maggie Gallagher pointed out some years ago, it is not marriage that tames the male, but women. This is the missing ingredient in SSM. Marriage is an important part of the equation, but so too are members of both sexes.

In sum, this is the best book to date to give the case for SSM. It is carefully argued and well-written. But it seems to be just so much special pleading and it seems to presume too many unproven basics. And some of his claims are simply incorrect. His book ignores the very real public health consequences of the homosexual lifestyle. It overlooks the fact that many people have left the gay lifestyle. It looks at the homosexual community with rose-colored glasses, believing most gays live a fairly tame, quiet and monogamous lifestyle as he does. But the evidence just does not support him in such conclusions.

Nonetheless Rauch has done a very good job of stating his case, and he may well win over a number of converts to his cause. But the debate is not yet over, and a forceful case can still be made for the heterosexual nature of marriage.

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One Reply to “A review of Gay Marriage: Why it is Good for Gays, Good for Straights, and Good for America. By Jonathan Rauch”

  1. Dear Bill
    The proposition that gays are born that way and can do nothing about their orientation does not hold water. In addition to your argument that many of them actually forsake the gay lifestyle for a heterosexual one, there is the research finding which indicates that the majority of gays are bi-sexual. If this doesn’t indicate choice, I don’t know what does!
    Also, if gays are born that way, given that they do not reproduce, statistically the gene(s) would long since have disappeared.

    Dunstan Hartley

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