Prominent anti-marriage-equality theorist David Blankenhorn (a key expert for the supporters of Prop 8 in California, author The Future of Marriage) has recently gone public with his decision to support same-sex marriage as a way to strengthen the institution of marriage overall. He writes in his statement at The New York Times that he hopes this decision to support the right of same-sex couples to marry will re-orient the discussion away from the morality of homosexuality per se and toward question of how society provides for dependent children, and how we can best stabilize existing love relationships. He writes, in part:
I had … hoped that debating gay marriage might help to lead heterosexual America to a broader and more positive recommitment to marriage as an institution. But it hasn’t happened. With each passing year, we see higher and higher levels of unwed childbearing, nonmarital cohabitation and family fragmentation among heterosexuals. Perhaps some of this can be attributed to the reconceptualization of marriage as a private ordering that is so central to the idea of gay marriage. But either way, if fighting gay marriage was going to help marriage over all, I think we’d have seen some signs of it by now.
So my intention is to try something new. Instead of fighting gay marriage, I’d like to help build new coalitions bringing together gays who want to strengthen marriage with straight people who want to do the same. For example, once we accept gay marriage, might we also agree that marrying before having children is a vital cultural value that all of us should do more to embrace? Can we agree that, for all lovers who want their love to last, marriage is preferable to cohabitation? Can we discuss whether both gays and straight people should think twice before denying children born through artificial reproductive technology the right to know and be known by their biological parents?
There’s a lot going on in this statement and I won’t pretend my first response is comprehensive. But here are a few “first thoughts.”
I’ve just finished reading Love the Sin: Sexual Regulation and the Limits of Religious Tolerance by Janet Jakobsen and Ann Pellegrini (review forthcoming), in which the authors argue that the notion of “tolerance” for homosexuality necessarily conceptualizes “the public” as heterosexuals who must “tolerate” the (foreign) presence of queer individuals and their queer activities. Within such a framework, the priorities and needs of heterosexual Americans are understood to take precedence over the priorities and needs of queers. It’s that framework that strikes me first in Blankenhorn’s statement: that he understands his opposition to marriage equality as an opportunity to “lead heterosexual America to a broader and more positive recommitment to marriage as an institution.” He claims it was the “debate” over the meaning of marriage that he hoped would do this cultural work, but if it was mere discussion he hoped to spark then support for marriage equality would have served the purpose just as well.
Therefore, I would argue that in seeing activism around gay marriage as an opportunity for straight folks to “recommit” to marriage, Blankenhorn clearly shows his hand in favoring heterosexual couples as citizens and subjects while leaving queer folks out in the cold, with desires that serve the purpose of heterosexual discourse rather than simply being a call for equal freedom to practice our own sexual ethics and right to association within families of our consensual choosing.
As I wrote in a comment over at the blog Fannie’s Room, I enter into the political struggle for marriage equality as a woman engaged to her partner, planning to marry in the fall in our home state of Massachusetts, where our family unit will be recognized by the state. I have symbolic, practical, and political reasons for choosing marriage with my fiancee. From that very personal perspective, I’m pleased that Blankenhorn will no longer stand in the way of my freedom to act on my convictions.
As others have said, it takes courage to publicly change your mind on a “culture war” issue, and he will lose a lot of conservative supporters — and probably even friends — over this change in belief. I’ve known several individuals, personally, who have made a similar long (and at times agonizing) spiritual and philosophical journey over the question of same-sex marriage, and the humility it takes to undertake such a re-visioning is worth a lot of kudos.
However (and this is a heavily underlined however), I am deeply ill-at-ease with the way in which Blankenhorn persists in privileging a heteronormative vision of marriage, whether enacted by two persons of the same sex or two persons who identify as male and female. “Can we agree that, for all lovers who want their love to last, marriage is preferable to cohabitation?” he asks.
Well, no, actually, we can’t.
Because I don’t want my own decision to marry my future wife to be politically construed as a statement against others’ freedom to choose the type of relational arrangement that works for them and their partner(s). I will not agree that a married-couple headed household is the best environment for children to thrive within. As psychologist Carol Gilligan recently pointed out, research in this area suggests that three or more secure attachments with adult caregivers is the ideal situation for childhood development. Secure attachments are relationships in which children feel that they will be loved and cared for no matter what. They are not dependent on genetic relatedness or the sex/gender/sexuality of the caregivers in question.
In other words, extended family-and-friend networks, poly families, all of these things can support children as they grow into adulthood. Marriage is not a factor, except insofar as we — on a societal level — have decided to work against non-conforming families, and make their lives that much more difficult to sustain.
Blankenhorn’s decision to support the inclusion of gay and lesbian couples in his overall advocacy of marriage ultimately does little to re-frame our stuck-in-the-mud cultural and political discourse on sexual relationships, family ties, and commitments to care. Rather, it continues to privilege marriage (by which he means a life-long monogamous dyad, preferably with children) as an institution in which state and society should have a vested, controlling interest. And I am way of counting as a “supporter” someone who is willing to throw some queer families under the bus just so that others of us can exercise the freedom to marry — but only when we “look normal” or we’re getting married for the “right” reasons.