Welcome to part six of my live-blog reading of David Blankenhorn’s The Future of Marriage (2007). You can read part one, part two, part three, part four and part five here.
Chapter seven of The Future of Marriage is where we reach the heart of David B.’s case against same-sex marriages achieving widespread cultural and legal legitimacy. I will remind readers at this point that since writing this book — and since his role as an anti-same-sex-marriage witness in the Proposition 8 trial — Blankenhorn has revised his vision of marriage to include same-sex couples. That said, I think a significant number of opponents of same-sex marriage still draw support from his framing here to try and legitimize their position.
Most significantly, I’d argue, they try to draw causal links between same-sex marriage and … whatever it is they fear about the changing norms of married life. While it’s fair to say that these things (same sex marriage and … more open poly relationships, or higher rates of birth control use, or less cultural stigma around divorce, to name a few shocking modern practices) are historically contemporaneous — perhaps even an argument to be made that they are emerge from a deeper shift in sexual mores in the West — it doesn’t follow that a shift in how we understand one of these things (same-sex committed, dyadic relationships) will automatically cause a parallel shift, in some ill-defined way, in how we understand all those other things.
Which brings me to the opening sentence of chapter seven, “Goods in Conflict,” in which David B. asserts that — surprise! — “The central argument for gay marriage is not an argument about marriage” (171). Instead, he argues, we gays are seeking “human dignity” and “basic rights,” and selfishly using marriage as a proxy to reach those ends.
On the one hand, I’m not going to argue that I don’t want human dignity and basic rights (duh), and I agree with him, as I’m sure many LGBT activists do, that marriage as a social institution has become the late-twentieth/early-twenty-first century short-hand for social acceptance of queers — a shorthand that inevitably cannot stand in for enduring, holistic change. As E.J. Graff so poignantly reminded us last week, in many states in this Union we might be able to get married — but we can still be fired for being queer.
On the other hand, in the context of this chapter it’s clear what David B. is trying to do is divorce the pursuit of rights and dignity from access to marriage rights. If he can reassure his readers that it’s possible to support the pursuit of equality without revising the cultural vision and legal structure of marriage to include same-sex couples, then he’s reassured them they can be pro-straight without being anti-gay, supporting the anti-gay folks who want desperately to be seen as “nice people” even as they seek to deny gay people access to the structures of our society that are the building blocks of dignity and basic rights (for example, the right to marriage).
Having dismissed the gay marriage = dignity and rights argument, David B. next dismisses the commonly-posited analogy between rights struggles around sexual orientation and rights struggles around race. In this specific context, the comparison between laws barring same-sex marriage and laws barring interracial marriage.
Setting aside, you’ll notice, the fact that interracial same-sex couples exist, who face discrimination on both levels.
Image: Canton Everett Delaware III: denied the right to marry his black boyfriend
(Doctor Who, “Day of the Moon,” new series S6 E2)
In fact, the charge is leveled at us that supporting same-sex marriage is actually more appropriately analogous to racist arguments against miscegenation (172):
The analogy [between interracial marriage and same-sex marriage] is false — not simply intellectually weak, not merely confusing or misleading, but entirely and totally false. The fact that so many highly credentialed people in our society regularly shout it from the rooftops does not make it any less false.
The fact that “highly credentialed people” support an idea also doesn’t make it any less true, either, if it’s supported by the evidence. Yet Blankenhorn offers paltry evidence to support this accusation of total falsehood, simply a re-assertion of his universal definition of marriage as arrived at in earlier chapters:
It is false at two levels. First, two men (or two women) seeking to marry one another is not remotely similar to a black person of one sex seeking to marry a white person of another sex.
Except that … they are two people seeking to marry one another. I’m not sure where the gaping chasm comes in. But then we get to the kicker:
At a deeper level, yesterday’s proponents of anti-miscegenation laws have more in common with today’s proponents of gay marriage than with those who oppose gay marriage.
Come again? Basically, Blankenhorn tries to argue that racists and gay rights activists both sought to redefine marriage in ways that decentered babymaking: the racists by making it about, well, race, and teh gays by making it about love and not-sex and not-babies.
And this is where we see the importance of the separation of marriage rights from human dignity, which David B. sought to establish in the opening paragraphs of this chapter — because now he can argue that neither preventing racial mixing nor diminishing homophobia is a core function of marriage (which, let’s recall, is in his mind to legally and socially tie biological parents to their offspring and to one another).
While the logic of this argument technically works, when one draws upon his purposefully narrowed (dare I say blinkered) notion of what marriage is, I find it suspiciously convenient that David B. has chosen to analogize a kinship between anti-miscegenation bigots and same-sex couples and their allies. Simply put, this is a politically-charged analogy and one which David B. has contorted to reverse so that the anti-gay folks can pat themselves on the back, reassuring themselves they’re free and clear of any prejudice that looks and smells and feels like racial prejudice (who wants to be racist in their thinking and politics, right?).
But let’s put these two things side-by-side again:
- Preventing racial mixing
- Diminishing homophobia
These are the two outside-of-the-scope-of-marriage agendas Blankenhorn sees intruding into the man-woman-babymaking situation he’s envisioned. On the one hand: trying to(often violently) keep people of different races from sexual intimacy. On the other hand: trying to diminish the (often violent) prejudice against queer people by including them in one of the social institutions that recognizes the power of sexual intimacy.
It’s more than a bit obscene, to my mind, that these two aims are declared morally equivalent vis a vis marriage in The Future of Marriage.
Okay, so. Now we get to the goods-in-conflict part of the chapter, which basically boils down to this — the meat of David Blankenhorn’s decision (at the time of writing this book) to continue opposing same-sex couples’ right to marriage recognition: the good of same-sex marriage “bumps up against the rights of children” (188) and, because dependent children are the more vulnerable of these two groups, the same-sex couples lose out.
For this goods-in-conflict model to work, we need to accept several GINORMOUS assumptions for which David B. has not really provided a convincing argument. First, that marriage (male-female marriage) is our culture’s most “pro-child institution.” Second, that “the rights of children” are best served by marriage remaining open only to male-female couples. Third, that children are always, ideally, parented by their married, biological parents (of which there are assumed to be only two). Forth, that accepting same-sex marriage will come hand-in-hand with the right to “get babies any way we choose” (193) — for which I would really like some detailed examples, because I for one don’t hear proponents of same-sex marriage arguing that all forms of babymaking or child-acquiring are ethical. In fact, in the lefty-liberal-progressive circles I move in, I hear a lot of discussion about the ethics of procreation and becoming a parent by choice. So until David B. engages more deeply with that literature and those discussions, he doesn’t win my confidence with this argument. Fifth, that allowing same-sex couples to marry in any way impinges on a child’s right to any of the above.
Furthermore, this argument conveniently erases the rights of children who are currently being parented by same-sex couples and are vulnerable in myriad ways due to their parents being unable to access the status of married couple. Pardon me if I question whether anyone who is so blithely able to ignore the needs of some children in order to make a cleaner argument really has the rights of children in mind and heart as deeply as he believes he does.
Blankenhorn also justifies his privileging of the children parented by opposite-sex couples with the principle “the greatest good for the greatest number” (198). Simply put, we queers are a tiny minority … so we just need to suck it up and deal with our second-class status for the good of the whole. Again, this assumes we agree that same-sex marriage rights would be detrimental (somehow?!) to the hetero-majority (we selfish gays!) instead of making society a better place for all.
David B.’s for-the-children argument also requires conveniently erasing children who will grow up queer and/or form same-sex partnerships which they may wish to have solemnized as marriages. He writes on the final page of this chapter, “I have three children, so it’s personal for me … I am fighting for them, for the society they will be adults in, for the future.” “New freedoms are hard to argue against,” he opines, “even in the name of children” (212). In this framing, children (vulnerable people) are positioned as opposed to freedoms (an abstract concept). I would, in response, suggest a different framing — one that reminded David and his supporters that children are part of queer families, and children will grow up to form queer families. Fighting for our children’s future is not de facto a decision to oppose same-sex marriage and other rights for queers.
My parents, for example, see their support of my marriage, and their other acts of support for queer folk, as working toward the future they want for their children — me and my brother and sister in opposite-sex partnerships as well — and for any children that we end up caring for.
Overall, I think it’s a telling oversight that the only children who really matter in David B.’s “goods in conflict” model are the “good” children whose parents are straight and who will grow up to be straight themselves.