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What’s the big deal about gay marriage? Why do we have marriage laws at all?

Dear Cecil:

The continuing controversy over gay marriage has gotten me thinking about regular old marriage. Why do we have marriage laws at all? What business is it of the government who I shack up with? And why do gays want to get entangled in an institution that, judging from the example of Murphy Brown et al, many heterosexuals would just as soon dispense with?

SWM looking to stay that way, Chicago

Illustration by Slug Signorino

Cecil replies:

Good point. Gay men and lesbians are often portrayed as subverting the social order. But what are they trying to do? Join the military! Get married! Fix up the house and raise kids! In short, build the kind of world the religious right dreams of, except that the basic social unit is a happily married couple of the same sex.

No one disputes that the original purpose of the marriage laws was to facilitate procreation. But is this objective obsolete? Lots of people think so. “The present law of marriage is based on an outmoded appreciation of marriage as it operates in present-day society,” one law review article says. Marriage is now primarily an economic and emotional relationship, the thinking goes. Marriage conveys a host of benefits unrelated to childbearing (tax breaks, family insurance coverage, etc), and many married couples never have children. With the liberalization of adoption rules in some jurisdictions, some gay couples raise children, and using “procreative technologies” such as artificial insemination, a few lesbians have borne children after coming out.

Following that line of argument, one might easily conclude that it’s unfair to deny marital benefits to people in long-term conjugal relationships solely because they’re homosexual. That was the rationale behind two recent court rulings that marital rights should be extended to homosexual couples, one by the Vermont state supreme court (the text of the ruling is available on-line here), the other by the Canadian supreme court.

Friggin’ liberals, some may think. But where’s the harm? If gay men and lesbians want to buck the hetero trend away from marriage and face the prospect of divorce and spousal support, why should the straight world care? No one with half a brain thinks homosexuals want to “convert” straight people, destroy the family and traditional marriage, etc. Gay marriage would serve the public interest by increasing stability, reducing the social cost when relationships dissolve (by making the disadvantaged partner eligible for spousal support), and maybe even reducing the spread of AIDS. Research to date suggests that children raised by homosexuals turn out about the same as children raised by heterosexuals, with no differences in sexual orientation.

Still, you can accept gay marriage without wanting it enacted by judicial fiat. The law’s failure to countenance gay marriage is hardly an injustice on a par with antimiscegenation laws. Despite the changes of the past 50 years, the state’s chief motivation in promoting marriage remains the orderly propagation of the species. The rise in births among unmarried women notwithstanding, three-quarters of all children are still produced by married couples. The percentage of married couples with children under 18 living at home has dropped only slightly since 1950 (48.4 percent then, 46.5 percent now). Same-sex couples raising children remains a relatively minor social phenomenon (just 167,000 U.S. households, not all of which necessarily involve gay men or lesbians). The number of single-parent households has risen sharply, but if anything the problems associated with such families have increased society’s stake in encouraging conventional marriage.

Gay marriage presents a host of tricky issues. Why should marriage be restricted to conjugal relationships? Suppose a couple of wiseacre straight roommates waltz into city hall demanding a marriage license. We live together and share expenses, they argue. You’re telling us we can’t get a marriage license because we don’t have GAY SEX? I don’t claim such problems are insuperable, but they do suggest the appropriate place to decide this issue is the legislature, not the courts.

Cecil Adams

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