When President Barack Obama discovered the missing link in his evolution on gay marriage, he cited his personal experience with same-sex couples. Obama told ABC about "members of my own staff who are in incredibly committed monogamous relationships, same-sex relationships, who are raising kids together." He also mentioned gays serving in the military, now openly since he succeeded in repealing "Don't Ask, Don't Tell."
Obama's gay marriage announcement was billed as a watershed moment, but his arguments revealed a change in the debate as much as his new position. When same-sex marriage first became a national issue nearly 20 years ago, thanks to a case heard by Hawaii's highest court, images of gays and lesbians kissing were highlighted by opponents of unisex matrimony. Today they are prominently featured by the supporters of gay marriage.
Gay rights parades, with all their camp and gender-bending dress, were once used to illustrate how far outside the mainstream the movement was. Now somewhat more bourgeois-looking same-sex couples happily celebrating their new marriages from New York to California represent the face the gay rights movement wants to portray to the world. Portraits of men kissing have gone from being staples of one side's propaganda to the other's.
Intellectuals can argue over the widening circle of democracy or the natural teleology of the human body. Most political debates are resolved by the bumper sticker test: Which side can best summarize its argument to fit on a bumper sticker? The bumper sticker slogans in favor of gay marriage involve rights, equality, and non-discrimination. The arguments against same-sex marriage that pass the bumper sticker test rely on religion and heterosexual revulsion against homosexual acts.
Liberty and equality are bedrock concepts in American politics. By contrast, heterosexual revulsion is declining and the religious arguments concerning marriage are judged by Americans to be inadmissible in the public square. "God made Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve" is trumped by "Will and Grace."
The terms of this debate make some of us feel uncomfortable. We don't understand ourselves as wanting to "ban gay marriage," as any policy affirming the traditional definition of marriage is conventionally described. We don't want the cops to interrupt gay weddings, throw both grooms in jail, or interfere with anybody's financial arrangements or hospital visitation rights. But we do think marriage was defined as a union between a man and a woman in most recent societies for good reasons, virtually none of which have anything to do with stigmatizing gay people.
The aspect of marriage most relevant to government is as old as the birds and the bees, not just Adam and Eve: sex between men and women frequently produces children. Even when that is not true in specific cases (childless couples, the infertile), it is indisputably true in general. Heterosexuals need an institution that channels their sexuality into something fruitful, that makes adults responsible for the children they create, makes parents responsible for one another, and curbs male promiscuity. For every Jonathan Rauch who argues gay marriage can be consistent with these objectives, there is a Dan Savage who says the whole ideal should be junked.
Ironically, gay marriage is conceivable precisely because heterosexuals have made such a hash out of traditional marriage. It's straights who have separated it from procreation, who have achieved astonishing divorce rates, and who have rested the institution on the tenuous bonds of human affection. Gay marriage supporters are merely following this hollowed-out definition of marriage to its logical conclusion.
Gay marriage supporters can, with some justice, ask: How is it fair to frustrate the ambitions of same-sex couples to preserve an ideal heterosexuals aren't doing a very good job of upholding in the first place? Yet ratifying this new view of marriage seems to not only overthrow that ideal, but to permanently bar its recovery. It may not be a very big deal for a relatively small number of homosexuals, like a somewhat larger group of heterosexuals struggling with fertility problems or seeking to save orphan children from dire circumstances, forming families through artificial insemination and adoption. But do we really want to redefine marriage to include child abandonment by at least one parent in its basic structure?
Maybe we can have gay marriage without losing what the traditional variety provides heterosexuals. After all heterosexuals significantly outnumber homosexuals, and an even larger majority of marriages will continue to be between a man and a woman. In an NRO article on gay divorce, Charles C. W. Cooke parsed the data and found "heterosexual couples are up to eight times more interested in registering their relationships than homosexual couples." The Census Bureau reported that only 150,000 couples live in same-sex marriages in the United States.
At the risk of opening up another can of worms, same-sex marriage could be similar to married priests in the Catholic Church: an exception to the rule for people in a unique set of circumstances that doesn't alter the basic character of the institution. Perhaps the rules can be rewritten for some people without rewriting them for everyone. But the ferocious reaction against anyone who takes the same position on marriage as the president did before May 2012, combined with the growing sense that traditional marriage's heterosexual nature sprang from the same hateful place as laws against interracial marriage, makes this something less than a foregone conclusion.
Men, women, and children need an institution that does what marriage does. The question remains how well marriage can perform its vital functions when redefined to make men, women, and children optional.