Discover more from Hold That Thought by Sarah Haider
Did Gays Destroy Marriage?
I address your critiques of my Unbeliever's Manifesto
Despite the paywall, I’m overwhelmed by the response to my (draft) Unbeliever’s Manifesto.
Thank you to all who commented, emailed, or otherwise reached out to me with your thoughts. My goal with the Manifesto was to draft a broad (but concise) outline of my views, something that I could send to others that laid the intellectual groundwork for the case for unbelief…without having to pore through countless books, articles, blog posts, podcasts that clutter the gender discourse. Unbelief 101, of sorts.
Ideally, it will serve this purpose for many of you, too. I am planning on a public release in about 1-2 weeks time, so hold tight.
In the meantime, I thought I would address some of the more substantial critiques of the Manifesto in shorter posts, of which this is the first.
The most common criticism was with the distinction I made between gay rights movement and the gender identity movement. My claim in the draft Manifesto was that (roughly), the gay rights movement was a fight for equal rights, while the gender movement makes a claim for special rights (indeed, it is more fully understood as a “liberation from reality–from the very fact of our sex”).
However a few of you thought that this wasn’t all that clear, listing conservative/religious arguments you recall hearing at the time when the debate for gay marriage legalization was most intense. For example: Can’t one make the case that that gay rights is also based on a claim of “special rights”, in that gay marriage asked for an evolution in the traditionally understood definition of marriage? And don’t gays also ask for a kind of liberation from reality, in that they go “against the design and purpose of our bodies”?
In this post, I will address the first question: What did the inclusion of gays do to the institution of marriage?
Reader Nicole said:
“My one quibble is with the distinction made between gay rights and trans rights. To the extent that people understood the normal rule/definition regarding marriage as a union between one man and one woman, a reasonable argument could be made that the fight for legalizing same-sex marriage was indeed a request for special rights, in the sense that it necessarily required a change in the traditionally understood definition of marriage. I personally supported same-sex marriage but I understand the arguments against it.”
This argument is reasonable–but I will argue that it was based on a misunderstanding. While explicitly, it seemed that the question up for debate was whether marriage was between a man and a woman or two consenting adults of any sex, it misses the deeper, more important contest.
I argue that the question up for debate was whether marriage is primarily:
A social institution formed to incentivize the carrying out reproductive roles in a manner maximally beneficial for offspring and society
A public commitment between two people who love each other very much
Let’s call #1 “traditional marriage” and #2 “sentimental marriage”.
If marriage was primarily the first, then of course, it must be between a man and a woman. Many feminists note that this marriage places the woman in a subordinate position to the man, and thus hold that it is an institution created for the benefit of males. They are mistaken. Despite the male’s privileged position within the family unit, both sexes are restricted in this union, albeit in different ways. Neither is the primary beneficiary of this arrangement.
Although biologically, a man is naturally free to sow his oats widely, traditional marriage aims to restrict him to one woman, which allows his labor and resources to be consolidated for the benefit of fewer mouths—mouths he is obligated to feed. This is a bad bargain for the man, unless he can be fairly sure that those fewer mouths are his. This need for certainty in paternity drives society to restrict the female in all manner of ways, limiting her to a life of near servitude. However, one might say (and indeed, I do), that despite the fact that the woman bears the greater restrictions, the principal target of the institution is the male, correcting for the imbalance that nature itself brings.
Sex is a potentially life-altering event for a woman, but costless to men. He may “cut and run” after the act, but the woman will be bound should she conceive a child—her body captive and her mind transformed to better meet the needs of the offspring that is, unjustly, still only half hers. Worse, she does not need to consent to this arrangement–he has the strength and the desire to compel her by force. He can “succeed” reproductively by sheer sociopathy. But a culture that allows a man this level of freedom will be crippled—the misery of woman and the impoverishment of her offspring will have wide-ranging and injurious ripple effects.
Societies throughout history have sought to rectify this state of affairs, crafting various arrangements to provide the female with protection and her children with support. The maternal family may be enlisted, for example–the brothers of the mother providing for their sister and her children (who are guaranteed to be at least somewhat related to their uncle).
But if the simple fact of mass adoption is anything to go by, the best method is the institution of marriage.
This is sounding a lot like amateur anthropology (and in a way it is), but what I am describing is the marriage of my parents. Arranged for them by their families in Pakistan, neither had much of a say in the matter. But all in all, the deal was a necessary one for my mother–her own father had passed away before his time, and her brothers could not sustain their many sisters forever. The girls had to find another “sponsor”—a husband. For my father, however, marriage was the track to respect—he would not be thrown into a life of poverty if he fought for his independence and remained single. But he would never have children (and probably, sex). He would also find himself increasingly stigmatized as he aged–the unsettling bachelor who rejects the offer society has made as favorable for him as possible. “In marriage”, society tells him, “you will have offspring nearly guaranteed to be yours, in marriage, you will become a real man, and upon you we will confer privileges, esteem, rights”. (Note: patriarchy literally means “rule by the father”, not by “males”. In focusing on maleness, modern critics of traditional societies miss the fact that men are not equally and automatically privileged–the place of highest esteem is set aside for fathers).
As the blogger Noah Millman put it in his 2003 post on gay marriage (thank you to a reader whose name I have forgotten for sharing), marriage is a “difficult good”— a plate of vegetables. In order for it to remain robust it must be incentivized in many ways–using both a carrot and a stick. This marriage requires a broader context that reinforces it. In a world without reliable access to safe birth control, in which infidelity is deeply stigmatized, where bastards are restricted from various privileges and have no right on their father, where women can enter into only the lowest rungs of the workforce, where divorce is prohibited, where there is no such thing as “alimony”, where welfare is not accessible to single mothers, etc, etc…..marriage isn’t just a “nice to have”, it is a “must have”—existentially for the woman, but also for the man insofar as he wishes to reproduce and have a standing in society.
For society, however, the benefits are well, well worth the restrictions the institution of marriage places on individuals: the married household is an exceptional environment for child-rearing in a brutal world, and indirectly contributes to a whole host of valuable social goods.
It is worth noting that romantic love isn’t even necessary in this arrangement, nor is “sexual fulfillment”, and in that sense, homosexuals are already “included”.
But in the modern world, the sticks are (thankfully) either entirely gone, or greatly limited. The carrots are still there–marriage is still a smart, even admirable, choice. But it is now one among many possible good choices, and at the end of the day, who really likes carrots?
I remember when I first heard of the gay rights movement, and the fight for gay marriage. I believe I was about 13 or 14 years old, and the issue seemed like a no-brainer to me. I knew many people whose parents were divorced because they didn’t like each other, and some whose parents never were married. Evidently, they didn’t believe marriage was all about raising children. Nor was the gendered aspect of marriage all that clear—I recall one friend whose mother was a high-powered lawyer making enough that her father didn’t need to work. I didn’t think about all this explicitly at the time, but revisiting it now, it is clear that my environment reinforced the notion that marriage was already primarily a sentimental union—so why couldn’t we include gays? Isn’t their love and commitment just as meaningful, just as important?
Of course, not everyone agreed with me…but many Americans did. In thinking about this topic, I recently asked on Twitter whether followers could share the best argument they encountered against gay marriage, and I was struck by how many couldn’t think of a single one: these are the many, many people for whom Traditional Marriage was already dead at the time of the debate.
Moreover, teenage me had intuitively understood it as a social good, one that gives but does not take, as Andrew Sullivan explicitly declared in his classic case for gay marriage. “Gay marriage… allows for recognition of gay relationships, while casting no aspersions on traditional marriage. It merely asks that gays be allowed to join in,” said Sullivan.
Clearly, he was on the right side of history, but nevertheless, his argument was based on a false premise—gays could not “join in” traditional marriage, nor would they. Traditional marriage did not exist to “recognize” committed loving relationships like some sort of societal stamp of approval, it existed to enforce specific roles and duties which make sense only in the context of men and women.
Instead, gays joined into the more modern, sentimental marriage—the form of marriage in which their message of “equality” made sense. “Love is love” relied on an understanding that marriage was now primarily about romance. Gay marriage would have violated the old norms, indeed, been nonsensical (“reality-denying”)—but it did not violate the new one, which was already gaining dominance in American society.
Through its legal validation, it did, however, crown a winner in the Marriage Battle Royale.
In the next post (dropping soon), I will address a few more reader critiques and expand more on my distinction between gay rights and the gender movement. Is there a “slippery slope” that inevitably led to our current gender mania?