Commentary on social and moral issues of the day

Gay Marriage vs. American Marriage

Kay S. Hymowitz

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These days everyone has a strong opinion about marriage, but no one seems to be sure what it is, exactly. Is it a sacramental union? Is it a public recognition of a committed love relationship? Is it a state scheme for distributing health insurance and tax breaks? Or given what two eminent anthropologists writing recently in support of gay marriage in the Washington Post describe as a "startling diversity of socially approved forms of marriage," is the institution too varied to fit into a single, dictionary-neat meaning?

The anthropologists are right about one thing: human beings have come up with almost as many ways of getting hitched as they have languages to tell mother-in-law jokes. Some cultures allow only monogamous marriage; some accept polygamy. In many cultures, the wife moves into her husband's family's home; in others, the husband moves into the wife's; in still others, they get a mortgage and move into their own two-bedroom ranch in Levittown. Though most cultures give husbands the primary responsibility for providing for the children, some make the wife's brother--the baby's uncle--responsible for providing the food and the bow-and-arrow lessons. Some cultures don't allow divorce; some allow divorce but not remarriage; some allow divorce if husbands fork over most of their life savings to the likes of Raoul Felder; and others let a guy say "I divorce you" three times before booting his wife out the door.

This protean diversity is central to today's marriage debate. If marriage is, as these examples suggest, an eminently malleable social construct, why shouldn't society shape it any way it likes, especially by letting gays marry each other?

But beneath all the diversity, marriage has always had a fundamental, universal core that makes gay marriage a non sequitur: it has always governed property and inheritance rights; it has always been the means of establishing paternity, legitimacy, and the rights and responsibilities of parenthood; and because these goals involve bearing and raising children, it has always involved (at least one) man and woman. What's more, among the "startling diversity" of variations that different cultures have elaborated on this fundamental core, our own culture has produced a specifically American ideal of marriage that is inseparable from our vision of free citizenship and is deeply embedded in our history, politics, economics, and culture. Advocates for gay marriage cite the historical evolution of that ideal--which we might call republican marriage--to bolster their case, arguing that gay unions are a natural extension of America's dedication to civil rights and to individual freedom. But a look at that history is enough to cast serious doubt on the advocates' case.

Read the entire article on the City Journal website.

Posted: 7/31/04

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