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Why Must Pro-Marriage Mean Anti Gay Marriage?

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According to the New York Times, a new generation of conservatives has now taken up arms for marriage, which means -- of course -- raising arms against the right to marry a member of one's sex.

With the Supreme Court poised to hear arguments against the voter-approved California ban on same-sex marriage, more than one hundred notable Republicans have urged the court to affirm that same-sex marriage is a constitutional right. Besides these mostly older Republicans, who have lately seen what I believe to be the light, 45 percent of young Republicans (between 18 and 44) agree with them.

But a small band of young conservatives -- rising stars in the firmament of "traditional marriage" -- do not. In the face of all the pressures to redefine marriage so as to make gay people "happy," as one of them puts it, they believe that they must turn a negative message into a positive one, that they must stop bashing gays and gay rights and start trumpeting the virtues of traditional marriage.

Unfortunately, they have not yet found a way of going positive without going negative. They do not yet see a way of endorsing heterosexual marriage without opposing gay marriage. They do not yet see that gay marriage threatens "traditional marriage" far less than what they seldom mention at all, which is divorce.

Wikipedia tells us that in 2002 (the latest year surveyed), 29 percent of first marriages among women under 45 ended in separation, divorce, or annulment within ten years. More recently PolitiFact.com estimated last year that the probability of marriage ending in divorce at some point is 40 percent to 50 percent. (Not long ago, one couple I know split up just two years short of their golden wedding anniversary.) So statistics tend to support the widely shared assumption that about half of all marriages eventually break up.

What then are the proponents of traditional marriage doing to make it last longer? They're attacking same-sex marriage. Just consider what has been said by Ryan T. Anderson, the 31-year-old author of areport on marriage just issued by the Heritage Foundation: "In redefining marriage to include same-sex couples," says Anderson ". . . you're excluding the norm of sexual complementarity. Once you exclude that norm, the three other norms -- which are monogamy, sexual exclusivity and permanency -- become optional as well."

Presumably, then, Anderson thinks that heterosexuality safeguards those other three norms. Does he also think that heterosexual men and women marry only once, never stray sexually, and always stay married for life? But of course they don't, which means that with one small exception, the other three norms are ALREADY optional in the eyes of the law. You can't legally marry more than one person at a time, but you can take any number of spouses in sequence (the late mother of a friend of mine had four husbands), you can legally commit adultery, and you can legally bail out of a marriage well before you die. None of these options would change if same sex marriage became legal throughout the land.

Ironically enough, the champions of traditional marriage must believe that it has grown dangerously weak. For decades longer than these young traditionalists have been around, the institution of heterosexual marriage in this country has withstood divorce rates near 50%. Would traditional marriage really not survive the legalization of same sex marriage in a country where the self-identified gay population is just above 3 percent? Even if gay marriages came to make up 10 percent of all marriages, what HARM would they do to heterosexual marriages? (When John and Jane Doe wake up one morning to see a gay married couple moving in next door, do they file for divorce?) This is the question that traditionalists have never been able to answer, which is why efforts to ban same-sex marriage have repeatedly failed in court. The only thing same sex marriage harms is the purity of an idée fixe: the assumption that marriage must be heterosexual.

And also, of course, that it must breed. Listen to Caitlin Seery, the 25-year-old director of programs for the Love and Fidelity Network. "When you de-link marriage from childbearing," she says, "you then have to increase the complexity of that relationship." Really? I don't know if Ms. Seery is married, but I strongly suspect that she has no children of her own. When and if she does, she will soon discover that few things complicate a relationship more dramatically than children do, which is why some heterosexual couples choose to remain childless. Should we then deny them the right to marry, and deny it also to any couple that is physically unable to bear a child? Should we likewise deny gay couples the right to bear children with the help of others, or adopt children? And just how well would these restrictions safeguard the institution of heterosexual marriage?

Don't get me wrong here. I firmly believe in heterosexual marriage. As the ninth child of a man and a woman who were married for 67 years (until my father died), I've been "traditionally" married for almost fifty years, and next year my wife and I will celebrate our golden anniversary along with our two children, their opposite sex partners, and our four grandchildren.

In other words, heterosexual marriage has immeasurably enriched my life. But why should the value of my marriage -- or any heterosexual marriage -- depend on impoverishing the lives of those who want to marry within their own sex? Why should I deny a right that enriches their lives and cannot possibly diminish mine? Why can't I be pro - marriage and pro- gay marriage?

That's what I am.