The institution of marriage is already reeling because of the effects of the sexual revolution, no-fault divorce and out-of-wedlock births. We have reaped the consequences of its devaluation.
Now, anyone who has known someone who has struggled with his homosexuality can appreciate the poignancy, human pain and sense of exclusion that are often involved. One can therefore understand the effort to achieve for homosexual unions both legal recognition and social acceptance. Advocates of homosexual marriages even make what appears to be a sound conservative argument: Allow marriage in order to promote faithfulness and monogamy. This is an intelligent and politically shrewd argument. One can even concede that it might benefit some people. But I believe that overall, allowing same-sex marriages would do significant, long-term social damage.
Recognizing the legal union of gay and lesbian couples would represent a profound change in the meaning and definition of marriage. Indeed, it would be the most radical step ever taken in the deconstruction of society's most important institution. It is not a step we ought to take.
The function of marriage is not elastic; the institution is already fragile enough. Broadening its definition to include same-sex marriages would stretch it almost beyond recognition — and new attempts to broaden the definition still further would surely follow. On what principled grounds could the advocates of same-sex marriage oppose the marriage of two consenting brothers? How could they explain why we ought to deny a marriage license to a bisexual who wants to marry two people? After all, doing so would be a denial of that person's sexuality. In our time, there are more (not fewer) reasons than ever to preserve the essence of marriage.
Marriage is not an arbitrary construct; it is an “honorable estate” based on the different, complementary nature of men and women — and how they refine, support, encourage and complete one another. To insist that we maintain this traditional understanding of marriage is not an attempt to put others down. It is simply an acknowledgment and celebration of our most precious and important social act.
Nor is this view arbitrary or idiosyncratic. It mirrors the accumulated wisdom of millennia and the teaching of every major religion. Among worldwide cultures, where there are so few common threads, it is not a coincidence that marriage is almost universally recognized as an act meant to unite a man and a woman.
To say that same-sex unions are not comparable to heterosexual marriages is not an argument for intolerance, bigotry or lack of compassion (although I am fully aware that it will be considered so by some). But it is an argument for making distinctions in law about relationships that are themselves distinct.
Even Andrew Sullivan, among the most intelligent advocates of same-sex marriage, has admitted that a homosexual marriage contract will entail a greater understanding of the need for “extramarital outlets.” He argues that gay male relationships are served by the “openness of the contract,” and he has written that homosexuals should resist allowing their “varied and complicated lives” to be flattened into a “single, moralistic model.”
But this “single, moralistic model” is precisely the point. The marriage commitment between a man and a woman does not — it cannot — countenance extramarital outlets. By definition it is not an open contract; its essential idea is fidelity. Obviously that is not always honored in practice. But it is normative, the ideal to which we aspire precisely because we believe some things are right (faithfulness in marriage) and others are wrong (adultery). In insisting that marriage accommodate the less restrained sexual practices of homosexuals, Sullivan and his allies destroy the very thing that supposedly has drawn them to marriage in the first place.
There are other arguments to consider against same-sex marriage — for example, the signals it would send, and the impact of such signals on the shaping of human sexuality, particularly among the young. Former Harvard professor E. L. Pattullo has written that “a very substantial number of people are born with the potential to live either straight or gay lives.” Societal indifference about heterosexuality and homosexuality would cause a lot of confusion. A remarkable 1993 article in The Post supports this point. Fifty teenagers and dozens of school counselors and parents from the local area were interviewed. According to the article, teenagers said it has become “cool” for students to proclaim they are gay or bisexual — even for some who are not. Not surprisingly, the caseload of teenagers in “sexual identity crisis” doubled in one year. “Everything is front page, gay and homosexual,” according to one psychologist who works with the schools. “Kids are jumping on it ... [counselors] are saying, “What are we going to do with all these kids proclaiming they are bisexual or homosexual when we know they are not?”
If the law recognizes homosexual marriages as the legal equivalent of heterosexual marriages, it will have enormous repercussions in many areas. Consider just two: sex education in the schools and adoption. The sex education curriculum of public schools would have to teach that heterosexual and homosexual marriage are equivalent. Heather Has Two Mommies would no longer be regarded as an anomaly; it would more likely become a staple of a sex education curriculum. Parents who want their children to be taught (for both moral and utilitarian reasons) the privileged status of heterosexual marriage will be portrayed as intolerant bigots; they will necessarily be at odds with the new law of matrimony and its derivative curriculum.
Homosexual couples will also have equal claim with heterosexual couples in adopting children, forcing us (in law at least) to deny what we know to be true: that it is far better for a child to be raised by a mother and a father than by, say, two male homosexuals.
The institution of marriage is already reeling because of the effects of the sexual revolution, no-fault divorce and out-of-wedlock births. We have reaped the consequences of its devaluation. It is exceedingly imprudent to conduct a radical, untested and inherently flawed social experiment on an institution that is the keystone in the arch of civilization. That we have to debate this issues at all tells us that the arch has slipped. Getting it firmly back in place is, as the lawyers say, a “compelling state interest.”
Bennett, William J. “Gay Marriage: Not a Very Good Idea.” The Washington Post (May 21, 1996).
William J. Bennett was Chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities and Secretary of Education under President Reagan, and Director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy under President Bush. The author of The Book of Virtues several other best sellers. His most recent book is The Educated Child: A Parent's Guide from Preschool Through Eighth Grade. He is a fellow at the Heritage Foundation and codirector of Empower America. He lives with his wife, Elayne, and their two sons in Chevy Chase, Maryland.
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