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The liberal case against gay marriage

Following on from my spiked article on the gay marriage debate, I recommend an essay I found by Susan M. Shell, "The liberal case against gay marriage". Published in The Public Interest in the summer of 2004, it remains highly relevant.

Shell makes the important point that "the most stubborn and intransigent opponents in the conflict are both in their way sectarian".  On one side are traditional Christians for whom gay marriage "represents a direct assault on the grounding authority by which life at its most serious and intimate is lived". On the other side are "liberationists" or "postmodernists", for whom "all universal norms are suspect, with the sole exception of something like a duty to 'accept difference'," and for whom gay marriage "is either a celebration of the individual's heroic struggle to find love and validation in a hostile world, or at the very least, it is no one else's business."

Against both of these particularist views,  Shell adopts an universalist and classical liberal approach, informed by thinkers such as Locke and Kant. She calls for a civil partnerships that bolster rights for gays and lesbians (including adoption rights), and to limit marriage to heterosexual couples.  Her liberal approach "takes moral condemnation of homosexuality out of the public sphere";  Christians for example may privately abhor gay relations, but they cannot impose that view on others. By the same token, "American citizens should not have the sectarian beliefs of gay-marriage advocates imposed on them unwillingly":

"The requirement that homosexual attachments be publicly recognized as no different from, and equally necessary to society as, hetereosexual attachments is a fundamentally illiberal demand. Gays cannot be guaranteed all of the experiences open to hetereosexuals any more than tall people can be guaranteed all of the experiences open to short people. Least of all can gays be guaranteed all of the experiences that stem from the facts of human sexual reproduction and its accompanying penumbra of pleasures and cares. To insist otherwise is not only psychologically and culturally implausible; it imposes a sectarian model view on fellow citizens who disagree and who may hold moral beliefs that are diametrically opposed to it."

Of course, if you are the New York Times or another leading establishment voice, any suggestion of a solution that falls short of instituting gay marriage is outright bigotry (including the President's view of two weeks ago). But for those with more of an open mind, I recommend Shell's essay.  As I mentioned in my article, you don't have to be a conservative to question the call for gay marriage.

10 Responses to “The liberal case against gay marriage” Leave a reply ›

  • Another absurd argument.

    No such 'sectarian model' is imposed on anybody. It is certainly no less sectarian than a model excluding an unpopular minority from legal recognition.

    If marriage equality is a achieved, those who oppose homosexuality and oppose same sex marriage are free to not recognise such marriages. Churches will not have to recognise any marriage they do not want. In effect, people will be at liberty to exercise their own personal moralities and objections to homosexuality in their own lives and outside the public sphere rather than imposing it on couples they happen not to like.

    Susan M. Shell's argument self immolates when she agrees that same-sex couples should have adoption rights.

    She bases her argument on the fact that gay couples are different because of an inability to engage in human sexual reproduction. That's pretty obvious, but like many couples who can't reproduce, and as she acknowledges, they can have children through adoption or IVF. She even admits that gay couples can and should be treated as equal parents, and that like any couple they ought to be able to redress their infertility through the various alternative methods available.

    Her whole argument is based on befitting a couple who are infertile through one set of circumstances and disadvantaging those who are infertile due to other circumstances. She is arguing that infertile heterosexuals with adopted children should be free to get married, but infertile homosexuals with adopted children should not. At the end of it all, I don't see how or why the children of gay couples should be less valued, nor why such a family with children should be excluded from the important securities and child rearing benefits of the institution of marriage.

  • "Gays cannot be guaranteed all of the experiences open to heterosexuals any more than tall people can be guaranteed all of the experiences open to short people. "

    Let's try a bit of substitution.

    "Coloreds cannot be guaranteed all of the experiences open to whites any more than tall people can be guaranteed all of the experiences open to short people. " For example, coloreds can't attend the good public schools, prestigious colleges, or eat at the finer restaurants. Nothing against them, definitely, but we can't guarantee everyone the same experiences. Would wreak havoc in society if we let them all go mingle at will with white folk.

    "Women cannot be guaranteed all of the experiences open to men any more than tall people can be guaranteed all of the experiences open to short people. " Women can't vote and can't do most men's jobs. Not suited for it. Would wreak havoc in society if we just let them run willy-nilly, voting for candidates without even asking their husbands.

    These are some recent traditions. At some point, many argued that to do away would them would destroy our society as we know it. Would dear readers prefer that they, too, had been kept?

  • I am not religious,and consider the public interest to require a perpetual guarantee of preferential treatment to opposite-sex relationships in recognition of the particular importance of opposite-sex relationships to humanity.Opposite-sex relationships are the only kind for which there is a public need...there is no purpose to a public institution of marriage unless it is strictly opposite-sex.
    I am strongly in favor of abortion rights,completely opposed to the death penalty,want creationism banished from the schools,think we need comprehensive national health insurance.But there is no sense in treating the formation or maintenance of same-sex sexual relationships as anything but a bad habit,or homosexual orientation as anything but a weakness for a bad habit that should never define anyone or guide their behavior.

  • You're neither liberal nor do you have a valid argument against same-sex marriage. Please don't judge me as an elitist, but did you graduate from 6th grade? 3rd grade?

  • As much as this is a silly article, I did really enjoy the About page of this site, which includes - all in one place - 1) a Webster's dictionary definition 2) the phrase "since the beginning of civilization" and 3) the phrase " I think" multiple times.

    Very good trolling, sir. I predict you'll get more than a few bites on this one.

  • Boy, am I glad I live in "Hicksville." The absolute arrogance of those who attack anyone who questions much of anything or deviates from the party line is so annoying and tiresome, but also condescending.

  • Let me see if I've got this straight:

    My husband of 15 years and I, on behalf of our own family and our 18-month-old daughter, petition the state for equal recognition of our marriage (which is recognized as a marriage by our families as well as the churches we grew up in). We have been petitioning the state for equal treatment as equal citizens most of our lives, and this is an important battle for us because marriage law contains hundreds of well-established and relevant statutes that will affect, as one example, whether my husband and daughter would become impoverished if something nasty were to happen to me.

    You have chosen to oppose our petition to our civil government because:

    1. Elitism exists. (I'm not sure how this non-sequitur establishes an argument, I'll admit.)
    2. Marriage, which has been established as a civil right, is not a civil right for gay people because gay people have not been legally determined to be a suspect class, and this is all well and good by you for reasons you have not really articulated.
    3. Although state recognition of my marriage will not affect the definition or legal/religious status of anyone else's marriage, this recognition somehow amounts to a state intrusion on this institution of marriage (never mind that marriage began as and has always been a civil institution).
    4. Legal recognition of my marriage requires a consensus decision by people who are unaffected by the legal status of my marriage. Again, for reasons you have failed to articulate coherently.

    Does it make me an elitist if I am able to recognize blathering idiocy for what it is? Oh, well.

  • The author is confusing holy matrimony with civil marriage.

    Holy matrimony is a church supported religious concept that defines a relationship between a man, a woman and God. It is one type of marriage. But there is another type of marriage, and that is the legal contract between two people that the government regulates and records. That is a civil marriage. Both are valid types of marriage. You don’t need a religious ceremony to be married in this country, and marriage is far more than an institution for procreation. You can get legally married if you’re 90 years old. Or if you’ve gotten a vasectomy or hysterectomy and can no longer have children. You can even get married if you’re lesbian or gay person in state that allows gay marriage. Civil marriage has nothing to do with religious marriage, except that some people get them both. You can oppress gays in your church, but you can’t do it in the public realm, at least not forever. The Constitution will always win out in the end.

    For those of you who think same-sex couples can’t have kids, think again. They do it all the time. Look around, they’re all over the place. They’re your neighbors, your colleagues and relatives. Same-sex couples can have children from previous heterosexual relationships, they can adopt kids, and they even get pregnant. Two women and a small bottle of sperm from a donor can produce children who are biologically related to each other and to each of their birth moms. Viola! Cross adopt, and you’ve created a nice, concise, loving family unit. The only question then is, will society give those children of same-sex couples equal rights to the children of heterosexual couples. THAT’S what gay marriage is all about: Getting equal rights for their kids. And that’s why you’ll eventually lose this fight – because lesbian and gay parents will NEVER stop fighting for equality for their families. They’ll fight to their last breath, and if they never win equality, then more homosexuals will be born and grow up to fall in love, have kids and carry on with the fight for marital equality. What parent wouldn’t? That’s why marriage equality is inevitable. Because parents, even lesbian and gay parents, love their kids enough to never give up the fight for equal rights.

  • Two questions:

    What is the purpose of opposite-sex marriage for couples who have neither the ability nor the intention to procreate?

    Am I, as a childless lesbian who married at the age of 50, not also entitled to establish what Christopher Lasch referred to as a "haven in a heartless world"?

  • There is no longer any inherent value in heterosexual relationships. The human race is in no danger of not producing sufficient children and being unable to reproduce directly is no longer of any consequence. Any argument against homosexual marriage based these is now de facto defeated. It is further completely ridiculous to create something else, called a civil union or whatever, that is identical to marriage in all, but name. Marriage is by default a civil matter already. You're not officially married unless you do the civil part. It's exactly what the term in general use means.

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