In the current argument over the question of gay marriage, both sides focus on their respective moral and even constitutional claims. But when the battle is pitched on those rather elevated and abstract grounds, the pro-heterosexual factions are at a big disadvantage, drowned out by the gay cohorts, who claim, not without justice, that their constitutional rights, for equal protection under the law, are being violated by any ban on same-sex marriage. But more than the civil rights of a deviant minority may be at stake: not only the matter of gay marriage, but the larger matter of marriage itself, and its place in the human scheme of things.
Heterosexual marriage is, after all, one of the most universal and enduring human institutions; it would not have spread so far nor endured so long had it not made an important contribution to societal and species survival. Thus far, these contributions and the fate of the marital institution itself under a gay regime have hardly been addressed. Before we warp marriage further, it is high time that they were.
Marriage serves many well-documented purposes. A less-studied function, but one that bears directly on the question of gay marriage, is this: heterosexual marriage helps to keep the fragile but necessary peace between men and women. There is no denying that a major fault line in human society has to do with the chronic and universal tensions between the males and females of our species. This breach has been documented, deplored, and even celebrated over the ages from the Athenian Lysistrata to Thurber’s “The War Between Men and Women.” It is the standard stuff of domestic comic strips, satires, and the explosive theme of contra-patriarchal feminist rhetoric and activism.
The inter-gender breach is ubiquitous across human societies as well as across human history. After all, boys and girls mature towards adulthood apart from each other, usually under guidance from peers and seniors of their own sex. They develop according to different guidelines, towards quite different outcomes, and towards the pursuit of quite different goals.
Given their druthers, men and women tend to look for sociability and even emotional intimacy within their own sex, rather than the other. This bias is most evident in pre-adolescents, before they are hit by the flood tide of sexual desire in the pubertal years. Before the heterosexual imperatives mash them together, boys and girls tend to be sublimated homo-erotics: they generally keep to their own gender, and they may develop crushes on same-sex play-mates, while openly belittling the opposite team.
This gap between men and women is also under-written by striking differences in the reproductive furnishings of the male and female body, in the hormonal endowments that accompany these structural differences and in the appetites, emotions and preferences that flow from these disparate chemistries. As a very rough generalization we can say that the female body and associated nature is designed to give and sustain life, while the male body and nature are formed to take life from prey, from enemy and even from sexual rivals. Women are from Venus, men are indeed from Mars.
But inter-sexual antipathy fades out, at least temporarily, during young adulthood, when men and women, now eagerly seeking mates and erotic partners, discover that the distinctive, defining features of the opposite sex, the same characteristics that once even repelled them, are in reality potent stimulants to passion: “Vive La Difference !!” What once repulsed them, now, under the sway of surgent Eros, joins the sexes.
But once mates are chosen, and after the phasing out of the honeymoon period, sexual activity tends to become routinized, and may lose some of its power to overcome intersexual tensions and breaches. Men talk sports with their buddies; women talk about kids with theirs. Some young couples might even separate at that point, and look for new partners to restimulate their sexual appetites. But usually, when the somatically inspired sexual bond weakens, the socially sponsored marital bond takes over to hold the heterosexual couple together. Marriage is after all a solemn contract, sworn to publicly before the Gods, before representatives of society, and before the extended families of the bride and groom. Confirmed with exchanges of property as well as sacred vows, the marriage contact is hard to break.
Most importantly, marriage is the usual setting for child-bearing and rearing, and the Parental Imperative brings another set of powerful bonding motives into play for both fathers and mothers, as well as powerful reasons, independent of sexual passion, for preserving their marriage. The parenting couple’s original sexual bond is reinforced by their shared love for and concern for the children who, in a most concrete way, replicate and personify, in their bodies, the parent’s physical union. Thus Parenthood, which mingles the maternal and paternal genetic inheritance in the child’s very flesh, transmutes the divisive aspects of gender, and once again bridging over the gulf between men and women, turns disparities into unities.
In short, heterosexual marriage acts to bring and hold the sexes together, despite the centrifugal forces that would (and often do) pull them apart — the same forces that would split society into chronically hostile, gendered camps.
But despite any superficial resemblances, in ritual and contractual language, to heterosexual unions, homosexual marriages have the opposite effect: they function to confirm, deepen and even celebrate the gender split, and import it from childhood into adulthood. Gay marriage perpetuates into later life the homoeroticism of the pre-pubertal boy and girl: men marry men; women marry women, and — except at Lesbi-Gay street demonstrations — rarely if ever the twain shall meet.
No life-way that splits men from women, and celebrates their separation, should be granted equal dignity with heterosexual marriage, which brings and binds them together.
So Let homosexuals have their special unions, and the civil rights that properly go with them; but we should not grant those unions the title and sacramental status of Marriage. The institution of marriage is already in enough trouble as it is, and — as indicated by falling birth-rates, single parenthood, and welfare dependency — it is weakest in those enlightened societies which also accredit gay marriage. We should not — in order to please a minority — mix a social pathogen and its antagonist into the same medicine, and continue to call it a cure. Americans are voting, across our states, and with good reason, to keep the two forms of association separate.