Special Report

Double Nonsense

If marriage is now merely an impediment to self-realization, gay marriage will prove more shortlived than Gov. McGreevey's tenure.

By 8.20.04

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Homosexuals seem to want to have it both ways -- if you'll pardon the expression -- about the McGreevey affair. In the Washington Post, José Antonio Vargas writes about married men who are closeted gays having affairs, usually with other married men, as a recognized feature of the homosexual subculture. "Whether they call themselves gay or bisexual," Vargas writes, "McGreeveys are everywhere: in Red America and Blue America, in suburbs and cities, in corporate offices and city halls (and the governor's mansion).… Regardless of their race, these men are living double lives, talking in doublespeak. 'I'm gay,' one says, 'but I like to call myself bi.' 'I'm married,' another says, 'and I only play around with other married guys.'"

In such cases, marriage is apparently regarded as a mere impediment to self-realization. This is how McGreevey himself regarded it when he spoke of the need "to look deeply into the mirror of one's soul and decide one's unique truth in the world." In the face of such "truth" -- a word which originally, as in its cognate troth, meant faithfulness -- his marriage vows were a mere triviality, an obstacle in the way of being himself. Yet at the same time Jonathan Rauch, one of the most prominent public advocates of gay marriage and someone with whom I agree on almost every subject but this one, argues in the New York Times that this same roadblock on the way to happiness and self-fulfillment is really the means to the same, and that "alienation from marriage twists and damages gay souls. Gay men like McGreevey would simply, if marriage to another man were available to them, choose that and with it the high road to happiness instead of the sham marriage which they actually did choose and that now stands in the way of that happiness.

But hang on. What is it that those twisted and damaged gay souls are alienated from? Marriage is the vows that Governor McGreevey willingly took and then, like many others both gay and straight, chose to defy for the sake of his unique and individual "truth." If he found that outside of his marriage, why can't other gay men? And why is it a condition of their not being twisted and damaged that they should be free to burden themselves with precisely the obstacle to self-fulfillment that McGreevey had to free himself from? Is it one kind of marriage or two that the gay marriage advocates are asking for? If self-realization trumps the formal vows of Marriage I, why are we to suppose that the vows of Marriage II will suddenly become a fulfillment in themselves? Do gay people not grow and change and find their true selves in new places irrespective of whether they first contracted to a member of their own sex or the opposite?

The point is that heterosexual marriage is already imperiled by exactly this doubleness: people want to go on promising to love and honor until death do them part while at the same time reserving to themselves the right to disregard all such promises when it becomes a question of self-realization. Why do gay people think that this chance of being forsworn is some kind of great privilege? "Many gay husbands begin by denying and end by deceiving," says Mr. Rauch, but the same is true of straight husbands: they deny that they seek an exemption from the plain meaning of the words they willingly swear to and then they go ahead and seek it anyway. What is that if not deception? If McGreevey had been ditching his wife for another woman would he have had the face to justify it on the grounds of his own "unique truth"? And would anyone else have seen his doing so as an argument for "the culture of marriage and all the blessings it brings" -- to use Mr. Rauch's words --rather than yet another indication of what a hollow mockery marriage has become?

"The greatest promise of same-sex marriage is not the tangible improvement it may bring to today's committed gay couples, but its potential to reinforce the message that marriage is the gold standard for human relationships," Mr. Rauch concludes. Yet so long as all of us, gay and straight alike, seek the privilege claimed by Governor McGreevey to subordinate all other relationships to the right to seek a merely personal and individual happiness, marriage can be no such thing. It is merely a sentimental vestige, an excuse for dressing up and having a party while hiding from ourselves until we need it the truth (to coin an expression) that it means nothing at all -- or nothing beyond the willingness to submit oneself to a certain amount of legal and financial wrangling in order to get out of it. The Governor's is obviously not the only way in which people can deceive themselves.

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About the Author

James Bowman, our movie and culture critic, is a resident scholar at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. He is the author of Honor: A History and Media Madness: The Corruption of Our Political Culture, both published by Encounter Books.