Another Perspective

Guess Who Came to Dinner

Marriage is a contract, it’s a choice, it encourages stability. Conservatives like all of those things. Why not extend the institution?

By 11.24.03

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It's an awkward position, being a non-gay supporter of gay marriage. It was only last weekend that I found myself brandishing this political position as a weapon -- in self-defense, of course -- at a Manhattan dinner party.

I'd stumbled into some trouble at a liberal table by disclosing my support for the pro-life side of the abortion debate. I'm no idiot; I didn't offer this position willingly -- someone asked. Nonetheless, my answer caused a number of my dinner companions' jaws to drop indiscreetly into their Arctic char.

Sensing that I was in for a long, hard slog, I unleashed the dinner conversation equivalent of Operation Iron Hammer. "But," I said, "I'm in favor of gay marriage." This halted a number of tongues mid-lashing. Heads cocked to the side as my fellow diners contemplated how one could hold such a backward position on one hot-button issue and such a progressive position on another.

"People who hold that position on abortion don't usually hold that position on gay marriage," one reporter from a rival newspaper said. Leaving aside the abortion debate, I tried to explain that it was quite easy for a conservative, a libertarian conservative at least, to walk and chew gum at the same time. Marriage is a contract, it's a choice, it encourages stability. Conservatives like all of those things. Why not extend the institution?

The reporter nodded agreement to these points and added a few of her own. It was a nice moment, a conservative and a liberal agreeing on a contentious issue of social policy, in New York City of all places. Certainly, I was expressing the view of only a contingent of conservatives -- though one that includes Andrew Sullivan, Jonathan Rauch, and David Brooks -- but it was nice nonetheless.

Still, looking back at the conversation -- the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts having ruled in the interim -- something struck me. No one at the table had a dog in the fight. No one was gay.

And there's the rub: The debate over gay marriage hinges on winning over non-gays. Since gays don't constitute a democratic majority, it is up to the heterosexual majority: Will we extend marriage to the minority?

Some socially conservative types have been busy thinking up reasons not to do so. The latest gambit seems to be to pretend that marriage isn't so great in the first place. In an opinion piece in Sunday's edition of the New York Post, Nicole Gelinas wrote, "The long-sought prize isn't the sacred bond it's sold as -- it's a decaying historical artifact…The next looming question is: Why bother?"

In a similar vein, the cover story of the current Weekly Standard, by the president of the Institute for Marriage and Public Policy, Maggie Gallagher, argues that the "benefits of marriage," in the legal and financial senses, are overblown and largely attainable by other means.

But to argue on this ground is to assume that gays are interested in marriage only for materialistic reasons.

Ms. Gallagher and her allies know better than that. They know that this is ultimately a battle over accepting homosexuals fully into civil society -- a battle over the non-tangible benefits of marriage. Thus she attacks on a second front, writing that, "If the word marriage includes same-sex couples, we proponents of the marriage culture will be silenced in the public square because we will no longer have a word for the idea of marriage as we and our forebears have always understood it."

She's right. The meaning of marriage will change. It already has when nearly half of all marriages end in divorce, and second marriages are closer to the rule than the exception. Change doesn't have to be for the worse. Ms. Gallagher cites as evidence for her case figures seeming to show that gays are reluctant to marry in countries that offer them the option, such as the Netherlands and Canada. But such caution is encouraging, meaning that only the most committed couples are taking part in this experiment.

And an experiment is what is taking place now in a handful of states. The politics is in flux -- even Ms. Gallagher writes that she is reluctant but ready to accept civil unions as a compromise -- which is why this would be an awful time to amend the Constitution and freeze a compromise in place while minds are still shifting.

For most of us who argue about this issue at dinner parties and on opinion pages, the stakes are not high. What may become clear in Vermont, California, and Massachusetts is that, despite the protests of some, non-gays hardly have any reason to contemplate gay marriage at all. We need only extend to gays the choices we already enjoy.

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About the Author

Ryan H. Sager is editorial features editor of the New York Sun, where his column appears Mondays. Email: rhsager@nysun.com