Chronicles of Love and Resentment

Eric Gans

Gay Marriage II - The End of Kinship

No. 296: Saturday, March 6, 2004

I have a pretty good gay friend who hasn’t answered my last couple of emails. He may be out of town, or his computer may be down, but the most likely explanation is that he was offended, perhaps permanently, by my previous “Gay Marriage” Chronicle (#289). One thing that has surprised even me, inured as I am to victimary thinking, is how quickly support of gay marriage has gone from tentative to Pharisaical. Statements of various public officials and letters to newspapers proclaim as a self-evident moral truth, which only an unregenerate Yahoo could think of opposing, a “right” that no one dreamed of until a few years ago and that no one dreamed of enforcing until a few weeks ago. Instant self-righteousness is a powerful thing.

A couple of examples from the 3/6/04 LA Times:

I am angered by President Bush’s push for a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriages. … This is a time when we must look to ourselves and ask whether we’re going to let our leaders perpetrate hate and second-class citizenship upon people or if we will join the fight for equal rights. Rise up from the back of the bus, demand your place at the counter…

So Bush wants to ban gay marriage. I thought the purpose of law and government was to protect people’s rights and freedoms, not to diminish them.

And from the 3/7 issue:

I am a homosexual. I am created by God and nature. . . Those people who feel their beliefs entitle them to take away my equal rights have crossed the line from smugness to tyranny.

Thus gay marriage has become in the space of a few days a “right” that government is supposed to “protect,” denial of which is “perpetrat[ing] hate and second-class citizenship.” To deny a homosexual the option of gay marriage is to "take away" his “equal rights” and thereby to practice “tyranny.” The reference to Rosa Parks shows the power of the victimary paradigm to define any de jure difference as a shameful denial of human equality.

Victimary rhetoric may be on the wane; it has not lost a major confrontation yet. Gay marriage is beginning to look inevitable. President Bush’s proposal of a constitutional amendment to prevent it seems dubious; as a rule, an amendment designed to preserve a distinction that some court or other has determined to be invidious is destined to fail. Do I even support such an amendment? It seems to me that if amending the Constitution is the only way to enforce a once tacitly held social norm, then that norm is no longer generally accepted, in which case we certainly shouldn’t write it into the Constitution.

This may indeed be a special case, and I will say why I think so, but no one seems to be making much of a fuss about it. The general public has treated this as one more social-values issue somewhere down the scale from abortion, fetal stem-cell research, and Internet pornography; far from everyone supports it, but it arouses little passion among those who oppose it. After all, abortion, stem-cell research, and pornography may be said to have “victims”: who is the “victim” in a same-sex marriage?

The victim is our system of kinship, as it has been known since the dawn of human society. But perhaps we don’t really need a kinship system.

The only mentions of kinship in relation to the gay marriage issue that I have been able to find on the Internet are favorable to gay marriage. Here are two, the first from a relatively neutral source (atheism.about.com), the other from a gay newsletter.

In summary, what's the point of gay marriage? The point of gay marriage is the point of all marriage. Marriage is different from other contractual relationships because it creates bonds of kinship. These bonds are in turn different and more important than other bonds: they create significant moral, social, and legal obligations both for those who are married and between those who are married and everyone else. Some individuals may not choose to acknowledge those obligations, but they exist and they constitute the basis of human society - a society which includes both heterosexual and homosexual human beings.

Obviously marriage only begins to address the much bigger and more interesting question of equality of kinship. Kindness is what makes us kindred--a single act of kindness can be, therefore, a more powerful bond than any court decision or act of Congress. -- Scott Tucker, Editor Of Open Letter Online

Neither of these statements reflect a real understanding of kinship. Kinship is a means for creating family alliances, yes, but the central focus of kinship, which Lévi-Strauss described in the pre-feminist era as “the exchange of women,” is to confine the perpetuation of the species within the extant social order. Marriage has until now been between men and women because childbearing is both a human necessity and a potential disturbance to lines of ancestry that must be maintained within the kinship structure. It is interesting that the first paragraph above speaks about “bonds” and “obligations” without mentioning the children who are normally considered, particularly in modern, nuclear families, as the primary focus of these bonds and obligations.

We are now proposing to do away with kinship as we know it. Of course this can be presented in positive terms, as the extension of our kinship system to include a few same-sex couples among the many heterosexual ones. Those nice gay couples kissing on the steps of the San Francisco City Hall can hardly be said to pose a danger to the social order. But this reasoning assumes that with gay marriage, all outstanding invidious distinctions relating to marriage have been abolished. On the contrary, the institution of gay marriage makes marriage itself an invidious distinction.

A recent Weekly Standard article points out that polygamists have been waiting in the wings for gay marriage to be approved; if two men can marry, then the argument against marriage between six men, or two men and a woman, or any other combination, loses its main premise. And why should any two people, whether sexually interested in each other or not, be denied the benefits of marriage? Suppose I live with my sister--or my mother; why shouldn’t we be able to “marry” in order to save on our taxes?

Marriage is between two people because it takes two people to produce children; this is a biological reality that goes back to well before we came on the scene. Once marriage is redefined as the creation of a “kinship” bond between two people, then the reason for forbidding the extension of this bond to arbitrary groups disappears. Gay marriage is an extension of traditional marriage that paradoxically relies on the traditional notion of marriage remaining intact. Those nice gay couples are acting just as nice heterosexual couples do. But once one need no longer be a heterosexual couple to marry, the very notion of a married couple loses its raison d’être. The presumptive legality of polygamy and group marriage is not the main difficulty posed by gay marriage; the main difficulty is the legality of marriage itself.

If we see marriage as a privileged state heretofore unfairly denied to a fraction of the general population, then gay couples, let alone polygamists, constitute only a tiny subset of this fraction. Most of the people who suffer from the lack of the marriage privilege are, very simply, the unmarried. So long as marriage had a clear place in social tradition, its privileged status was more or less uncontested. But now that marriage is no longer conceived as a ritually derived adjunct to originary reciprocity but as deriving, like any contractual relation, from this reciprocity itself, its privileged status is no longer justifiable. The gay couple’s argument that it is unfair that a heterosexual couple, but not they, should be eligible for the legal benefits of marriage can be turned against both sets of couples: why should a man or woman be forced to join with someone else in order to receive social benefits? Why should those who like to live in couples have an advantage over those who like to live singly? Polygamists may well ask how what is given to groups of two can be denied to groups of ten. But the more fundamental question is: why deny it to groups of one? How can our society justify denying the equal rights of the uncoupled? Is this denial at a moment when same-sex marriage is becoming legal not crossing the line from smugness to tyranny? It can’t be long before lawyers begin making such arguments; for all I know the briefs are being written at this moment.

A counter-argument might be made that, precisely in order to maintain the structure of our kinship system, the benefits of marriage should be extended to homosexual couples but not to larger groups or incestuous pairs or single individuals. But the core of this argument is self-contradictory. If tradition is no argument for maintaining marriage in the face of the standard victimary argument for equal rights, then how can it be an acceptable argument for maintaining our kinship system in the face of the same argument?

Can we do without a government-supported kinship system? This would seem to be the logical conclusion of subjecting marriage to the moral model of reciprocal relationships. Europeans, especially Scandinavians, seem to do pretty well without marriage. This may or may not correlate with the fact that the original non-marrying ethnic stock of these countries is being replaced rather quickly with immigrants from other continents who do marry and whose families, unlike those they are replacing, average well above the replacement level of 2.1 children per woman.

Since WWII we have lived through a victimary revolution in which the Nazi-Jew model has been applied to every form of unequal human relation. This revolution has now progressed to the point where marriage, the building-block of our kinship system, is seen as discriminating against homosexuals. 

I had always thought that gay marriage would mark the point at which the victimary revolution would be forced to retreat. This may indeed come to pass, but my present impression is that I was wrong--that the moral imperative of inclusion in the reciprocal human dialogue outweighs all else.

When we were discussing this issue, my wife gave me the example of a couple of elderly ladies of our acquaintance who have lived together for many years. If, she asked, they decided to get married and invited us to their wedding reception, how could we dream of hurting their feelings by refusing to attend? But if that is so, then how can we oppose gay marriage?

The only reasonable answer to this question is the reasoning I have followed above. If homosexuals want to call their relation “marriage,” so be it. But at that point marriage becomes strictly a matter of personal preference, an institution of civil society with no a priori claims on legal advantage. This would not necessarily prevent couples or larger groups from receiving tax benefits, but such benefits would have to be justified by something other than the fact of living as a married couple--perhaps by that of sharing a single residence. These ramifications will no doubt take some time to work out, but it’s hard to imagine that our legal system will evolve in any other direction. Unless, of course, enough people feel strongly attached to our kinship system to force the advocates of same-sex marriage to accept a less radical form of government-approved consecration. This doesn’t look like a good bet at the moment.

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Eric Gans / gans@humnet.ucla.edu
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