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18.12.03

Love And Contract

After reading a few recent attempts to justify heterosexuals-only marriage, I'm starting to get what some of the secular opposition to gay marriage is all about. I never bought the idea that secular arguments were just lame rationalizations for religiously-based opposition to homosexuality (though certainly many people accept both sets of reasons).

At first sight, the arguments put forth seem bizarre. No reason is given why the stable, loving family that anti-gay-marriage arguments idealize can't be composed of members of the same sex. Indeed, it would seem that such an arrangement is exactly what homosexual couples who want to get married are aiming at. The thing is, though, that keeping gays from marrying isn't the point. The point is to preserve loving, socially rich family relationships against the percieved encroachment of distanced, individualized, contractarian interactions. To put it in Marxist terms, they fear the commodification of social interaction. Gay marriage is simply a symbol of this cold and lonely world. We can't make a law that says spouses have to love each other (rather than simply making a convenient deal), so the struggle is fought out on the symbolic terrain of gay rights.

Divorce used to be the proxy battle for the love-versus-contract struggle. Though divorce could easily be seen as helping the cause of love -- by allowing people to get out of marriages that could never be loving -- it was seen as the opposite, as an affirmation that marriage was a contract that could be cancelled rather than a social obligation. Today, gay rights make the most convenient avatar for fears about the dissolution of loving marriage because this is the biggest public question about marriage being asked today, and because the libertarian justifications often given for the right to marriage evoke the kind of depersonalized society that social conservatives fear.

The argument that the purpose of marriage is having kids -- a surprisingly and ironically recent introduction to the "traditional marriage" discourse -- is shoehorned in to bolster the idea that traditional marriage is the only arrangement that works. Reproduction is natural in the sense of "biological," so there's an intuitive slide across the is/ought gap to reproduction (and relationships that encourage it) being natural in the sense of "the way things are supposed to be."

The children argument also serves the crucial function of solidifying the link between tradition and heterosexuality. Having a child biologizes the parents' relationship, making it appear less reversible and more socially permanent than the most intimate relationship between two adults. And rearing a child brings with it a host of obligation-based interactions that can't be accommodated within the self-interest and exchange based paradigm that social conservatives fear is taking over.

My response to these fears is twofold. First, I think that, while "thick" relationships are very important (especially within a family), creeping commodification is not quite as prevalent or as undesirable as social conservatives fear. The capitalist marketplace, taken by both supporters and detractors as the archetype of self-interested contractarian interaction, has proven to depend heavily (in some cases too heavily) on "thick" social relations or trust and obligation. Second, I think fighting gay marriage is a counterproductive symbolic struggle for defending loving and non-commodified relationships. Heterosexuals-only marriage undermines the development of such relationships because it denies to some people the opportunity to integrate their relationships into the wider social structure.

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