By ROSS DOUTHAT -
In 44 states, the future of gay marriage still depends on legislatures, governors and voters — and eventually, perhaps, Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy. But in New York, as in five states before it, gay marriage’s future is in the hands of gay couples themselves.
Over the decades ahead, their choices will gradually transform gay marriage from an idea into a culture: they’ll determine the social expectations associated with gay wedlock, the gay marriage and divorce rates, the differences and similarities between gay and lesbian unions, the way marriage interacts with gay parenting, and much more besides.
They’ll also help determine gay marriage’s impact on the broader culture of matrimony in America.
One possibility is that gay marriage will end up being a force for marital conservatism, among gays and straights alike. In this vision, the norms of heterosexual marriage will be the template for homosexual wedlock. Once equipped with marriage’s “entitlements and entanglements,” Jonathan Rauch predicted in his book “Gay Marriage: Why It Is Good for Gays, Good for Straights, and Good for America,” “same-sex relationships will continue to move toward both durability and exclusivity.” At the same time, the example of gay couples taking vows will strengthen “marriage’s status as the gold standard for committed relationships.”
At the other end of the spectrum from Rauch’s gay conservatism are the liberationists, who hope that gay marriage will help knock marriage off its cultural pedestal altogether. To liberationists, a gay rights movement that ends up reaffirming a “gold standard” for relationships will have failed in its deeper mission — which Columbia law professor Katherine M. Franke recently summarized in a Times Op-Ed article as the quest for “greater freedom than can be found in the one-size-fits-all rules of marriage.”
That’s the kind of argument that makes social conservatives worry about polygamy (and worse). But liberationism has been gradually marginalized in the gay community over the last two decades, and gay conservatism seems to have largely carried the day. The desire to be included in an existing institution has proved stronger than the desire to eliminate every institutional constraint.
Still, there’s a third vision that’s worth pondering — neither conservative nor liberationist, but a little bit of both. This vision embraces the institution of marriage, rather than seeking to overthrow it. But it also hints that the example of same-sex unions might partially transform marriage from within, creating greater institutional flexibility — particularly sexual flexibility — for straight and gay spouses alike.
This idea is most prominently associated with Dan Savage, the prolific author, activist and sex columnist who was profiled in Sunday’s Times Magazine. Savage is strongly pro-marriage, but he thinks the institution is weighed down by unrealistic cultural expectations about monogamy. Better, he suggests, to define marriage simply as a pact of mutual love and care, and leave all the other rules to be negotiated depending on the couple.
In “The Commitment,” his memoir about wedding his longtime boyfriend, Savage described the way his own union has successfully made room for occasional infidelity. “Far from undermining the stable home we’ve built for our child,” he writes, “the controlled way in which we manage our desire for outside sexual contact has made our home more stable.”
The trouble is that straight culture already experimented with exactly this kind of model, with disastrous results.
Forty years ago, Savage’s perspective temporarily took upper-middle-class America by storm. In the mid-1970s, only 51 percent of well-educated Americans agreed that adultery was always wrong. But far from being strengthened by this outbreak of realism, their marriages went on to dissolve in record numbers.
This trend eventually reversed itself. Heterosexual marriage has had a tough few decades, but its one success story is the declining divorce rate among the upper middle class. This decline, tellingly, has gone hand in hand with steadily rising disapproval of adultery.
There’s a lesson here. Institutions tend to be strongest when they make significant moral demands, and weaker when they pre-emptively accommodate themselves to human nature.
Critics of gay marriage see this as one of the great dangers in severing the link between marriage and the two realities — gender difference and procreation — that it originally evolved to address. A successful marital culture depends not only on a general ideal of love and commitment, but on specific promises, exclusions and taboos. And the less specific and more inclusive an institution becomes, the more likely people are to approach it casually, if they enter it at all.
In courts and now legislatures, this has been a losing argument. But as gay New Yorkers ponder what they want their marriages to mean, they should consider one of its implications: The hardest promises to keep are often the ones that keep people together.