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Books: Gay Marriage

Jonathan Rauch
Wednesday, May 5, 2004; 2:00 PM

In his new book, "Gay Marriage: Why It Is Good for Gays, Good for Straights, and Good for America," author Jonathan Rauch argues that allowing same-sex marriage would benefit the institution and create a "win-win-win" situation for all.

Rauch was online to discuss his book, his position on gay marriage and the debate over same-sex unions.

Rauch is a senior writer for National Journal magazine, writer in residence at the Brookings Institution and vice president of the Independent Gay Forum

The transcript follows.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.


Bowie, Md.: Opponents of gay marriage point out that gay unions, on average, do not last as long as heterosexual marriages (by a long shot). Of course the same can be said of Las Vegas drive-through weddings and those involving teen-age girls (which still happen in the Southeast).

Considering that age at wedding day is one of the strongest predictors of divorce, would soceity perhaps be better off if there were FEWER marriages?

Jonathan Rauch: Thanks for tuning in...

I guess you all know that Massachusetts will start issuing fully official marriage licenses to same-sex couples on May 17th. A big day--for gays, for marriage, for everybody.

So I'm glad to have a chance to hash out some of these issues here.

Then there's the book, which I encourage everybody to check out.

OK...Hi, Bowie.

I'm always tickled when people compare straight marriages with gay "unions" (i.e., non-marriages) and find the latter less durable.

The whole point, of course, is that marriage is more durable than any other arrangement known to man. That's even _after_ accounting for the conflating variables (different populations, etc.) Marriage itself fortifies relationships, because of the social expectations and investment that go with it.

And that's why gay couples need marriage!

Me, I think society definitely needs more marriages. The problem today for marriage is that heterosexuals are abandoning it.

So gay marriage (GM, hereafter) is part of the solution.


Harrisburg, Pa.: For people who do not accept gay marriage for religious reasons, I like to point out the following. Unless you believe your religion is the one true religion and you know for certain your religion is correct, then you should consider the following: why should you impose your religious beliefs upon others? Some religions accept gay marriage. Why not let the decision to enter a gay marriage be a decision made according to the beliefs of the people involved in the decision. In my belief: if you don't believe in gay marriage, don't marry a gay. Am I making any sense?

Jonathan Rauch: Yes!

I'd be concerned if I thought that any church would be required to celebrate or sanctify a same-sex marriage. And I'd fervently oppose steps in that direction.

But, as time goes on, we'll have religion on both sides of this question. On my book tour, I met a Baptist church elder in Memphis whose church is even now considering whether to sanctify gay unions.

So there's no way to make every religion happy. We'll have to decide civil marriage as a civil matter.


Arlington, Va.: Gay or Straight, all any government license recognizes is a CIVIL union, no matter what the noun at the top of the license is.

CHURCHES, TEMPLES, SYNAGOGUES, MOSQUES, etc. perform ceremonies for RELIGIOUS unions, no matter what the noun at the top of the license is.

This isn't rocket science or even Algebra I.

Government does the legal thing, religion does the God thing. They are two separate entities and you can be married in the eyes of God and not the government and vice versa.

Unless, of course, God gets an appointment as a municipal judge then I guess he can do both things at once if he wants.

Jonathan Rauch: Agreed...but with a caveat.

Marriage is a hybrid. It's both legal and social. Legal marriage is the license from the government, and all the entanglements and prerogatives that go with it. Social marriage is the rings and vows and ceremonies and the hundreds of ways in which society invests in marriage.

Religion is an important part of social marriage--though not the only part.

So here's my caveat. If legal marriage were to be totally cut adrift from social marriage--so that most Americans considered gay marriages to be nothing but a legal fiction--gay couples wouldn't get the whole deal. They wouldn't get the social investment that makes marriage special.

That's one of the reasons I favor going a state at a time with gay marriage. Let it start out where it has social support. Then it has the best shot at working. And as the rest of the country sees that the sky doesn't fall and in fact marriage is strengthened, GM will win not just legal but also social acceptance.

Which is like getting a bicycle instead of a unicycle.


Southern Maryland: Jonathan,

I'm a straight man who strongly believes that gays and lesbians should be allowed to marry under the law. All the talk of gay marriage supposedly threatening straight marriage sounds like fearmongering to me.

At the same time, I can appreciate the feelings of many Christians regarding the religious aspect of marriage. So I would support a compromise that would give "civil unions" all the legal rights and responsibilities of marriage. As I understand it, no civil union law currently does that. What do you think of such a compromise?

Jonathan Rauch: Wrong compromise, I think.

Civil unions are a purely legal contraption. They were invented yesterday. It's not clear that they'd include the social side of marriage.

So gay couples would probably be shortchanged.

Plus it's not a great idea to set up alternatives to marriage, because they're very tempting to heterosexuals--giving them another excuse not to marry, and weakening marriage's status as the gold standard for committed relationships.

So society would probably also be shortchanged.

Marriage is the only relationship you don't have to explain. So I think the way to strengthen marriage while giving gay couples what they need is to say, "If you want the benefits of marriage--GET MARRIED."

But do it in states that are ready to try it and that will give it a fair shot.


Grand Rapids, Mich.: My only hesitation toward gay marriage is something I never hear discussed. That is the possible negative effect it might have on a heterosexual child being raised by two homosexuals. Have there been any studies that address this issue?

Jonathan Rauch: Well, one thing to remember is that marriage and adoption/child custody, though related, are separate issues.

I believe all states allow single-parent adoption, for instance. You don't have to be married at all, much less straight-married, to adopt kids.

But to address the question...It's controversial. There's a fair amount of research, but it's a long way from definitive. Some people say it shows that children raised by same-sex couples do just as well, other people say there are some questions outstanding.

My take is that we don't yet know whether a same-sex couple can be considered _optimal_ parents. But:

1) We'd certainly know by now if they were rotten parents, because we have lots of grown kids raised by gay couples. And any problems they have are hard to find. Which tells you that if being raised by a same-sex couple is a disadvantage, it's only a small one. (Unlike being raised by a single parent, where, statistically speaking and just on average, disadvantages are not hard to find.)

2) We don't require straight couples to be optimal in order to marry or raise kids. And we shouldn't require that of gay couples.

I think adoption/custody decisions should be made case-by-case, with the interest of the child (not the parents) foremost.

Which means that neither gay couples nor single parents nor less-than-optimal straight couples nor anyone else should be automatically ruled in or out.


Washington, D.C.: In my own personal opinion, allowing gays to marry would send a terrible message to the children of America. First, it is already hard enough to explain, much less guide or direct "sexuality" amongst kids today, mostly because of media imagery. Now you want to confuse them even more with "Mommy, why does Johnny have two daddies?" While I defend the right of gays to "be gay," I beleive that this "alternative" (notice I don't say "deviant" or some other negative term) sexuality should not be "promoted". Surely you recognize that heterosexuality is the natural order of humanity, so how can you not see that it would be detremental and confusing to children for gays to be allowed to marry (and for that matter, to adopt), forcing the issue to have to be explained to kids who aren't likely to be able to comprehend. I've always been a liberal Democrat -- perhaps you would call me conservative on this issue. However, I do not hate, or discriminate against gays -- I just have a problem with the wholesale "promotion" of homosexuality, homosexual "rights," and such. Your thoughts on this would be appreciated. Thanks.

Jonathan Rauch: I don't think it's a question of "promotion." I think it's a question of civil and legal equality.

I believe that homosexuality is perfectly natural _for homosexuals_, just as heterosexuality is perfectly natural _for heterosexuals_. It's not like millions of people wake up at age 13 and decide to be gay for the fun of it. Homosexuality is statistically rare--like left-handedness--but it is natural. Here we are, after all.

It is something of a disadvantage that gay couples are infertile. But no one draws a perfect hand in life. And we don't go around denouncing other people who face particular disadvantages in life. We don't denounce diabetics for needing insulin, and say that giving it to them "promotes diabetes."

(No direct equation of diabetes and homosexuality intended. Illustrative purposes only.)

The only result of denying marriage to gay people will be to make many of them miserable. How can that be in anyone's interest?

And, ending where I began...I believe in the golden rule. I don't know of any straight people who'd impose upon themselves or other straight people the burden of going through life without any prospect of marriage. They wouldn't tolerate that for a minute. So that burden shouldn't be imposed upon gays.


Austin, Tex.: I have a personal comment:

My partner and I have been in a committed, monogamous relationship for seventeen years. We have two children together, ages 6 and 8. We are law-abiding American citizens. We work. We pay taxes. We vote. We, and especially our children, do not have the rights and protections accorded to heterosexual married families. Our family deserves the same support and affirmation that heterosexual families have. This will strengthen marriage and families in the United States, as our commitment and desire to raise our children in a positive environment is recognized.

Jonathan Rauch: Agreed. Thanks.

One of the oddest things about selling the idea of gay marriage is that, in all other contexts, social conservatives understand that expecting everyone to get married is good for marriage. Marriage works best when it's a norm--something all parents tell all children they should do someday with the person they really love.

All the conservative reasons to support marriage are exactly the same reasons to support gay marriage.


Arlington, Va.: "Gay marriage" makes about as much sense as issuing drivers licenses to blind folks. If "equal protection" is to be taken without any limits, that's the result -- blind folks with drivers licenses (among other absurdities). Justice under the law is about treating people and things appropriately to their particular circumstances. That means that it's appropriate to treat different people differently.

Jonathan Rauch: Actually, gay marriage is like issuing drivers licenses to people who insist they're not blind and can drive. And who then turn out to drive perfectly well.

And insisting that gay marriage can never be tried on one square inch of U.S. soil--as proponents of the constitutional ban on gay marriage would do--is like saying, "I say you're blind, and I'm going to ban you from ever taking an eye test."

Sure, it's appropriate to treat people in different situations differently.

But the situation of a gay man who wants to marry another gay man is identical, situationally, to the situation of a straight man who wants to marry a woman. After all, for gay people to fool straight people into marrying us isn't an option.

GM redefines the boundaries of marriage. It's foolish to pretend otherwise. Marriage has been exclusively man-woman throughout 3000+ years of western civilization.

But recognition that some people are homosexual is a new thing. And the deepest meaning of marriage is found in the words of the vow:

"To have and to hold from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death do us part."

If you can operate the car, you should be allowed to drive. And if you can be a good and devoted spouse, you should be allowed to marry.


Birmingham, Ala.: It always seemed like a irrefutable argument that the banning of gay marriages is a clear and explicit violation of individual rights solely on the basis of gender. Gender is a protected category under federal law. If one is denied a job solely on the basis of gender, that is illegal. If one is denied housing solely on the basis of gender, that is illegal. Marriage is no different.

How have courts all of these years justified this clear case of sex discrimination? I can not think of any legal argument that could hold up current discriminatory practices.

Jonathan Rauch: This question makes an interesting counterpoint to the last one.

For two-thirds of Americans (and the above questioner), the opposite-sex restriction constitutes the very definition of marriage.

For the other third, that restriction constitutes discrimination. This group would say that removing the discriminatory restriction makes marriage _more_ true to its meaning.

But that's the debate we're having. It's about the definition of marriage. What _is_ marriage? And it's an inherently political debate. I'm not convinced courts, by themselves, can or should settle it.


Washington, D.C.: There really is nothing that anyone could say that would dissuade me that gays should be allowed to marry. However, I think that the overwhelming majority of gay marriage opponents feel the same way.

What is there to do at this point?

Jonathan Rauch: Actually, when I'm out in bookstores or on talk radio, I'm finding that a lot of Americans are in between the two extremes, grappling conscientiously--movingly--with this issue. They want to show compassion for gay couples, but they're reluctant to fiddle around with what they see as the basic definition of marriage. It's touching to see.

And I've found that many these people are reachable. Maybe they don't change their minds (though some do--I've seen it). But they're searching. And they're the ones who ultimately will decide.


Towson, Md.: Nice to see you again on Live Online, Jonathan.

How do you feel about achieving gay marriage via the courts vs. via state legislatures, even if the latter takes decades? While I strongly favor gay marriage, and have never heard a decent argument against it, I have been somewhat persuaded by the argument that a having gay marriage imposed on the nation via a sweeping, Roe v. Wade type court decision could produce a backlash, and in the long run hurt the cause of equal protection regardless of sexual orientation.

Jonathan Rauch: To me, the critical distinction isn't courts vs. legislatures. Both have their appointed roles.

Rather, it's states vs. federal. As long as one state's decision isn't imposed on the whole country by five judges, we can keep GM from setting off another abortion-style, multi-decade culture war.

A war, btw, that would trap many gay marriages in a long-term cultural crossfire. And that would harden against GM many folks who otherwise, given a little more time, would come around.

That said, the _best_ way to get GM will be through a state legislature, with a governor's signature. Then no one can say it's judicial tyranny. And my friends in California say they think we're less than a decade away from legislative enactment in that state. Gov. Schwarzenegger--a Republican!--has said he's OK with GM if passed by the legislature. And a committee has reported out a GM bill. It won't go anywhere this year, but...

And remember: Massachusetts will probably have a statewide referendum on GM in 2006. And there's a fair chance the public in that state will approve it.

So we may not be as far from getting GM the old-fashioned way--with the consent of the governed--as some might fear.


Los Angeles, Calif.: It seems like the only thing that could be done at the federal level to constitutionally ban gay marriage, would be a constitutional amendment. What is the feasibility of such an amendment ever passing? Considering the 3/4 state ratification requirement, it seems a very unlikely possibility.

Jonathan Rauch: Of course, the point of the constitutional amendment is to freeze the process before California or some other state can do what I've just suggested.

I take the amendment very seriously. Not this year...but if the Dems do badly in 2004 and lose Senate seats, and if their loss is chalked up to excessive liberalism on social issues...and then if a federal judge orders the whole country to recognize a Massachusetts gay marriage (a decision the Supreme Court would almost certainly overturn, but that would take time)--then the amendment could pass lickety-split.


Phoenix, Ariz.: Jonathan, Congratulations and thank you for your excellent book and for your participation in these chats.

Have you been following the truly disturbing actions taken by the General Assembly in VA? HB 751 not only prohibits the state from recognizing civil unions (which it didn't anyway), but could ban domestic partner benefits already provided by employers. Further, it could keep gay couples from maintaining Powers of Attorney and naming each other in wills, which are rights available to all Americans regardless of sex, marital status, or living arrangement.

That two-thirds of Virginia lawmakers are willing to dismantle civil rights for all their constituents in their quest to deprive gay citizens of these contractual rights is terrifying.

Jonathan Rauch: Hi, Phoenix...my hometown!

We're already in full backlash mode. Two dozen states have amended or are seeking to amend their constitutions to ban gay marriage.

And Virginia, as you note, is going much further. The Virginia legislation can only be described as spiteful. It could abrogate even basic contract rights for same-sex couples. That's probably unconstitutional--we'll see. But if it passes, it will make me deeply ashamed of my state.


Springfield, Va.: I agree with you that in America marriage is a combination of legal status and socital perception.

For most of society that percenption includes a religious conotation. Every day people all over the country are looking for the perfect church to get married in. And for the most part will never see the inside of one again.

For myself, I considered the legal aspect over when we went to the courthouse to get our license. But didn't consider us married until the service in our everyday church.

The easiest answer is if we could somehow go back in time and change so the legal union did not, and could not, involve a church, taking away a minister's ability to preform a legally binding ceremony. Then everyone would get married at the courthouse and then go to their church if they wanted their union "blessed".

Unfortunately we can't do that so the issue is complicated and not easily solved.

Jonathan Rauch: Marriage is a hybrid. It combines social and legal elements in a way that nothing else does.

Marriage would lose much of its bonding power--the power that fortifies rather than merely ratifies relationships--if it became a government license and nothing more than that.

So it's better to keep the social and legal elements in harmony to the extent we can. Which will mean starting out with gay marriage in places where it enjoys substantial social support. I.e., Massachusetts, Oregon, or California--not Texas or Virginia.

Takes time, but there are no shortcuts.

As Frost (?) said: The only way out is through.


Silver Spring, Md.: You argue that gay marriage would ground young gay men and make them more committed to their relationship. How do you respond to the argument that it is not marriage that tames the male, but a woman, and a gay (male) marriage (lacking a woman) does not have the domesticating effect?

Jonathan Rauch: It's probably some of both. But there's no doubt, at least in my mind, that bonded, committed male-male couples have stabler homes and lives and loves than unbonded, uncommitted men.

And a lot of the power of marriage comes from outside the couple themselves. It comes from the resources invested in the marriage by the rest of society: parents, inlaws, neighbors, colleagues--even the people who ask routinely, "How's your husband/wife?" They're really saying: "I expect you to know the answer to this question. Are you looking out for your spouse?"

We have many stories, now, out of San Francisco of gay couples who got married there expecting just to get a piece of paper from the government. Instead--often to their own surprise--they found that marriage itself deepened the relationship. I myself have met several couples in my book travels who've said exactly that.

When you wake up the next morning after getting married, everyone looks at you differently. They treat you as having crossed a line. You've made the ultimate commitment.

That's what gives marriage its binding power.


Anonymous: What do you think about the backlash concern? Some people are saying that those concerns were foolish -- after all, there haven't been any riots in the streets or physical attempts to prevent same-sex couples from getting married in places where they are permitted to do so. Others note that hate crimes against homosexuals have increased dramatically, as have the number of ballot initiatives and other laws to prevent same-sex couples from having any of the rights of marriage. (Info from http://blogdenovo.org/archives/000247.html)

Jonathan Rauch: See next question...


Flint, Mich.: I would disagree that the courts couldn't settle the civil rights aspect of this issue.

It is impossible to argue that the denial of marriage to gays is a violation of their civil rights based upon sex discrimination.

All of the cultural arguments for denying gay and lesbian civil rights seem motivated by people's weird superstitions and customs.

Just as in Brown v. Board of Education, the courts could demand enforcement of civil rights. Kudos to those brave practioners of civil disobedience like the mayors of San Francisco and New Paltz!

Jonathan Rauch: ...and next question...


Arlington, Va.: Opponents of gay marriage (and other social policy topics) always say that judges are imposing their will on the people, judicial fiat, and so on. Weren't the Mass. judges simply performing their proper constitutional function by interpreting what the meaning of the legislative body's law? If the Mass. law on marriage was written in a way that no longer makes sense, then re-write the law! But don't blame "activist" judges for interpreting the law. Your thoughts on that perspective?

Thanks for your work on this.

Jonathan Rauch: There is such a thing as activist judging, and imho the Massachusetts supreme court did it.

But sometimes that's part of judges' job. As Brendan Sullivan once said, "I am not a potted plant."

The thing we GM advocates need to realize is that there's a price for everything. No judicial fiat will ever carry the same social legitimacy as would legislative enactment. In a democracy, full legitimacy comes from the people.

I certainly don't begrudge gay couples their day in court. That's an important part of the process.

But it's not enough. We on my side of this issue need to be out there persuading the straight world that GM will not hurt them and may--I'd say almost certainly will--be a win-win. Sometimes relying too much on the courts makes us lazy.

And sometimes--see notes on backlash, above--it can set us back.

Personally, I'm very glad there's a public referendum at the end of the rainbow in Massachusetts. That's democracy and I'm willing to take my chances with it.


San Francisco, Calif.: Do we really need more marriages? I mean -- is there really a value to having adults tied to each other in this way -- I'm constantly befuddled by what this is supposed to achieve. If we do have marriage as an institution, I certainly think it should be open to everyone -- but that doesn't answer the question of why we still hang onto the institution. Isn't marriage rooted in a notion of how society should function (with breadwinners and family structures) that isn't germane today? I think the gay marriage debate brings a lot of this to the fore -- and rather than trying to make the institution into more it also raises the question of why we keep touting the institution at all.

Jonathan Rauch: Marriage is more important than ever. In a world without strong ties of tribe, where grown children live far from their parents, and so on, it's all the more important to create families. And that's what marriage, uniquely, does. It takes unrelated people and makes them next of kin. It does that by making them kin legally, but also by expecting them to _act_ like kin socially.

Married people are healthier, happier, more prosperous--they even live longer. Less crime, depression, suicide, I could go on and on. And all of that is true even after adjusting for conflating variables (differences in population, etc.)

That's because marriage gives people family and a person to come home to. Someone whose "job" is to notice if you _don't_ come home. Or to drop everything and help when you're in trouble.

In America today, a third of all children are born out of wedlock. That's a staggering figure, and it lurks behind many of our poverty and crime problems.

There is a threat to marriage, but it's not gay couples who want to get married...it's straight couples who aren't getting married or aren't staying married.

To me, the big social payoff of gay marriage--apart from its many benefits for gay couples--is that it gives us an opportunity as a society to climb back up the slippery slope...to move back toward marriage as a universal rite and expectation.

Good for gays...good for their communities (more marriages mean solider neighborhoods)...good for marriage itself.

That's why I argue in the book--oops, there I go, plugging my book again--that gay marriage is nothing less than the trifecta of modern American social policy.

We don't get many of those. It's not an opportunity we should miss.


Jonathan Rauch: Seems like a good note to end on...

And I've tried your patience.

(As Groucho Marx said, "And you must come over and try mine sometime.")

Thanks to all questioners...and debaters.

It's a heated debate but we gotta to have it.

See ya.


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