Marriage-a-la-mode: Answering the Advocates of Gay Marriage


Paul Nathanson and Katherine K. Young




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Note: this is an unfinished paper; the notes have yet to be added


[07. 04. 03] Welcome to "Marriage-à-la-mode." The title refers not to marriage with ice cream but to marriage according to the current fashion--that is, to a series of four satirical paintings, from the eighteenth century, by William Hogarth. Although there is some satire in what follows, our aim is not to lampoon gay people or gay relationships but merely to challenge the claims made by those who advocate gay marriage. And those claims have been very successful, so far, in Canada. 


            At the moment, three legal rulings are being examined in connection with the possibility of redefining marriage to include gay couples. In Egale v. Canada (3 October 2021), British Columbia's Supreme Court ruled that the current definition of marriage--a union between one man and one woman--should be retained. But in Halpern v. Canada (12 July 2021), Ontario's Superior Court of Justice ruled that this definition infringes on the right of gay people to equality under Canada's Charter of Rights and Freedoms. And in Hendricks and Le Boeuf v. Canada (18 September 2021), Quebec's Superior Court agreed with Ontario--adding that it would permit gay couples to marry anyway if Parliament refuses to revise the definition within two years. All three provincial judgements have been appealed by the federal government, so these cases are now on their way to Canada's Supreme Court. Meanwhile, Parliament has been conducting public hearings across the country. What follows is based on (a) our research, commissioned by Canada's Department of Justice; (b) our affidavit for the federal government, cited in these cases; and (c) our presentation to the House of Commons Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights.[i]


            Our method, by the way, has been dialogical. One of us is a man, the other a woman; one is Jewish, the other gentile; one is gay, the other straight; one specializes in Western civilization, the other in Eastern civilization; and so on. As a result of our collaboration, we have been able to gather a great deal of evidence, both historical and cross-cultural, to support our answers to the claims made by advocates of gay marriage.


The latter make no fewer than twenty of these. Our primary task here is to refute each of them. One reason for organizing the material in this way is that no one else, to our knowledge, has actually done so. Maybe too many people have complacently assumed that there is no need to defend what they take for granted. In other words, they have been complacent. Another reason is to reinforce a claim of our own: that the burden of proof is always on those who want change. Without some compelling reason for change, after all, why bother? More to the point, in this case, why take the risk of a massive experiment? We will return to that topic several times, which indicates something of its importance.


            Before discussing those arguments, though, we are going to discuss an underlying assumption about heterosexuality. By definition, of course, it is unstated. Even so, the arguments based on it are quickly becoming conventional wisdom in the most influential academic and political circles. Opposing it, therefore, always involves counter-intuitive and "politically incorrect" arguments. The burden of proof has landed on us in fact, therefore, even though it should in theory be on our opponents.




Most people, both gay and straight, assume that heterosexuality is a given of nature. But we argue--and this is a matter of fundamental importance--that heterosexuality must indeed be deliberately fostered and supported by a distinctive culture.


Much of what is accomplished in animals by nature--this is often known as "biology," "genetics," "instinct," and so on--must be accomplished in humans by culture. Although no particular culture is genetically encoded, the ability and need to create culture is genetically encoded. We are equipped and even driven by nature, paradoxically, to be cultural beings. This has made us more flexible than animals, which rely entirely (or almost entirely in the case of a few non-human primate species) on nature. And this, in turn, has greatly facilitated our adaptation to new circumstances or environments and thus fostered human survival. Culture is not a superficial overlay on something more primitive and basic, in short, but a defining and fundamental feature of human existence; if it were somehow removed, the result would not be a functioning organism, whether human or non-human. Apart from any other handicap would be its inability to reproduce successfully. Why? Because mating, or copulating, which really is largely governed by a biological drive, is not synonymous with the complex behaviors required by family life within a larger human society. Consider, for instance, everything that adolescents must learn. So sexual behavior--including heterosexual behavior--is governed not only by nature but also by culture. This explains why it includes both universal features and culturally variable ones. More about that in due course.


Because heterosexuality is directly related to both reproduction and survival, and because it involves much more than copulation, every human societies has had to promote it actively (although some have also allowed homosexuality in specific circumstances). This has always required a massive cultural effort involving theology[ii] or myths, rituals,[iii] rewards, privileges, and so on.[iv] Heterosexuality is always fostered by a cultural norm, in other words, not merely allowed as one "lifestyle choice" among many. Some norms vary greatly from one society to another, to be sure, but others--along with the very existence of norms--are universal.


This means that every society has always maintained the cultural mechanisms--rules, customs, laws, symbols, rituals, incentives, rewards, and so on--that provide public support for heterosexuality. So deeply embedded in consciousness are these that few people are consciously aware of them. The result, in any case, is a "privileged" status for heterosexuality. Postmodernists are not wrong in identifying it as such, but they are wrong in assuming that any society can do without it.


To be more specific, culture must do at least five things: (a) foster the bonding between men and women in order to provide an appropriate setting for maturing children and to ensure the cooperation of men and women for the common good; (b) foster the bonding between men and children so that men are likely to become active participants in family life; (c) foster the birth and rearing of children, at least to the extent necessary for preserving and fostering society, in culturally approved ways (an obvious example being the prohibition of incest); (d) foster some healthy form of masculine identity--that is, an identity based on at least one distinctive, necessary, and publicly valued contribution to society (responsible fatherhood being one obvious example); and (e) foster the transformation of adolescents into sexually responsible adults.


Sexual orientation is not entirely a "cultural construction" and therefore subject to eternal deconstruction and reconstruction. Heterosexuality has a partially biological foundation in most people, for instance, but, nonetheless, it functions effectively only when supported by religious or other cultural institutions. In other words, important aspects of it must be taught within a larger cultural context--more specifically, within a moral one. But homosexuality, too, has a partially biological foundation. We do not believe that gay people should be harmed by cultural guidance provided for the majority. Therefore, we argue that cultural institutions, including religious ones, should avoid negativity toward the gay minority even as they support the straight majority. Many have already taken steps to do so.


Not surprisingly, comparative research--the worldviews of both small-scale societies and world religions both Western and Eastern--reveals a pattern: Marriage has universal, nearly universal, and variable features.


Its universal features include the fact that marriage is (a) supported by authority and incentives; (b) recognizes the interdependence of men and women; (c) has a public dimension; (d) defines eligible partners; (e) encourages procreation under specific conditions; and (f) provides mutual support not only between men and women but also between them and children.


Its nearly universal features[v] are: (a) an emphasis on durable relationships between parents; (b) mutual affection and companionship; (c) family (or political) alliances; and (d) the intergenerational cycle (reciprocity between young and old). Most large-scale societies have encouraged durable relationships between biological parents and children at least until the latter reach maturity. That is because of the long time it takes infants to mature; cooperation is necessary to ensure their survival. Most societies have recognized that mutual affection and companionship facilitate bonding between men and women. But others have recognized that these are fragile bonds have preferred arranged marriages (although they usually encourage affection and companionship as well).


These universal and nearly universal features assume the distinctive contributions of both sexes, transmit knowledge from one generation to another, and create not only "vertical" links between the generations but also "horizontal" ones between allied families or communities.


As for the many variable features of marriage, these include endogamy (marrying within a group or exogamy (marrying outside it); marrying up in status or marrying down); arranged marriage or chosen; dowry (from the bride's family) or bride price (goods given or services performed by the groom); sexual equality or hierarchy; many children or few as the ideal; extended family or nuclear; residence with the bride's family, with the groom's, or neither; divorce allowed or prohibited; and so on. Alternatives to marriage are celebrated in some societies (as in the case of celibate monks, for instance, or shamans) and tolerated in others (such as single people or gay couples) but only when the larger society is in no danger of failing to reproduce itself.


Every culture's definition of marriage contains not only universal and nearly universal features but also variable ones. From one perspective, the variables make its definition distinctive. But focusing on the definition of marriage in any one society makes it hard to know which aspects are distinctive, or local, and which are universal or nearly universal. Patterns emerge only when two or more societies are compared. When only one society is considered, in other words, the variables can mask the universals.


From a cross-cultural or historical perspective, patterns do emerge. This makes it easier to see the universal and nearly universal features of marriage. It could be argued that focusing on these features would lead to the methodological problem of "essentialism." But that is a false problem for three reasons. First, there really is an empirical basis for the existence of these features. Second, using inductive reason to discern patterns is a fundamental characteristic of scholarship. And third, any phenomenon so common as to be universal or nearly universal surely reveals something basic in the human condition. Because the most common biological tendency for human beings is heterosexuality--our species reproduces sexually, which has an evolutionary advantage over the asexual reproduction of some other species--and because heterosexual culture is the necessary complement of heterosexual biology, every human society has actively fostered it.


It is worth noting at this point that any society could have used culture to mitigate the tendency toward heterosexuality. Any society could have encouraged same-sex marriage and still reproduced itself; women could always have found ways of procuring sperm, for instance, and men could always have abducted children. But this approach has never been adopted as a norm.


Given the prevalent but misleading assumptions about heterosexuality, ones that underlie all of the claims made by advocates of gay marriage, it is clear to us that this public debate is really about that and not about homosexuality. We do not argue that there is anything wrong with the latter, which means that we oppose hostility toward gay people. Nor do we argue that there's anything wrong with gay relationships. What we do argue is that heterosexuality--which is to say, marriage between men and women--must be publicly fostered by culture and supported by law.


We turn now to the twenty most common claims, most of them closely interrelated, that are made by advocates of gay marriage.




Claim 1: Marriage is an institution designed to foster the love between two people. Gay people can love each other just as straight people can. Ergo, marriage should be open to gay people: The second statement is true, and the third follows logically from it. Because the first statement is false, however, this line of reasoning makes no sense. Marriage is a complex institution. Fostering the emotional gratification of two adults is only one of its functions--and not the most important one from a cross-cultural or historical perspective. (It might not be accidental that this exclusive focus on emotional gratification coincides with declining birthrates and increasing divorce rates in almost every Western society.) We do not want to prevent gay people from loving each other and living together. Our society should be able to honor and support gay relationships. The only question is whether this should be done in the specific context of marriage.


Claim 2: What's all the fuss about? Gay people are a small minority. Allowing them to marry would mean nothing more than a slight alteration to the existing system and would even add support for the institution: This argument is disingenuous, to say the least. If the alteration were so slight, after all, why would (some) gay couples insist on access to marriage? This question is worth asking, because gay couples already have most of the benefits conferred by marriage and more can be added. Ostensibly, only the word "marriage" is at stake. With this in mind, consider what might indeed change as a result of redefining marriage to include gay couples.


As we observed in the introduction, every society needs a public heterosexual culture for five reasons: to foster (a) the bonding between men and women; (b) the bonding between men and children; (c) the birth and rearing of children; (d) some healthy form of masculine identity; and (e) the transformation of adolescents into sexually responsible adults. Without that public heterosexual culture, these things could not be done effectively. The gay demand for marital inclusiveness, moreover, would almost inevitably include their demands for reproductive inclusiveness.


For instance, it would become very easy on political grounds for gay couples to argue that they are "differently situated" when it comes to reproduction and therefore demand that the state provide them with reproductive services such as government-sponsored sperm banks for gay women and either surrogacy or ex-utero technologies for gay men. Failure to provide these could lead to charges of systemic discrimination against gay people. Because many feminists oppose both surrogacy and ex utero technologies, however, gay men might find themselves with fewer reproductive possibilities than gay women. This could lead to charges of systemic discrimination against gay men in particular. In short, we would still have to use culture--in this case, technology--to create the reproductive sexual symmetry that nature itself does not create.


And gay people would be by no means the only ones to make reproductive demands. The door would be open to everyone seeking reproductive autonomy through technology. In fact, straight women have been doing so for decades. We have already seen high rates of divorce initiated by women along with insistent demands by women for reproductive autonomy and for new definitions of "family." Even now, more and more straight single women are choosing to have children but not husbands. All they have to do is go to sperm banks. But straight men could well come up with demands of their own. Many already believe that marriage, even common-law marriage, is becoming too risky in view of current laws governing divorce, custody, and child support. Why not redefine the family with their own interests in mind? Why not demand access by single men, for instance, to surrogacy?


Now all of this would introduce a new level of polarization between men and women, in short, whether gay or straight. It could be argued--and we do--that our society is becoming more and more fragmented along sexual (but also racial, ethnic, religious, and ideological) lines. Under pressure from feminist lobby groups, for instance, Canadians are moving in the direction of banning surrogacy and any other technology on the drawing boards--such as an artificial womb--that might give men the same reproductive autonomy that women demand for themselves. And many American feminists would like to move in the same direction. One possible result, in the long run, could be a society that is polarized into separate communities of men and women, whether gay or straight.


            As for adding support to the institution of marriage, which has already been severely weakened in several ways--secularization, easy divorce, respectable cohabitation--that contention is dubious. It is true that (some) gay people are motivated by the current straight ideal of settling down to bourgeois domesticity. But that sentimental ideal, whether held by gay or straight people, is a very impoverished one compared to the ideals associated with marriage in many communities, including our own, not so long ago (notwithstanding the occasional need for reform). Gay marriage might add support to this impoverished ideal of marriage, sure, but only at the cost of undermining support for richer and deeper ideals of marriage.


Marriage has never before been so heavily associated with the wants and needs of adults as individuals. On the contrary, it has always been heavily associated with the needs of both children (expressed as the ideal of interdependence between men and women for the sake of children) and with those of the community (expressed as the ideal of interdependence between men and women for the sake of society as a whole).


Besides, the political rhetoric here is about expansion and inclusion. And these notions are, by definition, never static. If "love" were the only significant feature of marriage, after all, then why stop with love between two people (whether gay or straight)? Why not expand the notion to include three or more? Polygamy--we will return to that topic-- would hardly be unprecedented in human history. And why not include love between blood relatives? Since the genetic problems associated with inbreeding can take generations to show up, why not allow siblings to marry? For that matter, why not include children? If love is all that counts, why not allow marriage between two or more children or even between adults and children? Interesting arguments could be made for some of these things, but those arguments have never yet been taken seriously by advocates of gay marriage. Some retort, for instance, that very few people would actually demand the legalization of polygamy (let alone incest). True, but that would be utterly irrelevant if it could be shown that marriage were a human right--and this is precisely what advocates of gay marriage intend to show. In that case, the government would be both morally and legally bound by the Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms[vi] (and several documents of the United Nations) to allow everyone access to it. Not many people have considered the implications, in short, of what looks like a very simple argument for the expansion of marriage to include gay people.


Suppose now that gay marriage were legalized. What might the consequences be? For one thing, we would lack even the ability we still have to provide public cultural support for heterosexuality. At best, that would become--officially--nothing more than one "lifestyle choice" among many supposedly equal ones. Any attempt to promote heterosexuality for the good of society as a whole would be denounced as "discrimination" against homosexuality; it would be not merely politically incorrect--just as any expression of religion in public life is now denounced as an attempt to "impose" religious doctrines on everyone--but possibly illegal as well. And even if exceptions were made so that religious communities would not be forced to marry gay couples--and we do have freedom of religion--these exceptions would surely be challenged in the courts, which would have to choose between two competing rights: freedom of religion versus equality. Guess which one is most likely to trump the other. Even so, equality would continue to elude us for one inconvenient but important reason. The politically inconvenient fact is that society needs a specifically heterosexual contribution more than any homosexual counterpart (which does not mean that the latter should be either ignored or attacked). Therefore, the need to provide cultural support for heterosexuality is greater than for homosexuality.


Similarly, we could expect some demographic changes for the worse. The Canadian birthrate is already falling below replacement level, as it is in almost every Western country, but the situation could get much worse. Why? Because, as we say, no cultural support would be available to encourage the creation or rearing of children by straight couples. And we could expect more teenage pregnancies for the same reason: even less adequate preparation than we now offer to young straight couples. Finally, we could expect even more absentee fathers. Why? Because this would be a society preoccupied by the primacy of equality, by the rights of adults over those of children, and by the notion that men and women are interchangeable. In that society, the importance of fathers in family life would be even more obscure to most people than it already is.


            Finally, and possibly most disturbing of all, we could expect boys to find it even harder to form a healthy masculine identity than they already do. (Consider the soaring rate at which young men, unlike young women, not only drop out of school but also commit suicide.)[vii] This, too, would follow logically in a society that denies the need for even the most fundamental source of masculine identity: fatherhood. We need no fortune-teller to see that massive social problems--more widespread than the ones we already have--are likely to emerge whenever and wherever boys or young men are unable to feel deeply involved in either the family or society as a whole--or, to put it another way, in the future of society. This would leave them, and therefore everyone, more firmly than ever in the grip of a death-oriented worldview. Over the past few decades, we have seen a resurgence of machismo in its most toxic form. To many boys and men now, it seems clear that even a negative identity is better than no identity at all.[viii] This alone should give us pause in contemplating the future.


We will almost certainly be accused of alarmist rhetoric. And, given historical precedents of societies in the midst of major change, we could refer to even more alarming possibilities. But remember that every morally responsible analysis of social policy must include consideration of the risks. Naiveté is no more a virtue than cynicism is.


The lamentable fact is, however, that we cannot predict every consequence of this massive experiment. People are not like rats in a lab. Mistakes are much more costly. And unforeseen things are just as likely to happen because of social engineering as they are because of any other kind. We try to fix every problem, but we usually end up replacing one with another. Forty years ago, it seemed like common sense that changing the divorce laws would be an act of compassion for the few but one that would make little or no difference to the many. That was naive, to say the least. Now, we know better. It changed us in ways that no one could have imagined. For better or worse--better for some, worse for others--we now live in a "divorce culture."[ix]


Claim 3: Not all straight couples have children, but no one argues that their marriages are unacceptable: Actually, that is an oversimplification. Some religious traditions, for instance, have given childless couples the possibility of divorce or annulment. Besides, marriage can function in additional ways (one of them being companionship) and can express additional ideals (the most obvious one being love). Consequently, these traditions do not insist that childless couples separate. Instead, they maintain what they consider the one distinctive ideal of marriage without punishing those who fail to attain it. The latter are exceptions. This institution has always been intended primarily to serve the needs of children. It provides an ideal scenario for parents and children. Not every individual (or individual couple) lives up to the ideal, of course, but the ideal remains effective nonetheless--except, of course, in societies that are breaking up.


Claim 4: Some gay couples do have children and therefore need marriage to provide the appropriate context: This claim reverses the other one by accepting the premise that marriage is indeed the ideal context for children. The problem is that gay marriage would provide that context in name only. Our point here is not that gay couples are less able to love their children than other couples; they are neither more nor less able to do that. Our point here is not, moreover, that gay couples would teach their children to be gay; the mere fact of being gay, from our point of view, is not problematic in any case. The point is that children require more than love from their parents, whether gay or straight. One thing that they surely require is at least one parent of each sex. (We say "at least one," because an extended family--with aunts, uncles, and grandparents--is much closer to the ideal than an isolated nuclear family.) That is because the sexes are not quite interchangeable.


Though much more similar than dissimilar, both sexes are distinctive. Boys cannot learn how to become healthy men from even the most loving mother (or pair of mothers) alone. And girls cannot learn how to become healthy women from even the most loving father (or pair of fathers) alone. The need for fathers is particularly acute for boys, moreover.[x] Like girls, they must separate from their mothers. Unlike girls, however, they must also switch the focus of their identity from one sex to the other. There are psychological and sociological studies to support these claims.[xi]


And the problems they reveal apply not only to gay parents but also to straight single parents. Yes, there have always been single parents due to death, divorce, or desertion. But these were the exceptions. Now that divorce has become so common, the phenomenon has changed. Single parenting--usually by mothers and often by choice--has become a "lifestyle." The message to fathers--and their children--is that men have no distinctive, necessary, and publicly valued function in family life. And the results of fatherless children on a massive scale, as described by psychologists and sociologists, are not exactly encouraging. Advocates of both gay and single parents often argue that the problems just mentioned can be fixed by bringing home friends or relatives to serve as "role models." But can these transient visitors adequately replace the enduring presence within a family of adults of both the same sex and the opposite sex? Advocates of gay and single parents can hardly demonstrate that.


Some argue that the men seen on television or in the movies, even pop stars, can function as "role models." Indeed, they can. But are these role models healthy ones? Very, very few men in popular culture would ever be as helpful in this respect as the late Mr. Rogers. Are we really prepared to settle for the likes of Homer Simpson, say, or Michael Jackson--or anyone else who happens to represent macho cool at the moment? The welfare of children is an afterthought for advocates of gay marriage and single parenting, not something that takes priority over their own interests.


Some gay people become parents while still involved in straight relationships. Others do so in the context of gay relationships. Lesbian couples, for instance, often resort to sperm banks and artificial insemination. New reproductive technologies can look very attractive to gay people who want children but not even token relationships with the opposite sex. Legalizing gay marriage would certainly increase interest in newer technologies and probably lead to demands for access to them in order to equalize their ability to have children. But these technologies present a variety of moral problems, most of which have remained unresolved.


At the heart of this claim, however, is that the children of gay couples suffer from prejudice on that account. Aha! Finally, a reference to children! But wait. If these children suffer from prejudice, it is almost certainly because their parents are gay and not because they are unmarried. We should eliminate prejudice against gay people, by all means, but legalizing gay marriage would hardly do the trick. Not at a time when the stain of "illegitimacy" has all but disappeared. This claim for gay marriage can no longer be sustained. For the past forty years, single parents--especially single mothers--have been glorified on talk shows and in countless made-for-television movies as victims who, according to the lingua franca of identity politics, nonetheless become "survivors." There is no longer anything unusual, much less illicit, about children who have only one parent. And now, given the fact that many gay people either adopt or make use of reproductive technologies, there is nothing all that unusual about children who have two mothers or two fathers. Whatever other problems the children of gay parents might have--and they do have some significant ones--this is surely not one of them. Changing the definition of marriage to ease the pain of having unmarried parents, in short, would be like using an atomic bomb to kill a fly.


Claim 5: Marriage and the family are always changing anyway, so why not allow this change? Well, yes, of course, institutions change. Whether they always change in beneficial ways is another matter entirely. Unless we adopt the mentality promoted by countless ads and commercials--according to which every product is "new and improved"--we must at least imagine the possibility that some changes might be for the worse. There is no logical connection, in short, between either "new" and "improved" or "changed" and "better." Marriage has changed for the worse in some (though not all) ways, we suggest, over the past forty years. It has been so severely weakened, at any rate, that many straight people refer dismissively to it as "nothing more than a slip of paper."


And whether institutions change in all ways is yet another matter. Some features of marriage have not changed, which means that they are universal and therefore, presumably, both necessary and beneficial. Marriage has always been supported by the highest authorities and always been publicly witnessed, making every marriage a matter of communal importance--which is to say, one that serves more than individual needs. These cultural norms are so pervasive and so enduring that they might as well be due to nature itself. We play with them at our peril.


Now consider this from the perspective of men. On purely biological grounds, it could be argued that men have a minor function in the life cycle; they contribute sperm cells and nothing more. On cultural grounds, though, it has always been argued (whether explicitly or implicitly) that men can--that men should or even must--contribute in many other ways. In return, society provides men with a culturally defined identity--that is, public recognition for at least one distinctive and publicly valued contribution made specifically as men. Our research has shown that when most men lack a healthy identity, already a disturbing fact of life for many men in our society, the result is destructive not only for men themselves but also for women, children, and thus for society as a whole. No other society has ever tried to cut men out of family life, but ours has already (whether knowingly or not) taken several steps in that direction: glorifying single mothers, providing sperm banks for single women, and creating reproductive technologies that bypass men. Changing the definition of marriage would be one more step, a big one, in the same direction.


At the very least, people should be aware that they're contemplating one of the most serious experiments in human history. As we say, people are not like rats in a lab; utopian experiments that go wrong have often caused suffering on a colossal scale. New problems often replace old ones, at any rate, unforeseen factors suddenly become evident, and it is very hard to reverse trends once they become culturally embedded in worldviews. Some societies pull through after centuries of chaos. Others, seeking the quick fix, do not.


Claim 6: Marriage and the family have already changed, so why not acknowledge the reality? This cynical variation of claim 5 is used by those who find it inexpedient to argue about whether these changes are beneficial or harmful. What matters, they believe, is merely that these changes have already occurred. In that case, it would surely make political sense to adjust accordingly. Maybe so, but would it make any moral sense?


Is this the appropriate time, moreover, to redefine marriage? When marriage is not merely changing but disintegrating? And children are most at risk. As we say, their needs are hardly ever taken seriously in the debate over gay marriage; they have become bystanders in a debate over the rights of adults.


Claim 7: Children would be no worse off with happily married gay parents than they are with unhappily married straight ones: This comparison is false, because it involves the best of one scenario with the worst of another. A legitimate comparison would compare either the best of both or the worst of both. Once again, we suggest that the best of marriage--providing at least one parent or other adult of each sex--is better than the best of gay marriage--which provides two parents of the same sex and none of the other one.


Claim 8: Given global overpopulation, why would anyone worry about some alleged need to have more children in any case? Even though some countries are indeed overpopulated, others are not. Like most Western countries, for instance, Canada has a rapidly aging population.[xii] Both the birth rate and the death rate are declining. This will have serious consequences for future generations. And even though many people are unaware of demographic struggles, most people who belong to minority communities or those that consider themselves demographically threatened[xiii] are very much aware.


To argue that immigration will solve the problem of an aging population--immigrants, presumably, will continue to have many children and require no encouragement from our government--is to imply that they should be exploited as breeders. There have always been some childless couples, of course, but no society has ever declared childless marriage to be the norm in either statistical or evaluative terms. To do that, we would have to encourage immigration on a colossal scale. Besides, how many immigrants would tolerate---how many would even immigrate to--a society that fails to uphold their ideal of marriage, which is always based on the long-term bonding of men and women to provide the ideal setting in which to bring up children?


Claim 9: Marriage should change, whether it already has or not, because patriarchal institutions are evil: This claim is both insidious and overtly ideological. That is because it uses the rhetoric of legal reform (allow gay people to enter mainstream institutions such as marriage) to mask the underlying goal of social revolution (create a new society by destroying institutions such as marriage). A good case can always be made for reforming institutions in this way or that. And our society has reformed marriage many times, most recently to improve the position of wives. But there is a big difference between reform and revolution. The claim under discussion here is that heterosexuality makes marriage patriarchal, which is an ideological code word for evil. To solve that problem, the heterosexual basis of marriage must be destroyed. Legalizing gay marriage could do the trick by changing the definition of marriage and its functions beyond recognition. The result would still be called marriage, but it would in fact be another institution.


Claim 10: Gay marriage has had historical and anthropological precedents: Actually, it has had not even one precedent as the norm of any society.[xiv] Some societies have allowed exceptions to the norm, yes. And some powerful chiefs or kings have defied all norms. But the marital norm for every society has always been heterosexual.


Research on same-sex marriage, so far, has been done mainly with advocacy in mind: supporting gay marriage by finding precedents for it. By academic standards, this material reveals several important problems--both substantive and methodological. Some precedents are ambiguous, for instance, because they are merely analogies to marriage. Gay love is said to be like marital love, an initiation ritual into same-sex warrior bonding is said to be like marriage, and so on. Other precedents are taken out of context. It is true that some Amerindian societies allowed men to marry other men. But, judging from the information that has been recorded, these societies made sure that only a few men were allowed to do so or that their husbands had already married women and produced children so that demographic survival was not endangered. As for Nero, the Roman emperor, he married a man but in a moral context--a degenerate aristocracy in which murder was rampant and even a horse could be made a senator--that few today would find edifying. Do we really need to take moral instruction from Nero? Many precedents are irrelevant, moreover, because they refer only to gay relationships, not to gay marriage--which are not the same and are, in any case, not now being challenged. Sometimes, moreover, evidence is indirect. Sometimes arguments are made from silence. Sometimes, important information is even ignored--such as subsequent banning of gay marriage.


Even if there were anthropological and historical precedents, however, these would be utterly irrelevant from a moral perspective. Just because something has been done in some other society at some other time, after all, doesn't mean that it should be done in our society at this time. One obvious example should make this clear. Slavery has been practiced in many societies. Should we therefore consider reinstituting that institution? Doing so would be a moral non sequitur, to say the least.


Claim 11: Banning gay marriage is like banning interracial marriage: Actually, it is not. This argument is based on a reductive analogy between racism and heterosexism. Most people today would agree that the state should have no right to prevent interracial marriage, and some now argue for the same reason that it should have no right to prevent gay marriage. Both racism and heterosexism are forms of prejudice. Both are due to a combination of ignorance and malice. Both are evil. But the analogy is seriously flawed, because it assumes that all those who oppose gay marriage, like all those who oppose interracial marriage, are bigots. Some are, but others are not.


Marriage between people of different races was indeed banned because of racism, especially in the American South. But that was only one example of a larger phenomenon. We refer to endogamy, marriage only with those from inside the community. And endogamy is not always caused by racism. Sometimes, for instance, it is caused by religion--that is, by the urge to perpetuate a religious culture. (These societies ban interreligious marriage but usually accept marriage to converts, regardless of their racial or ethnic origins). In any case, endogamy is a cultural variable. Many societies practice exogamy, after all, marriage only with those from outside the community. Endogamy cannot be considered a universal feature of marriage and should not, therefore, be required by law in a diverse society. Marriage between men and women really is a universal feature, both historically and anthropologically. It has been the universal norm. And for a good reason: bringing men and women together for both practical and symbolic reasons. The prejudice of some people notwithstanding, in short, there can be a morally legitimate reason for maintaining the heterosexuality of marriage.


Besides, how many advocates of gay marriage would argue for the same reason in favor of polygamous or even incestuous marriages? Some would, no doubt, but not many.


Claim 12: The case for gay marriage is more "poignant" than the case against it: This argument was made on 5-9 November 2001 by the Ontario Superior Court of Justice in Halpern et al v. Canada (A.G.) et al. and Metropolitan Community Church of Toronto v. Canada (A.G.) et al. Judge Robert A. Blair supported gay marriage even after admitting that good arguments had been made against it. For him, emotion was more important for legal decisions than reason; how we feel is more important than what we think. "The evidence put forward by these participants," he wrote, "does not reflect the same personal poignancy as that of the applicants."[xv] This is hardly surprising in the age of Oprah Winfrey.


Claim 13: Gay marriage is necessary for the self-esteem of a minority: Given that mentality, it's easy to understand the driving force behind this demand for gay marriage: the idea that people have some moral (and should therefore have some legal) right to state recognition for their personal identity. This is the heart of the matter because of its implications for democracy. Every democracy, by definition, consists of both a majority and one or more minorities. To argue that life is intolerable merely by virtue of being in the minority, in this case expressed by the exclusion of gay people from marriage, is to undermine the very foundation of democracy--especially in countries that supposedly celebrate their many minorities and promote cultural "diversity." One analogy should make this point clear.


Jews have lived as minority communities for a long time and managed to maintain their collective self-esteem--often despite prejudice or persecution far more severe and pervasive than anything that gay people must endure in Canada How? Because self-esteem originates within both the individual and the community. In other words, self-esteem, like human rights, can be neither conferred nor denied by the state. Jews expect the state to provide them with protection from anti-Semitic violence, yes, but not with psychological or even symbolic therapy as victims of minority status. It is true that not every individual Jew has managed to develop a healthy Jewish identity, a problem that Jewish communities have always faced by taking responsibility for promoting their own intellectual, moral, and spiritual resources. Besides, the Jews who have identity problems are usually those who have been most fully accepted by the larger society, not those who remain marginal. Canada is a secular state, moreover, but Jews live happily enough even in some officially Christian states such as Britain.


Besides, this argument merely foists the problem of inadequate self-esteem onto another group: single people. If marriage were so vital to self-esteem, after all, anyone who is either unable or unwilling to marry would be more isolated than ever and, to follow the argument in favor of gay marriage, more likely to experience self-loathing than ever before.


Claim 14: Anyone who opposes same-sex marriage is homophobic: This argument amounts to verbal terrorism. By "homophobic" is meant prejudice and hostility, although this word actually connotes the neuroticism of a phobia. The implication is that only evil or sick people can possibly disagree with any claim made by gay people. (Never mind that not even all gay people are in favor of gay marriage.)


Moreover, this is an ad hominem argument. It is easy to trivialize arguments by attacking the personal integrity of those who make them. That way, you need not deal with the argument itself.


Claim 15: Exceptions could be made for religious communities that disapprove of gay marriage, or religious communities could simply add their rites to those of the state: Both possibilities, actually, are of dubious value. Either way, after all, the argument for gay marriage is based on a notion of human rights; it rejects what advocates consider unwarranted discrimination. In that context, though, exemptions would make no moral sense at all, let alone legal sense. (Canada upholds the right to religious freedom but upholds, in addition, other human rights; conflict would be very likely.) Exemptions might make political sense for the time being, it is true, but no religious community would be able to withstand the charge of violating human rights by refusing to solemnize gay marriages. And that charge would inevitably be made. If gay marriage were a human right, after all, how could any religious group be justified in denying it?


Claim 16: To sustain an "ethic of caring and responsibility," we must include gay people in every institution: Every ethical system, of course, is by definition one of "caring and responsibility." No community has ever knowingly adopted an "ethic of non-caring and irresponsibility." The claim under discussion is that we do so precisely by refusing to marry gay couples. Which might be true if no other interests were involved. In that case, there could be no moral excuse for denying gay people something given to other people. But other interests are involved, including not only those of children and those of society at large but also those of many religious communities. Forty years ago, as we say, divorce laws were changed to help the few who were trapped in seriously troubled marriages. Divorce is now as common as marriage itself.[xvi] Worse, we have replaced one problem with many others. We have not only severely weakened marriage but also, as a result, greatly increased the number of divorces, the number of single-parent families, and the number of children dependent on social-service agencies. This is "caring and responsibility"? The fact is that we have no better understanding of what might happen as a result of legalizing gay marriage than we did about making divorce easier. To find out, we would have to conduct a massive experiment on the people of generations to come. That might involve "caring" in a purely sentimental sense, but it surely would not involve any sense of moral responsibility.


Claim 17: Norms of any kind at all are discriminatory: This argument is somewhat more sophisticated than the others. Most people in democratic societies place a high value on equality, and rightly so. Discrimination can infringe on equality. Therefore, they assume, discrimination is inherently evil. The truth, however, is more complicated.


Consider the word "discrimination." It is almost always used in public life with the heavily negative connotation of malicious and prejudicial discrimination against this or that group. There are some telling exceptions, though, such as a reference to someone with "discriminating taste" in art. In that case, the word connotes discernment, refinement, or intelligence. And with good reason.

In any case, there could be no such thing as culture--not only art or some other expression of elite culture but also popular culture and everything else in human existence except whatever is genetically determined--without the ability to make distinctions. We could not exist as human beings, in other words, without establishing collective priorities, choices, preferences. We cannot have it all or do it all, either collectively or individually. We must select some possibilities because of their real or perceived value to society or at least to the majority, which means that we intentionally or unintentionally de-select other possibilities (although we might tolerate some as legitimate possibilities for minorities).


In one sense, discrimination of this kind--in the ordering of society--is unfair. It intrudes on our commitment to perfect equality. But the human condition does not permit perfect equality, which is why so many religious traditions insist that the ideal of perfection can exist only in some realm beyond time and space--that is, in the Garden of Eden, the Messianic Age, the World to Come, the Kingdom of God, the Heavenly Jerusalem, the Pure Land, Vaikuntha, or whatever else religious people have called paradise. Unfortunately, many of the political ideologies that emerged in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries have insisted that, on the contrary, perfection can be attained here and now. In trying to establish their ideological utopias by force or at least the force of law, lamentably, they often created hideous dystopias instead. What they lacked was not necessarily a noble vision but a basic understanding of human nature and the limitations imposed on us by human finitude (a problem compounded by their belief that ends can justify means).


            If discrimination in the case of marriage is evil, we suggest, then it is surely the lesser of two evils. In the long run, gay people have as much to gain as straight people from the strengthening of marriage as currently defined. If society is in trouble, after all, it is in trouble for everyone--both straight and gay. And gay people have as much to lose as straight people by weakening it.


Claim 18: Almost everyone believes in equality. How can we have that if gay citizens are denied the same rights as other citizens? This is the most sophisticated argument, because no one can dispute either the value of equality or the fact that gay people are denied it in connection with marriage.


Everyone agrees that equality under the law is a good thing. But for it to be more than a pious pipedream or a utopian ideal, at least some allowance must be made for the fact that nature itself knows nothing of equality. Equality is a laudable human ideal, moreover, but no ideal can ever be completely or perfectly attained. Every moral and legal code, in fact, must be based partly on the universal need to live with ambiguity and paradox--or, putting it another way, to balance the conflicting needs of individuals and communities with those of society as a whole.


            All cultures have had to acknowledge biological differences between the sexes. Women can give birth and lactate, after all, and men cannot. Equality, therefore, must be created by culture. If culture defines equality as sameness, then the most obvious way to create it would be, in effect, to eliminate biological asymmetry. With new reproductive technologies, both existing and coming, this could actually be done. Parthenogenesis (fertilizing eggs without sperm) would eliminate men altogether, thus obviating the need for equality in the first place. The advent of ex utero techniques or even artificial wombs, on the other hand, could eliminate the need for female gestation. Stated in these terms, the prospect looks less appealing than many people would have imagined; either eliminate one sex to create equality or eliminate the distinctive feature of one sex to correct for the other's biological inequality. Even now, the Feminist International Network of Resistance to Reproductive and Genetic Engineering is agitating against developing an artificial womb and the legalization of surrogacy (which would give men some control over reproduction) but to maintain artificial insemination (which gives women control over reproduction).


            If we were to argue that equality permits no exceptions, moreover, then we would be both intellectually and morally obliged to oppose current laws against polygamy or even incest. But consider these analogies more closely. They are not nearly as far-fetched as they might seem at first. Polygamy--this usually takes the form of polygyny (many wives) but sometimes the form of polyandry (many husbands)--has been common both historically and cross culturally. Most polygamous societies have found ways to mitigate obvious problems. They have restricted the number of spouses, restricted the institution to those who can afford more than one household, specified the amount of attention that must be paid to each spouse, and so on. It is by no means outlandish, therefore, to suggest that the demand for polygamous marriage would follow directly from the demand for gay marriage--especially in view of the fact that some Muslims and Mormons would approve. But would our society be able to provide as many protective structures as other societies to polygamous families? Given its predilection for individual freedom and chafing at even the restraints involved in marriage as we know it now, that seems unlikely.


            Many people could probably tolerate polygamous marriage, at least in theory, but very few would be prepared to tolerate incestuous marriage. Nonetheless, there are now those who advocate removal of what they call the "last taboo." (Most refer to consenting adults, although one gay groups advocates sex between men and boys.)[xvii] And they argue convincingly that public disgust and horror over even consensual incest is no less prejudicial than public disgust and horror over gay sex.

            At first, therefore, the analogy between incestuous marriage and gay marriage seems outlandish. But serious genetic deterioration requires generation after generation of inbreeding in isolated populations. It cannot be said that any one instance of sibling marriage, say, would have deleterious effects on the offspring. The problem with incest is not inherent in the act, it could be argued, but in social repercussions such as guilt, secrecy, intimidation, shame, and so on (or physical ones if small children are involved). A claim for incestuous marriage, too, could be expected after the legalization of gay marriage. In fact, it would follow from precisely the same logic.


Claim 19: Winning the struggle for gay marriage is important for the cause of gay liberation: It might be, or it might not be. Any victory heightens group morale, it is true, but this victory could be very problematic in at least two ways.


For one thing, not all gay people want to marry, even though most would want the opportunity to choose. But some gay people, like some feminists, see marriage as an inherently oppressive patriarchal institution and want no part of it. At best, they say, it would confine gay people by encouraging their outward conformity to alien standards. At worst, it would discourage gay people from exploring and expressing their own distinctive sexual models and from living together unencumbered by legal obligations.


            Moreover, it could lead to more resentment from some other segments of society. If religious communities were ever forced to solemnize gay marriages, many would certainly react with hostility. This would no longer be a matter of tolerating what other people do, after all, but of being forced to participate. Religious communities are not as peripheral as many secular people imagine. Even though some Christian and Jewish communities are open to liberal or radical social change, many others are not. And the same could be said of recently arrived religious communities: Islamic, Sikh, Hindu, and others.


Claim 20: Okay, okay, but what about majority rule in democratic countries? Most Canadians approve of gay marriage, according to polls, or will in the near future. It's just a matter of time, so why not save money on court cases and get the job done? Democracies are always about majorities and minorities, true. And if most people agree to legalize gay marriage, then that fact must be taken seriously. But counting heads has nothing whatsoever to do with right and wrong, wisdom and folly. (And remember that there is a reason why we have representative democracies rather than direct ones; unlike the ancient Greeks, we elect people--leaders--with the task, and presumably the skill, to think more carefully than most people about the complex problems affecting public policy.) After all, as history clearly shows, majorities can make stupid or even sinister choices--which would be worth considering whether most people approve or disapprove of gay marriage. But so can minorities, especially in this age of identity politics. Democracy is based on the assumption that minorities will organize politically in their own self-interest, to be sure, but not the assumption that they will disregard the needs of society as a whole.


Usually, cultural norms are associated with majorities. We have just argued that the majority might or might not be morally justified. In this case, we suggest, it is justified. It is not merely the majority's passing whim. It is based on countless centuries of human experience all over the world. Sometimes, marriage legislation should be reformed, but in connection with its variable features and not its universal ones.




Conclusion: Most people like to consider their society a tolerant one, and this is certainly laudable. But no society can endure if tolerance were taken to its ultimate conclusion--that is, the belief that "anything goes." In addition to tolerance--otherwise known as love, caring, or compassion--every society must be guided by wisdom. And that requires citizens to be as reasonable as they are tolerant. For the following reasons, Canadians should think twice before redefining marriage. For no economic gains whatsoever to gay people--that is, none that could not be attained without changing the definition of marriage--doing so would (a) amount to a massive experiment on future generations, when the potential hazards have not been discussed adequately in Parliament or any public forum; (b) place children, whose needs have seldom even been mentioned in this debate about the interests of adults, at even more risk than they already are due to the prevalence of single parents; (c) legitimate a notion of citizenship that undermines democracy, in which being a minority of one kind or another is not only universal, given the diversity of human nature, but respectable as well (since democracy, by definition, is about balancing the rights of majorities and minorities); (d) legitimate a notion of citizenship that discourages people from becoming mature adults, allowing them to assume that the state must confer their own self-respect; (e) victimize another minority, single people, by leaving them with even less public respect than they have now; and (f) polarize the nation not merely between liberal segments of the population and conservative ones but also between the secular community and many religious ones, including those of recently arrived ethnic groups.







[i] Katherine K. Young and Paul Nathanson, "Questioning Some of the Claims for Gay Marriage," presentation to the House of Commons Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights, Ottawa, 20 February 2003.


[ii] According to Judaism, for instance, men (though not women) are divinely commanded to marry. A primary motif in Jewish theology is that of the "marriage" between God and Israel; this becomes a primary liturgical motif during shabbat (the sabbath).


[iii] Among Orthodox Jews, for instance, only married men are allowed to wear the tallit (prayer shawl). Something similar is true of Hinduism. Most Hindu men have had to marry, although a few exceptions have been allowed. We could give dozens of other examples. Our point is that the use of culture in this way could be construed as "privileging" heterosexuality and attacked as "politically incorrect."


[iv] Traditionally, every society has used symbols and rituals to foster the bonding between men and children. One reward for Jewish fathers, for instance, is being able to participate in rituals with their sons. Examples include brit milah (circumcision on a son's eighth day), pidyon ha-ben ("redeeming" a first-born son, on his thirtieth day, by replacing the boy with a monetary donation to the "temple"), and bar mitzvah (the first time a son is called to read the Torah in synagogue). Indebted to the ancestors, Hindu men (and women) are obliged to have children who will perform their funeral rituals later in life.


[v] Data for this category are drawn from both large-scale and small-scale societies; the latter are different in some ways from the former. [Insert a reference to the anthro source.]


[vi] [Insert reference to Charter.]


[vii] [Insert references for male drop-out and suicide rates.]


[viii] For more on this, see Spreading Misandry: The Teaching of Contempt for Men in Popular Culture (Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 2001), the first volume of our trilogy on men; we are now at work on the second volume, Legalizing Misandry: A Quiet Revolution based on Contempt for Men.


[ix] See Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, The Divorce Culture (New York: Knopf; Random House, 1997).


[x] See David Blankenhorn, Fatherless America: Confronting Our Must Urgent Social Problem (New York: Basic Books, 1995). [Any others?]


[xi] [There are psychological and sociological studies to support these claims about the need for fathers.]


[xii] [Insert reference on Canada's aging population and those of other Western countries.]


[xiii] The most obvious example of this would be Quebec, which is one reason Premier Bernard Landry has offered extra financial benefits to those who have children (thus infuriating feminists, who believe that this degrades women).


[xiv] [We must insert references to each of the claims made by Eskridge and possibly to our affidavit..]


[xv] [Insert note for Robert A. Blair's comment on "poignant" arguments.]


[xvi] [Should we refer to the stats on divorce in Canada and elsewhere?]


[xvii] See the North American Man/Boy Love Association at <>.