I Support Marriage Equality


by Justin E. H. Smith

Over the past several years, I have written a number of articles, in Lapham’s Quarterly, the Chronicle of Higher Education, and elsewhere, in which I have questioned some of the features of the emerging mainstream consensus about gay marriage. I have consistently affirmed my support for it, and have at the same time insisted that in the fight to achieve marriage equality, internal critique should be welcomed as having a strengthening effect. I have been interested in questioning what I take to be a too facile distinction on the part of defenders of same-sex marriage between this new modification of the kinship system and other possible modifications; and I have asked whether real progress, indeed liberation, might not in fact lie in the decoupling of matters of sexual identity both from the social system of kinship as well as from the interests of states that presume the authority to regulate this system. I do not regret asking these questions, and intend to continue asking them. In doing so, I am drawing inspiration most of all from Michel Foucault, who in 1981 said:

Nous vivons dans un monde légal, social, institutionnel où les seules relations possibles sont extrêmement peu nombreuses, extrêmement schematisées, extrêmement pauvres. Il y a évidemment la relation de marriage et les relations de famille, mais combien d’autres relations devraient pouvoir exister, pouvoir trouver leur codes, ce qui n’est pas du tout le cas (Dits et Écrits, Vol. IV, No. 313).

We live in a legal, social, and institutional world where the only possible relations are extremely limited in number, extremely schematised, extremely poor. There are of course the relations of marriage and of family, but how many other relations might be able to exist, might be able to find their codes– which is not at all the case [today].

As I see it, the recent emergence of a new consensus in support of same-sex marriage has not been so much the discovery of a new code as it has been the successful absorption of a social force, one that may once have been vested with the greatest promise of making such a discovery, into a preexisting code. I believe this has been better than nothing, and under the circumstances may have been all the change our rigid society could allow, but I do not think it is in itself particularly progressive.

What other sorts of code do I think might emerge? New forms of friendship, for starters. Imagine a world in which we could gain inheritance rights, or hospital-visitation rights, on the basis of philia with no need to prove the presence of eros. Why not? Why should the one variety of love be more fundamental in the structuring of human affairs than the other? Why should the state be involved in recognizing or sanctioning varieties of love that involve an erotic component, but not in any other kind? This concern of course extends to heterosexual bonds as well; what the hell are immigration authorities doing when they demand to see photographic evidence of hugging-and-kissing in order to assure themselves that a marriage is not a sham? Stay the fuck out of my private life, state. Who are you to say there should not be real marriages based on intellectual esteem and reciprocal admiration of each other’s character? This sounds absurd, to you and to the state, but only because we live in a culture in which it is romantic and erotic love that enjoy pride of place in our fantasies and our conversations. Things might have looked different if we had been the heirs to several centuries of neo-Ciceronians writing their own versions of the De Amicitia. Instead, we are the heirs to several centuries of conservative ‘Christian’ family values, and it is only against this background that the current mainstream defenses of same-sex marriage make complete sense.

I do not regret, as I’ve said, pursuing questions such as these. But I am saddened –deeply, personally, saddened– when I see that I am being misunderstood. This happened this morning, when I received the following comment on a blog post I wrote a while back about my Christian faith (for the record, I am a Christian pacifist anarchist, though other than perhaps the ‘anarchist’ part this is entirely irrelevant to the present discussion). “Well,” the commenter writes in response to my admission that I am a Christian,

this finally explains your homophobic rants over the last few years – only a theist would invest so much work in some bizarre pseudo-anthropological against gay marriage and then the pen some broadside against Martha Nussbaum about the value of disgust of gay sex (Leon Kass was much better). I guess God is your exemption from the naturalistic fallacy – how convenient. I just assumed you were some leftist concern troll with the digs about rich white elitist western gays mocking the third world polygamous families and our class bias against poor cousin marriages, etc. I first read you in Counterpunch years ago sneering about Canadian liberals “gloating” about gay marriage but I just chalked it up to Cockburn’s weird prolife/ anti-gay phase. You should write for spiked online – you’d fit right in with those former RCP trots turned right wing libertarians. Enjoy your pomo mysticism.

Where to begin? I guess I could start by saying that I don’t know what a ‘concern troll’ is, I don’t know what ‘spiked online’ is, and I don’t know what an ‘RCP trot’ is. And I could also say that I never thought when I was writing for Counterpunch about how my own views matched up with Alexander Cockburn’s, and I seriously doubt he gave it much consideration either; anyhow I haven’t looked at that site since I went there some time back and saw they were featuring some idiot denying the Khmer Rouge genocide. I could also say, finally, how much I am troubled by the tendency I’ve been seeing online to dismiss perspectives one does not support as being the work of ‘trolls’, and to describe any effort to spell out a point of view in a digital medium as a ‘rant’ (couldn’t we at least diversify our vocabulary? Are there not also philippics and harangues and jeremiads?). The culture that speaks like this is a culture I do not understand, and in which I want no part.

It’s true that I did not like Nussbaum’s book about same-sex marriage and US constitutional law, but as I explained this was not because she supports gay marriage –I support it too– but because she purports to be giving a philosophical account of the moral significance of disgust, and I believe that there are many important considerations that she left out of this account. As I made very clear in the review, I find Kass’s view both loathsome and fallacious. He is guilty of the naturalistic fallacy for believing that his disgust at homosexuality is meaningful evidence that homosexuality is wrong. I am saying, contra Nussbaum and Kass at once, that disgust can neither function as a reliable weathervane for the determination of objective rights and wrongs, but nor can it be eliminated from the complicated way in which we become constituted as moral subjects. But I suppose from this reader’s perspective, to find fault with Nussbaum’s line is ipso facto to fall in with Kass. One fears that in the United States the religious right is just so powerful, and so effective in defining the parameters of discourse, that defenders of marriage equality are simply afraid to venture into the realm of subtlety, or to ask questions that betray complexity and diversity within their ranks.

The reader may be right that I have, in my writing on the subject, been drawing on anthropology in at least an idiosyncratic, if not sometimes misguided, way. I am not an anthropologist, but I take anthropology very seriously and I try to keep up with the discipline as much as I can. It seems to me clear that some of the best arguments in favor of same-sex marriage are the empirical ones coming from anthropologists that reveal the seemingly infinite diversity and malleability of kinship structures, and the simple falsehood of the belief that marriage is, always and everywhere, a reproductive union between one man and one woman. Indeed, the recent emphasis in both anthropology and animal ethology on alloparenting as a key feature of the lives of intelligent social animals strongly speaks in favor of the essential humanness of adoption and of child-rearing outside the confines of binary heterosexual reproductive units. I also think, however, that along with the empirical buttressing that anthropology provides comes another unmistakable lesson that the mainstream consensus has so far failed to appreciate: namely, that the modification of marriage in our society from a system built from gender-opposed adult pairs to one built from adult pairs regardless of their gender must not be seen as a final correction to an otherwise stable and ‘natural’ institution, but instead must be seen as only one possible permutation among many, and indeed as a permutation that might not last, and that we are freely choosing now because it is what we want, not because it is what has always been needed.

I would really like to think these reflections are welcome within the context of the movement for marriage equality, that they should not be received as ‘trolling’, and certainly not as providing ammunition to the religious right (if you are worried about that, perhaps you should transmit this post to a religious-right acquaintance of yours, and just see what she or he makes of it; I strongly suspect that your acquaintance will not find much to latch onto). If I might dwell a moment longer on the problem of the impoverishment of discourse in our age, I fear however that the problem my attempt at a public intervention in this issue poses is that I am not respecting the role that has been prescribed to me as an ‘ally’. Allies, on the current understanding, are not supposed to presume to have insights concerning the issues that are supposedly ‘owned’ by the people of whom they are allies, but are instead supposed to let these people find their way, and meanwhile simply ‘to be there for them’. I reject this.

For one thing, I feel like saying: how do you know I’m an ally, and not a secret agent? How do you know who I am? The heart is a dark forest, as Chekhov said, but in the current climate it is damned difficult to have a social identity that does not match up with one of just a few very simple and schematic profiles. It may be true that some people can say of themselves, ‘I was born this way’, but many others –trust me– do not feel they were born any one way at all, and feel that it is the project of a lifetime to figure out who they are, and also to create themselves little by little, in an undertaking that is a matter of both discovery and invention. As the poet Mark Wunderlich has written in a recent stunning essay, an untimely Whitmanian cri-de-coeur: “I was not born this way, but built my queerness like a soul.” Some people cannot come out, in spite of Rachel Maddow’s claim that there is an ethical imperative to do so, because some people do not know quite what the message to be delivered upon coming out ought to be. Some people spend their lives trying to formulate the message, trying to find some way to tell the truth about themselves. That this is hard for some people and not others has not to do with unequally allotted portions of honesty or bravery, but with different understandings of what exactly is at stake.

The heart is a dark forest, but I’d rather struggle to make out what I can by the dim light that shines from within, than to allow my era, with its jabbering Rachel Maddows and Pat Robertsons, to cast the glaring floodlight of their childish pre-set categories on it from without. I support marriage equality, but have a lot more to say besides.

Piece crossposted with Justin E. H. Smith’s website