An Argument Against Gay Marriage You’ve Never Heard Before

I'm not so convinced that Jordan Wolf has advanced an argument for gay marriage that "you've never heard before." Indeed, I think you'd find his argument underwriting much of the mainstream GLBT lobbying for marriage. The argument, in short, goes something like this: opening the franchise to committed, loving, monogamous gays would strengthen a waning institution.  

Wolf is right. Numbers support the contention that marriage and the nuclear family aren't what they used to be, and perceptions (he mentions "hookup culture," specifically) suggest that straight monogamy is out. But when you look at gay marriage this way it doesn't seem like such a radical, transformative demand. Instead, it looks a lot more like an assimilationist one that might shore up exactly the straight family values that have historically marginalized gays and amplified homophobia.

There are many persuasive arguments against the centrality of gay marriage to GLBT politics for exactly these reasons. Many “queer” theorists and activists claim that marriage is a conservative institution in which they want no part. Michael Warner (the theorist who practically invented the term "heteronormative") is one prominent voice in this fight; a more recent debate began from the blog Queer Kids of Queer Parents Against Marriage! launched in October 2009, rallying against the conservative and politically inefficacious tendencies of marriage campaigns.  

Queer arguments against gay marriage are typically excluded from the debate. They don't hew to convenient partisan distinctions; they aren't obviously wrong; and they can look like tendentious infighting, distracting from opponents that everyone on the left side of the issue has in common. But, they're important and deserve a place on the table.  

For one, they contain a more historically sophisticated account of the exclusionary and conservative history of marriage, the exclusionary and conservative reality of the nuclear family, and the potential politically-neutering costs of officially opening these institutions to gays. For another, they aim to represent and accommodate sexual lifestyles that mainstream, middle-class, white gay men and women and their GLBT political representation conveniently forget: queer people who don't want to get married, don't want to have kids, and don't want to be "normal."

There are just as many good arguments against the queer opposition. Someone like Warner, in his famous book The Trouble With Normal, seems to make some very audacious predictions about what might happen if gay marriage were made law. Mainly, he assumes that expanding the franchise will automatically strengthen it, that marriage and the nuclear family will remain conservative institutions, further marginalizing those "queers" who don't want to marry, and eventually change what it means to be gay: in Warner's vision, gay men and women in the age of GLBT marriage will just be straight people with different sexual objects. But that's no more verifiable an assumption than the ones made by many proponents of gay marriage; it's just more pessimistic.

The strongest arguments for gay marriage, and the ones you genuinely don’t hear, go something like this: marriage has and remains an exclusionary, conservative institution, but opening it up to GLBT people can positively transform it and introduce sexual, moral cosmopolitanism into an institution that has only historically recognized sameness.  

My point isn't that the queer critiques are either absolutely right or clearly misleading. Instead, excluding them from the conversation about gay marriage can lead some of its well-intentioned proponents (like Wolf) to make fairly conservative arguments that a more expansive queer perspective might challenge. 

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons