Recently my wife told me about an acquaintance of hers who was very much in love with her boyfriend. They wanted to publicly acknowledge the fact that they had a committed relationship but stop short of full marriage, so they held a celtic hand-binding ceremony to which they invited friends and family, but made no attempt to get it legally recognized, even though they were within their rights to do so because she’s a woman and he’s a man. Now I’ll admit my first reaction to this news was an ungracious crack about celtic eye-rolling ceremonies, because my sense is that the whole hand-binding thing is one of those ancient Irish traditions that got invented in the past fifteen years or so. But in my rush to score a cheap laugh I missed a deeper point.
A generation ago no one would have done this, even in the liberal elite enclaves where I make my home. Marriage was a one-size-fits-all institution dispensed by the state. If you didn’t like it, you didn’t get married, but the idea that there could be a range of arrangements entailing varying degrees of official involvement simply wasn’t on the table. There was no element of protest in my wife’s friend’s hand-binding ceremony, no bruising political fights, no new rights won. But that makes it more threatening.
The institution of marriage is always in a state of flux, and right now a number of factors in the western world–relaxed sexual mores, increasing secularism, patchwork ethnic cosmopolitanism, the decline of the notion of women as property–are conspiring to undermine the past couple centuries’ arrangement of marriage as a contract drawn up by the state on behalf of the church. The rise of same sex marriage is a sideshow of this broader trend, albeit one that garners an undue amount of attention because a guy kissing another guy is totally gross. Still it has an impact beyond the couples immediately involved.
For a good twenty five years now–since AIDS, basically–we’ve been in the modern phase of the gay rights struggle, which has been characterized by a long, slow slog on the legal front and a steady accumulation of victories on the social acceptance front. Anti-gay advocates have amped up their rhetoric in response, and as a result every person here in the United States has spent the past quarter century hearing that the sky is falling. The erosion of traditional sexual mores has put us on the brink of social collapse. Men marrying men today, beastiality and Year Zero dissolution of the family tomorrow. The gay rights advocates who contest this in individualistic, utilitarian terms–my marriage isn’t going to damage yours, I would never force you to do anything you don’t want to do–are missing the point. Individualistic utilitarian morality is the root evil of which perversion is only a symptom. Our only chance is to double down on received notions of sexual propriety without a moment’s consideration. To question them in any way is to invite the end of the world as we know it.
Let me be more specific. For the past the past quarter century, every straight person in America has been subject to this hysteria. And most of us can’t help but notice that the sky has not in fact fallen. (A potential blind spot that social conservatives should keep in mind: their natural allies who believe in the Rapture may be more receptive to Chicken-Little-type arguments than the population at large.) And if it turns out that the condemnation of homosexuality may be safely ignored, what other sexual prohibitions might be due for a rethink? Government monopoly on marriage? Monogamy as the only conceivable path to a happy life? Next thing you know, women will be voting and wearing trousers.
Don’t underestimate power. It constrains behavior. That’s its job. Even so, there simply aren’t enough cops, truncheons, and scolds to keep everyone in line all the time. Governance requires acquiescence on the part of the governed, and the best acquiescence is the kind you don’t even realize you’re doing. If you oppose same sex marriage per se, then yeah, I guess you have no choice but to dig in and fight it every inch of the way. But if you’re trying to maintain some broader sexual status quo, maybe you should just quietly let this one pass. Because two decades of loudly proclaiming that any deviation from the norm will bring ruin is two decades of opportunity for everyone else to call your bluff.