Published on October 31, 2006
Suppose a large group of same-sex-marriage activists came together and made the following confession to a group of same-sex-marriage skeptics:
“Look, we’re going to level with you in a way that we haven’t up to now. We all support same-sex marriage, but for many — even most — of us, gay marriage isn’t an end in itself. It’s a way-station on the path to a post-marriage society. We want a wide range of diverse families — even ‘polyamorous’ groupings of three or more partners — to have the same recognition, rights, and benefits as heterosexual married couples. In short, your worst fears are justified. The radical redefinition of marriage you’ve been worried about for so long is exactly what we want.
“Oh sure, some of us are more radical than others. But even the most committed and prominent mainstream advocates of same-sex marriage largely support a radical family agenda. A few advocates who back a ‘conservative’ interpretation of same-sex marriage may regularly engage you in debate, yet their views carry relatively little weight within the gay community. Some of these ‘conservative’ supporters of same-sex marriage have claimed that there is no significant political constituency for polygamy-polyamory, or for a general legal deconstruction of marriage. That’s just wrong. As gay marriage gains acceptance, we’re going to have a polygamy-polyamory debate in this country. And among those sponsoring that debate will be many of the very same people and groups who’ve already pushed for same-sex marriage.
“So why haven’t we told you all this before? Simple. We’ve been censoring ourselves for fear of scaring away public support for same-sex marriage. You see, it’s all about timing. Our plan is to establish same-sex marriage first, and then, as our next step, to demand that the rights and benefits of marriage be accorded to all types of families. After all, when the call for yet another radical redefinition of marriage comes from married same-sex couples, it’s going to be that much more persuasive. Up to now, truth to tell, if any same-sex marriage backers pushed this radical agenda in public, we pressured them to keep silent. But now we’re telling you the truth.
“You see, despite what you’ve heard about the ‘conservative case’ for same-sex marriage, the more radical argument that ‘love makes a family’ has played a huge role in the success of the drive for same-sex marriage. And the ‘love makes a family’ idea requires recognition, not only for gay couples, but also for polygamous and polyamorous families.
“And consider the complex families created when three or even four gay men and lesbians combine through, say, artificial insemination, to bear and raise children. We want recognition for these sorts of unconventional families too, even — or especially — if such recognition leads to legalized polyamory. Pretending that certain aspects of the gay community don’t exist only weakens our diverse families. The way we live is the way we live. Up to now, we’ve tried to hide it. But at last we’re ready to own up to reality, and to push for legal recognition for all types of families, even if that expands the definition of marriage until the very idea of marriage itself is stripped of meaning.”
Beyond Same-Sex Marriage
For all practical purposes, this confession has already been offered. A good part of the substance of the above message was conveyed this past July, when hundreds of self-described lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) and allied activists, scholars, educators, writers, artists, lawyers, journalists, and community organizers released a manifesto entitled, “Beyond Same-Sex Marriage.” Among other things, that statement called for recognition of “committed, loving households in which there is more than one conjugal partner.”
That hundreds of gay-marriage supporters, including big names like Gloria Steinem, Cornel West, Rabbi Michael Lerner (of Tikkun Magazine), and Barbara Ehrenreich have signed onto a statement openly demanding recognition for polyamorous families is important enough. But the really big news is what’s been happening in the months since the release of the Beyond Same-Sex Marriage statement. The ongoing discussion of that manifesto on popular blogs, and particularly in the gay community’s own press, confirms that even many prominent mainstream advocates of same-sex marriage support a radical family agenda — and plan to push it when the time is right. In other words, a careful look at the Beyond Same-Sex Marriage statement — and especially at its public reception — indicates that the above “confession” does in fact represent the plans and convictions of the greater part of the movement for same-sex marriage.
The Beyond Same-Sex Marriage statement is nothing if not radical. It calls for extending government recognition beyond traditional married couples to groups of senior citizens living together, extended immigrant households, single parent households, “queer couples who decide to jointly create and raise a child with another queer person or couple in two households,” unmarried domestic partners, polygamous/polyamorous households, and many other diverse family forms.
And although the statement advocates moving “beyond” same-sex marriage, it also clearly endorses gay marriage itself. The argument on offer is that same-sex marriage is, and ought to be, only one part of a larger effort to redefine our idea of the family. So in contrast to the “conservative” argument, which holds that gay marriage will strengthen the unique appeal of marriage itself, the Beyond Same-Sex Marriage statement claims that gay marriage is a critical step in a larger evolution away from the preference for any specific family form. In other words, the sponsors of Beyond Same-Sex Marriage hope to dissolve marriage, not through formal abolition, but by gradually extending the hitherto unique notion of marriage to every conceivable family type.
The Beyond Same-Sex Marriage statement has attracted hundreds of signatures from a wide array of prominent figures. In addition to national liberals like Steinem, West, Lerner, and Ehrenreich, over 90 professors have signed on, a great many from top schools like Harvard, Yale, Princeton, the University of Chicago, Columbia, Georgetown, Brown, Cornell, Williams, Smith, Bryn Mawr, Barnard, the University of Pennsylvania, NYU, Dartmouth, and U.C. Berkeley. Quite a few of these schools had more than one faculty member sign on. Popular writers like Terrence McNally, Armistead Maupin, and Susie Bright joined big-name academics like Judith Stacey and Judith Butler on the Beyond Same-Sex Marriage lists. Quite a few professors from top law schools (e.g., Yale, Columbia, Georgetown) also endorsed the statement. So we are not talking about fringe figures here. The Beyond Same-Sex Marriage manifesto was put forward by a large and prestigious slice of activists, artists, and intellectuals on the cultural Left.
The Beyond Same-Sex Marriage statement evoked swift and diametrically opposed responses from opponents and supporters of same-sex marriage. Princeton philosopher and social conservative Robert P. George said the statement had “let the cat out of the bag” by revealing that “what lies ‘beyond gay marriage’ are multiple sex partners.” The same day, Jonathan Rauch, the leading exponent of the “conservative case” for same-sex marriage, answered George: “…there’s nothing new here. Left-wing family radicals have been saying all this stuff fo
r years.” So which is it? Is this public endorsement of multiple-partner marriage by hundreds of prominent same-sex marriage supporters an important new revelation, or just irrelevant old hat?
It’s true, as Rauch claims, that left-wing family radicals have been calling for both polyamory and a broader deconstruction of marriage for years. Yet Rauch’s dismissal neatly glosses over some key historical shifts. When the same-sex-marriage issue became a topic of public debate, in the first half of the 1990s, the gay community was deeply split. Despite support for same-sex marriage from a few prominent gay conservatives, the gay community’s powerful phalanx of cultural radicals disdained same-sex marriage as a misguided attempt to ape an oppressive and outdated heterosexual institution. By the time the Defense of Marriage Act was debated by Congress in 1996, however, the mood in the gay community had shifted. Although many gays continued to view marriage itself as outmoded and patriarchal, same-sex marriage came to be seen as a pathway to public acceptance, and as the opening item on a much larger and more radical menu of family changes to come.
So from the mid-Nineties on, the gay community suppressed its divisions and united behind the public battle for same-sex marriage. Radicals in the academy laid their plans for both polyamory and a more general deconstruction of marriage, yet for the most part the radicals avoided floating such controversial proposals before the public. The mainstream media (itself part of the broader movement for same-sex marriage) cooperated by largely ignoring the many legal and academic advocates of polyamory and family radicalism. Instead, the media focused on gay couples who were as close to traditional heterosexual families as possible.
Having passed through a period of skeptical division on the marriage issue, followed by a period of unity, the gay community may now be moving into a third phase, the groundwork for which was laid by the 2004 election. With President Bush endorsing the Federal Marriage Amendment, and with local marriage amendments drawing out voters in battleground states like Ohio, the public handed Republicans a victory in 2004, while dealing the gay marriage movement a significant setback. Liberals who’d once lauded the Massachusetts supreme court for its courage now excoriated it’s justices for handing the election to the Republicans. Over the following two years, judges who had once felt free to impose same-sex marriage on an unwilling public grew hesitant. Surprise decisions against same-sex marriage by liberal state supreme courts in New York and the state of Washington in 2006 seemed to confirm that the movement for gay marriage had been stymied. (For a take on this history by a signer of Beyond Same-Sex Marriage, go here.)
In this new atmosphere, the radicals had far less reason to hide their long-term plans behind a facade of unity. Politically, there was little left to lose. A good decade after the beginning of the movement for same-sex marriage, it was increasingly obvious that the fight could continue for yet another ten years. Rebelling against the thought of 20 years of self-censorship, the radicals began to speak up. The March, 2006, debut of HBO’s polygamy television serial, Big Love (created by a two pro-same-sex marriage radicals), was merely a sign of things to come. Meeting in April of 2006 to draw up their manifesto, just as Big Love was sparking a public debate about polygamy, the authors of the Beyond Same-Sex Marriage had reason to believe that their ship had finally come in.
So then, is the Beyond Same-Sex Marriage statement, as Rauch would have it, just irrelevant old hat? Not at all. Calls for polyamory and other forms of family radicalism may be nothing new to those already familiar with the history of the gay community’s internal debates, or with the quiet plans of legal academics. Yet a collective and very public declaration of the family-radical platform, endorsed by scores of prominent scholars and other nationally known figures, signals a new phase in the struggle. Once again, as in the early 1990s, the radicals are out in the open, unwilling to silence themselves for the sake of a united front.
Take Michael Bronski, a radical academic, popular New England columnist, and long-time proponent of same-sex marriage. Bronski favors same-sex marriage for its potential to destabilize the traditional organizing principles of Western culture. In a piece explaining why he’d signed the Beyond Gay Marriage manifesto, Bronski said that he and his fellow family radicals were tired of being treated like “skunks at a garden party” for honestly owning up to their radical reasons for supporting gay marriage. Bronski then told the story of a radio appearance in which his conservative opponent had claimed that gay marriage would “change society as we know it.” Instead of denying it, Bronski agreed with this family traditionalist that gay marriage would indeed provoke a broader cultural transformation, adding that this was a good thing. “That afternoon,” Bronski recalled, “I received a barrage of e-mails from marriage equality supporters complaining that I had committed a major faux pas and should not do media on the issue of marriage again unless I was willing to state the ‘official’ marriage equality line, which is that gay marriage is about nothing more than equal rights for couples who love one another.”
In the aftermath of the Beyond Same-Sex Marriage statement, it was easy to see that the “‘official’ marriage equality line” has served to disguise the views of many same-sex marriage supporters. Numerous reports in the mainstream media, and in the gay community’s own press, described the censorship and self-censorship that has kept the reality of marriage radicalism out of the public eye. The New York Times reported that gay family radicals “say they have muffled their own voice by censoring themselves.” Yet now, said the Times, these radicals “increasingly feel that they have nothing to lose [by speaking out] given ‘that there has been defeat after political defeat.'”
Meanwhile, Geoffrey Kors, a leading California gay-marriage activist, noted that the movement’s silence on polyamory is not necessarily a matter of actual opposition to the practice, but simply about “not allowing the right wing to steer the conversation.” Molly McKay, media director of Marriage Equality USA, spoke of the need to limit some conflicts and conversations to “internal dialogue.” Otherwise, said McKay, it could be “very confusing for non-gay allies” who support gay marriage on the assumption that the gay community wants marriage for its own sake. McKay was concerned that mainstream support for same-sex marriage could suffer if the broader public began to think that “your own community [i.e. the gay community] doesn’t support this issue.”
Having broken the taboo against a public avowal of their radical goals, the sponsors of the Beyond Same-Sex Marriage statement were soundly chastised for their strategic error by Chris Crain, former executive editor of The Washington Blade. Crain blasted the manifesto’s signatories for “diverting attent
ion” from the sort of fairness claims that resonate with the American public: “…[the signatories’] no doubt well-intentioned effort really is the radical redefinition of marriage and family that the conservatives have been braying about for so long. Realizing the Right’s worst fears is the last thing the movement needs to do at this critical juncture.” Then Crain added a twist: “Opening up marriage to gay couples is liberation enough for most of us, at least for now.” “At this critical juncture…At least for now” — we’ll come back to those lines in Part II of this piece. What’s notable now is that Crain’s strictly pragmatic and political objections to the idea of realizing “the Right’s worst fears” amounted to a demand for continued self-censorship on the part of family radicals.
With Crain and others blasting the radicals’ new-found honesty, Joseph De Filippis, of Queers for Economic Justice, chief spokesman for the Beyond Same-Sex Marriage manifesto, tried to put out the fire. De Filippis maintained that the statement had actually been meant to “promote discussion within the LGBT community not mainstream America.” Yet having recruited nationally known allies like Steinem, West, Lerner, and Ehrenreich, that claim was hardly credible. As long-time critic of same-sex marriage Maggie Gallagher remarked, “This is quite new and quite extraordinary….I’ve debated marriage a long time without ever seeing one visible public defender of polygamy. Now we have a major statement, signed by mainstream liberal thinkers, suggesting that this is now the Left’s consolidated position.” The cat was out of the bag, all right, thereby revealing an ongoing pattern of censorship and self-censorship.
So Robert P. George was right. The Beyond Same-Sex Marriage statement means that something important and new is going on. Marriage and family radicals have cast aside years of self-censorship and are broadcasting their agenda to the world (even as an angry, strategically-based response by prominent backers of same-sex marriage has begun to put the muzzle back on).
Marginal or Mainstream?
Yet it isn’t just a question of openness versus secrecy. “Conservative” same-sex marriage advocate Jonathan Rauch had a second point to make to Robert George. According to Rauch, the folks who signed on to the Beyond Same-Sex Marriage manifesto are a bunch of unrepresentative radicals, few of them actual leaders in the movement for same-sex marriage. The radical signatories of Beyond Same-Sex Marriage “favor marriage, not as an end in itself,” said Rauch, “but as a way-station toward a post-marriage society.” “There’s no denying that they speak for a prominent element of the gay rights movement…,” Rauch admitted, “but I don’t think they’ll prevail even within the gay universe, most of which is neither radical nor ‘queer.'”
But what if Rauch is wrong? What if the newfound openness and honesty of pro-same-sex marriage radicals is more than the revelation of a prominent faction’s existence? What if a radical view of family issues has already prevailed “within the gay universe”? What if quite a few mainstream leaders of the movement for same-sex marriage, even if they may not have personally signed onto the “Beyond Same-Sex Marriage” manifesto, have already expressed public agreement with all or most of that statement’s radical goals? What if the bulk of the gay community is already on board with the lion’s share of the Beyond Same-Sex Marriage agenda? And what if even Jonathan Rauch himself has come surprising close to acknowledging this?
— Stanley Kurtz is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.
**Part two of this essay is available here.**