frgavin on May 12th, 2010

Many of those who want marriage equality do not want fidelity.

Same-sex marriage advocates frequently ask, “How would gay marriage affect your marriage?” The question is posed rhetorically, as if marriage is a private institution with no social consequences.

But The New York Times, of all papers, argues that gay unions could significantly alter marriage norms. A new study of gay couples in San Francisco shows that half are “open,” meaning that partners consent to each other having sex with other people. The Times says that the prevalence of such relationships could “rewrite the traditional rules of matrimony” by showing straight couples that monogamy need not be a “central feature” of marriage and that sexually open relationships might “point the way for the survival of the institution.”

In the gay community, open relationships are neither news nor controversial. Many of my partnered, gay male friends are in open relationships, some of which have lasted for decades. But the Timesreporter, Scott James, who is himself gay, notes that nobody in an open relationship agreed to give their full name for the story, worrying that “discussing the subject could undermine the legal fight for same-sex marriage.”

Indeed, some gay activists were upset with the Times. Gay political commentator Andrew Sullivan derided the piece and pointed to several critiques of the study. However, Sullivan himself has made the same argument, saying that gay male unions could “help strengthen and inform” traditional marriages.

“Among gay male relationships, the openness of the contract makes it more likely to survive than many heterosexual bonds …. There is more likely to be a greater understanding of the need for extramarital outlets between two men than between a man and a woman,” he wrote in his book Virtually Normal.

Other same-sex marriage advocates say a legal change would transform the institution. New York University professor Judith Stacey, testifying before Congress against the Defense of Marriage Act, said changing the law to allow same-sex partners to marry would help “supplant the destructive sanctity of the family” and help it assume “varied, creative, and adaptive contours,” including “small group marriages.”

Activist Michelangelo Signorile wrote that gays should “demand the right to marry not as a way of adhering to society’s moral codes but rather to debunk a myth and radically alter an archaic institution.”

To be sure, some advocates of same-sex marriage hope that heterosexual marital norms of monogamy and fidelity would be transferred to same-sex unions. But since these norms are based on the ideal that marriage is the union of a man and woman making a permanent and exclusive commitment for the purpose of bearing and rearing children, it would be irrational to expect same-sex partners—whose sexual relations bear no risk of procreation—to share the same norms.

Whether or not marriage law should change, the fact is that changing it to include same-sex partnerships would teach people that marriage is fundamentally about the emotional union of adults and not primarily about the bodily union of man and wife (let alone the children who result from such a union). The norms of permanence, monogamy, and fidelity would make less sense under such a change.

Consider changes in divorce laws. The spread of no-fault divorce in the 1970s didn’t just make it easier for men and women to get out of troubled marriages. It also changed people’s ideas about the permanence of the institution and the responsibility parents have to their children.

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