POLITICS DECEMBER 23, 2005
The latest Weekly Standard cover story, "HERE COME THE BRIDES: PLURAL MARRIAGE IS WAITING IN THE WINGS," proves something that its author, Stanley Kurtz, most certainly did not intend it to: The conservative case against gay marriage is growing weaker by the day. Opponents of same-sex marriage have traditionally relied on two strategies to drum up support for their cause: the "ick" factor and the slippery-slope argument. But now, even the staunchest of conservatives must admit that America is becoming more tolerant of homosexuality. National Review writer Ramesh Ponnuru, for example, pointed out in 2003 that
public opinion has been moving with stunning rapidity. In the 1970s and '80s, the percentage of Americans who believed gay sex was "always wrong" barely budged. The National Opinion Research Center found that 73 percent held that belief in 1973, and 76 percent did in 1990. By 2000, that number had fallen by 16 points. It fell another 6 in the next two years.
Additionally, a 2004 Los Angeles Times poll showed that 65 percent of Americans say "they can accept gays and lesbians living together." And as tolerance for homosexuality has increased--or, in other words, as the "ick" factor has become less prominent--the prospects for same-sex marriage have brightened considerably. Among 18 to 29 year olds, 71 percent believe same-sex marriage is inevitable. After reading poll numbers like that one, conservatives have found themselves in a bit of a conundrum; and with the "ick" factor heading towards irrelevancy, the slippery-slope argument against gay marriage is all they have left.
Enter Stanley Kurtz and his near-obsession with what he calls "group marriages." For the second time in two years, Kurtz has argued in The Weekly Standard that the only thing stopping the legalization of marriage among more than two people is the right's crusade against marriage between two people of the same sex. Once America begins to tinker with the definition of the family, the logic goes, we won't be able to stop. If we allow two consenting adults to enter into a legally recognized union today, tomorrow we will have to afford the same rights to everyone and his sister, his dog, and his lawnmower. The strategy is obvious. While Americans increasingly accept the notion of same-sex unions, 92 percent disapprove of unions between more than two people. If the right can convince the public that an acceptance of same-sex marriage inherently means the acceptance of polygamy, the chance of same-sex marriage becoming legal will greatly diminish. The problem for the right, of course, is that slippery-slope arguments are among the weakest forms of logic. They rarely leave people convinced. And Kurtz's article is a perfect example of why.
The event that sparked Kurtz's article was the success of three Dutch citizens, two women and one man, in obtaining a "private cohabitation contract" this September. Victor and Bianca de Bruijin, a married couple, signed a private contract with Mirjam Geven in an attempt to legally add her to the De Bruijin family. Kurtz sees this as a watershed moment, and he is outraged by the American media's utter lack of interest:
In short, while the Dutch triple wedding set the conservative blogosphere ablaze with warnings, same-sex marriage advocates dismissed the story as a silly stunt with absolutely no implications for the gay marriage debate. And how did America's mainstream media adjudicate the radically different responses of same-sex marriage advocates and opponents to events in the Netherlands? By ignoring the entire affair.
There is a simple reason why same-sex marriage advocates have "dismissed the story as a silly stunt with no implications for the gay marriage debate": The story is a silly stunt with no implications for the gay marriage debate. According to Evan Wolfson, the executive director of Freedom to Marry, "the only legally relevant thing that happened was that three people, with the help of a notary, signed a private cohabitation contract--and did not enter into any kind of legal state-recognized union." Wolfson goes on to explain that "[s]uch personal agreements are not registered, and do not have legal implications for third parties. In both these respects, as well with regard to the state's imprimatur, a personal agreement or contract is different from both marriage and registered partnership." The De Bruijins didn't marry, and they didn't even enter into a civil union. They simply signed a contract and got it notarized. Hardly civilization-changing stuff.
As for the media's non-response, it is entirely possible that the press was too tied up with other events around the world to be concerned about a legally insignificant contract signed by three people in the Netherlands.
But there is also a much more important reason why the media did not respond, and it cuts right to the heart of Kurtz's argument. Kurtz sees hypocrisy in the disparate ways the media covered the Netherlands's first same-sex marriage and the country's first group marriage. In fact, the media made the right call. The first Dutch same-sex union carried a load of symbolism because there was an entire population of people waiting for the chance to enter into legally recognized same-sex partnerships. As soon as one union was successfully recognized, the floodgates opened. As of January 2005, of the over 50,000 gay and lesbian couples living together in the Netherlands, about 25 percent were registered as legally recognized couples.
Kurtz's argument is predicated on the fact that there is a similar group of people waiting in the wings to enter into polyamorous relationships. Yet for all his talk of a "bisexual/polyamory movement," Kurtz does not provide much convincing evidence that one actually exists. To prove that it does, he points to the De Bruijn trio, a group of Unitarian Universalists that promotes polygamy, two pro-bisexuality articles that have appeared in separate law reviews, an academic journal, and--this isn't a joke--an independent movie about a love triangle that's slated to play on the BRAVO channel this spring. There is no meaningful leadership, no agenda, no broad-based organizational structure, no PAC, no lobbyists, no fundraising. Where is the menace?
Furthermore, for all of his time spent researching sexual orientation, Kurtz has a rather archaic view of bisexuality: "[I]ncreasingly, bisexuality is emerging as a reason why legalized gay marriage is likely to result in legalized group marriage. If every sexual orientation has a right to construct its own form of marriage, then more changes are surely due. For what gay marriage is to homosexuality, group marriage is to bisexuality." Bisexuals are bisexuals, they are not polygamists. To my knowledge, there is no scientific study showing that people who happen to be sexually attracted to both sexes are more likely than heterosexuals to chafe under the restrictions of monogamy. That's one reason why Kurtz's analogy doesn't hold up. The other is that marriage between two people, regardless of their gender, is fundamentally different than a union among three or more. In 2004 Slate's Dahlia Lithwick noted that "one can plausibly argue that there is a rational basis for states to ban polygamous and polyamorous marriages in which there has been historical evidence of an imbalance of power, coercion (particularly of young girls), and an enormous financial burden placed on the state. None of these arguments can be made against gay marriage." Same-sex marriage and polyamory are completely different things that can be differentiated by law and by morality. It is quite possible that the same people who support same-sex marriage would oppose polyamourous unions. In fact, since 65 percent of Americans already have a positive view of homosexuals living together and 92 percent disapprove of unions involving more than two people, a large percentage of Americans have already made such a distinction. We can have same-sex marriage without polyamory--just ask the American public.
By giving weight to insignificant events, Kurtz has created a problem where no problem exists. And while he wants us to believe that forces are converging to completely undo the fabric of our society, he's proven something quite different: It's not the social fabric of America that's coming apart, but the right's crusade against same-sex marriage.
Rob Anderson is a reporter-researcher at The New Republic.