Interviews April 2004

A Modest (Marriage) Proposal

Jonathan Rauch talks about his quest to establish a middle ground in the gay-marriage debate
book cover

Gay Marriage: Why It Is Good for Gays, Good for Straights, and Good for America
[Click the title
to buy this book] by Jonathan Rauch
Times Books
207 pages, $22.

As anyone who has tried to discuss the issue in politically mixed company knows, reactions to the idea of gay marriage tend to be emotional and polarized. "Love Makes a Family" has little overlap with "God Didn't Make Adam and Steve." In the no-man's-land between the front lines of this impending culture war, Jonathan Rauch—Atlantic correspondent, social commentator, and marriage enthusiast—has staked out a compromise position. His recent book, Gay Marriage, proposes that by ignoring traditional arguments and thinking instead about the consequences of gay marriage for society as a whole, most Americans will find themselves able to agree that gay marriage is what he calls a win-win-win.

The winning parties in this scenario are gays, straights, and America as a whole. Taking as a starting point an affection for and belief in the institution of marriage as both an indispensable personal support system and a stabilizing social force, Rauch argues that it should be a matter of general concern that marriage is suddenly in competition with alternatives that fail to fulfill its uniquely positive functions. He suggests that as gay couples, excluded from marriage, create their own increasingly visible and successful arrangements, marriage will begin to seem less attractive to everyone, leading people to seek out the benefits of marriage without accepting the socially essential responsibilities that go along with it. These unions will be less supportive for the people in them and also more likely to fall apart, leaving society responsible for individuals no longer taking care of each other. Rauch also predicts that as homosexuality becomes more accepted, an exclusive version of marriage will be further weakened because it will seem incompatible with the values of fairness and equality.

As a determined pragmatist and a believer in tradition, Rauch doesn't fit the usual profile of a gay-marriage advocate. But he seeks to use this to his argument's advantage, suggesting a way to reconcile the equal-rights and libertarian supporters of gay marriage with its religious and traditionalist opponents. At a time when recent and impending same-sex marriages in San Francisco, Massachusetts, and elsewhere are forcing the issue into the national consciousness, and when the two sides have argued themselves down to irreconcilable principles, this new approach may prove to have considerable appeal and influence around the water cooler. And the water cooler, the office holiday party, the neighborhood, and the local and state political institutions these social institutions feed into are where Rauch suggests that the question of gay marriage will and should be decided.

Jonathan Rauch is an Atlantic correspondent, a senior writer and columnist for National Journal, and a writer in residence at the Brookings Institution. Before Gay Marriage, his most recent book was Government's End: Why Washington Stopped Working (1999). He is vice president of the Independent Gay Forum and lives outside Washington, D.C. An excerpt from Gay Marriage ran in the April Atlantic.

We spoke by telephone on Friday, April 9, 2004.

—Sarah Cohen

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Jonathan Rauch

When and how did you decide to write this book?

I've been thinking and writing about gay marriage since 1995, and have been thinking and writing about American families since the late eighties. Back then I was writing about economics, and it became pretty clear as I researched that a lot of what we think of as problems of poverty and crime, for example, are really offshoots of the collapse of the family. With fatherlessness and single parenthood increasing, there were whole portions of America where marriage was becoming rare. I'm a big believer in marriage, and I'm convinced that same-sex marriage is a way to help strengthen marriage; it's part of the solution to marriage's problems. So that's where I'm coming from.

And then, of course, the Supreme Court struck down sodomy laws in June, and everybody panicked, and then came the Massachusetts decision, ordering same-sex marriage as of May 17. It seemed like it was really time to put some of these ideas out there, so everybody worked very fast. I wrote the book in August and September and it was edited by December.

One of the most striking things about the book is its very measured and logical tone. Did you consider alternatives to this approach?

No, that's just the way I write—sometimes I think I might be a more effective writer if I were more polemical. But there is also a further dimension: I do feel that there's a burden on advocates of same-sex marriage, since it's a big change, to show that we have thought very seriously about this and that we really do have good answers to the strongest arguments that the opponents can make. So I made a very deliberate effort to try to avoid inflammatory rhetoric or grandstanding. I just tried to surgically dissect the arguments, to really look at what's behind them.

What do you think about the marriages in San Francisco?

I can't decide what I think, to be honest. I think, on balance, that it was probably not a very wise thing to do. But my head goes one way and my heart goes another. My head says that it's not a good idea for elected officials to protest the laws they're supposed to enforce—that that's a role that other people should play. But my heart says there's never a good time for a civil-rights protest. Elected officials are capable of reading the state constitution, and it's not unreasonable for them to say that a law that's on the books violates the constitution. What I think would have been absolutely wrong would have been for Gavin Newsom, the mayor of San Francisco, to say he was going to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples in defiance of a court order to stop. That would have been a real threat to the rule of law. He did not do that, and, in fact, two courts ruled in three separate rulings that he could continue to issue the licenses. So to that extent he actually had the court's sanction. And then, when the higher courts said "stop," he stopped. At the end of the day, I think it's a really close call.

I'm a little bit surprised to hear you characterize gay marriage so emphatically as a civil-rights issue, because the book seems to shy away from that emphasis.

I think that gay marriage is a civil-rights issue, but it's not only a civil-rights issue; it's also a family-policy issue and a morals issue. My book discusses some arguments that have to do with civil rights; I do argue it's wrong to say that gays don't matter, that if what's good for them is bad for somebody else, to heck with them. But many people have already covered the civil-rights aspect of this extremely well, so the rest of my book focuses on the social arguments for gay marriage, which I think are very important.

This is a loaded debate, and a lot gets lost if all we're talking about is equality and what the law says. It's a problem if same-sex marriage advocates wind up having to say, "Well, equality requires us to be included in this institution even though that is going to harm millions and millions of other Americans." First of all, that's not true. But second of all, it's potentially a really big setback to making the case effectively. So I thought it was very important to explain that this is not a win-lose situation. This is not gays attacking marriage or gays against straights. I wanted to show that there are enormous social benefits here.

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