Debates over gay “marriage” regularly spawn rhetorical questions like this. What difference would it make to your marriage if the law began to refer to certain homosexual relationships as marriages? It would mean so much to so many without harming anyone–it certainly sounds like a winning proposition. So who does it hurt? Why is it a big deal? The problem with this particular rhetorical question is that it can indeed be legitimately answered–it shouldn’t be rhetorical at all.
Consider the following analogy: What difference would it make to your car if all shoes were reclassified as cars? After all, there are some superficial similarities between the two. For example, with both shoes and cars, you put your feet in them, you traverse distances by means of foot motions, both have rubber tread on the bottom for the purpose of gaining traction while moving, etc. If, for some reason, people had their heart set on the change, what would it hurt? Would calling shoes “cars” have any impact on your car? One might initially answer no–after all, it’s the shoes that are being reclassified, not the cars. But our society treats cars in a particular way–a way that would have to be extended to shoes inasmuch as that is possible. Inasmuch as that is not possible, either shoes or cars would have to change. For example:
- All new cars are required to have airbags, which leaves us with two options: either all new shoes have to be equipped with airbags or the airbag regulation has to be dropped. Since the former is absurd to implement, we would have to go with the latter as a matter of simple practicality. This makes no difference to my car, but it will make a difference to every new car that rolls off the assembly line. What’s that? The lack of regulation doesn’t forbid including airbags in cars? Sure, somebody could make cars with airbags if they wanted, but corporations notorious for cutting cost at the expense of consumer safety can hardly be trusted to do so out of good will. This ubiquitous safety feature could become a luxury only for the rich.
- Pedestrians have the right of way when crossing a street–a regulation that exists for their safety. After the change however, those we now think of as pedestrians would become fellow drivers. They could no longer be allowed this special protection. What’s that? You say the special protection could still be offered because some cars are less vulnerable to collisions than others just because they happen to have steel frames and crumple zones? Sorry, but that would be discrimination. That’s exactly the sort of thinking the reclassification was intended to forbid.
- We have gas mileage standards for cars and are always looking for ways to improve them. After the reclassification, however, there would suddenly be a type car which everybody already owns (even if they’re old clunkers) that don’t need gas at all. Why then should we allow these environmental monstrosities that only get 60 mpg? What’s that? You say some cars are far superior at long-distance transportation compared to others just because they happen to have an engine and wheels? Once again, you’ve begun to discriminate, and this cannot be allowed. If we started having special rules for shoes or cars, they wouldn’t be considered the same thing at all. Separate is not equal.
The list could go on until imagination runs out of gas, but a pattern should begin to emerge. A strict reclassification would force us to reconsider everything about how we think of cars. In many ways, the cars we have would not be affected–they would stay the same simply out of inertia–but future cars would be far different. In other ways, our current cars would be affected because so much about how society treats cars would have to change. The very idea of “cars” would be watered down and consequently, that idea would take a very different place in our society. The same will be true if same-sex liasons are reclassified as marriages simply because both happen to include things like orgasms and ongoing companionship.
This effect is not merely theoretical; it is already evident among those who consider the eventual reclassification to be a foregone conclusion. Consider this article in the New York Times from last year. It reports on the way homosexual relationships tend to work in contrast to heterosexual marriages–specifically that half of homosexual couples have no expectations of sexual fidelity. In fact, it says that unfaithful homosexual relationships actually last longer than faithful ones. The article goes on to explain how this will help the institution of marriage to “evolve” even among heterosexuals by casting off unrealistic expectations of faithfulness. Now, one could perhaps argue that this “evolution” is a good thing (although I certainly would not), but that judgment is not my present point. What is very clear, however, is that calling same-sex liasons “marriage” will certainly change marriage for everybody. What is more, the very people asking the rhetorical question know that it will–as the article points out, many try to hide this reality precisely because it could undermine their goal of legally reclassifying their relationships as marriage. Open “marriages” may exist among heterosexuals, but they are highly peculiar–expectations of fidelity are normal. It appears that “normal” means something very different in homosexual relationships.
In order to classify these kinds of relationships as marriage, the term will need to be watered down enough to make fidelity an arbitrary choice–something that will change how people treat the institution. For example, when a husband gets the seven year itch, society has typically recognized it as a temptation that comes and goes and needs to be borne in the meantime. However, if fidelity is only arbitrarily a part of marriage, then it would be just as legitimate for society to interpret the same situation as a wife unnecessarily repressing her husband’s natural desires. After all, fidelity is only her chosen preference; why should her mere preference become such a burden to someone she supposedly loves the most? It seems relatively clear that such a change in attitude will lead to a change in behavior. The jilted spouse is no longer allowed to feel violated or betrayed; she must be made to feel guilty instead, for she had unreasonable expectations. And so the victim becomes the villain. Like orthodoxy, when fidelity becomes optional, it eventually becomes proscribed.
According to the popular theory, when a thing evolves, it usually evolves into something other than what it was before. “Helping” marriage to evolve is no different. We need a more honest conversation–one in which those who support the legal reclassification of same-sex liasons as marriage openly recognize the effects of what they propose rather than hiding behind rhetorical questions.