Can the marriage movement survive gay marriage?

Originally published on as, “The Most Surprising Thing About Conservatives Embracing Gay Marriage


Pichi Chuang/Reuters

Maggie Gallagher, who more than almost anyone is the face of marriage-rights denial, is justifiably upset about the course chosen by another leading face of the cause, David Blankenhorn. Whichever side wins (and “winning” in this context may simply mean maintaining a donor base sufficient to keep their jobs), the chaos on the family right is interesting and important.

The question they face is this: Can a “marriage” movement survive on gender-neutral terms? That is, are they willing to settle for promoting stable, monogamous parental bonds even if a tiny portion of those bonds are between people of the same sex? At stake, Gallagher fears, is nothing less than the cherished view of men and women as inherently complementary in their essential oppositeness, without which society goes down the drain.

Blankenhorn now stands opposed to that view. President of the Institute for American Values, he recently stopped resisting the march of marriage rights after serving as a standard-bearer for the cause. His capitulation was stunning, as he had previously been dedicated enough to testify as an expert (until his qualifications were disqualified) in the federal case against Proposition 8 in California. In the wake of Blankenhorn’s reversal, Gallagher—best known for running the National Organization for Marriage—has emerged as the purist’s answer to the outbreak of tolerance (which now includes a number of former-A-list Republicans).

In a piece on her website, Gallagher compares the statement she co-signed with Blankenhorn in 2000, called “The Marriage Movement: A Statement of Principles,” with his new “Call for a New Conversation.” The comparison is revealing.

In 2000, the movement declared:

Marriage is a universal human institution, the way in which every known society conspires to obtain for each child the love, attention and resources of a mother and father.

Forget the erroneous reading of human history and culture that statement implies for the moment and just think about the vision it conjures for contemporary marriage politics: Marriage, man and woman, mother and father. This is what Gallagher likes—it’s not gender-neutral.

In his new statement, Blankenhorn has substituted generic, almost bureaucratic language:

Because marriage is the main institution governing the link between the spousal association and the parent-child association, marriage is society’s most pro-child institution.

To Gallagher, this distinction is fundamental. She wants to keep the gender of the spouses at the center of the effort to maintain a preferred family structure through public policy. Blankenhorn and his co-signers, on the other hand, are willing to ignore that issue and merely demand marriage between “spouses.”

As Gallagher writes, “That is the difference gay marriage makes in how we converse about marriage.” In decision after decision, appellate judges have failed to find that gay marriage hurts straight marriage—and I agree. But Gallagher has a point that the possibility of same-sex marriage (what I prefer to call homogamy) changes the linguistic frame of reference. If marriage is all about stability and well-being for children, then the gender of the parents doesn’t matter and Blankenhorn is right. But if it’s really about the man-woman marriage and the traditional gender dichotomy, then this change is truly cataclysmic.

The genderless marriage movement

Whether the difference between Gallagher and Blankhorn’s articulations of marriage is really a big deal is the question of the day for the family right. But it is fascinating that in Blankenhorn’s new statement there is no mention of men, women, fathers or mothers—or even love. That’s some marriage movement.

By one interpretation, Blankenhorn sold out in the face of gay marriage’s advance, waiting barely a month last summer to jump on President Obama’s delayed-embrace bandwagon. He used to oppose gay marriage, Blankenhorn wrote, because it was part of the “deinstitutionalization” of marriage, its transformation from a “structured institution with a clear public purpose” to the mere “licensing of private relationships.” He still believes all that, he says, but now he has “no stomach” for culture wars, and besides, “the time for denigrating or stigmatizing same-sex relationships is over.”

Although he futilely promises, “I am not recanting any of it,” Blankenhorn seems relieved to have abandoned the issue. He may have realized gay marriage brought what used to be called the“marriage movement” to its knees, tying up their dwindling resources in a losing battle that also cost them the support of small-government conservatives and a generation of laissez-faire young people who don’t want government to legislate people’s sex lives.

But maybe he was really ahead of the curve, recognizing the inherent conservativeness waiting to emerge from the marriage rights movement. Maybe it was gay rights politics—not conservatives—that were distracted by the marriage battle. So they fought for membership in a conservative institution instead of for the more ambitious agenda of destabilizing gender itself. Maybe, by explicitly coopting them at their moment of triumph, Blankenhorn’s apparent fallback is actually a clever strategy to revive traditionalist moralism in the public sphere.

That’s an interesting argument, and there are more positions than just these. But either way, Gallagher has a point that Blankenhorn’s “new conversation” about marriage is not just a return to the good old days of the culture wars before gay marriage became an issue. It’s throwing in the towel on the ideal of marriage as an institution for maintaining gender distinction.

23 thoughts on “Can the marriage movement survive gay marriage?

  1. So then do we think that most leaders of the marriage movement oppose same-sex marriage not because they have problems with homosexuality but because they desperately want to cling to a fading ideal vision of the essentialism of gender? Do they like gay people but just want to continue to believe that men and women are inherently (inflexibly) different in certain ways (and amazingly, they know what those differences are, and even more amazingly, those differences relate to 21st century America!)?

    Or is this just a ruse? Is support for gender roles in parenting just a convenient reason to continue to discriminate against a group they honestly just don’t like? My guess would be it’s a little bit of both.


    1. Andy, I think you’re right on this – a little bit of both. But there’s more. There are humans involved.

      Some “academics” (as well as people in many kinds of work), over time, begin to believe themselves as they are continually rewarded by atttention. By taking it to the extremes, so to speak, they receive even more attention. We are their “looking glass selves,” in a way, and they become increasingly committed to their perceived persona. The rewards flow, the recognition flows, and scientific “neutrality” goes – whoosh – out the door.


  2. I do remember when many gay people opposed the whole institution of marriage and the ways in which supporting same-sex marriage was viewed as a conservative sell-out. There was a specific turn when the right to marry became “the” issue. I remember also the feminist critiques of the nuclear family.

    Apart from the people who seek to use gay-bashing for political ends, most of the deep-seated opposition to gay marriage specifically and homosexuality more broadly is coming from older people reared in a different culture with a different sense of taken-for-granteds. It is easy to construct a socially conservative view that says that if you are going to be homosexual, it is better for you and society for you to be monogamous.

    I think there’s a useful non-ideological conversation to have about how much social policy should support and even incentivize stable pair-bonding especially while children are being reared versus how much society should support individual people and children’s well-being in whatever social configurations they are in. I can think of good arguments on both sides of that discussion and wish we could have it.


    1. Thanks, OW. I agree. (I have tried for several years to find an undergrad willing to say they oppose gay marriage with no luck.) The problem with “incentivizing” coupling for parents is that it’s the same thing as a penalty for being single — and we already have a lot of that. If being married or otherwise coupled is a benefit — because married people are happier, healthier, richer, live longer, etc. — and marriage is chosen more often by rich or well-educated people, then maybe it would be better policy to tax them to help support poor, not-married parents.


  3. Olderwoman, a thought occurred to me after reading your comment that you might want to participate in David Blankenhorn’s “A New Conversation on Marriage”

    It is nice to see this blog article because it explains to me what Maggie article was about. Maybe I am just not as smart as everybody else but I could not get to what she was trying to say. She must be a busy woman doing other things because she has not answered me back where I asked her to give me some concrete examples of gender norms that are slipping making boys not do as well as girls now days. I know and understand in her view Civil Marriage is *one* of them, but there must be others as well. We can’t hang the whole “boys are failing” on Civil Marriage for sexual minorities, there must be other gender norms that are slipping. I have not been able to comment further because I don’t know what slipping gender norms she is thinking of.

    I wish David Blankenhorn would pick a side and stick with it though. In this same article he tells Maggie, “Children do best with married bio mother and bio father” I am really having a hard time understanding the conflicting positions of Blankenhorn. You know, I like his revised statement taking gender out of the definition of marriage, but then in the next breath he says kids do best with bio mom & dad. It’s like watching a table tennis match sometimes. Ping-Pong-Ping-Pong.


  4. This may be the single most stupid piece of writing about me that I’ve ever come across — and believe me, I’ve come across a few! There is the apparently obligatory, when Mr. Cohen is concerned, saracasm and mean-spiritedness (keeping one’s donor base, futile arguments, etc). Then there are the cheap, utterly false accusations, such as the charge that I now believe that gender does not matter. Then there are the speculations about my motives — all of them (the speculations), I can assure you, uninformed and false. Most of all, there is the sheer, mind-numbing incoherence. If Mr. Cohen has a substantive point to make — other than congratulating himself for his superior morals and insights and putting other people down — I cannot figure out what it is.


    1. Coupla notes:

      1. The issue of the donor base was discussed extensively in the NYT article I referenced.

      2. The issue of not caring about gender was Gallagher’s interpretation – plus it’s absence from the “Call” document is sort of obvious once you think about it.

      3. My Atlantic editor Eleanor Barkin did what she could about the incoherence – I will pass along the feedback.

      4. The mean-spiritedness and high moral self-evaluation are reserved for people who have devoted substantial portions of their professional careers to opposing the human and civil rights of their innocent fellow citizens. The bar for moral superiority is pretty low in such cases.

      Thanks for writing.


  5. David, if there is one thing I have learned about you, and I learned this directly from reading you. You have the thinnest skin of any public figure in my memory. If anybody says the least little thing about you that “could” be interpreted as unflattering you go off. You are extremely overly sensitive to criticism. In fact I didn’t think this was a nasty article about you at all. The point Philip makes is a valid one, both you and Maggie are dependent on large donors. You both have “”I need to make a living, skin in the game”

    At least on this website I won’t get banned. You try and keep this facade going on the Family Scolars blog by virtually banning anyone who calls you out. You disguise it as being “uncivil” but that is a dodge. I was recently banned because I commented on a video of a talk you gave and said that although you say you are now a supporter of Civil Rights for sexual minorities when you talk about them your voice and your body language are very contorted. In other words when speaking about your now support you are never happy, or I should say you do not project being happy about it. I was trying to help you actually but with your typical thin skin you deleted the comments and banned me. You do NOT brook honest criticism at ALL.

    Here is another example. When Elizabeth Marquardt wrote her, “I am now resigned to gay Marriage column” I commented and I quite civilly asked for clarification because the way she wrote it did not indicate “support” she wrote she was resigned to it happening. Completely CIVIL comment deleted. Because Elizabeth did not want anyone else to notice the point I was making. I was an early commenter maybe comment 3 or 4. I think it was the next day finally she said about gay marriage being a reality, “Let’s put it this way I won’t do a happy dance” That is support? You fail to understand Daavide that censorship shows weakness. Oh you banned my comment on HuffPo to, LOL? That comment was simply, “I wonder if the authors have ability to delete comments ? Amusingly THAT comment was posted then deleted, so I guess I got my answer. The reason I bring up the deleting of comments and banning people is because it goes right back to being overly sensitive to criticism and being very fussy about projecting and “image”. To the point of guarding the gate so that you can shape the message, deleting things based on viewpoint, not based at all on civility.

    I was very civilly telling you David that your in person demeanor lacks warmth and acceptance of sexual minorities. You are uptight when you speak about them. You want to ban me for that? No problem. But people know David, it is widely known how you operate at FS.

    Philip I thought this was a very coherent article and I enjoyed it and I REALLY did NOT think at ALL is was a slam on Blankenhorn. He’s just got such thin skin, it’s a shame really, because I do think he is a good person.


  6. Being that straight people are marrying less while the gay marriage rate goes up as it is legalized, the straight marriage movement probably will start focusing more on straight people. But at the same time, unmarried couples are experiencing less bias than ever before so I hope NOM goes easy on them.


  7. My basic point is that, aside from self-righteous posturing and put-downs, you have nothing to say. I mean, nothing of substance to say. If you would like to engage me in an actual give-and-take conversation — on this blog, for example — we could test out my hypothesis. You could say something about what I think. And then I could repond. And then we could go back and forth. Like that. See if anyting emerges that might shed light on anything.


    1. David – I’ve written almost 500 posts on this blog, and each one has a public comment section. Go to town. I get an email every time someone comments so I’ll be sure to read what you write. My general rule is: The more effort a reader puts into a comment the more I try to respond substantively. To assist in your browsing, you might try posts under the “marriage” or “homogamy” tags in the strip on the right side of the page. (I normally delete personal insults of the kind you have posted here, but I’m leaving yours up because I’m afraid they’re boosting my street cred.)


      1. My point, to repeat, is that, apart from empty posturing, you have nothing of substance to say about me or my work. I wasn’t asking you if I could read your blog posts. I was asking you if you wanted to have an actual conversation with me, so that we could test my thesis that you have nothing of substance to say about me or my work. I take it that you are declining my offer, which I certainly understand.


      2. What I was getting at with my suggestion that you browse the previous posts was an attempt at a polite way of saying: No, I do not really want to discuss you with you on this blog. You have lots of forums in which to discuss yourself. I do, however, have lots “of substance” to say about the issues you care about (in addition to yourself), such as marriage, and homogamy in particular. What I meant was, if you’re interested in “an actual conversation” apart from one about yourself, you might try conversing about that.


  8. I understand. I’m interesting enough to you for you to write and publish an article about my views, but when I tell you that the article in question is silly and without substance, and challenge you to engage with me directly, in your own forum, about its contents, you don’t want to do that. I undestand. I guess you are just a busy guy.


  9. Ok, if we could turn the conversation back to the substance of the article, and I think it does have some…

    My reading of it (Philip please tell me if I am mistaken) is that the “Call for a New Conversation” that David espouses no longer suggests that actively maintaining gender difference (by arguing that children must have both a mother and a father) is one of the core purposes of marriage. (Fyi: I interpret this idea of actively seeking to maintain gender differentiation as quite different from recognizing any gender difference that exists.) Maggie Gallagher has some problem with a marriage movement that does not have gender differentiation as a core part of its goals. Philip is presenting both of those perspectives, and wondering if a new marriage movement can argue for a marital institution that does not work to maintain gender distinction, without going even farther and destabilizing gender completely.

    So, David, I think Philip is asking you to grapple directly with the issue of gender in your new conversation. Can you have a marriage movement without active gender differentiation? What are the challenges of making that argument? Will this lead to the destabilization of gender itself, and is that a good or bad thing?


    1. Thanks, Holly. I agree that’s the question. It’s also related to the Olderwoman question: to what extent is the gay rights movement demand for marriage rights conservative or subversive? In Blankenhorn’s previous work – and his Proposition 8 trial testimony – he argued that same-sex marriage would *probably* lead to the decline of marriage (and increase in divorce) for exactly that reason: undermining the marriage-defining concept of opposites brought together.


  10. Hmm… Andrew Sullivan is one who argues for marriage equality as a conservative, as one who values tradition, commitment, pair bonding, though he doesn’t really engage the gender question very much. But I had a recent conversation with a friend who argues from the subversive side. In her words, “the best thing for straight marriage would be to queer it up,” that changing up the gendered expectations in marriage would be especially beneficial to help women construct more satisfying marriages. One could argue that gay marriage is actually good for straight marriage, at least for a more egalitarian, non-gendered form that may be more stable in our modern society. I hadn’t thought of that before.


    1. Thanks, Holly. I guess it depends what you mean by “good for marriage.” For the “marriage movement,” this is mostly measured by quantity of (straight) marriage – that is, more people married for more years of their lives. If you’re trying to make marriage an egalitarian institution, and judge that “good” for marriage, then you may be playing for a different team…


  11. I do understand the high-mindedness of most of this, but it does seem to me that one of the more obvious benefits to ostensibly traditional marriage to be found in building cultural support for same sex marriage is simply that it may tend to reduce the frequency of those annoying marriages where one or both parties attempt to conceal sexual orientation by marrying a person of a gender that does not interest them sexually. While, of course, some persons look forward to the mess of manipulation and recrimination that that sort of thing leads to, it does not raise the general opinion of any sort of marriage.

    More broadly, a marriage movement which measures success by what percentage of the population enters into a heterosexual marriage has not adequately considered its aims. Our culture is painfully aware that some of those marriages are ill-considered. That means that there is a lot of work to do in terms of how well marriages work. To be less seriously focused would seem, in the matters discussed above, to be yet another arena for manipulation and recrimination.


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