Debating Marriage | Out Magazine

Debating Marriage

In Outs September issue, E.J. Graff, author of What is Marriage For? The Strange Social History of Our Most Intimate Institution (Beacon Press), looked at several new books on same-sex marriage. Jonathan Rauch, whose book Gay Marriage: Why It Is Good for Gay, Good for Straights, and Good for America (Times Books/Henry Holt and Co.) was one of the five works under discussion, e-mailed Graff and opened a conversation on several points in her piece. The authors provided a copy of their correspondence, which we present below:

From: Jonathan Rauch
Sent: Thursday, September 23, 2004 11:12 PM
To: EJ Graff
Subject: Your Out article

Dear E.J.,

I enjoyed meeting you and enjoyed your book even more. Given my high esteem for your book and how scrupulously (and, I think, admiringly) I quoted it, Im disappointed to read that you think I quoted you sometimes misleadingly. Id like to know where exactly that happened. If I got something wrong, Ill certainly try to correct it.

Im even more disappointed to read you characterize my book as an attempt to persuade the conservative commentariat that same-sex marriage can roll us all back to the 1950sa cheap caricature which certainly is misleading. Theres nothing like that in the book. As you know if you read it (?), it argues that marriage brings all sorts of personal and social benefits, and that gay marriage can both extend and preserve those benefits.

Im always happy (eager!) to discuss the pros and cons of alternatives to marriage, and whether it is marriage or jobs or children or all or none that help bring domesticity and stability, and so on. All important subjects. All deserve to be approached with some seriousness of purpose and fairness of mind. I wish you had done so. I know you were capable of it.

On a substantive note, can you really believe that mere symbolismweddings, receptions, bouquetscan no longer enforce marriage as an essential life passage? In the face of the many, many testimonials from couples in San Francisco and Massachusetts and for that matter Vermont about the profound difference the mere symbolism of marriage has made in their lives and relationships? Typical quote, from an article that crossed my desk just today (Newsday, 4/5/04): I was surprised and shocked at my own personal emotional response to it, agrees Adam Rolston, 41, a Manhattan architect who had a civil union in Vermont with his partner...Theyd gone to Vermont primarily as a political statementto show how many gays want the option to marry. What it felt like to hear the words youve heard seven billion times in the course of your lifetime: Do you take this man? ...

Wellonward.

Best, -j.
From: EJ Graff
Sent: Thursday, September 28, 2004 10:35 AM PM
To: Jonathan Rauch
Subject: Re: Your Out article

Dear Jonathan,

Thank you for writing. So sorry you found my comments cheap. Thats not how I meant them. I meant, rather, to express profound disagreement with your argument, in a way that would be engaging for the reader, and would acknowledge my own obviously biased point of view. It was hard to do justice to so many books in such a short space; given that I made clear
that I was writing an essay that would give a quite personal reaction to these books, therefore leaving room for readers to disregard my ideas entirely, I felt free to give my own opinion directly, if pithily.

As for the profound disagreement: it is considered, not superficial. I did indeed read every page of your book, and have read your work in the past. I was quite surprised, when we met, that you thought highly of my work; I had begun writing about marriage because of my frustration with arguments that I saw coming from you, Andrew Sullivan, and Bruce Bawer (not the same people, I realize, but you see my point). I always saw my work as a clear alternative to the marriage-is-good-for-people line of thinking, on the one side, and the marriage-is-always-bad-for-women-and-other-living-things line of thinking, on the other. (And, yes, my work has been treated quite scathingly in that world, which Ive always thought was fair: they and I genuinely disagree, although some of my best friends)

Here's what I think of myself as doing: taking a feminist, pragmatic, historically grounded look at why its possible to talk about same-sex marriage now, and why it was impossible before. Because of what capitalism has done to marriage, today we fit with the ongoing feminist and egalitarian direction of marriage law. This is distinctly *not* a moral argument about the importance of marriage; it is a pragmatic argument about marriages actual incarnations over time. (Ive even been told its Marxist!)

I absolutely disagree that *civil* marriagecomplete with social pressure, etc.is good for people. Rather, I tried to argue that having rules for marriage are inevitable, because 1) human beings do in fact pair off; 2) humans being human, they will disagree; 3) society has an interest in ensuring that when private disagreements occur in a common social institution that those disagreements are adjudicated in a way that would be fair for others who share that institution; 4) what gets defined as fairness changes with the contexthence ketubot (Jewish marriage contracts) or Napoleonic codes ordering husbands to support their wives financially looks like justice in one generation, but seems appalling in another; 5) and, given what we consider fair today, same-sex couples could use some help from the same rules as different-sex couples.

You misleadingly quoted my book as suggesting that legal marriage brings health benefits. Well, thats just frustrating for me. I thought I clearly summarized the research about the marriage health benefit as showing that *simply living together* conveys that benefitin other words, that its the inner marriage (the bond and the companionship), not the external ceremony or the legal recognition, that matters. Informal marriage does it just as well as formal marriage.

Perhaps I did not emphasize this strongly enough. Further, living together while hating each other *does not* convey the marriage benefit. But the point in that subchapter was this: since living together, or informal marriage, is a good thing, then society should offer those people who do it the legal recognitions that help that *inner* marriage fulfill its promises, or resolve differences in the commonly agreed upon ways. I most distinctly do *not* believe that anyone should be pushed toward marriage; such a push has been too disastrous for too many people, children and adults alike.

In fact, I find myself insisting to my circles that, no, the *possibility* of same-sex marriage will not (and should not) create an expectation that same-sex couples should marry. I do not see how this expectation can be reimposedor why it should be. The short version of why I think it impossible: The way we make our livings (capitalism, to be a Marxist once again) actually tears individuals in very different directions. The conservative argument seems to utterly ignore powerful market forces. Mine is rather a somewhat Weberian argument: in the absence of law, the strong rule the weak, so we should have law.

As for symbolism: I agree that the ritual, the ceremony, the symbolism of the wedding is incredibly powerful. I am a religious person; I experienced Madelines and my vows in 1991 as overwhelmingly sacred, and that ceremony did transform the quality of and commitment within our relationship. That wasnt because it was a legal marriage, however, which it was not (and still is notweve been a little slow in getting to the jp!). And as youll see in my next Out piece [Editors note: in the December issue], I see perfectly well that the civil recognition of same-sex couples has an emotional and symbolic power as well.

But, Jonathan, thats not what you were arguing. Let me quote you: Getting married is the normal thing for adults to do. More than any other action, institution, or designation, it separates the grownups from the kids. In the context, you make it clear that you see this as a positive thing, something to be reinforced by adding same-sex couples to the mix. Some pages later: For eons, human communities have favored more marriage over less. They have believed that marriage is a powerful stabilizing force; that it disciplines and channels crazy-making love and troublemaking libido; that stability and discipline are socially beneficial, even precious their belief is a deeply conservative one, based on the age-old wisdom that love and sex and marriage go together and are severed at societys peril It is not enough just to make marriage available. Marriage should also be *expected* It must be privileged. That is, it must be understood to be better than other ways of livinga general norm. You go on to argue that legalizing same-sex marriage would help re-inscribe that norm, warning that not doing so helps leave marriage to unravel: The growing visibility of unmarried gay couples may legitimize cohabitation instead.

Well, nonsense. Sorry, but I couldnt be more opposed to every single contention in this sequence. Sex and marriage go together and are severed at societys peril??? (Men should be held responsible for any children they spawn, but thats not the same thing.) Oh, please! Based on what? Marriage should be expected, a general norm? Getting married designates you as an adult? Legalizing same-sex marriage will help strengthen that norm? I could not disagree more strongly with everything thats implied here.

Heres how I see it: post-industrial capitalisms economic forces are pulling families apart, making it harder and less economically essential to pair off. The resulting effects on marriage can be seen everywhere in the developed world. (I could write an entire book on this aloneand on marriage as resistance to consumer capitalisms incessant encouragement of random desire!) Nevertheless, people will continue to pair off, because humans are social/sexual creatures. And because humans are humans, law will continue to be necessary when those pairings run up against disagreementswith each other, with their families, with hospitals (e.g., Terry Schiavo, the Florida woman in a persistent vegetative state). But the same principlethe ability to make an independent living without your familys backing, and therefore, the ability to make your own decisions about your bedroomthat accounts for the rise in cohabitation and divorce is also what accounts for the rise in the acceptance of gay and lesbian pairs. Letting us marry isnt going to slow down capitalisms centrifugal spin.

Nor will it turn the wedding into the symbolic threshold of adulthood. A wedding is a symbolically powerful passage for the couple, yeswith or without laws backing. But adding legal (as well as the existing religious, social, and emotional) force for same-sex weddings will not reinscribe the idea that youre not a full adult until you marry. Making a living is the moment of adulthood now: thats when you leave your parents house and begin making a home of your own, living by your own rules, being responsible for yourself (and perhaps to others, like your employer or clients or roommates), etc. Work is when you leave home and are in charge of your life. Marriage used to be that moment, putting you in charge of your sex and work lives at the same time. Barring some truly dramatic change in the social and economic structure, those two moments will not merge again. I said what I meant, Jonathan, and I meant what I said, if youll forgive a little Dr. Seuss here.

While I back all these ideas quite strongly, I do not hold any personal animus about our profound intellectual disagreements. Honestly! I come from a family where we argue in the strongest possible language. My apologies if my phrasing seemed personal rather than intellectual.

Sorry I went on so longIm apparently too tired to edit.

EJ
From: Jon Rauch
Sent: Thursday, September 30, 2004 6:48 PM
To: EJ Graff
Subject: RE: Your Out article

Thanks for such a thoughtful e-mail!

Our disagreements on marriages place in society and gay life, etc. are indeed profound. No need to hash thru all that in e-mail. Theres plenty of room in this debate for both of us.

What Im mad about isnt that we disagree substantively, but that your review, I thought, wasnt fair either to me or to the disagreement. I wont harp on this beyond the next few sentences of this e-mail, because Ive said my piece and its time to move on. But I want to be clear about what ticked me off:

1) Ive just gone back to your book, pp. 45 ff. I quote you at length and accurately. I then go on to say some of the same things you do, and one thing that you dontmarriage itself appears to be good for youon my own authority, referring to the comparisons with cohabitation. I in no way attribute that to you.

I try to be very careful with quotes. If youd said I misunderstood the evidence or overlooked a countervailing study from Denmark, fine. But you said I cited your book misleadingly. I dont think thats right in either sense. People are going to read that and think Im a trickster. Integrity counts, and in our business its all weve got.

2) Now that I understand better where youre coming from, I understand better what you thought you were getting at when you summarized my book as attempt[ing] to persuade the conservative commentariat that same-sex marriage can roll us all back to the 1950s. You meant, more or less, Due to economic forces that wont change, marriage will never again be unique in its bonding power or its social status, and thats as it should beor whatever. But what I got out of the sentence you wrote, and what most readers will get, is something more like, Rauch is pandering to reactionaries by claiming that same-sex marriage will help undo 50 years of social progress toward inclusion and equality. I think to most people, especially readers of Out, thats what back to the 1950s means.

Lord knows Ive missed nuances in the ceaseless battle to cut words. But I do try to give a fair and accurate characterization of the book Im reviewing, in however many words I use. (Especially if I disagree.)

All right, Im over it. You should know that in all my life I have never before written a private note to a reviewer in disagreement. I get my share of dumb and underhanded reviews, but I dont care what a dumb or underhanded reviewer thinks, as long as they spell my name right. I wrote to you because I admire your work, care what you think, and want to view you as someone who is careful and thoughtful and aboveboard.

Thanks for this exchange& see ya around.

Best, -j.

From: EJ Graff
Sent: Thursday, September 30, 2004 8:01 PM
To: EJ Graff
Subject: RE: Your Out article

Hey, Jonathan. I see your points. Neither of those things was what I thought my sentences were implying (and I did feel I was quoted misleadingly). I did not mean to be cheap or quick, truly.

I understand about being misrepresented. A couple of feminists whose work I admire tremendously really attacked my book. It hurt, but there it was; they hated what I said. Thanks for the respect intentionally implied in actually writing to me about it (if that sentence makes sense).

See you on the circuit,

EJ

To purchase E.J. Graff's What is Marriage For? The Strange Social History of Our Most Intimate Institution click here.

To purchase Jonathan Rauch's Gay Marriage: Why It Is Good for Gay, Good for Straights, and Good for America go to here.

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