Not Everyone Can Be a Radical

While Anne-Marie Slaughter was blowing away the work-life crowd last week, David Blankenhorn, in The New York Times, dropped a similar thought bomb on the LGBT world, coming out in favor—kinda sorta—of legal recognition for same-sex couples. David Blankenhorn, founder of the socially conservative Institute for American Values? I was too flabbergasted to even feel happy. What’s next? The sun rises in the west, and the mountains go dancing across the ocean? Blankenhorn has been crusading against our marriages for two decades on the same grounds as Maggie Gallagher (whose head must be spinning): Because allowing two people of one sex to marry further decouples marriage from procreation.

This gets mocked, but it's worth understanding, even if you disagree. Blankenhorn and Gallagher want everyone to think that sex=marriage=babies. Don’t have sex if you’re not married, or if you do, get married if pregnancy ensues; don’t have babies if you’re not married; and stay married for the babies. Blankenhorn and Gallagher both believe passionately that holding together that biological triad is the one true purpose of marriage and the Only Right Way that children can be reared. They oppose anything—anything­­—that suggests they can be unlinked. Sperm or egg donation? Bad. Single motherhood? Bad. Divorce? Über-bad. All these lead to the apocalypse: irresponsible men feeling that they can walk away from their God-given responsibilities and selfish women thinking that they can deprive their children of their God-given fathers. In their minds, allowing same-sex couples to marry reinforces those irresponsible approaches to sex—sex does not need to equal procreation, and marriage does not need to equal child-rearing—all of which nudges the cultural model further in the direction that suggests to the 98.5 percent of the popuation that is heterosexual that they can have sex without thinking about marriage or kids.

But Blankenhorn has clearly seen the writing on the wall. In his op-ed, he says that he is shocked to learn that opposition to equal marriage (my phrasing) is linked with anti-gay attitudes, and so he forswears his own opposition. In return for his support, he asks enthusiastic newlyweds—the one group of Americans that seems interested in an institution that the majority is fleeing like rats from a sinking ship—to join him in his crusade to reinforce all of the above:

So my intention is to try something new. Instead of fighting gay marriage, I’d like to help build new coalitions bringing together gays who want to strengthen marriage with straight people who want to do the same. For example, once we accept gay marriage, might we also agree that marrying before having children is a vital cultural value that all of us should do more to embrace? Can we agree that, for all lovers who want their love to last, marriage is preferable to cohabitation? Can we discuss whether both gays and straight people should think twice before denying children born through artificial reproductive technology the right to know and be known by their biological parents?

(Let me say here that, after talking to many adopted adults about their profound wish to know more about their biological relatives, I do believe our laws ought to make it possible for children born of alternative technologies to have some knowledge of their genetic forebears. But I’m not signing up for the reasoning behind his crusade.)

Richard Kim at The Nation had a very smart response, as always, but one with which I disagree deeply. I'm going to quote him at length to explain my disagreement, although I really hope you go back and read his original. Here’s what he said, in part:

I suppose Blankenhorn’s very public surrender is reason to celebrate. It’s yet another sign that it is increasingly untenable for anyone bidding for mainstream credibility to remain opposed to same-sex marriage—and he admits as much in his op-ed. ...

But in a way, I get Blankenhorn’s surliness. It’s a mirror to my own agitation on the subject. ...

Back in 2005, in the wake of a rash of state constitutional bans on same-sex marriage, Lisa Duggan and I argued that the gay movement—and progressives at large—should focus on advocating for a range of household recognitions, for “decentering” marriage as an institution even while fighting for legal equality. ... Here’s what we wrote:

For gay activists, and indeed for all progressive activists, it would be far more productive to stress support for household diversity—both cultural and economic support, recognition and resources for a changing population as it actually lives—than to focus solely on gay marriage. ... If we connect this democratization of household recognition with advocacy of material support for caretaking, as well as for good jobs and adequate benefits (like universal healthcare), then what we all have in common will come into sharper relief.

I cannot tell you, here, how much I admire Richard Kim, and I am grateful for the chance to write for him at The Nation. But on this, he is wrong in several ways. He says that he understands Blankenhorn's surliness because it mirrors his own dislike of what's happened in the debate over marriage. Kim is of the radical LGBT faction that wishes marriage had not become the overweening LGBT issue of the past 15 years, because he's not so crazy about marriage as an institution to begin with. Given that Americans are fleeing marriage in overwhelming numbers, he and others like him would have instead liked for LGBT folks to help come up with more flexible ways to recognize alternative household structures, while building toward progressive goals like support for care work, universal health care, and other goals that free Americans from depending on tying the knot to take care of their and their children's health and well-being.

Instead, the overwhelming LGBT focus has been on achieving equality in the world as is—and absorption into what Kim and others have seen as a problematic institution in the first place. 

Kim and Duggan are, and have been, wrong: Most lesbians and gay men are not, and have never been, radicals—any more than most heterosexual people are. It’s foolish to ask the LGBT movement to stand for dramatic progressive change. As I’ve written often, LGBT folks are born and live in every zip code, every cultural stratum, every kind of family in the country. We’re more like our siblings than we are like each other. Some of us gather in urban centers, collect serial graduate degrees, and think about “decentering heteronormativity” (if you’ll pardon my language). Most are far more ordinary. If Kim, Duggan, Nancy Polikoff, and others who’ve argued against the marriage pursuit want to transform family law, they have to look for some other constituency than the homos. Being gay is not the same as being queer.

I agree that we desperately need to reform our family laws and our social structures of work and care. Almost all other developed countries have gradations in their ways of recognizing family forms. But building support for that transformation will, and should, have to come from another source than the LGBT grassroots, which has insisted that its organizations and leaders—quite reluctantly, for a long time—focused on achieving equality by ending our exclusion from existing structures. 

Blankenhorn has finally understood that most LGBT folks just want to be equal and that it's unfair to stand in our way. He's still focused on the hopeless task of trying to sweep American society back into forms we outgrew centuries ago. Someone else will have to try to invent new ones that fit. 

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