Gay Marriage: In Search of the “Real Issue”

by Andrew Saraf ’11

On December 4, 2008, the USG Senate convened for a special meeting. A referendum having nothing to do with traditional values was being challenged for reasons having nothing to do with equality. At issue was not the meaning of an eons-old social institution but the meaning of a two-year old USG amendment. The definition of the word “frivolous,” not of “marriage,” was the focus of debate.

It was a textbook case of interest-group politics – the art of speaking past one’s adversary. The referendum in question was pushed by an organization called the Coalition for Intellectual Liberty (C-FIL), and was a response to the newly-formed Equality Action Network’s referendum, which called for the Board of Trustees to take a stand against Proposition 8, California’s gay marriage ban.

The three groups that composed C-FIL – the Anscombe Society, the Tory and the College Republicans – represented a conservative minority on campus. Their cause, they emphasized, was not a conservative one. C-FIL’s referendum spoke in the broad terms that its name suggested, never mentioning marriage and calling on the University to refrain from commenting on “disputed questions of morality, law and policy.”

Soon after the referendum secured the 200 necessary signatures, a challenge was brought forward by Cindy Hong and several other senators. Earlier in 2008, the USG had stumbled across a forgotten 2006 amendment allowing the Senate to “review” referenda and, with a 5/6 vote, declare them “frivolous.” To use this power against a referendum one merely disagrees with would be to invite accusations of unscrupulousness. And so C-FIL’s opponents, like its supporters, had every reason to steer the debate away from marriage entirely.

Hong is a gay marriage supporter, and admits that she was opposed to the referendum’s substance, believing that “the University absolutely should comment on broader issues.” But as she tells the Tory, the referendum’s broad (and, she argues, vague) language, not its promoters’ ideological stance, was the issue.

“Each voter could have a different interpretation of what the referendum meant,” she says. Read a certain way, the referendum seemed to call on the University to remain silent on issues that touched on its own policies – a request, Hong says, that would clearly be absurd. Despite reassurances from C-FIL leaders that they were only interested in external issues, Hong insists that the possibility of such an interpretation was compelling enough to spur USG action.

Joining the challenge to the referendum was USG Councilor Jacob Candelaria, who echoed Hong’s point about its vagueness and possible implications for internal University policies. Candelaria is a founding member of the Equality Action Network; but he assures the Tory that he, too, was legitimately concerned about the seriousness of the referendum, citing his “responsibility as an elected official.”

And so a dispute between gay marriage supporters and gay marriage opponents became a sort of shadowboxing match, with opponents challenging EAN in the name of intellectual liberty and supporters challenging C-FIL in the name of USG prerogatives. It was only after C-FIL’s call for University neutrality and EAN’s call for University involvement failed at the ballot box that both sides publicly confronted the issue. On Wednesday, December 10, the Anscombe Society, represented by Brandon McGinley, Shivani Radhakrishnan and Joel Alicea, debated EAN, represented by Candelaria, David Christie and David Walters, on the meaning of marriage.

It was a chance for each side to bring its values to the table. But the event revealed a fundamental disconnect at the heart of the marriage debate. If students spoke past each other at the Dec. 4 meeting – if they spoke on behalf of values that political circumstances forced them to conceal – the Dec. 10 debate did little to bridge the gap.

There was one point, in particular, that underscored the distance between gay marriage opponents and gay marriage proponents. “They were talking about ‘the inherent need for bodily union,’” Hong, who attended the debate, recalls. “That goes over my head. I’m not really sure where that’s coming from.” In an interview with the Tory, Christie spoke in a similarly befuddled tone. “The whole ‘one-flesh union’ thing – that doesn’t make any sense to me,” he says.

Yet it is hard to overstate how central this notion – whether it is called “one-flesh union” or “bodily union”– is to Anscombe’s conception of marriage. Anscombe frames the marriage issue not as a question of whether or not gays should get married – the private recognition of marriage, after all, is not under the control of policymakers – but of whether or not the state should legally recognize gay unions. The question is one that is seldom brought up in media coverage of the issue. As Radhakrishnan puts it in an email, “Why is the state involved in marriage at all? Why doesn’t the state stay out of marriage, like it stays out of Bar Mitzvahs or baptisms?” The answer, to proponents of traditional marriage, is that marriage serves a public purpose. Society has a vested interest in giving legal recognition to the kind of relationship that can produce children – hence the centrality of the “one-flesh union.” A radically expanded definition of the institution of marriage, gay marriage opponents argue, would undermine the very reason for recognizing marriage in the first place, turning “marriage” into a word with little discernible content.

While it could be (and has often been) argued that the state might then seek to invalidate the marriages of infertile couples, this is something of a misconstruction of the issue. The choice is not between a situation in which all relationships are recognized and one in which only child-producing relationships are recognized. It is a choice in which the state must balance its interest in the next generation with other considerations, most importantly the privacy of its citizens. As Radhakrishnan points out, legal precedents show that the state has sought to strike this balance: an annulment, she notes, can be granted to “a couple that does not consummate its union,” but not to a couple that “realizes that it is infertile.”

But gay marriage proponents frame the question in entirely different, individualistic terms, making an argument that most Princeton students are by now familiar with: If we accept that a gay person and a heterosexual are equal, then we cannot grant a right to one without granting the same right to the other. Less clear from my discussions with them was a sense of why, or even whether, marriage itself was an important social institution.

Candelaria, for example, took a view that suggests a critical distance from the institution of marriage itself. “We’re born and raised in a society that tells us that the goal of our lives is to find someone to spend the rest of our lives with,” he says. “That’s something that the state recognizes. If the state doesn’t want to recognize anything, fine. But for the state to recognize some unions and not others – it sends a very clear message. It creates a hierarchy.” Even when asked to explain the importance of marriage, then, Candelaria focuses on the discriminatory message it currently sends to gays rather than its value to society.

Hong also seems to place little stock in marriage’s supposed public purpose, taking a stance that is fundamentally opposed to Anscombe’s. “I’m not sure whether the state should even recognize marriage,” she says. “I lean towards the state recognizing civil unions and leaving marriage as a religious institution.”

Christie, who has a more clearly articulated defense of marriage, is also reluctant to take his arguments too far. “In my own view marriage has an important place in society, and is the best way we’ve established so far to raise children,” he says. “But as far as the institution itself – I’m not sure whether I’d defend marriage for the sake of marriage. I don’t have a particularly coherent view of the institution.”

It is easy to deconstruct traditionalists’ claims about marriage and argue that they are really talking about gays. From this standpoint, the disconnect in the gay marriage debate is primarily a disagreement about homosexuality. But in focusing on individual rights, what unspoken values and assumptions do gay marriage proponents reveal? Based on Hong, Candelaria and Christie’s views, it is worth asking whether growing support for gay marriage is linked to a growing ambivalence about marriage itself- and asking, concurrently, whether gay marriage opponents’ talk of “defending marriage” should be taken more seriously on college campuses and in the national media.

But where the lack of clarity about marriage may be a philosophical shortcoming for gay marriage proponents, it represents a profound political challenge for Anscombe and other conservative organizations. Based on the results of Referendum 1a, Hong, Candelaria and Christie speak for about two-thirds of Princeton students in their support of gay marriage. It is not farfetched to assume that their utter bafflement at the concept of “one-flesh union” is something shared by many other debate attendees and Princeton students more generally. After all, the essential connection that the notion of “one-flesh union” implies – a connection between marriage, sex and children – does not seem as relevant in an era in which contraception is widely available and, according to a recent Guttmacher Institute study, nine out of ten Americans have had premarital sex.

And if the gay marriage disconnect is defined in part by gay marriage supporters’ incomprehension of Anscombe’s values, there is also a sense in which this disconnect cuts both ways. Where Anscombe members make a natural law-based argument about the definition of marriage, Candelaria and other gay marriage proponents make a utilitarian argument focusing on, as he puts it, “the harm that the status quo inflicts upon real people.” Until they can address the utilitarian side of the issue, gay marriage opponents will be dogged by an inescapable question: “What is at stake here?”

As Anscombe member Lauren Kustner admits, it has been exceedingly difficult for social conservatives to frame the argument in these terms. “It’s harder to pin down the impact of changing the definition of marriage,” she says. “There is no victim group. On the other side, you can always bring forward two men or two women and say, ‘Look at these two people. Look at what you’re denying them.’” We live on a practical-minded campus in a practical-minded nation. Gay marriage may, as Anscombe argues, render marriage incoherent on a conceptual level – but how does the conceptual translate into the concrete?

As long as these questions remain unaddressed, their answers will seem obvious to many Princeton students: of course changing the definition of marriage won’t have any impact, of course Anscombe is just talking about quaint, meaningless abstractions. And each side of the debate will continue to reinforce a mutually perceived misunderstanding: the view that, if the other side only saw the real issue, they would abandon their position. As the recent controversy has made abundantly clear, the disagreement runs far deeper than that.

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