Detail from Las Castas Mexicanas
One of the same-sex marriage movement’s most potent polemical tools has been, and surely will continue to be, its equation of same-sex marriage with interracial marriage. On this telling, today’s opposition to same-sex marriage is akin to the opposition to interracial marriage mounted by yesterday’s racists and segregationists. If this assumption were granted, then the legal recognition of same-sex marriage would seem to realize a legitimate equality. A public—like our own—that had largely accepted this parity could at least acquiesce in such a step once it has been imposed by the Supreme Court.
Now the Supreme Court has actually taken such a step and in the course of doing so has given credence to the analogy between same-sex marriage and interracial marriage. This argument will be employed to discredit and demonize those who dissent, those who do not want to cooperate in a distortion of the meaning of marriage. Such dissenters, we will be told, are no different from and no better than the bigots of yesteryear who railed against mixed race marriages.
There is, however, no reason at all for the defenders of marriage to submit tamely to the fate that the left has planned for them. They have a right, and indeed a duty, to continue to defend marriage as a union between a man and a woman, with a view to correcting an error widespread in our country, and even with a view, someday, to securing a reversal of the Supreme Court’s decision. They also have a right and a duty to defend themselves from the left’s plans—already triumphantly announced—to use antidiscrimination law to force moral traditionalists to be complicit in unions that they cannot, in conscience, regard as true marriages. It is therefore necessary for the defenders of marriage to explode the bogus charge that their efforts have anything in common with past objections to interracial marriage.
A Specious Analogy
There is an important distinction between the motives of the opponents of interracial marriage and those of the opponents of same-sex marriage: There never was, nor could there have been, a movement in America that opposed interracial marriage as an attack on the meaning of marriage. Put another way, the racists and segregationists of the past did not—unlike today’s opponents of same-sex marriage—present themselves as defenders of the integrity of marriage itself. On the contrary, racists who objected to interracial marriages were perfectly aware—and indeed fearful—of the fact that interracial marriages would be real marriages, that they could generate and nurture new human lives.
Everyone knew, for example, that a black man and a white woman, or a white man and a black woman, could generate mixed-race children. This had happened for centuries. Indeed, it was a common law liberty. This is why anti-miscegenation laws did not merely decline to recognize interracial marriages but actually sought to punish them. The people who wrote those laws knew that such unions really were marriages, that they would by their nature tend to achieve the ends of marriage: the generation and rearing of new members of the human race. Interracial marriages had to be deterred not because the racist thought marriages across the races were impossible, but rather precisely because he knew they were possible.
Viewed in this light, the defenders of traditional marriage and the opponents of interracial marriage are animated not just by different but by actually opposite motives. The former object to same-sex marriage because they know such a union could not be a marriage: a union that is in principle capable of the generation of human life. The latter objected to interracial marriages precisely because they knew that they could function as marriages thus understood.
Unlike today’s defenders of marriage, then, the opponents of interracial marriage were not at all interested in defending the integrity of marriage as it had always been understood. They were interested, instead, in something completely different and totally unrelated: the preservation of racial purity and the maintenance of white supremacy. This is why there was never a significant American movement against, and only against, interracial marriage.
Objections to mixed race marriages were part of a larger movement to keep blacks in a socially and politically inferior position—to defend segregation in education and in all public services, as well as effectively to deprive blacks of the right to vote. In contrast, the defenders of traditional marriage have no such aims. Those who contend that marriage must be understood as a union between a man and a woman have no agenda to set up separate public schools for gays, much less to disenfranchise them.
The general accuracy of the sketch above, moreover, is not undermined by the existence of isolated counterexamples. Perhaps some imaginative racists did frame their objections as the claim that interracial marriage was a threat to the integrity of the institution of marriage. First, for the reasons just noted, it would be impossible to make any rational argument to that effect; one can’t plausibly claim that the purpose of marriage is undermined when the spouses are of different races. But second, the existence of such outliers would do nothing to change the overall character of the anti-civil rights movement, which was a movement, again, not to defend marriage but to keep blacks in a socially and politically subordinate position.
By the same token, some anti-gay bigots today may oppose same-sex marriage on the grounds that the law should in general seek to harass and humiliate gays. Such objectionable arguments, however, cannot reasonably or justly discredit the efforts of serious and sincere defenders of marriage. That such people are not motivated by a desire to disparage gays can be seen by the fact that they tend to understand their definition of marriage as having various other implications regarding, for instance, divorce and non-marital sex.
Infertility and Contraception
Nevertheless, the most zealous proponents of same-sex marriage will insist on the justice of the analogy: Opposition to same-sex marriage is just as irrational and bigoted as opposition to interracial marriage. In both cases, the opposition depends on trying to make something essential to marriage that is in reality non-essential; moreover, they charge, in other contexts the proponents of traditional marriage even agree that the feature in question is non-essential. So they are being inconsistent in this case, which is often a sign of ill will.
The proposed feature, of course, is the orientation of the marital union to generating and nurturing children—to procreation. Do not many heterosexual marriages in fact fail to produce children, as a result of spousal infertility or personal choice? And few deny that such unions are in fact marriages.
This argument is utterly unpersuasive. First of all, even if it were impossible to ground the meaning of marriage in its relation to bearing and rearing children, it would not follow that those who have not yet accepted the Court’s new definition are like the bigots who invented race-based requirements for marriage. To show that defenders of marriage are similarly bigoted, it’s not sufficient to show that they’re wrong; they could simply be defending a false belief, and not all false beliefs are defended in service of distasteful prejudice.
Certainly, their view is not obviously wrong and can be believed without malicious ulterior motive. Marriage was instituted in all cultures primarily with a view to making sure that the father would remain connected with and take care of the woman he had impregnated, for the sake of whatever children she would bear. In view of these facts, which are evident to all, it is ridiculous to maintain that the traditional definition of marriage was somehow devised with the intention of excluding or discriminating against gays.
But defenders of marriage need not concede that the possibility of infertility and contraception undermine their definition of marriage. To insist that they have, and to insist accordingly that there is just no important difference between an interracial and a same-sex marriage, is to overlook another perfectly obvious fact: While heterosexual unions may in some cases fail to generate children, homosexual relationships are absolutely incapable of generating children.
What, then, of those heterosexual marriages that do not generate children, either through natural infertility or deliberate choice? The defender of traditional marriage contends that such instances of infertility are accidents that in some cases prevent marriage from fulfilling its aims. They are not essential characteristics on the basis of which we should define marriage. Homosexual unions, on the other hand, are essentially infertile.
Now, proponents of same-sex marriage may reject this distinction between nature and accident—although this rejection is something that would have to be defended, for plausibly the distinction does have legitimate application in the biological realm. The important point here, however, is that the further pretense that those who find this distinction relevant are motivated by aims similar to those of America’s past racists, is entirely unwarranted.
One doesn’t have to be motivated by animus to see a point in enshrining such distinctions in law. Social institutions are commonly legally defined on the basis of what usually happens and not what is exceptional. Thus the law has traditionally defined marriage as a union between a man and a woman because that kind of union ordinarily yields children. From a legal perspective, even if infertile couples couldn’t marry, it might not be in the state’s interest to check whether a given couple is infertile. Positive laws cannot cover all cases and should not impose a greater burden in enforcement than they can expect to achieve.
On the other hand, same-sex couples are essentially incapable of procreating, and everyone can see this. Therefore, the defender of marriage can plausibly claim that—since marriage is a public and visible institution—licensing same-sex marriages undermines the public understanding of marriage in a way that licensing infertile marriages does not. No aspect of this position needs to be motivated by bigotry toward gays and lesbians in the way that any defense of anti-miscegenation laws must be motivated by bigotry toward blacks.
Those who believe marriage is properly understood as a union of a man and a woman should continue to press their case without being deterred by spurious charges that they are the intellectual descendants of racists. And those who disagree with them should meet them honestly on the field of rational argument without resorting to such groundless slanders.
Carson Holloway is currently a visiting fellow in American political thought in the B. Kenneth Simon Center for Principles and Politics at the Heritage Foundation. This article was first published at Public Discourse, a MercatorNet partner site.