Once again, the Conservative Party of Canada is in the throes of an existential debate about gay marriage. Despite indications that most Canadians do not want to revisit the issue, trial balloons are floating around Ottawa suggesting that the CPC will introduce a Defence of Religion Act if a motion to re-open the marriage debate fails to pass in the House of Commons. Much has been written about the issue, but I would like to present the argument that supporting gay marriage is in fact a sound conservative policy, and one that members of the CPC can feel comfortable with for traditional conservative reasons.
First of all, let us recognize that this is a very polarizing issue. Proponents of both sides feel strongly about gay marriage for very legitimate reasons, and it does not advance the debate to demonize or belittle those with whom we disagree. Opponents of same-sex marriage are mostly decent people who are not necessarily bigots, and those in favour are not by definition depraved sexual libertines who are hell-bent on destroying the ancient pillars of society. It should be possible to have a civilized argument about this without name-calling and mud-slinging.
That being said, let’s examine the conservative arguments for gay marriage. I’m not going to outline anything here that hasn’t already been written by more eloquent and talented writers than me; rather I would like to summarize some of the points made by writers who are in the midst of the same debate in the US. I think their arguments make sense to Canadian libertarian conservatives.
Author Jonathan Rauch identifies three main purposes of marriage: the raising of children, the stabilizing and settling of the young (especially young men) and the provision of reliable caregivers. Opponents of gay marriage tend to focus on the first of these as an argument to exclude homosexuals from the institution of marriage, but the last two reasons are equally applicable to both gay and straight couples. He argues that marriage, and even the prospect of marriage, is a great domesticator and is a stabilizing influence in society, especially on unstable young men. "If you hope to get married, and if your friends and peers hope to get married, you will socialize and date more carefully... you will reach for respectability. You will devote yourself to work, try to build status, and earn money to make yourself more marriageable... Because you aspire to marry, you prepare to marry. You make yourself what people used to call marriage material". This is a very conservative pro-marriage argument, and is equally valid for homosexual couples, who have until recently have never had this outcome to strive for.
The argument about caregiving is also a very conservative one. As Rauch points out, "from society’s point of view, an unattached person is an accident waiting to happen. The burdens of contingency are likely to fall, immediately and sometimes crushingly, on people - relatives, friends, neighbours - who have enough problems of their own, and then on charities and welfare agencies. We all suffer periods of illness, sadness, distress, fury. What happens to us, and what happens to the people around us, when we desperately need a hand but find none to hold? If marriage has any meaning at all, it is that when you collapse from a stroke, there will be another person whose ‘job’ it is to drop everything and come to your aid. Or that when you come home after being fired, there will be someone to talk you out of committing a massacre or killing yourself. To be married is to know there is someone out there for whom you are always first in line". Denying this option to gay couples places this burden of care on the state - how is this good conservative policy?
The argument is frequently made that marriage should be about raising children in a stable man-woman family unit and thus gays should be denied access to marriage because they are by definition unable to produce children. This line of reasoning in itself has logical inconsistencies. We do not deny civil marriage to infertile or elderly couples, or to post-menopausal women. We do not impose a fertility test as a requirement for a marriage licence, or force shot-gun marriages on unwed mothers. Paul Varnell argues that, if anything, this is an argument for forcing heterosexuals to marry if they want to have children, and for making divorce and cohabitation more difficult. "In short, it is an argument about what heterosexual parents should do, not about gay couples who do not and by themselves cannot have children." Furthermore, according to the 2000 US census, 27% of American households headed by same-sex couples contain children - there is no reason to believe that the figures are radically different in Canada. Is it good conservative policy to prevent these children from living in a household with married parents?
One can certainly make the argument that there are valid religious reasons for opposing same-sex marriage, and I won’t dispute this. However, I would point out that marriage is legally a civil institution, not a religious one. Churches, mosques and synagogues have religious ceremonies that confer spiritual blessings and approval on a married couple, but as far as the law is concerned married status is conferred by the state, not the church. The state should allow religious institutions the right to opt out of performing same-sex marriage ceremonies for theological reasons, but a blanket ban on civil marriage for gays makes no sense. The Roman Catholic church is opposed to remarriage after divorce, but most Catholics are not seeking to make it illegal for everyone to obtain a civil divorce or to remarry. The state has no business enshrining religious doctrine in civil law. After all, it is not illegal to be gay in Canada. As Andrew Sullivan has written, "Can you think of any other legal, non-criminal minority in society toward which social conservatives have nothing but negative social policy? What other group in society do conservatives believe should be kept outside integrating social institutions? On what other issue do conservatives favour separatism over integration?"
I don’t accept the argument that same-sex marriage cheapens or belittles heterosexual marriage, either. Gay couples are not cheap or flawed versions of straight couples, and it is ridiculous to think that a straight couple would refuse to get married if they were so inclined just because a gay couple in their community is also married. Jonathan Rauch points out that what cheapens the institution of marriage is denying it to committed couples who want it. Liberal-minded citizens are going to recoil from participating in an institution that is discriminatory. Benton County, Oregon has stopped issuing marriage licences because officials do not want any part of a legal institution that discriminates. Recently Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie announced that they would not get married until homosexuals could also legally marry in the US. I’m not suggesting that we make policy based on the public musings of Hollywood celebrities (that’s more of a Paul Martin thing), but the institution of marriage may become tainted by political incorrectness as long as it is perceived to discriminate against a minority. This is not good for marriage, and certainly doesn’t strike me as good conservative policy.
The most serious aspect of this debate to conservatives is the damage it does to the image of the CPC. It is the one issue that opponents seize on to argue that the Conservative Party is in thrall to religious zealots and homophobic bigots and can’t be trusted with power. More than the perfectly defensible positions on the war in Afghanistan, the gun registry or the Kyoto Accord, the attempt to repeal the gay marriage law sends a message to centrist voters that a CPC majority would open up all sorts of social policy areas that are now considered settled in Canada. Over 10 000 gay Canadian citizens have been married since the Liberals changed the law - the negative fallout from a change now would outweigh any perceived benefits and doom the CPC to opposition status.
Andrew Sullivan wrote in 2003 in Time Magazine: "Like most other homosexuals, I grew up in a heterosexual family and tried to imagine how I too could one day be a full part of the family I loved. But I figured then that I had no such future. I could never have a marriage, never have a family, never be a full and equal part of the weddings and relationships and holidays that give families structure and meaning. When I looked forward, I saw nothing but emptiness and loneliness. No wonder it was hard to connect sex with love and commitment. No wonder it was hard to feel at home in what was, in fact, my home." Most heterosexuals don’t realize how insulting and humiliating it is for homosexuals to be told by their own government that they are not worthy of the legal benefits and responsibilities of civil marriage. Marriage policy is not a zero-sum game: extending civil marriage to gays in no way takes anything away from heterosexual married couples, so other than saying to gays that they are not fit to be married, what legitimate social policy objective can be achieved by banning gay marriage?
How can it be good conservative policy to advocate excluding homosexuals from the benefits and responsibilities of this institution? Allowing gay citizens to marry will stabilize and enrich gay relationships while benefitting society and strengthening the institution of marriage. It will respect individual rights while minimizing the oppressive intrusion of the state into the lives of a minority of its citizens. Above all, it will treat all Canadian citizens as equal under the law. All of these values are deeply rooted in the conservative movement and appeal to gays and straights alike. Stephen Harper promised in the last election that he would allow a free vote in the House on gay marriage, and there is every indication that a motion to re-open the debate will be soundly defeated. Many Conservative M.P.s are in favour of gay marriage. Harper should introduce the motion in the House, and when it is defeated, drop the issue once and for all.
Rauch, Jonathan. Gay marriage - why it is good for gays, good for straights and good for America. New York: Henry Holt & Co. 2004
Rauch, Jonathan. On gay marriage, conservatives betray conservatism. The Public Interest: Summer 2004
Sullivan, Andrew. The conservative case for gay marriage. Time: June 22, 2003
Sullivan, Andrew. If it’s not a crime to be gay, why can’t we get married? The Wall Street Journal: Oct. 8 2003
Varnell, Paul. The failed case against gay marriage. The Chicago Free Press: Sep. 17 2003.