Weighing the Consequences of Gay Marriage

Weighing the Consequences of Gay Marriage February 8, 2012

This post is part of a debate on gay marriage.  I’m responding to Matt’s post on gay marriage and deep friendship, and this is the first part of my three-part rebuttal.  Thanks again to Matt for taking on this debate. The second part of his argument will run tomorrow. Thanks also to the mostly respectful and mostly constructive commentariat.

Another conventional male friendship shattered

One reason I like arguing with conservatives is because even if I don’t end up agreeing with them, they tend to be good at pointing out the cost of what I want. Public acceptance and awareness of homosexuality does change the dynamics of some same-sex friendships. That’s not a defeater for support for gay marriage and gay visibility, and we shouldn’t make a reflexive denial of the tradeoffs a part of our defense.

In fact, I don’t even need to refer to Matt’s post in order to talk about the costs of gay visibility; I can come up with examples all my own: The coming out movement has made it harder in some situations to be gender non-conforming. The dandyish, slim boys in some of the debating parties on the right at Yale were assumed to be closeted, whether or not they had girlfriends. Before I was out, I was surprised to find out my whole seminar had assumed I was gay because I wore “lesbian pants.”

Instead of just thinking their classmates are weird, students put them in the ‘weird’ category they know: homosexual. It is hard to be isolated and bullied, and it’s even worse to be both cast out of your peer group and cast into a sexual role that may not fit. Even well-meaning people on my team can have a tendency to pressure people to come out if they seem gay, regardless of their stated sexual orientation. 

Social Con or Natty Gay?

But you’ll notice, despite these problems, I’m pretty staunchly pro-gay marriage and pro-queer visibility. First, from a purely practical point of view, I don’t think we can regress on queer visibility (the objection to gay marriage, in this first part of the debate is that it legitimizes and entrenches the public existence of gay people). If the die is cast, we’re better off figuring out how to mitigate the collateral damage of a cultural shift than standing athwart history yelling “Stop!”

There’s more than fatalism backing up my position. To a large extent, I think the increasing visibility of queer people contains the seeds of its own solution. The less stigmatized queer relationships are, the less frightening it is to have your close same-sex friendship mistaken for one. That will take care of the harm external judgment does to intense friendships. I’ll discuss the idea that potential attraction warps platonic relationships and ways to counteract that threat in two subsequent posts.

Finally, the dangers to queer people when they are marginalized are real, and they are horrifying. As long as you regard the mere fact of queerness as morally neutral, I don’t think you can in good conscience ask LGBT people to go back into the closet for the sake of brotherly love. (So far, Matt hasn’t made the case that same-sex attraction is wrong in itself, independent of its secondary effects on heterosexual or platonic relationships).


This post is part of a debate on gay marriage.  I’m responding to Matt’s post on gay marriage and deep friendship, and this is the first part of my three-part rebuttal.

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  • JWR

    I’m a bit upset at you, Leah, for accepting Matt and Esolen’s premises.

    1. Why is it any worse for someone to be gay-until-proven-otherwise than straight-until-proven-otherwise (the status quo?). I don’t understand how the so-called “coming out movement” can really be said to make things harder on average. That is – while I think we all agree that its alpha error is non-zero, won’t you concede that its power is such that the test is worth doing?

    2. I wish you’d unpack the claim that homosexuality leads to the destruction of male friendships, rather than glossing over it. It seems there’s a compelling and right argument to be made that homophobia, not homosexuality, is really what’s behind that phenomenon (to the extent it even exists). Do you disagree?

    • leahlibresco

      Ok, the first point is well taken. As to the second, I definitely wouldn’t say destruction, but I think it’s reasonable to expect a transfiguration. Perils of posting part one of three. The next section is entirely about the merits of that claim.

    • Emily

      1. I think it’s not at all worse to be gay-until-proven-otherwise, but in heavily homophobic social contexts (some families and religious communities, most middle schools), it is in a practical sense. But I also think, while this is a cost borne by straight people presumed to be gay, it is also a cost borne by all actual queer people in those contexts whether or not they “register” that way, so it’s not an undue burden on the misunderstood-straights in particular. And the solution to this IS probably the slow one of increased visibility and acceptance, so that not only will it eventually become no worse to be gay-until-proven-otherwise, people will know a wide enough range of queer people that they will not just associate them with specific items like “lesbian pants” (what are those, Leah?).

      2. Totally agree.

  • Joe Pickhardt

    Just a quick comment — Leah, I’d like to qualify your portrayal of ‘gay visibility’ here… I agree that mistaking a slim, well dressed boy for gay might be common now. But I think that with increasing acceptance of homosexuality and making it seem something ‘normal’ — something that Yale is actually pretty good at — will eventually overcome this issue. I think the problem is due to, frankly, the necessity of faming the question in terms of ‘gay visibility’. The majority of gay people are not those who dress flamboyantly and go to extravagant pride parades. And yet, this has become the image of a stereotypical gay person in the minds of lot of Americans. I think this is a serious problem and can even be counter productive to people who identify as gay but have much more in common with their demure straight friends than the image the media and the gay pride movements have given them.

    Which ties into some of my larger problems with all broad gender, race, sexuality, etc identifications, which is a topic for later discussion.

  • Matt Gerken

    “The less stigmatized queer relationships are, the less frightening it is to have your close same-sex friendship mistaken for one. That will take care of the harm external judgment does to intense friendships.”

    This is quite similar to what many commenters said. If people weren’t afraid of/hateful towards homosexuality, then the problem will go away. Not so! Again, my analogy to male-female friendships. There is no stigma against male-female sexual interactions. It is seen as a widely expected, normal form of relationship. And yet we see loads of problems that tend to happen in male-female friendships of the most intimate variety. In those cases it has nothing to do with external pressure, for there is none (or if there is, it is often pushing the other way, towards the romanticization of the friendship). Yet emotional confusion and pain and backing away does happen. And this is part of the reason why same-sex friendships should be preserved.

    Removing the stigma will, true, make it less frightening to think about homosexual possibilities. But it doesn’t bring back the male friendships in the way they used to exist.

    • Ferny

      And I replied to you, adding that male-female relationships will be different than male-male ones, even in a very homosocial/pro-homosexual world, due to the reality of different sexes, cultured genders, and the possibility of pregnancy.

      Also, can you give actual evidence for your world of perfect male friendships? I’m being sort of snarky, so don’t focus on the perfect thing, but the reason I ultimately ignore basically every conservative aesthetic and cultural promotion of the past is that it seems like it’s more about romanticism and myth-creation than anything else. You will give examples of male friendships the likes don’t exist today, but I’m not sure you can claim they don’t exist today or that people didn’t seem to assume near-perfect homosocialbility with no sexual tensions in this mythical past.

      All of this ultimately seems like a long justification of homos = ick.

      • Matt Gerken

        Ferny, let’s be honest. Anything I could possibly write on this topic will just seem like a homos= ick argument to you. And if every attempt to say that some aspect of the past might have been better than some aspect of the present just sounds like ignorant romanticism, then I don’t know why I should attempt to offer evidence. These seem to be strong emotional and/or ideological first principles for you that no one on my side of the debate could possibly overcome.

        • Heartfout

          I likewise would like to see either an examination of the assumptions made in the argument from Leah, or preferably a justification from Matt about them. I’m also curious as to why the post focused on male relationships.

          • Heartfout

            Oops, that was supposed to be a general response, not a reply to this comment in particular.

        • Ferny

          But you don’t offer any evidence of the kind, you simply make claims. I am trying to imagine you being able to do so. I can certainly think of ways in which the past was better and I can provide evidence for those specific claims.

          But it seems your claims about past relationships being better comes from somewhere and I’m asking you to bring out that evidence and make real claims about the past based on evidence, rather than what sounds like, romanticism.

          At the end of the day, I’m not just convinced you don’t like homosexuality and just want it gone and you are creating this intellectual base of support to be able to claim with. You still also haven’t grappled with the reality of what you want to do now that Pandora’s Box is open and…surprise! I exist and have gay sex! I talk about it too!

          If you make claims that you want me to repress and go back into the closet, I guess I want to know if you have any idea of the amount of privilege you have in wanting that.

          • If someone feels something, perhaps that they have had male-male affected by the gay marriage movement, then that’s how they feel, this is subjective. It’s not an issue I have, & I’m not going to speak for Matt or Esolen, but, as you pointed out, this comes from somewhere.

            Providing evidence for subjective feelings is difficult, it’s like asking a religious person to prove religious experience. I’m not sure asking for evidence beyond maybe conducting a poll to find out how many men feel they have had friendships affected by gay marriage is fair. Even if people are willing to take part in such a poll, the results would be open to manipulation. People could easily answer in ways that support their viewpoint rather than their subjective experience.

            The question I have is, what evidence would suffice in a case like this?

      • Katie

        What Ferny said.

        The thing is, Matt, that there is something deeply disturbing about the assumption that there is this way that male friendships “used to be” that was destroyed by a particular historical development, as though the culture of exclusively male camaraderie you describe were eternal and part of the fabric of human existence. It’s not. It takes an extremely opportunistic reading of cultural history to lump the understanding of manliness and male friendship of mainstream 1950s American culture with that of Renaissance Europe, let alone ancient Greece or (gasp!) non-Western cultures. That this reading also happens to center you, the heterosexual white man, as the most authentic instantiation of humanity and standard-bearer for the human condition, makes it all the more suspect.

        There is a reason that you exclude women’s friendships from your argument, Matt, and it is not benign. What Esolen describes and you apparently endorse is not male friendship, but tribalism. Just look at this:

        “For good reason boys used to build tree houses and hang signs barring girls. They know, if only instinctively, that the fire of the friendship cannot subsist otherwise. If the company of girls is made possible, then the company of girls becomes a necessity, if only to avoid having to explain to others and to oneself why one would ever prefer the company of one’s own sex. Thus what is perfectly natural and healthy, indeed very much needed, is cast as irrational and bigoted, or dubious and weak; and thus some boys will cobble together their own brotherhoods that eschew tenderness altogether—criminal brotherhoods that land them in prison.”

        Worse yet, Esolen credits the banishment of women from these brotherhoods for all creative and productive endeavors. The “entire edifice of chemical research (read: civilisation) in France and Germany was built upon male friendship, the bonds of comrades going forth to battle.” Girls are a distraction, you see, because they become the objects of conquest for young boys who would otherwise direct those energies in more productive directions. The differences between the sexes are so profound that all interaction between them is necessarily defined by that fact, necessarily sexual and therefore destructive.

        The normalization of homosexuality throws a wrench into that system by making it impossible to banish sexuality from the tribe simply by excluding women. And right there is the rub. This argument does not boil down to homos = ick. It boils down to sex = ick and, by extension, girls = ick.

    • Patrick

      Your argument doesn’t make sense. Normalization of homosexuality doesn’t put male/male relationships in the same boat as male/female relationships. Male/female relationships have ambiguity about the possibility of sexual attraction because there actually is a possibility of sexual attraction. Male/male relationships only have this ambiguity if one or more of the men actually is gay, or if neither one knows if one or more of the men actually is gay. This is instantly solved by not being in the closet.

      The fact that you continue to maintain the position you do, to your own obvious moral detriment, even though your position doesn’t make sense once you think about it, causes people to question your motives. Your position isn’t helped by the earlier attempt at hiding the ball- your problem isn’t with gay marriage, nor is your argument directed at it. It isn’t even directed towards social acceptance of homosexuality in a general sense. Its directed towards a minimal normalization of homosexuality that makes it possible for people to merely contemplate the possibility that their neighbor could possibly be homosexual.

      The only society that could actually avoid the hazard you purport are out there is one in which, when one meets a stranger, one never even considers the possibility that the stranger could be gay unless that stranger was obviously aberrant. Whether you’ve followed your own reasoning to its obvious conclusion, the only society that would satisfy your conditions is the one of homophobic cinema, where the only homosexuals are cackling, flouncing villains, blatantly separated from decent society by their obviously limp wristed, stereotypical behavior. And that’s not a good thing for you to advocate, morally speaking. Its not surprising that people reading this think negatively about you.

      Your argument is poor, presented poorly and without clearly admitting its own nature, and it has victims. Of course people are going to think about it in moral terms.

      • I got the impression that this was a debate on the social issues, I find the moral question to open a whole can of worms that I personally detest. If one argues that Matt an Esolen’s viewpoints are morally wrong, when they state them on social grounds. The immorality of it could simply be a projection of the accusers own viewpoint. An “it’s immoral because I disagree,” scenario.

        What about then bringing the religious front into it, “it’s immoral because the Bible says so.” This kind of reasoning deprives people of their own opinions, as a Bible based society deprived homosexuals of their God given right to choose for so long. Calling people, or their views immoral on the grounds that we disagree with their viewpoint, or because we feel it steps on our toes, inhibits the kind of open discussion that led to gay marriage becoming a reality in the first place.

        Perhaps we should accept that the position Matt put forward was nothing more than a social concern and leave it at that, rather than trying to bring it into the moral arena so we can place ourselves on a moral high ground. I feel that’s a bit of a cheap shot.

    • Emily

      And yet we see loads of problems that tend to happen in male-female friendships of the most intimate variety.

      Aren’t the problems you cite, with different expectations and hopes about whether it will become romantic? because most people are straight though? In a male-male friendship between two straight men, this wouldn’t be an issue (even if there’s an initial hump of wondering if that’s what it is), and that’s the majority of same sex friendships.

      Also, as a straight woman who’s had several very intimate friendships with queer women…not an issue. But I think that has to do not just with what maybe are differences between men’s and women’s friendships, but also with different brands of homophobia. Basically, gay female attraction is not necessarily considered “threatening” to straight relationships or feminine identities the way gay male attraction is to straightness and masculinity (hence the “straight chicks making out at frat party” phenomenon having NO male counterpart). So…take that threat away for men, and you can have the same kind of intimacy in friendship?

      • Katie

        Well, yes, but what do you think that threat is about?

        It simultaneously inconceivable and intolerable, culturally, that a man would be the object of sexual desire, let alone unwanted sexual attention, because that would take away his ability to control his sexuality and, crucially, be understood independently of it. A funny thing happens when you separate men and women into strictly separate spheres, limit the public sphere to men, and expect them to express their sexualities only within their respective gender norms: you end up with the expectation that women are “the sex class”, passive objects of sexual attention, while men are not only understood as sexual aggressors, but can be understood outside the realm of sexuality altogether. Women can enter the public sphere now (yay feminism!), but men still dominate it. So it is easier, by several orders of magnitude, to conceive of/tolerate the sexualization (and objectification) of women than to do the same to men.

        • Emily

          Oh, absolutely.

  • Xanidan

    I disagree with the premise.

    Let us contrast theory with reality in post-homophobic societies such as that of Britain.

    In many British schools,boys are no longer afraid of showing affection or of forming close bonds with members of the same gender.

    Generally,the less homophobic a boy is,the more comfortable he is being friendly and affectionate with other males.

    This shift in attitudes has been attributed to a reduction in homophobic mentality: