One thing that has gone little remarked in the remembrance of James Q. Wilson, is the fact that he was a trenchant and sophisticated critic of the idea of same-sex marriage. Now, after his passing, at a time when polemicists try to label all opponents of same-sex marriage as bigots or yahoos, it’s worth holding up the example of a thinker whose keen sociological sense led him to oppose one of today’s great political pieties.
The most complete statement of Wilson’s view on the marriage question came in his 1996 Commentary review of Andrew Sullivan’s Virtually Normal. Wilson’s first argument was against the cavalierness of same-sex marriage advocates, who propose a massive social change with little idea how it will shake out:
To me, the chief limitation of Sullivan’s view is that it presupposes that marriage would have the same, domesticating, effect on homosexual members as it has on heterosexuals, while leaving the latter largely unaffected. Those are very large assumptions that no modern society has ever tested. [ . . . ]
Of course, homosexual “families,” with or without children, might be rather few in number. Just how few, it is hard to say. Perhaps Sullivan himself would marry, but, given the great tendency of homosexual males to be promiscuous, many more like him would not, or if they did, would not marry with as much seriousness.
That is problematic in itself. At one point, Sullivan suggests that most homosexuals would enter a marriage “with as much (if not more) commitment as heterosexuals.” Toward the end of his book, however, he seems to withdraw from so optimistic a view. He admits that the label “virtually” in the title of his book is deliberately ambiguous, because homosexuals as a group are not “normal.” At another point, he writes that the “openness of the contract” between two homosexual males means that such a union will in fact be more durable than a heterosexual marriage because the contract contains an “understanding of the need for extramarital outlets” (emphasis added). But no such “understanding” exists in heterosexual marriage; to suggest that it might in homosexual ones is tantamount to saying that we are now referring to two different kinds of arrangements. To justify this difference, perhaps, Sullivan adds that the very “lack of children” will give “gay couples greater freedom.” Freedom for what? Freedom, I think, to do more of those things that heterosexual couples do less of because they might hurt the children.
The lack of forethought about the consequence of same-sex marriage comes into particular focus on the issue of children:
The role of raising children is entrusted in principle to married heterosexual couples because after much experimentation—several thousand years, more or less—we have found nothing else that works as well. Neither a gay nor a lesbian couple can of its own resources produce a child; another party must be involved. What do we call this third party? A friend? A sperm or egg bank? An anonymous donor? There is no settled language for even describing, much less approving of, such persons.
Nor does it seem plausible to me that a modern society resists homosexual marriages entirely out of irrational prejudice. Marriage is a union, sacred to most, that unites a man and woman together for life. It is a sacrament of the Catholic Church and central to every other faith. Is it out of misinformation that every modern society has embraced this view and rejected the alternative? Societies differ greatly in their attitude toward the income people may have, the relations among their various races, and the distribution of political power. But they differ scarcely at all over the distinctions between heterosexual and homosexual couples. The former are overwhelmingly preferred over the latter. The reason, I believe, is that these distinctions involve the nature of marriage and thus the very meaning—even more, the very possibility—of society.
Wilson’s strongest argument comes at the end of the piece, when he argues that marriage is not an infinitely plastic benefit that can be conferred of withheld by the state:
Indeed, thinking of laws about marriage as documents that confer or withhold rights is itself an error of fundamental importance—one that the highest court in Hawaii has already committed. “Marriage,” it wrote, “is a state-conferred legal-partnership status, the existence of which gives rise to a multiplicity of rights and benefits. . . .” A state-conferred legal partnership? To lawyers, perhaps; to mankind, I think not. The Hawaiian court has thus set itself on the same course of action as the misguided Supreme Court in 1973 when it thought that laws about abortion were merely an assertion of the rights of a living mother and an unborn fetus.
The retailers of cultural hyperbole would label such statements as antiquated, bigoted, and baseless. Those who share Wilson’s indifference to intellectual fads will, I think, see the wisdom in these modest historically, sociologically, and legally astute objections. Wilson was above all a skeptic, and it’s no surprise that he had doubts about the untested certainties of the same-sex marriage movement.