Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

Mark Joseph Stern at Slate takes issue with my criticisms of what I call “the rhetoric of sameness” that is typically employed to promote gay marriage. To demonstrate just how misleading this rhetoric is, I contrast it to the African American Civil Rights Movement, which succeeded in extending political rights to blacks without erasing the distinctiveness and specificity of their history and culture. White Americans had to learn how to treat blacks as equal but not exactly the same as themselves. Blacks were not, that is, treated as if they were really white people who only appeared to be black. So why do gay marriage advocates ask us to treat gay love as if it is really straight?

Stern’s main response to my argument is to make a slight yet significant modification to the rhetoric of sameness: “That argument is that gay people’s marriages are essentially the same as the straight sort—based on the same notions of love and commitment, support and affection.” Notice that this restatement of the sameness rhetorical strategy backs down from the idea that gay love is the same as straight love, or that gay culture is the same as straight culture. Stern is punting on those large (and largely indefensible) claims. Instead, he wants to defend the much smaller claim that gay married couples are the same as straight married couples.

Does even that small claim have any merit? Yes, it does. I have no doubt that some gay married couples are every bit as loving, committed, supportive and affectionate as many straight married couples. But the true affection between gay couples does not mean that homosexuality as such has a natural orientation toward marriage in the same way that heterosexuality does. It doesn’t even mean that gay married couples have the same understanding and experience of marriage that straight couples do.

And it definitely does not mean that in the long run gay culture can cultivate and sustain the attitudes, behaviors, and norms that will conform gays to the ideal of marriage rather than reform marriage to the realities of homosexuality. Individual gays cannot remake homosexuality to fit the marital paradigm any more than individual heterosexuals can redefine sexual intercourse as a physical act with no more significance than a handshake. Human nature, including our sexual nature, is not so pliable.

Stern’s only other response to my argument is to chastise me for “talking about that favorite Catholic obsession, sex.” He tries to shame me for bringing up sex, surely a strange move for someone so committed to sexual liberation! Well, yes, that is what we are talking about, since it is the sexual drive—as diverse, fleeting, and all but blind as it is—that is transformed and elevated by marriage into something so permanent that it opens our lives to the eternal. Stern stakes his whole position on the idea that my argument reduces “the marriage bond to an act of genital penetration.” He is right that marriage is so much more than sex, but he is wrong not to realize that marriage is also not anything less than sex as well. Marriage is not just a very close kind of friendship, although that seems to be how many gay couples experience it. Marriage is a spiritual unity founded on (and given expression in) a singular act of physical unity.

That Stern does not see this point is evidence of just how much the gay culture has already changed our view of marriage. Here is Stern on the importance of sex in marriage: “Very few married couples view penile-vaginal intercourse as the core of their relationship, the physical, spiritual, emotional connection without which their entire marriage would be a sham.” Does he really know of marriages that flourish in healthy ways when the couple stops sharing physical intimacy? Marriages can survive and flourish when something impedes that intimacy beyond the couple’s control, of course, but when married couples voluntarily stop sharing their bodies with each other, their souls are surely the next to split apart.

So everything does come around to the differences between vaginal intercourse and anal penetration. I choose those words intentionally, because one act is more mutual than the other. I am aware that for some people, maybe even many people, male and female, receiving anal penetration can be pleasurable. Indeed, I am just now reading emails from straight men who are eager to convince me that anal stimulation, from various devices, is the next frontier of sexuality, as if this proves the moral equivalence between intercourse and penetration. If the anus is the new vagina, can it really hold all the mysteries of intimacy and all the intimations of unity that intercourse has provided for marriage from the very beginning of that institution?

Scientists are just now beginning to explore the ways in which the act of intercourse results in the exchange of hormones and chemicals that bond a man and a woman in physical and emotional ways. Is there anything in anal penetration that comes even close? From the perspective of biological evolution alone—without any reference to religion—it is evident that the male and female bodies are directed to treat that act as foundational for a lifetime of exclusive commitment and sharing. It is not enough to just enjoy each other’s company or to decide to be together in order to avoid the pitfalls of loneliness. If anal penetration can elevate gay friendship into a relationship that turns two people into one, then I stand corrected. But let’s not dismiss this issue as a “creepy, graphic rant.”

I find nothing creepy in anal sex, since, as a Christian, I am fully aware that sexual desire can take unlimited forms in our desperate quest for wholeness. I am also aware that even when sexual desire is so graphically misshapen, it is still completely human, and not beyond glimmers of true affection and even love. I just want to have a conversation about whether the homosexual form of sexual desire can support society’s most important institution in the same way that the heterosexual form of sexual desire does. In the rush to say that gay love is just like straight love, I don’t think we have had the chance to even begin that conversation. 

Dear Reader,

Your charitable support for First Things is urgently needed before July 1.

First Things is a proudly reader-supported enterprise. The gifts of readers like you— often of $50, $100, or $250—make articles like the one you just read possible.

This Spring Campaign—one of our two annual reader giving drives—comes at a pivotal season for America and the church. With your support, many more people will turn to First Things for thoughtful religious perspectives on pressing issues of politics, culture, and public life.

All thanks to you. Will you answer the call?

Make My Gift
More on: Gay Marriage, Slate

Comments are visible to subscribers only. Log in or subscribe to join the conversation.



Filter First Thoughts Posts

Related Articles