YOU'VE GOT TO GIVE Barney Frank credit. In his attack last week on the Defense of Marriage Act, which asserts as a matter of federal law that members of the same sex cannot "marry" each other, the homosexual Massachusetts congressman found himself arguing without benefit of facts, law, morality, history, or common sense. That might have intimidated lesser debaters, but not Frank. The most skillful polemicist in Congress simply changed the subject.
"How does the fact that I love another man and live in a committed relationship with him threaten your marriage?" he demanded in the House of Representatives. "Are your relations with your spouses of such fragility that the fact that I have a committed, loving relationship with another man jeopardizes them?"
As if that were the issue. Who has ever suggested that Frank's unconventional love life is a danger to congressional marriages? But clever rhetoricians know that when you can't win the real argument, you try to maneuver your opponents into debating a phony one. In the end, Frank's gambit didn't work -- the Defense of Marriage Act passed the House, 342-67; now it moves to the Senate. Nice try, though.
The question that Frank and most gay activists would rather not answer is this: Why should the settled definition of marriage, which has been understood in all places and times to mean the union of a man and a woman, be overthrown? The meaning of marriage is one of the few constants in human history, a point of agreement among cultures, religions, and eras that share little else. If, after all these centuries, something as basic and universal as the definition of marriage is to be dramatically altered, there must be an irresistibly compelling reason to do so. What is it?
After all, it's not as if gay men and lesbians are barred from marrying. Many -- perhaps most -- men with homosexual tendencies have married women; many lesbians, despite their attraction to other women, have married men. No doubt some of these marriages were mere shells; many more were genuine and lasting relationships, within which homes were built, children raised, and life's joys and travails experienced together. The fact that these unions may not have been fully satisfying sexually is hardly a reason to rewrite the law of marriage.
Plenty of men and women find the traditional boundaries of marriage constricting. Some men would prefer two or three wives. Others are attracted to their daughter, or to the wife next door. Bisexuals might like both a husband and a wife. There are women who crave an intimate relationship with their brothers. If marriage is to be redefined so that it includes same-sex unions, why shouldn't it be redefined to include all unions?
The hard reality -- however much gay advocates evade it -- is that there are only two options: Either marriage is restricted to one man plus one (unrelated) woman or it is not restricted at all. Change the law so that two men can be deemed "married," and what grounds can there possibly be not to deem three men married? Or three men and a woman? Or a brother and sister?
This is not the first time in American history that practitioners of "alternative" marriage have been denied legal approval.
In 1849, the Mormon settlers of Utah -- it was then called Deseret -- applied to Congress for admission to the United States. Their petition was denied for 44 years, largely because the federal government refused to sanction the Mormons' polygamous marriages. Not until the Mormons banned polygamy and wrote that ban into their constitution were they allowed to join the Union.
Is there any argument made today for redefining marriage to encompass same-sex unions that would not have applied with equal force to the multiple-wife marriages of Deseret? Those were loving, stable, supportive relationships, entered into by sober people who wanted to spend their lives together. "How does the fact that I love four women and live with them in a committed relationship," a 19th-century Mormon Barney Frank might have asked, "threaten your marriage?"
But threats have nothing to do with it. Society is under no obligation to radically revise its most fundamental institution just because a small number of activists demands it. The burden of proof is on the revisionists, be they Mormons in the 1850s or homosexuals in the 1990s.
Let Frank and his partner call themselves "spouses," if they like; this is a free and tolerant country. (A lot freer and more tolerant than it was for the polygamous Mormons, many of whom went to prison for violating anti-bigamy laws.) But freedom and tolerance don't entitle them to a marriage license. They may love each other and live for each other; their hearts may beat as one. But in the eyes of American law, Western civilization, and an emphatic moral code dating back 3,500 years, they are not married.
For at its irreducible minimum, marriage is the exclusive union of one man and one woman. If it doesn't mean that, it doesn't mean anything. How dismaying that it should require an act of Congress to say so.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe).
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