William Saletan (and William Faulkner) on the Race Analogy

1. At Slate, William Saletan opened a recent column with two questions:

Is gay marriage just like interracial marriage? If you’re against gay marriage, is that the same as racism?

Saletan, who supports gay marriage, answers that no, there’s a big difference between the two issues. He explains:

The central, categorical objection to gay marriage is that same-sex couples can’t produce biological children together. Sherif Girgis, Robert George, and Ryan Anderson emphasize this distinction in their recent essay and bookWhat Is Marriage? My colleague Mark Stern challenged their case in Slate last year, and I agree with his critique. The procreation argument focuses too much on sex and too little on love and commitment.

Just because I don’t agree with an argument, however, doesn’t mean it’s irrational. Marriage has historically been a sexual institution. A rational person can maintain that a relationship between two people categorically incapable of producing children together—that is, two people of the same sex—can’t be a marriage. That argument doesn’t justify denying them the right to love one another openly, nor does it justify denying them the benefits and honors we bestow on couples for making lifetime commitments. But it can justify a person’s refusal to accept a same-sex relationship as a marriage.

In contrast, he argues, there’s no “biological basis for refusing to accept an interracial relationship as a marriage.” He concludes that, at least in that sense, opposing gay marriage is more defensible than opposing interracial marriage. (He also argues that from the perspective of gay couples, it is less defensible than a ban on interracial marriage, because it entirely excludes them from the institution.)

Saletan is right that interracial heterosexual relationships and gay relationships are biologically different (duh), and that opponents of gay marriage point to this difference in order to differentiate themselves from racists of the past (and present). Here’s what Saletan misses: the argument doesn’t end there. Because if you’re trying to argue that the designation marriage shouldn’t be extended to gay relationships, it’s not enough to argue that the word has always been applied to two people who (categorically) can make a kid together; you also have to show why that definition matters. This is why NOM and all the other anti-gay marriage folks always move from the fact that gay couples can’t biologically have children to the argument that those couples shouldn’t have children (through adoption, IVF, etc.). And it’s why they were so giddy about the Mark Regnerus study, which looked like proof of the most important part of their argument—the idea that gay marriage is bad for the children.

And this is where the arguments against gay marriage and the ones against interracial marriage converge. Both groups claim that their real aim is protecting the children. Do you remember, readers, Keith Bardwell, the Louisiana justice of the peace who caused a scandala few years ago by refusing to marry interracial couples? Here’s how he justified himself: “I think those children suffer and I won’t put them through it.”

Sound familiar?

“Traditionalist” blogger Laura Wood, who stops short of calling interracial marriage “categorically wrong,” nonetheless opposes the practice (along with transracial adoption) for the same reasons. She writes:

I also think children do definitely experience confusion in a mixed race home. I have known a number of Asian/white families. They are very loving parents, excellent families. But some children may be torn between two worlds, especially because they look so strongly like the Asian parent and yet have been raised among whites. They must choose one identity and some struggle with the decision. That doesn’t mean these families are catastrophes. Not at all. But it does mean we must look carefully at which social models we approve of. It is heartless to children to avoid doing so.

We must look carefully at which social models we approve of. Again, sound familiar?

2. In fact, the more I read about the history of bans on interracial relationships, and the thinking behind them, the more the rhetoric supporting them seems to me to resonate with the things I read from opponents of gay marriage.

There’s a great illustration of this in William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom!, in the scene in which Charles Bon is trying to convince Henry Sutpen that his marriage to a mixed-race woman (with whom he has a child) is not legitimate and, therefore, he is free to marry Henry’s sister. Henry says, “But you married her.” Bon replies:

Ah. That ceremony. I see. That’s it, then. A formula, a shibboleth meaningless as a child’s game, performed by someone created by the situation whose need it answered: a crone mumbling in a dungeon lighted by a handful burning hair, something in a tongue which not even the girls themselves understand anymore, maybe not even the crone herself, rooted in nothing of economics for her or for any possible progeny since the very fact that we acquiesced, suffered the farce, was her proof and assurance of that which the ceremony could never enforce; vesting no new rights in anyone, denying to none the old—a ritual as meaningless as that of college boys in secret rooms at night, even to the same archaic and forgotten symbols?—you call that a marriage, when the night of the honeymoon and the casual business with a hired prostitute consists of the same suzerainty over a (temporarily) private room, the same order of removing the same clothes, the same conjunction in a single bed? Why not call that a marriage too?

Then he follows that by asking if Henry has forgotten that the woman and the child are black, and asks: “You, Henry Sutpen of Sutpen’s Hundred in Mississippi? You, talking of marriage, a wedding, here?”

Bon reminds Sutpen that marriage between a white man* and a black woman is, for Henry Sutpen, a categorical impossibility. You can practically see Bon making air quotes around the word “marriage.” Henry knows in his heart that Bon is wrong, but the cultural logic of nineteenth century Mississippi convinces him that Bon is right, and soon he’s referring to Bon’s marriage as “no marriage.”

Once again, sound familiar?

3. I point all this out not to lump the Keith Bardwells and Laura Woods of the world with all gay marriage opponents. Particularly on the Catholic Right, it seems to me that when it comes to gay marriage the arguments are motivated more by concern for the Church’s authority rather than by hatred for gays. I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen someone write: If the Church is wrong about this, how can I trust any of its teachings?  That’s the great fear, and that’s why the people I engage here will argue as vehemently against contraception and divorce-and-remarriage as they do against gay marriage.

But the similarities between the anti-miscegenation arguments and the anti-gay-marriage arguments are real. We’ve rejected the former, in the name of justice, because they’re bad arguments—shoddy reasoning built on bad assumptions and supported by problematic evidence. They fall apart when challenged. And now we’re challenging the arguments against gay marriage, and they’re not holding up any better.

*I know, I know—SPOILER ALERT—it turns out that Bon is actually Henry’s half brother, and that he’s of mixed blood himself. Most disturbingly, it turns out the former fact doesn’t change Henry’s disposition towards a possible marriage of Bon and Judith, but Bon’s blackness changes everything. But that’s beside the point I’m making here.

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