I’m trying something ambitious here over the next few weeks: a double serial review of the two current “it” books of the Catholic Right’s smart set: Robert Reilly’s Making Gay Okay: How Rationalizing Homosexual Behavior is Changing Everything and Anthony Esolen’s Defending Marriage: Twelve Arguments for Sanity. Here’s the plan: on Tuesdays, I’m going to review a segment (a chapter, a mini-argument) from Making Gay Okay; on Thursdays, one from Defending Marriage.
Do I have time for this? No. So I hope you’ll be patient when I miss a day or even a week. And I hope you’ll understand that when I say “Tuesday” or “Thursday” I mean sometime before midnight on those days. But I’m going to try to stick to the schedule. Tuesdays, Reilly; Thursdays, Esolen.
The arguments behind the two books are so similar, the assumptions they share so critical, that reading the books together makes sense. Both books are, explicitly, arguments against gay marriage, but both books also connect the gay marriage to a larger struggle against “the Sexual Revolution”. Dwight Longenecker has called the two books “complementary,” and more than one reviewer has evoked one book when considering the other.
At the same time, the books are very different, with very different tones and approaches. So my responses to each book will vary, too. Making Gay Okay is more of a conventional argument: Reilly makes a straightforward case and tries to muster evidence—statistics, studies, quotes, etc.—to his side. My reviews of his chapters, then, will be pretty straightforward stuff: “No, you can’t use Regnerus to argue that gay couples make bad parents, no you can’t use skewed data taken from non-representative populations during the height of ‘swinging 70s’ to argue that homosexuality is inherently unhealthy, yada yada yada.”
Esolen, on the other hand, doesn’t worry about “evidence” or “facts.” He seems to think that evidence and facts are for fops and frou-frous. Instead, he illustrates his argument with stories. For example, in his first two chapters, he uses Spenser’s Epithalamion and a scene from Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale to illustrate the public significance of marriage and the innocent goodness of timeless definitions of marriage.
So when I respond to Esolen, I’m going to rely on stories, too. Which means that over the next few Thursdays, we’ll look at marriage, love, and what it means to be a man or a woman through writers (like Walt Whitman, Wendell Berry, and Lucinda Williams), and through history. I might even throw in a few stories from my own family.
I decided on this tactic for a couple of reasons. First, I agree with Esolen that “I cannot be cruel to someone whose full humanity is present to me, whom I see not as a thing, but as a person of mysterious possibilities, someone in a web of real relationships, a brother or a husband or a son. The prerequisite for cruelty is reduction.” And stories, whether they come from literature, from history, or from our own lives, work against reduction and open us up to the “mysterious possibilities” of the human experience. At the same time, it’s reductive to pretend, as Esolen does, that there is only one human story. “They have lost the story,” he writes about the people of “Divisia,” his name for the post-Sexual-Revolution world. Chimamanda Ngozi Adicihie points out some of the problems with Esolen’s perspective in her marvelous talk “The Danger of the Single Story” (h/t Bill Lindsey).
Then, while reading Defending Marriage, I finished Rachel Held Cleves’ book Charity & Sylvia. And that was about the same time that Rob Tisinai announced his marriage to his longtime partner, Will. Neither Cleves’ book nor Tisinai’s announcement are arguments, per se. They’re stories, but they’re stories against which Esolen’s argument cannot stand. Esolen says, for example, that gay marriage is based on a “fundamentally antisocial” notion of sexual autonomy. “It not only retreats from social responsibility,” he says, “it breeds social irresponsibility.” That statement becomes absurd when you read the story of Charity and Sylvia, who found a surprising measure of support for their nineteenth-century marriage precisely because their coupling was so integral to the life of their small town.
And it’s absurd if you consider Tisinai’s story, which starts in the same place and in the same way as a lot of great love stories: with a nervous question on a dance floor. Tisinai writes:
I was 46 when I met Will, and resigned to being single forever. But on On April 3, 2008, Will saw me at a country-western bar called Oil Can Harry’s and asked me to two-step. At the end of the night, I gave him my number. Will promised to call the next day, and in a complete break from standard L.A. protocol, did exactly that. We had civil, slightly stilted first date until the subject of Battlestar Galactica came up, which was about to begin a new season. My memory can be a sieve, but Will remembers every damn thing, so we geeked out in excitement as he reminded me where the last season left off, and our chemistry erupted.
I was jaded, though. I had unconsciously decided first dates never go anywhere, so I didn’t follow up. In another gutsy break from protocol, Will called me on Thursday:We had a great time, why didn’t you call? I could have decided he was crazy (and I would have been a little bit right). but instead I asked him out. We spent every weekend together after that.
You really ought to read the whole thing, not just for its sweetness (and it is sweet!), but also for the vision of marriage that Tisinai articulates in the post. That vision is one of complementarity (“My memory can be a sieve, but Will remembers every damn thing”) and mutual self-sacrifice. And an understanding that self-sacrifice makes both partners better members of the community. It’s a vision of marriage that has been evident for a long time in Tisinai’s writing.
Put another way, Tisinai’s vision of marriage is exactly the opposite of what Esolen and Reilly say that gay marriage stands for. More and more, people are realizing that Esolen and Reilly’s characterizations of gay people and their relationships don’t hold up to reality, and that’s because stories like Tisinai’s are getting out. Somehow, though, not everyone is hearing them—there are still groups of people with their fingers stuck in their ears.
So this series will be one more attempt to reach those folks who are refusing to hear.