In response to Adam’s question:
I think that first it would be good to point out the rhetorical strategy of Blankenhorn’s op-ed just to establish some common field of tropes.
So, here we have a conservative guy (I’m not going into what that means, as you, Adam, have a much more detailed view of the American political landscape), who wrote a book against gay marriage, testified in court against Proposition 8 in 2010, and now revises his opinion — or so he claims.
Now, he opens his argument as follows:
I opposed gay marriage believing that children have the right, insofar as society makes it possible, to know and to be cared for by the two parents who brought them into this world. I didn’t just dream up this notion: the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, which came into force in 1990, guarantees children this right.
Nowhere in this convention it says anything about the sex of the parents, which, as far the convention goes, is a legal term. It even states that the state is not allowed to discriminate the parents based on their sex, namely in Article 2.1: “States Parties shall respect and ensure the rights set forth in the present Convention to each child within their jurisdiction without discrimination of any kind, irrespective of the child’s or his or her parent’s or legal guardian’s race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national, ethnic or social origin, property, disability, birth or other status.”
At the same time there is no mention of marriage or any other type of legal bond that would guarantee the legality of the child. Neither is the number of parents or legal guardians anywhere limited to the number of 2, or do we find an explicit mentioning of the way in which the child has come into the world. So if we read again Blankenhorn stating that a child has the right “to know and to be cared for by the two parents who brought them into this world,” we should in fact, according to the Convention correct this to: “to know and be cared for by his or her parents.” (Art. 7.1) “To know” has nothing to do (according to the Convention) with any biological source and/or origin. The child simply has the right to know whom to call “parent.”
In other words, the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child introduces nothing but a biopolitical order of human beings below 18 (“children”) and human beings above 18 (“parents,” which are able to create this thing “State”). These facts (that Blankenhorn does not link to the actual text but to a summary of it on the UNICEF website should have set off the alarms in the first place) already in themselves disqualify any argument pro or against marriage vis-à-vis the child in general. The Convention is not pertinent to his argument because it does not share any of his definitions, and is in the end of a purely structural nature, regulating the distribution of knowledge.
Marriage is how society recognizes and protects this right. Marriage is the planet’s only institution whose core purpose is to unite the biological, social and legal components of parenthood into one lasting bond. Marriage says to a child: The man and the woman whose sexual union made you will also be there to love and raise you. In this sense, marriage is a gift that society bestows on its children.
Now let us assume that Blankenhorn did not alter this “right” that he found in Art. 7.1 willfully, but that we are dealing here with “just” a misreading (no misreading is just a misreading, naturally), and read the first sentence, “Marriage is how society recognizes and protects this right” together with the “right” right in question: ”the child has the right to know and be cared for by his or her parents.” Through marriage, society recognizes a child as a child; it is the lens through which any human being may be called “child.” This statement is in obvious conflict with the abovementioned Convention, which states quite clearly that “a child means every human being below the age of eighteen years unless under the law applicable to the child.” The right of the child “to know its parents” is only conditioned by the chronological <18 requirement. This applies even if majority (a legal term) is attained earlier (Art. 1). What makes a child a child (and a parent a parent) its relation to the (arbitrary scale) Julian calendar: chronological time trumps biological fact, legal status or social norm..
It should therefore not come a surprise that any institution that aims to “unite the biological, social and legal components of parenthood” into one structure shows itself to be deeply paradoxical at the moment it is actually tested against social tendencies (increased divorce rates, single parenting, child marriage), biological invention (genetic engineering, infertility, artificial insemination), or legal innovation (civil unions, legalized divorce, shared parenthood). And it is here, and Blankenhorn is generous in pointing it out immediately, that the only possible point de capiton is the unspeakable “sexual union” that “makes” a child. Marriage in fact “speaks” to child, it says: “The man and the woman whose sexual union made you will also be there to love and raise you.” Apart from casting an entirely new light on the age at which it would healthy for a child to become acquainted with the trauma of the parental sexual act (if I were Blankenhorn, I would say: asap!), we also find the introduction of “gift,” namely, that marriage assures the child that the parents had sex is the gift from society to the child. So what Blankenhorn in fact suggests is that the parental fiction of marriage safeguards the child’s fiction of origin. Two imaginary discourses tied together in the sexual union that both links the parents and creates the child. At issue is therefore the various other sexual acts that could displace, or even replace M-F penis-in-vagina reproductive sex (where both partners are fertile). Gays here become an obvious threat, but so are mundane sins such sex out of wedlock, artificial insemination, and so on. However, any couple that in their physical appearance already seem to indicate (this is glossing over any issues of actual or perceived gender) the impossibility of the Blankenhorn’s “sexual union” becomes emblematic.
At the level of first principles, gay marriage effaces that gift. No same-sex couple, married or not, can ever under any circumstances combine biological, social and legal parenthood into one bond. For this and other reasons, gay marriage has become a significant contributor to marriage’s continuing deinstitutionalization, by which I mean marriage’s steady transformation in both law and custom from a structured institution with clear public purposes to the state’s licensing of private relationships that are privately defined.
No wonder then that Blankenhorn states that (and now I’ll move a bit faster) “gay marriage effaces that gift.” It introduces a tangible and decisive proof (in a two-parent M-M of F-F family situation) for the fictionality the child’s origin. Now, unless you are against self-reflexive children, or believe that Oedipus is bullshit anyways this should not be so alarming. As Avital Ronell once said, trauma works structuring…
Now the next step in the argument is obviously to strengthen “marriage” rhetorically, Blankenhorn (which by the way means “white [or, in a racial sense: Caucasian] horn” — am I the only one who registered the signifier?). He no longer speaks of marriage “uniting the biological, social and legal components of parenthood,” but about marriage as the combination if “biological, social and legal parenthood into one bond.” A trio, as pointed out above, frought with paradox. Resisting an analysis of the elimination of any “componentiality” of marriage and the will to unify it as a concept, we should however move on to the statement that “gay marriage has become a significant contributor to marriage’s continuing deinstitutionalization,” namely, because “it effaces the gift.” Now an argument could be, along Derridean lines, that any gift always already works deinstitutionalizing, so that defining marriage as gift (which the child is never able to repay — how do you repay the gift of an original fiction?) at least introduces a fundamental instability and desinstitutionalizing force within marriage itself. A gift opens the motif of debt (debt of the child to society), that may be only repaid by passing on the debt to another generation. (Along these lines one may possibly deconstruct the idea of “debt crisis” as imitating the crisis of the classical family structure). In fact, we will find later on in Blankenhorn’s argument that this gift (here to be read as German Gift) has always already been poisoning marriage itself.
I have written these things in my book and said them in my testimony, and I believe them today. I am not recanting any of it.
But back to the first level of his rhetoric. Blankenhorn has not changed his mind. His whole definition of marriage as the knot of legal, social, and biological parenthood still stands: he is “not recanting any of it.” But then, what did change?
But there are more good things under heaven than these beliefs. For me, the most important is the equal dignity of homosexual love. I don’t believe that opposite-sex and same-sex relationships are the same, but I do believe, with growing numbers of Americans, that the time for denigrating or stigmatizing same-sex relationships is over. Whatever one’s definition of marriage, legally recognizing gay and lesbian couples and their children is a victory for basic fairness.
Ok, we have a “victory for basic fairness,” applauded civically by Blankenhorn, that can be interpreted as checking off the legal component of “traditional marriage.” What else did we get?
Another good thing is comity. Surely we must live together with some degree of mutual acceptance, even if doing so involves compromise. Sticking to one’s position no matter what can be a virtue. But bending the knee a bit, in the name of comity, is not always the same as weakness. As I look at what our society needs most today, I have no stomach for what we often too glibly call “culture wars.” Especially on this issue, I’m more interested in conciliation than in further fighting.
Now, comity is a word used here to make your ears flap a bit, but it basically means indeed what Blankenhorn writes, a society “with some degree of mutual acceptance, even if doing so involves compromise.” (I am slightly puzzled by the “even if.” I thought that compromise always came before acceptance, and I am not aware of any acceptance without compromise — but perhaps we are dealing here with the Christian theme of you’re a sinner but god loves you, Adam?) Moreover, we are made witness to Blankenhorn’s moral high ground, who “looks at what our society needs today” and has “no stomach for what we often too glibly call ‘culture wars.’” Words of conciliation, and so on.
A third good thing is respect for an emerging consensus. The population as a whole remains deeply divided, but most of our national elites, as well as most younger Americans, favor gay marriage. This emerging consensus may be wrong on the merits. But surely it matters.
This basically says: I’m on the losing side of history, but opportunist enough to possibly turn a loss into half a victory (of fairness!) for the non-young, non-elite Americans that he is addressing here. We can also read the “emerging consensus” as appealing to the social component of marriage: gay marriage, according to the previous paragraphs, has already been accepted as for its legal and social components, now the obvious one waiting to be integrated (or expelled forever) is the biological component, i.e. the “sexual union.”
I had hoped that the gay marriage debate would be mostly about marriage’s relationship to parenthood. But it hasn’t been. Or perhaps it’s fairer to say that I and others have made that argument, and that we have largely failed to persuade. In the mind of today’s public, gay marriage is almost entirely about accepting lesbians and gay men as equal citizens. And to my deep regret, much of the opposition to gay marriage seems to stem, at least in part, from an underlying anti-gay animus. To me, a Southerner by birth whose formative moral experience was the civil rights movement, this fact is profoundly disturbing.
Here we finally catch sight of the underlying issue: namely that marriage as being the unity of social, legal, and biological parenthood never “functioned” in the first place. In the same way that it is supposed to give a fiction of origin to the child (a fiction whose unity is threatened by gay marriage), it is supposed to give itself a similar original myth. The gay marriage debate would have potentially introduced the “other” that would allow a straight unification of “traditional” marriage. Blankenhorn may or may not really care about the existence of “gay people,” the problem is that gay marriage introduces one (in fact, a veritable multiplicity of) alternative discourse of the sexual union that might found a child’s attachment to his parents. (e.g. “Suzy, David and Jorge had a good fuck in the basement sling nine months before you were born, that’s why you’re their daughter!” [And why not? -- an examination of the sexual act and the problem of causality may well in place here]), and this destabilization of the discursive gift of society to the child is what is at the root of his anxiety. He affirms this in the next paragraph:
I had also hoped that debating gay marriage might help to lead heterosexual America to a broader and more positive recommitment to marriage as an institution. But it hasn’t happened. With each passing year, we see higher and higher levels of unwed childbearing, nonmarital cohabitation and family fragmentation among heterosexuals. Perhaps some of this can be attributed to the reconceptualization of marriage as a private ordering that is so central to the idea of gay marriage. But either way, if fighting gay marriage was going to help marriage over all, I think we’d have seen some signs of it by now.
In the end a large part of his argument plays out on the level of the fundamental anxiety of any father (“is it really my child?”): “unwed childbearing, nonmarital cohabitation and family fragmentation among heterosexuals.” The “reconceptualization of marriage,” namely the reconfiguration (or sometimes even rejection) of the legal, social, and biological components of marriage, risks ending up as a “private ordering,” namely a form of life of at least two human beings (in a relation parent-child). This “private ordering,” in other words, is an ordering that is not sanctioned from the level of the state except for the extant structural positions of “parent” and “child” (i.e. as defined by the Convention). Its status as “gift from society” would be entirely erased, and any sign of recovering this gift, Blankenhorn commemorates cynically, through introducing a radical split in society, seems to be lost: “if fighting gay marriage was going to help marriage over all, I think we’d have seen some signs of it by now.” (With “fighting gay marriage” he of course means stimulating, supporting, and funding (violent) discrimination of gay people, let’s not juxtapose this with the hypocritical “a Southerner by birth whose formative moral experience was the civil rights movement” — what do you mean, the guys who took over your grandfather’s plantation?)
So my intention is to try something new. Instead of fighting gay marriage, I’d like to help build new coalitions bringing together gays who want to strengthen marriage with straight people who want to do the same. For example, once we accept gay marriage, might we also agree that marrying before having children is a vital cultural value that all of us should do more to embrace? Can we agree that, for all lovers who want their love to last, marriage is preferable to cohabitation? Can we discuss whether both gays and straight people should think twice before denying children born through artificial reproductive technology the right to know and be known by their biological parents?
Will this strategy work? I don’t know. But I hope to find out.
Blankenhorn intends to try “something new” (a new strategy, not a redefinition) which — of course — is in fact something old. If you can’t beat them, join them — or even better, let them join you. This is precisely what is the issue when a multiplicity of voices in the gay community cheers at this sedated “victory of basic fairness” (how can fairness ever win?). They are applauding the gaping (or GOPing) mouth of conservative politics, ready to swallow the rising gay bourgeoisie — setting them up against other, underprivileged groups. This is identity politics at its dirtiest. What is at stake is not marriage as a legal institution, but marriage as a fiction: “once we accept gay marriage, might we also agree that marrying before having children is a vital cultural value that all of us should do more to embrace?” In other words, if a gay couple would marry, shouldn’t they agree that (straight) couples should marry too before procreating? “Can we agree that, for all lovers who want their love to last, marriage is preferable to cohabitation?” In other words, if a gay couple would marry, shouldn’t they agree also that living together out of wedlock is a sin, threatening the sanctity of their marriage. Blankenhorn tells us gay people: if you marry, you’ll have to abide by its “sanctity,” because that’s what you want right, a little place in heaven? (Ignoring that marriage has enormous legal and financial implications in terms inheritance, health care, and so on — it’s the economy, stupid!)
So what is effaced here, and this was the problem since the beginning, is the issue of “sexual union.” What Blankenhorn accomplishes in a tour the force is to excise the sexual union — the biological component — from marriage altogether, in order to save marriage as a discursive mechanism. This is a tour de force of puritanism meeting Lacan: there is no sexual relation. Better to sacrifice sex than talking about sex! If this is not Foucault’s governmentality at work in its purest form I don’t know what is.
Now, how does this open an answer to Adam’s question? Well first of that this “private ordering” of marriage is what at the core of the issue, and the problem of the “private sphere” as such opposed to the sphere of the state. In other words, a problem that could be discussed within the frame of what Agamben calls “form of life.” Even though he never discusses this in any of his texts (always referring to monasteries and so on), in my experience, being gay is nothing but a continuous experiment of this “private ordering,” not to arrive at another hegemonic form, but to investigate its multifacetedness, ranging from “fuckbuddy” to “boyfriend,” from “orgy” to “friend whom you also fuck with,” from “husband” to “one night stand,” all of which are radically underdefined and outside the fiction of marriage. This is where I would like to keep them.
As for marriage itself, and its possible meanings, no truly international force will be able to sustain its stability. In this sense it (in the US) delivered to a very specific politics with hardly any international consequences. One of the possible roads of inquiry would be to investigate marriage as a specifically American fiction, something for which I do not have the background.
But perhaps this is a good question for you to answer. To what extent is marriage properly American?