Response to Katherine Kersten’s “The faulty case for changing the marriage laws” Star Tribune column 6/3/12


Despite my knowledge that I usually strongly disagree with Katherine Kersten, I made a stab at reading her most recent column, “The faulty case for changing marriage laws”.  Not surprisingly, I find Kersten’s assertions at once mystifying and offensive.   I am going to go through her column point by point to explain my point of view on what she is saying, just to assuage my own anxieties at not responding to this sort of thing.  Just so you know where I’m coming from, I’m a married woman, married to a man.  We have no children, although we tried for 15 years & are still coping with the feelings of loss around infertility. 

In the first paragraph she says that “sometimes you have to take an argument to its logical conclusion to see its flaws”,  so we already know that she is going to be positing a slippery slope argument – a type of argument that the rhetoric books cite as a faulty argument, by the way, but that’s what we can look forward to.  She doesn’t disappoint. 

Then she “guesses” that if there was a poll about whether we could redefine marriage as “temporary” or “three people or more” or “between siblings in a nonsexual relationship” that 95% of Minnesotans would be against it. 

Parroting some of the arguments that some people make for gay marriage, she fake-defends those three possibilities – the arguments she chooses are that “such marriages don’t hurt anyone else’s marriage”, the argument that “isn’t love what it’s all about”, and finally, “people bound by affection deserve the benefits of marriage – and suffer stigma if they are withheld.”

What Kersten is doing here is watering down the arguments to a shallow gloss, and in fact, she sidesteps many of the major harms of denying same sex marriage by saying that gay couples “suffer stigma” if they are not allowed to marry.  Suffering stigma is the least of the problem.  Stigma sucks, sure, but I’m more concerned about things like a gay man not being allowed into his partner’s hospital room while his partner is in a coma, or about a gay mother being denied custody of her child if her partner, the birth mother, died in an accident. Or gay partners not being next of kin for financial concerns and so on.

These are very real concerns and they go far beyond some community member’s disdain of their choices.  Disdain we can handle.  Go ahead and feel that gays are in the wrong, and that those aren’t your choices, and that you don’t like it.  But that’s as far as your influence over someone else’s marriage should go.

The next paragraph goes on to say that it’s not fantastical that some people might want to have temporary or polygamous or intrafamily marriages.  No, she’s right, that’s not a fantasy.  I have never heard of a “temporary” marriage – unless you count that you can legally divorce, but I certainly know people who think that a polygamous marriage should be allowed.  As far as brother and sister marrying, that one’s new to me, too, but I’m sure that some siblings somewhere would like the option.  It doesn’t matter.  Those are separate questions.  Honoring gay marriage is about honoring gay marriage, and fears about what may follow or what may be pursued are not a reason to not honor gay marriage.  If those questions come up in a debate later, then we debate it later. 

Then Kersten goes on to say that “marriage has a unique public purpose” and with very sweeping statements, she claims that “always and everywhere” and “cross the globe and through the millennia”  marriage has had the same purpose, and that is to “connect men with their children and the mother who bore them, so that every child has a loving, committed mother and father.”  Well.  That’s quite a rewrite of all of human history, which I don’t believe has been as child-centered as she is making out here.  One could certainly point to the reality that there hasn’t always been marriage for everyone in every country, and that for a good long while the function of marriage was security and transfer of wealth, but that would be cynical.  No, it’s always been about the children. Yeah. 

She then slips in “Though the best environment of raising children is a married mother and father” it’s hard to have a good marriage.  Which it is. But my problem with this is her ‘given’ is false.  Sure a married mother and father may provide a great environment for a child, but then again, they may not.  If my friend asks me if I think she’s ready to be a mother, I don’t say, “sure you’re married to a man, so you’re good to go.”  There’s a little more to it.  And I know a lot of people who have been raised by same sex couples and they’re doing great.  Doesn’t mean same sex couples are all perfect and automatically provide the best environment – totally depends on the people involved and lots of other factors, too. 

Finally, she gets to the most overtly offensive part of her column, saying that it’s wrong to compare opposition to same sex marriage to the historical opposition to interracial marriages.  She says “Jim Crow-era laws did not challenge the nature or meaning of marriage.”  Well, except the argument that it was unnatural to marry outside of your race, I guess.  Frankly, I’m surprised that Kersten isn’t among the 20% of Americans who still think interracial marriage should be illegal.  Instead, she says that people who were against interracial marriage were frustrating the natural good of marriage by keeping black and white couples — oops, misquote, she specifies “black and white men and women” — apart to perpetuate a racist legal order.  

She gets close to saying something that I might agree with, but then she takes a turn.  She acknowledges the racist legal order *presumably a thing of the past if you read her other columns* but doesn’t acknowledge a homophobic legal order.  Okay then.  Instead of making the connection that I think would have been sound, she instead changes tacks and switches over to an argument about whether a union can produce children.

She says that because ‘unisex’ couples can’t produce children, their relationship is more like a friendship. 

Now, I stated earlier that my husband and I can’t have kids.  According to Kersten, that eliminates the “logical necessity” for us to have a “permanent and sexually exclusive” relationship.  Using her slippery slope argument, should I be afraid that the state will step in and declare our marriage null and void because our union is illogical? 

I don’t fear that, because no one cares if we have kids or not.  Well, we care, and our families care, but the state doesn’t and shouldn’t care.  In fact, we’re probably saving them money, but that’s a whole other discussion. My point is, the crux of her argument is that if you can’t have kids of your own, you shouldn’t be able to get married.  Some of us heterosexuals slip through the cracks and get married without procreating, but they ignore us.

She then posits another slippery slope argument (she lives in a hilly, icy world) that if marital norms are not enforced, men and women will see fewer intrinsic reasons to marry.  And this leads to the suffering of the children.  And this leads to the larger role that the government will be compelled to play in the functions of the family.  And if you believe a kid should have a mom and a dad you will lose your job.  And if you give a mouse a cookie, he’ll want a glass of milk. Sheesh.

This given, the idea that marriage is strictly for procreation and child rearing, is the difference upon which she is basing her main argument.  I say you can’t have it both ways.  If you can’t call a – how she says – “nonmarital, affection-based union” the same as traditional marital union, and the only difference is that you can’t biologically have your own children and that’s what makes it non-marital, then it follows that my own marriage is nonmarital, and that it’s only affection based.  I reject that.

So our societal discrimination against homosexuals, which she sugar coats as “distinguishing among people” using “criteria” that “serve(s) a legitimate public purpose” is right, according to Kersten. 

Typically I might dismiss her argument as homophobic and ignore it.  She is certainly entitled to think what she thinks, but what worries me is that this column in the Strib could influence voters in November to vote for the Same Sex Marriage Amendment, which I think would be a shame.  I hope that people will instead use this column as a springboard to more discussion about the amendment before it comes up for a vote.  Obviously you know how I am going to vote, and I hope that you will join me in rejecting the idea that marriage is only for makin’ babies and raising them – as usual, life is more complex than that, and fears of slippery slopes are not a good reason to not stand our ground.