Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Responding to Katherine Kersten

Star Tribune columnist Katherine Kersten recently shared her views on same-gender marriage. She contends that it will destroy the “institution of marriage” and “repudiate time-honored ideas of social organization.”

Okay, here’s what I don’t get: If folks like Kersten are so intent on protecting “marriage,” then why don’t they lobby for “civil unions” or some other alternative for gay people? That to me would be a win/win solution. They get to hold onto their so-called “traditional” definition of marriage, while gay folks get to have their loving, committed relationships affirmed and get to share in the rights, benefits, and responsibilities of what straight people get to call “civil marriage.”

I sense, however, that in Kersten’s view there can never be any type of “win” for gay people. It’s no surprise then that she and others (including the US Conference of Catholic Bishops) make absolutely no attempt to acknowledge or accommodate the experiences, needs, and/or feelings of gay people. Accordingly, there always seems to be a callousness – a mean-spiritedness – in what they say and write about this issue. Their output lacks awareness of anything beyond a very narrow and rigid ideological framework. It therefore lacks compassion and wisdom. It does, however, appeal to a certain base element - a fear-based base element - within many people. I don’t believe it’s a place from which the followers of Jesus should operate. After all, he was quite clear: “Be not afraid.”

Anyway, I appreciate Dave Mindeman’s response to Kersten – a response originally published at Minnesota Network for Progressive Action (mnpACT.org) and reprinted below.


Kersten Confuses Definition of Marriage with Family

By Dave Mindeman
Minnesota Network for Progressive Action
November 8, 2009

Katherine Kersten writes a very informative column. She is helping me understand why so many people are afraid of gay marriage. Or at least she is helping me understand why people interpret their feelings as fear.

One thing is for certain, Katherine Kersten must live life on an incline wearing roller skates because everything is a “slippery slope.” It is uncanny how she correlates her slanted viewpoint as the clarion call for the destruction of everyone’s moral values.

This week’s column is back on her favorite topic – gay marriage. The first thing she does is make up her definition of marriage.

Marriage is a universal human institution. Across the world and throughout history, it's been exclusively male-female. That’s not because of anti-gay bigotry, but because marriage is anchored in a primal biological and social fact: Sex between men and women creates new human beings.

Actually, the legal term of marriage is really a product of the mid-19th century. Licenses were required to make sure people didn’t bond themselves in the unnatural act of a mixed-race marriage. (So you see, marriage licensing was spawned in bigotry). Prior to that, people would generally make an announcement, get the permission of the families, and head to the church.

But I don’t believe there is any legal qualification that a marriage must be about biology. When children are involved, it’s not about marriage . . . it’s about family. You actually don’t have to have a license to be a family. Families know they are families. Whether it is a couple with 13 kids, a single parent with one child, a married couple who can’t have children, or a gay couple living alone or with adopted children . . . they are all families. No licenses but no questions about what they are either.

Kersten mixes that all up in her definition of marriage. She has decided that the purpose of marriage is child rearing....

The primary purpose of marriage is to ensure the best environment for rearing the children born of male-female sexual acts. Marriage channels men's and women's sexual attraction into productive ends, and harnesses the male sex drive by binding men to the mothers of their children.

Again, Kersten mixes up marriage with family. The real purpose of a marriage is to vow a commitment to a monogamous relationship. You are committing yourself to one person, till death do you part. Children can be a product of that relationship, but again, that is not about the marriage, that is about the family. A marriage license that defines this monogamous relationship can apply to bi-racial couples (which we now generally accept) or it can apply to committed gay couples (which we are still working on). A monogamous sexual relationship doesn’t have to come to “productive ends.” Many heterosexual couples live their entire lives without having children – are they any less married?

But Kersten makes another accusation....

Same-sex marriage may not change the lives of John and Mary. But their children and grandchildren will bear the brunt of this cultural revolution. Today, only 59 percent of children live with their married biological or adoptive mother and father – a result of divorce, cohabitation and rising out-of-wedlock births. If same-sex marriage prevails, the marriage culture is likely to erode further.

I’m trying to follow the logic here. Kersten is concerned that only 59% of children live with their married parents. So if we legalize same-sex marriages, which cannot biologically reproduce but could give a loving adoptive home, we are eroding that furthur? How?

But Kersten isn’t done yet. Next she blames gay couples (whom she forbids the right to marry) for a laissez-faire attitude about marriage in general.

In European countries and American states where same-sex marriage is legal, the proportion of gays choosing to marry is well below that of the heterosexual population. In America, about two-thirds of gay couples who seek legal recognition are lesbians. The larger society does not expect or pressure gay people to marry – for them, it's just a matter of personal preference.

And her reasoning gets weirder....

Over time, this attitude could reshape the larger institution of marriage. As social norms that have encouraged men and women to take on the hard work of raising a family unravel, heterosexual couples are less likely to see marriage as important or relevant. Increasingly, marriage is likely to become just one of many options in a lifestyle smorgasbord.

So let’s break this down. If we give gay couples the right to legally marry, their cavalier maybe-maybe not attitude about it will further erode the marriage institution. Therefore, apparently, we must keep denying them that right so that can’t choose to ignore its use.


Katherine Kersten is an expert in her own mind. None of the things she expounds upon as “factual” have any studies or textbook backing to them. They are just her own personal opinions.

Just like our recent ancestral counterparts feared the complete degradation of society when we opened the doors to bi-racial marriage, Kersten justifies a deep seeded personal bigotry as the reason to defend a societal bias against GLBT relationships.

We simply have to be better than this.


Following are a few responses from the Star Tribune website to Kersten’s commentary.

Queixa writes: Your argument makes perfect sense. I agree with you one hundred percent. Therefore, I assume you support me in my goal to eliminate marriage for women over 50; to require a fertility test to both partners before issuing a marriage license; and to require the couple to sign an legally binding "Intent to Procreate" that will penalize the couple with fines and an annulment of the marriage if they do not successfully reproduce within, say, ten years. My modest proposal of additional marriage requirements would ensure that marriage is used ONLY for procreation and not just as a license for two heterosexual people to get a tax break and a slew of legal rights not available to non-procreating people.

Mikhastur writes: Ms. Kersten is so wrong, on so many levels. First, granting marriage equality to gay couples will not affect one iota how straight couples procreate. The ones who procreate within the bonds of marriage will still have the same family protections that they always have. The huge portion of them that choose to procreate outside of marriage (without any input from the gays whatsoever) will continue to do so. Second, you have utterly left children being raised by gay couples out in the legal freezing sleet. Fully 1/3 of gay couples who consider themselves married are currently raising children, according to a recent study. They parents have committed mutually committed their support and fidelity to each other for perpetuity. Why should they not receive the same legal protections as similar situated kids whose parents are straight? Third, you have utterly ignored that marriage has historically been about property (including the wife(s) and kids) rather than procreation, per se. And that currently and historically, marriage has been granted to couples who would have no way whatsoever to procreate. Forth, you have directly stated that granting marriage equality to same sex couples would somehow perpetrate grievous damage on our society. But you have failed to substantiate this allegation in any manner. Is this the best you can do?

Jhal7181 writes: All I can say is wow to you Katherine. I respect the fact that you are writing an opinion, but I am stunned and shocked by what you are passing off as arguments for your case. . . . But most of all, I am disturbed by the fact that you made it more than clear that you simply do not respect gay relationships, and for that matter, gay people in general. . . . It is people like you with attitudes like yours that will cause much more harm to society than gay marriage ever will.

Jeffrey writes: The author says the proper question to ask is, “How will same-sex marriage harm the institution of marriage - and in the long run, all of us?” Well, what’s the answer? She doesn’t say. She makes a lot of scary predictions, none backed by facts or research. More “the sky is falling!” malarkey from a homophobe. It gets so tiresome. I hope it’s ok to ask the obvious: if she thinks marriage is anchored in procreation, why are senior citizens allowed to marry? Why is there no requirement to have children if you get married? Why is it legal to have kids out of wedlock? “Boys and girls flourish best with a married mother and father, who perform different and complementary roles in preparing them to deal with the world and the opposite sex.” I think the author reveals her bias here: moms and dads have to prepare their kids for the world AND THE OPPOSITE SEX?? Do gay children not deserve world and romance preparation?

Dbeilke writes: Infidelity and divorce are greater threats to the institution of marriage than anything else but when it comes to those things conservatives are silent. . . . [Kersten’s commentary] is just another lame attempt to defend the indefensible. I’m waiting for a good argument against gay marriage and nobody seems to be able to provide one. The truth is that it does not affect YOU so stay out of it.

Hmd2010 writes: The greatest harm to the classic heterosexual marriage is the high divorce rate. Allowing gay marriage will have no effect on this. The happiest marriages I know are between two people who love each other. The most miserable marriages I know are those that are entered into for breeding purposes. I am the child of one of those marriages, and I would have been much happier with a gay couple who loved each other as my parents than with the straight couple who ended up separated when their three lovely children did not “fix” their relationship. I love both my parents, but what where they thinking when they got married to each other? If either were gay, it would make no difference to me at all provided they loved each other. That is what marriage should be to both straight and gay couples.

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
Taking Kersten to Task
Patrick Ryan on the “Defense of Traditional Marriage” Argument
John Corvino on the “Always and Everywhere” Argument
Dr. Erik Steele and the “Naked Truth on Same-Sex Marriage”
The Changing Face of “Traditional Marriage”
The Same People
Love is Love
Competent Parenting Doesn’t Require “Traditional Marriage”


Mark Andrews said...

A simple way to look at this is as a "culture clash." Two different civic/religious definitions of marriage are clashing. I am beginning to prefer looking at the issue as follows:

1) A change in the definition of both marriage & family is proposed.

2) Is this change possible?

3) If change is possible, is it desirable?

4) Can the short & long term impact of such a change to U.S. (or the nation where you reside) society and culture be known?

5) If the short & long term impact of such a change to society and culture can be known, is that change desirable?

Michael J. Bayly said...

A thoughtful sequence of questions, Mark. Do you see them being addressed anywhere? What are your own thoughts on possible responses to them?

colkoch said...

Mark does bring up good questions. I've long thought the issue for society should not be protecting marriage, but fostering the well being of children.

If we were to do this, then the marriage question becomes irrelevant and family questions rise to the surface. The only fair way to deal with family issues is to put it in terms of parents, not husbands and wives. In this case all parents, straight, gay, married, single, biological, or adoptive, would be entitled to the same benefits for their children, and subject to the same responsibilities for their children's support.

David Mindeman's point about the confusion of marriage with family is crucial to the gay marriage debate. Family is not synonymous with marriage. Society does not have near the reason to invest in marriage that it does in families and children, and the greater truth is that children have great need for society to invest in their families and their futures.

Mark Andrews said...

Colleen, a tongue-in-cheek restatement of some of the ideas in your post might be from a favorite science fiction writer of mine named Verner Vigne.

The Vigne story I remember is that aliens came to visit Earth. The liked it so well the threw all the humans off the planet to fend for themselves in the rest of the solar system.

The largest human population was on the moon. At malls on the moon a person could stop in a parlor for to switch their biological sex. The idea in the story was that technology had become so advanced that you could change from the male to the female "you," or vice-versa, in 24 hours, provided your credit was good and you weren't wanted by the law.

In Vigne's society, there was very little government in the human parts of the solar system. But what little government did exist kept careful track of one thing: what children you had fathered or mothered, and were your child support payments current. If your kids weren't take care of you lost your travel papers, couldn't get a job, couldn't change genders, generally lost your civil liberties, and if that weren't enough, all your assets, all over the solar system, were garnished to care for your kids, and pay back child support to your previous spouses (of whatever gender) with whom you had kids.

The reasoning for this in the story was that humans were an endangered species. If there was any hope of getting Earth back from the aliens, people were needed.

Vigne's view of child support is a pretty good idea.

Mark Andrews said...

Michael, I'll try to answer the questions I posed from two opposing viewpoints in the next day or so.

crystal said...

Speaking of the Verner Vigne novel, that reminds me of another SF novel, The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin. In the future, a diplomat visits another planet, Gethen ... The inhabitants of Gethen are sequentially hermaphroditic humans; for twenty-four days of each twenty-six day lunar cycle they are sexually latent androgynes, and for the remaining two days (kemmer) are male or female, as determined by pheromonal negotiation with an interested sex partner. Thus each individual can both sire and bear children.

Good book :)

Terence Weldon said...

Excellent observations from Colleen and Mark: if the welfare of children is the issue, then that is what should be addressed directly. Heterosexual marriage is not only about childrearing, and same sex marriage often is.

I would like to address a separate issue of confusion in Kersten's piece - that between "time-honored" ideas of marriage, and those of the modern West. The model of marriage she is thinking of, a monogamous union of one man and one woman joined in a love relationship consecrated in church to raise children, is unique to the last two centuries in the West. So-called "traditional" marriage is a modern invention.

Before that, marriage was primarily about protecting property and inheritance rights. In many parts of the world, and among the Hebrew patriarchs, polygamy was commonplace. In classical Greece and Rome, where European culture largely began, men did not expect to find sexual or emotional fulfilment in marriage, but took it from slaves, prostitutes, concubines or male lovers - if they were privileged citizens. If not, chances are their sexual lives were determined by their owners or masters, not by themselves. In some parts of the ancient world and in some modern non-Western societies, boys would marry young, but continue to live in all male barracks.

Among Christians, marriage in church was not required (and was sometimes not possible) until the 12th century. Indeed, it has been suggested that a church ceremony was obligatory only for priests who chose to marry.

Outside of Europe and North America, the so-called "traditional", "time-honoured" model was even less typical until it was imposed by Western missionaries and colonial powers.

Ms Kersten is fully entitled to her view as a preferred model: but to insist that it is anything more than a personal preference is either plain ignorant or intellectual dishonesty.

colkoch said...

Mark and Crystal, I've actually read both of those books and found them great, but my real motivation for my own focus came from working with adult severly disable mentally ill and all those attendant problems with children.

But to keep in the same vein, I also read an SF book a long time ago in which people could change their sexual gender and the hero/heroine did on many occasions, until as a she, he/she had a child. The original male in her had real tough time being pinned down to a small child. That exercise of his/her feminity was never repeated, although the child grew up to be the only real attachment the hero had which in any sense kept him/her connected to humanity.

In some respects I could say the same about my daughter.LOL