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Gay Marriage, Traditional Marriage, and Musical Theater

originally posted: December 30, 2008
last updated: September  2, 2012


I've been struggling for years to try to figure out why exactly the idea of gay marriage seems so offensive to so many people. About four years ago, I took some time to read up on the arguments that people were putting forth in opposition to gay marriage, reading websites like this, this, and this. I'm sorry to say, they didn't help a bit. I really couldn't make much sense of them at all. "Legalizing gay unions will destroy the institution of marriage." "A marriage requires a man and a women." "Marriages that cannot produce children are meaningless." At first glance these arguments seemed outrageously ridiculous, and closer examination didn't improve them. I wrote several essays about these subjects which tried to carefully analyze these kinds of arguments, but was unable to find the merit in them.

And yet, I knew I had to be missing something. Large numbers of decent people hold these opinions. I couldn't believe that it was all just a smokescreen backed by nothing but homophobia. Most of these people don't really seem violently homophobic.

It took years before I began to realize that to understand these arguments, I needed to look at the world quite differently. I made some attempt to work these insights into my original essays, but I've wanted to treat them in a more focused manner. Spurred by the passage of California's Proposition 8, I will, at last, attempt it.

One of the keys to understanding the seeming irrationality of my opponent's point of view was recognizing a certain degree of irrationality in my own. Why does it make me happy when gay marriage is legalized somewhere, and depress me when it gets banned? I'm not gay, and neither are any of my close friends or relations. Why should I care so much? Could the reason I care so much have something to do with the reasons that the opponents of gay marriage care so much?

I've seen many defenders of gay marriage who deny that legalizing gay marriage would have any impact on the institution of marriage as a whole or on anyone other than gays. I no longer believe that this is true. Marriage plays a very central part in people's lives, so any change to the way our society understands marriage matters a lot. I think the acceptance of gay marriage would have a broad impact, and though I feel strongly that it would be a positive impact, I can well understand that some people might feel differently.

The objective of this essay then, is to try to explain to people with a basically liberal/progressive mind set, how it is possible for any sane human to see the legalization of gay marriage as a threat to the institution of marriage and an assault on the foundations of civilization. Thus the emphasis in this essay is on the potential impact of gay marriage on non-gays. This is arguably strange, but I think that's where you have to look if you want to understand why so many Americans oppose gay marriage.


To accomplish our goal of understanding why gay marriage might seem an anathema in the eyes of some, we first need to look at the world through eyes other than our own. Happily we are the inheritors of a long literary tradition which makes many kinds of viewpoints readily accessible. I can think of no better guide to traditional views of marriage than Tevye, star of the musical Fiddler on the Roof, a story written by Joseph Stein, with lyrics by Sheldon Harnick, and music by Jerry Bock which first opened on stage in 1964. Tevye's world-view is obviously not in any way typical of that of modern conservatives. It is an exaggerated and simplified version of anything that any real person believes or ever has believed. But Tevye was created explicitly to help us understand, with sympathy, the viewpoint of a person who was troubled by having the patterns of traditional life, and particularly traditional marriage, overthrown before his eyes. So, although understanding him isn't enough to allow us to understand the viewpoint of modern opponents of gay marriage, it's a good start along the path.

As the Fiddler on the Roof opens, Tevye is delivering milk to the inhabitants of the little Russian village of Anatevka, where, he says, life is as precarious as a fiddler on a roof. As he does so, he addresses the audience, telling us about his village, the villagers, and how they live. He tells us that "because of our traditions we've kept our balance for many, many years" and "because of our traditions every one of us knows who he is and what God expects him to do."

The music rises and the narration blends into the first song, "Tradition," which starts out with a strongly rhythmic chorus of men:

Who, day and night, must scramble for a living,
Feed a wife and children, say his daily prayers?
And who has the right, as master of the house,
To have the final word at home?

The Papa, the Papa! Tradition.
The Papa, the Papa! Tradition.

Then the chorus of women, comes in with a more melodic tune:
Who must know the way to make a proper home,
A quiet home, a kosher home?
Who must raise the family and run the home,
So Papa's free to read the holy books?

The Mama, the Mama! Tradition!
The Mama, the Mama! Tradition!

Then the young men come in:
At three, I started Hebrew school. At ten, I learned a trade.
I hear they've picked a bride for me. I hope she's pretty.

The son, the son! Tradition!
The son, the son! Tradition!

And finally the young women:
And who does Mama teach to mend and tend and fix,
Preparing me to marry whoever Papa picks?

The daughter, the daughter! Tradition!
The daughter, the daughter! Tradition!

And there you have it, a whole world-view defined in the course of one song.

In Tevye's world, everything is laid out for him, and everything is laid out for everyone around him. Everyone knows their place. There is a tradition for everything. People know what to eat, and how to dress. All of this is not just habit. It is valued by the villagers. It is the cement that holds their community together, and makes them collectively strong in a dangerous world.

Living in this traditional society is all about roles. Everyone is assigned a role: papa, mama, son or daughter. Everyone knows the requirements of those roles. If you diligently fulfill those requirements, then you will win the respect of the people of your community and salvation from God himself. Nothing more is required to be considered a "good person." You will have every reason to be satisfied with yourself.

This system of well-defined roles provides structure to Anatevka's society. The people in these roles change over time, but the system of roles is stable, a lasting structure that provides security, certainty, and safety to the people of the town.

And at the heart of it all lies the institution of marriage. Of course, the song's many mentions of marriage and the home (highlighted in yellow) are partly just there to introduce the plot of the story, which is all about marriage, but it's more than that. Marriage really is the hub of traditional society. Nearly all of the duties assigned by these roles take place within the context of a marriage. The papas work to feed wife and children. The mamas make a home for husband and children. The children train for their future roles in their future marriages. Thus it is through the institution of marriage, that people's willingness to work for the good of the people closest to them is harnessed for the good of society as a whole.

There are other important roles in Anatevka, of course. There is a rabbi, a butcher, a tailor, a milkman, and a matchmaker. But these are in a way secondary. Tevye works hard as a milkman so he can fulfill his duty as a Papa to support his family. Motel, the tailor, works hard to try to raise enough money to buy a sewing machine, so he can marry and support a family. Lazar Wolf's job as a butcher makes him an attractive match, however unattractive he may be otherwise. So although people have other roles, their motivation for performing those roles is largely rooted in their desire to fulfill their marriage roles. In this way, marriage is the harness that keeps people working for their community.

But this system of roles is founded on more than the fact that they help create a stable and cohesive society. Many other systems of roles might do that. The fact that almost every other line of the song includes a reference to religion (highlighted in green) reminds us that these roles have a deeper importance: they are commanded by God.

The primary reason that most members of a traditional society would cite for why they cleave to their traditional roles is because that is the route to salvation decreed by God. The song says the papa is the "master of the house," but his duties there include saying his daily prayers and reading the holy books. He doesn't govern the household any way he please, he governs in compliance to God's will, and doing so is doing his duty to God. The mama keeps a kosher home, so she too runs every aspect of the household according to the rules laid down by God.

When Tevye says that it is tradition that helps keep his village in balance in a unstable world, I think he means it both ways. From a secular point of view, those traditions unite and stabilize the community. At the same time, from a religious point of views, those same traditions win God's favor for the community. For Tevye, the latter would certainly be the most important, and would be the only thing that could give any real hope of security.

These roles aren't viewed as being "natural," in the sense that people would naturally do them if left to their own inclinations. They are externally mandated for the good of society. The roles are taught to children by parents, and any deviations are strictly punished, for the good of the community. If the parents don't do the job well enough, the community will step in. For example, it used to be quite common for neighbors to take a man to court for the crime of allowing his wife to nag him.

Are people happy in their roles? Not necessarily. Tevye, for example, would certainly like to be a rich man, and his relationship with his wife is not particularly warm. Certainly there is some satisfaction in performing his role well enough to provide food and security for his family and win the respect of his peers, but his life is not primarily about seeking personal happiness or self-fulfillment. He is seeking, rather, to do his duty to God. Even if he was a rich man, he thinks the sweetest thing about it would be to have more time to study the holy books.

Tevye and Gay Marriage

So, let us look at the question of gay marriage from Tevye's point of view. Even leaving aside the religious component, this point of view makes an awful lot of the nonsensical things often said by opponents of gay marriage suddenly make sense:

"Marriage is a union between one man and one woman."

If it's all about roles, then a marriage is a social structure in which one person performs the role of a "papa" and the other the role of a "mama". To throw open the definition, allowing it to contain two "papas" or two "mamas" or two hybrid mama-papa-things, turns it into something new, something distinctly different from what has traditionally been called "marriage." The problem with a marriage between two men is not so much that their biology is wrong, but that they are unlikely to adhere to the roles that traditionally define a marriage.

"Gay marriage would threaten the institution of marriage."

Supporters of gay marriage are typically stumped by why allowing gays to marry is supposed to have any impact on straight marriages. But seen from Tevye's point of view, it obviously would. Traditional marriage provides a template for how to live correctly. If you fulfill your role in your marriage, then you have pretty much done your duty. But if gay marriage is acceptable, then suddenly the template is blown wide open. There doesn't have to be a "mama" any more. There doesn't have to be a "papa". If this is socially acceptable in gay marriages, then surely it is acceptable in straight marriages. The whole template is gone. The man and woman in the marriage can each do anything mutually agreeable. They don't have to fulfill their gender-defined roles of papa and mama. They can invent their own "mapa" and "pama" roles. All the guides to correct behavior that were built into the traditional roles are gone. The institution of marriage, as a structuring force in human culture and as a guide for correct living, is blown completely open.

"Gay marriage will destroy civilization."

Well, if, as in Tevye's world, marriage is the tent-pole holding up the whole structure of civilization, then yes, knocking it down brings the end of civilization.

"Children are best raised in a household with a man and a woman."

Supporters of gay marriage are often puzzled as to what these magical things are that children can only learn from a male parent or a female parent. But if the core functions of a marriage is to train children in the roles they are to fulfill as adults, then clearly the magical thing is the roles themselves. By far the best way for kids to learn the roles of "mama" and "papa" is to have someone modeling those roles for them every day.

"Heterosexual marriages are still OK, even if childless."

Supporters of gay marriage sometimes seek to disprove the claim that marriage is for childrearing by pointing to childless marriages. But in these marriages the man still fulfills most of the role of a "papa" and the women most of the role of a "mama". By their very existence they reinforce the model of marriage, and help marriage maintain it's dominance as a structural force in our civilization. Their marriage still serves a social purpose (in addition to whatever it may do for their personal happiness). Most fire extinguishers are never used, but their purpose is still to put out fires, and society is right to value even the ones that are never used and to be concerned about their integrity.

In the preceding paragraphs, I've done something that Tevye would never have done: I've omitted all mention of God. I must admit that I originally did this entirely by accident, but I've let it stand on purpose. I think for a liberal trying to understand these arguments, the secular version is much more approachable. Raised on the principle of separation of church and state, we tend to automatically reject any religious arguments made for or against a law.

But religion plays an important part in answering the first objection most people would raise to the preceding arguments: "So what if the roles are being changed? Can't we just invent new ones?" If the traditional roles are God's plan for how we are to live virtuous lives, then no, we can't just rewrite them to fit our individual preferences. In traditional religious thought, morality passes down lines of authority, starting with God. Rules are dictated from above, and transgressions are punished. Morality is following the rules, and eventually taking your place in the hierarchy to teach and enforce moral laws for those below you.

This idea of renegotiating the rules comes from a different moral system entirely, one that has grown greatly in popularity in the last few centuries, but it is not the view that we need to be focusing on to understand the objections to gay marriage. Certainly there is nobody today who does not believe that some morality is negotiable. Even Tevye eventually backed his first daughter when she chose a husband in defiance of the matchmaker, and his second daughter when she chose a husband he did not approve of. But Tevye did not approve his third daughter's marriage to a non-Jew. Some traditions are more important than others, and there are limits to how far tradition can be bent. Gay marriage crosses the limit for many people who have accommodated many other changes in marriage.

From Anatevka to the 21st Century

Nobody lives in Anatevka any more, not even Tevye, who, at the end of the play, leaves for America, where he will be "a stranger in a strange new place." The world has changed, and changed again. Conservatives look back with more fondness than liberals, but hardly any of them would actually go back, even if they could.

In Anatevka, your role was largely determined at birth. If you were born female, you had to grow up to be a mama. If you somehow failed to get married, there were only a few other options available to you, and you would probably have little say about which you would end up with. Sons mostly follow into their father's careers, or get apprenticed to someone else, generally without much chance to indicate a preference. Once in a job, you are probably in it for life.

The dominant trend for the last century been not so much the destruction of traditional roles, but simply allowing people more choice about their roles. It hardly matters whether the pilot of a airplane is black or white, male or female. Anyone with the right training and aptitude can perform that role, so why shouldn't anyone be allowed to, rather than restrict the job to the sons of airplane pilots? Letting people have more choice about which roles they will take on, not only makes them happier, but probably means that the jobs will get done better. It's a win for both individuals and society. Scarcely anyone wants to undo that.

That kind of change, allowing different people access to roles, is often an easy change for society to adapt to. It may be a bit of a surprise the first time you see a women in a pilot's uniform at the front of your plane, it may even cause you to question your habitual willingness to trust your life to anyone who shows up in that uniform, but you get over it. The pilot does what pilots do, you do what passengers do, and you get by, until everyone forgets that they ever thought it mattered. But once you start letting people choose their own roles, certain problems arise. It seems everyone wants to be czar and nobody wants to collect manure. We needed to invent ways to allocate roles. The preferred solution is usually some form of competition, preferably orderly competition in which the role is awarded to the most able person. So things like democracy and job markets were invented. These adds a second layer of benefit to society. Not only is your pilot someone who really wanted to fly airplanes, it's someone who beat out several other people who wanted the same job by virtue of their superior ability.

These changes in the the way roles are assigned sometimes had a high social cost. Changing the routes to power required more than a few civil wars. Changing to a market economy caused huge social dislocations. But those transitions are so thoroughly behind us that these days it is the conservatives that are now generally the most enthusiastic about the virtues of markets and competition.

But some roles of deep social importance have undergone far more dramatic alternations. Probably the best example is the role of "slave," which has been entirely eliminated in the US. Before the American Civil War, Southerners claimed that ending slavery would destroy their way of life. And it did. If they could have imported Martians to act as slaves in the place of blacks, then the whole of Southern culture could have continued gracefully onward. It doesn't actually matter that much who fulfills a role. But the complete elimination of the role of "slave" required seismic shifts in the whole way that the Southern culture and economy worked, changes that in the end impacted the North almost as much as the South, and still have not entirely resolved themselves 150 years later. No one regrets that that change was made, but no one can say that the change didn't have a broad impact on society that extended far beyond former slaves and former slaveholders.

Marriage has not been immune from role changes. Tevye saw the first round, as people started choosing their own spouses. This drastically empowered young people, who were for the first time taking their lives in their own hands, making the new role of "teenager" culturally significant. This is a dramatic change from the roles for sons and daughters described in the song, which were entirely passive, allowing the children to make no choices themselves.

As young people increasingly took over the job of choosing their own mates, they started making choices that would traditionally never have been considered: marrying outside their faith, class, and race. Such marriages don't challenge the traditional roles of mama and papa, but they do break down all sorts of other traditional categorizations of people.

Then, since this new world view rebels against the idea of binding people into one role forever, we made divorce easier. At the same time, women moved into the workplace, assuming part of the role of a papa, without relinquishing the role of a mama. This has left the traditional role of the papa tottering. If he isn't the sole breadwinner anymore, his importance is diminished, as is his justification for being treated as the master of house.

The engine behind all these changes is a deep change in fundamental values. We have come to value personal freedom more than conformity to societal norms. We seek to teach responsibility instead of impose discipline, and our focus is on the welfare of individual rather than the welfare of the community.

But the lines of battle aren't really that sharp. Scarcely anyone still lives in Anatevka, but scarcely anyone has entirely left it behind either. Even liberal parents still punish their children and try to teach them to eat with a fork and speak politely to their elders. Even conservative women pursue careers outside the home. We all blend these inconsistent viewpoints in different proportions in our own precarious balancing acts.

Modern Conservatives and Gay Marriage

I've argued that the two sides in the gay marriage debate are not necessarily very far apart. Conservatives lean more toward traditional values, caring more about preserving traditional roles and social institutions, but that doesn't mean they'd fit in in Anatevka. They value personal freedom much more than anyone in that village did.

You might ask them why, if traditional marriage is so important, do they tolerate easy divorce and working women, which have done much to upset the traditional institution of marriage. But the answer is obvious. Though they value personal freedom a bit less than liberals, and conformity a bit more, they still feel that the importance of personal freedom in these cases outweighs the importance of conformity to tradition, so, though some are less than enthusiastic about these innovations, most tolerate them. But gay marriage for them, like interfaith marriage for Tevye, goes too far.

And gay marriage really does go farther in upsetting the traditional marriage roles than these other institutions do. Most marriages where the woman works still look a lot like traditional marriages when everyone is at home, with women still taking primary responsibility for childcare and housekeeping. It's as if the woman is switching between two roles, a "papa" when she is outside the home, and a "mama" when she is home. It's an uneasy and unfair compromise, but the fact that so many modern marriages go so far to preserve traditional roles in non-traditional times shows how important preserving those roles is even to the liberals among us, and how they continue to structure our lives even today.

It's certainly would be possible for a same-sex couple to have one person adopt the "mama" role and the other adopt the "papa" role, but I expect that that would be a rarity. Instead, I expect that duties would normally be divided up differently in every marriage, as a result of an ongoing negotiation that is based on the partner's distinct interests and abilities, and that makes virtually no reference whatsoever to the traditional roles of "mama" and "papa."

Giving such role-less marriages full and equal recognition in our society, puts them on the table as an alternative for any married couple, same sex or not. It completely breaks the connection between the idea of marriage and the idea of gender roles. Thus it is clear that by accepting gay marriage, society takes another step away from traditional marriage, and quite a large one too. It should not come as a surprise that some people who still value traditional marriage feel it is a step too far.

This is all the more true because this is an area of such personal importance to so many people. Many people today root their satisfaction with themselves, and their feelings of being respected members of society very largely in their successful performance of their traditional marriage roles. A man may have a dreadful, menial job, a woman may be stuck in endless, boring house work, but they can still hold their heads up with pride if they are feeding and taking care of their family. The roles give their life meaning and respectability.

But now we have people saying that those roles are no longer meaningful. Why isn't that mama earning some money? Why isn't that papa doing his fair share of the housework? The automatic judgment of virtue that they won by conforming to traditional roles is gone. Suddenly they are dinosaurs, under suspicion of using gender prejudice to dump the unpleasant duties on their spouses, rather than pulling their own weight. In society's rush to value individuals more than groups, we no longer recognize them as members of a successfully functioning marriage, but as individuals with unbalanced life skills. Small wonder they aren't enthusiastic about this.

Yes, this trend has been in progress long before the question of gay marriage came up, but gay marriage represents another big step down that path, a path that many people are legitimately unhappy with.

Other Factors

I think that if you read various arguments against gay marriage in the light of the ideas presented above, you'll find that they make a lot more sense. But it will also be obvious that there is more to the story.

One clear fact is that religion has a lot to do with it. The following chart, based on CNN exit poll statistics from the 2008 vote on California's Proposition 8, has been widely circulated:

Gay Marriage
Don't Ban
Gay Marriage
Weekly (32%) 84%16%
Occasionally (44%) 46%54%
Never (21%) 17%83%

This seems to shows that opposition to gay marriage is much stronger among regular church goers. But I think it is a mistake to focus too much on this. America isn't 32% religious. It's something closer to 90% religious. Certainly most of the opponents to gay marriage are religious, but so are most of the supporters. Only a minority of churches and religious leaders have come out in favor of gay marriage, but enough have done so to demonstrate that religion and gay marriage aren't fundamentally incompatible.

I don't think people oppose gay marriage because they are religious. I believe people who value traditional institutions tend be both opponents of gay marriage and faithful members of conservative churches. Those churches are the most natural gathering places for people of those beliefs, their members reinforce each other's opposition to gay marriage, and they often become the seats of organized resistance to gay marriage. The Mormon Church, for instance, funded much of the campaign to pass proposition 8.

But you can equally well point to the Quakers, who were among the first to perform gay marriage and have a long history supporting individual rights, having also been among the leaders in the fight against slavery. In fact, the divide between authoritarian, traditional values, and individualist, liberal values exists between and within churches as much as it does among people.

I think if you read arguments against gay marriage, you will also find that some degree of homophobia is apparent in all of them. None of them seem to be able to resist saying that, however much we all love our gay friends, homosexuality is just bad. Bad for you. Bad for the people around you. Bad. Bad. Bad.

I'm afraid that you kind of need this to make the argument against gay marriage really convincing. I don't think homophobia is at the root of the objection to gay marriage, but I think it's an important enabler. However much one might value traditional marriage, how could you say that it is a good thing if its continued existence requires oppression of a lot of nice people? The only way that anyone can sustain that position is if they are prepared to say that those people are not really so nice, not fully deserving of our consideration.

This doesn't require any complete and outright hatred of gays. Disapproval of their lifestyle, and a strong feeling that they shouldn't be encouraged will suffice. Unfortunately, people are willing to withdraw their sympathy for other people on rather slight provocation.

What I Think

As I said in the introduction to this essay, I'm all for gay marriage. Intellectually, my support rests in the belief that there is no plausible justification for applying arbitrary legal restrictions to any group of people. Even criminals are allowed to marry, and being gay is not even in the slightest bit a crime. Banning gay marriage is just senseless.

But my emotional investment in the issue probably has different roots.

My partner and I are of opposite sexes, but we have never married. She values her independence and is reluctant to take the risk of being filed away into a "mama" role. It seemed easier to find a balance of responsibilities that works for us without getting married, so we don't have to push back against the "mama" and "papa" roles.

When gay marriage first started striding toward social acceptability in 2004, we both found ourselves much more interested in getting married. I think it seemed to us that in a world where the definition of marriage was looser, our kind of relationship would be much easier to fit under the umbrella of "marriage." We could have the social recognition (and tax benefits) of marriage, without feeling like we were committing ourselves to traditional mama/papa roles.

Well, we still haven't actually managed to get married. It's hard to organize a marriage when you are busy with kids and jobs, and hard to get motivated to organize a big ceremony to celebrate a change that will leave your life completely unchanged. Really, weddings work much better at the start of a relationship than a dozen years into it. But we are feeling much more positive about it than we used to, and even got close to doing something about it a few times.

So, plainly, the changes that will be ushered in by the acceptance of gay marriage are entirely welcome to me. Those "mama" and "papa" roles that others value so much have really just been in our way. More acceptance of gay marriages will mean more acceptance of all kinds of more egalitarian marriage models.

That is more than just social acceptance. There are many broader societal changes that are being brought about by this desire for more egalitarian marriage. One of the factors that makes egalitarian marriage models hard to maintain is the relative scarcity of good part-time jobs. The whole idea of "full-time" jobs originated with the assumption that the papa would be working full-time while the mama stayed home with the kids and the house work. If a couple with children is trying to be divide tasks more evenly, part-time jobs and flexible work schedules are a must. We've already seen those becoming a bigger and bigger part of our world, and I believe that is a trend that will continue, making dramatic changes to the way our economy works.

I honestly believe that this is a better way for the world to work, a way in which more people can live more complete and rounded lives. So I'm an enthusiast. But I do have sympathy for those who aren't.

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