Recently, America's favorite boss, Donald Trump, boasted on national TV that the secret to marital success is negotiating killer prenuptial agreements. He knows what he's talking about. Shortly after sharing that hard-won piece of wisdom on the heels of his smash-hit show, The Apprentice, he announced his engagement to his third wife to be, Slovenian model Melania Knauss. The deal was sealed with a blindingly bright diamond ring, according to staffers, and a no- doubt rock-solid prenup. The Donald's news was trumpeted—with no raised eyebrows —on right-wing media mogul Rupert Murdoch's Fox News Web site, a bastion of traditional values:
Trump, 57, has three children with his first wife, Ivana, and one with his second wife, Marla Maples. He's been living with Melania, 33, for five years. "All the kids love her," said one insider. "Melania is not the kind of person who makes waves, and she makes their father so happy they should kiss the ground she walks on. She dotes on Donald and always has."
And they say it's gays who are killing traditional marriage.
Unless you think Trump is a closeted gay man secretly destroying the institution from within (and I think his "hair" suggests that's not the case), the Donald's personal life exemplifies some of the current problems in wedlock-land. Here, a serial monogamist is raising biological children from two different mothers while living in sin with a third woman. She, however, posing no perceived threat to the family order, is allowed into the harem to soothe the savage patriarchal beast. The beast acknowledges her contribution with a valuable bauble while protecting his billions with a legal agreement that limits his risk. Ah, sweet wedded bliss.
It's not that I have trouble with Trump's arrangements. What I have trouble with is the idea that marriage—particularly marriage as described by conservatives and traditionalists—is somehow a pure, untrammeled, sacred institution that should remain forever unchanged. The fact is, it's a fluid, complicated concept that is highly charged, yet rarely examined by most of us.
And that's one of the great things about the gay marriage debate. Just as gays and lesbians have played an important role in dragging America's sex life into the daylight, the same thing is now happening to matrimony. The gay marriage question forces everyone to dig for the underlying, but largely unspoken, assumptions of what marriage is and who it's for (right answer: mothers-in-law). Is it a "holy bond"? Is it private or public? Is it society's way of protecting children? Is it a business arrangement that is simply another chapter in Trump: The Art of the Comeback?
Some advocates of gay marriage deny that allowing same-sex unions will result in any fundamental changes to the institution of marriage. Conservative commentator Andrew Sullivan, for one, argues that allowing gays to marry will convert many into card-carrying members of the mainstream family values club. He's debated the point with numerous other conservatives in many forums, notably David Frum in Slate and Stanley Kurtz, a Hoover Institution fellow and contributing editor to National Review Online.
While I heartily agree with Sullivan that gays should be allowed to marry, I think he's wrong that there's no "slippery slope" here (or as conservatives would have it, a "slippery cliff"). Gay marriage will alter our view of traditional marriage. In fact, it already has: It's inviting everyone to look at the realities of marriage in a modern world of no-fault divorce, adoption, abortion, birth control, artificial insemination, equal rights, surrogate parenting, domestic partnerships, and cloning.
Critics like Kurtz believe gay marriage will deliver a deathblow to the institution. Perhaps so, but it's more of a mercy killing than a homicide. Modern science alone has already shredded many of our older assumptions about the institution by expanding the options for shaping families. (Two mommies? Soon Heather could be her own mommy!) And as Trump's rather mainstream marital history suggests, Americans are straining to find more room within the straitjacket of traditional marriage.
Among the big bugaboos conservatives conjure in response to the prospect of gay marriage is what might come next, polygamy? (They also worry about bestiality and incest, but since neither have anything to do exclusively with marriage, they belong at the bottom of some other slope.) Polygamy is a great issue to raise because it is a legitimate question: Why can't marriage be a partnership of more than two partners? Serial monogamy—Trump-style—is essentially polygamy drawn out over time and practiced, for all intents and purposes, under the guise of "extended" families that include all the parents, partners, and offspring. It takes a village, indeed.
Opponents of polygamy point to cults and renegade Mormons for examples of the misery it produces—child brides, abuse, incest. But these woes aren't the offspring of polygamy alone; they are all too common within plain, old-fashioned, vanilla, heterosexual Christian marriage, too. It mostly proves that if you outlaw polygamy, only outlaws will have polygamy. In fact, the majority of the world's cultures have practiced it, and many still do, happily and sanely. Imagine if Americans had the right to practice it within an open, accepted legal framework. If it made raising a family more affordable, made life richer and family ties stronger, if it gave people more variety, would it really be a threat to society?
Whatever the real or imagined results of polygamy, if nothing else it helps us expand the sense of possibility for a one-size-fits-all institution. According to a story last month in The Washington Post, a first-time groom in Senegal, where nearly half of all marriages are multiple, registers his marital intentions, "opting for monogamy, limited polygamy with two wives, or full polygamy." To some extent, this kind of cafeteria approach to marriage is already practiced here in the U.S., where in some states, you can choose "covenant" marriages that make getting a divorce more difficult than the average marriage.
In our increasingly diverse, pluralistic society, gay marriage is simply one more option to add to a menu that could be far larger—and richer—than what we have now. If that's the slippery slope, break out the skis.