If individuality is now our central political category, consent is our chief moral one. But historically, consent was not understood as the crux of marriage. If anything, marriage was interpreted as a limitation on consent since the bonds of marriage could not be consensually dissolved. And since marriages were arranged by heads of families, to the extent that marriage was an expression of consent at all, it was the consent of families and not individuals.
This historical context complicates the dispute for both sides. First, it’s not clear why gay activists are all that interested in marriage as traditionally understood. They often declaim against the tyranny of bourgeois morality and the arbitrariness of the sexual tethers it imposes. Why do they want access to an institution they consider a tired exhibition of antiquated prejudice?
The typical answer is they want that access in the interests of equality. This itself is not an uncomplicated demand; the insistence on equal rights presupposes equal conditions, or in other words that gay marriage is, in all relevant aspects, the same as traditional marriage. But do even the defenders of gay marriage believe this? Do they accept the centrality of monogamy to marriage? Do they understand the connubial relationship as sanctified by God, forever infrangible, sub specie aeternitatis?
And why does the gay community pine for governmental benediction of their relationships? Shouldn’t they be against official or authoritative privileging of any union over another? The apparently irrepressible rationale of consent should legitimate any arrangement irrespective not only of gender but also number, purpose, and the like.