Sunday, May 18, 2008

Gay marriage

First, let me say that I am in favor of gay marriage. But it is more complicated than that, and I think that most of the arguments about it more conclusion driven and honest and sharp thinking. So, here's my take on them, in no particular order.

I. The Word "Marriage" Matters

Obviously, the word itself matters. The very fact that giving same-sex couples all the legal rights and privileges of marriage, but calling the institution "civil unions," is such a popular option proves that the word matter. Those who who argue that the label doesn't matter, but it shouldn't apply to same-sex unions are contradicting themselves. If you don't want to call it marriage, then clearly the word matters. 

How does it matter? Well, even if we ignore the countless the tiny legal issues that would be easily handled by calling it "marriage," there are social associations with the word. There are links to the long history of marriage. There's the fact that we have all grown up having a sense of what marriage is. The majority in the California Supreme Court is right. The word matters. Anything less than the the whole shabang, including the label itself, is less than equality.

II. There Might Not Be Discrimination Against Individuals

I am straight and so long as I am unmarried, I can marry any member of the opposite sex. The same is true of homosexuals. Neither of us are entitled to marry members of the same sex. It is not clear to me that anyone is being discriminated against.

I understand that a gay man is not going to be interested in marrying the same people that I am. I understand that we each have a right that I want and he doesn't care for. I understand that there is a parallel right that he would want and I don't care but, one that neither of us has. But, in fact, we each have the same rights.

Rather, I think that it is same-sex couples that are discriminated against. Opposite-sex couples can marry, and same-sex couple cannot. But gay men and women have been allowed to marry all along. They could even marry each other. Gay men could marry straight women. Gay women could marry straight men. Gay men could marry gay women. Gay men and women were treated exactly like straight men and women. Straight men have been no more able to marry each other than gay men. 

Should couples have rights? I think so, in some fashion. I think so, in this fashion. But we should acknowledge that this is about couples, not about individuals. 

III. Marriage Has Been About Men and Women, Historically

Marriage has existed for a very long time. But over its history, it has changed quite a bit. It has been about property. It has been about cementing unions of larger families/clans. It has been about having children. It has been about economic units. It has been about love.

We no longer talk about arranged marriages to cement unions between families or clans, at least not in this country. We no longer demand that people marry in order to have children, nor must married couples have children, at least not in this country. We don't expect families to work business as a unit, either a farm, or a shop or anything else. The institution of marriage has changed over the centuries. We don't even demand that a church be involved, at least not in this country. However, we do now demand that the state be involved. We certainly do not demand that couples be in love, though we might expect it. 

Almost everything about marriage has changed over the centuries. Except one thing about marriage has been constant until very very recently; marriage has been about joining men and women. Sometimes is been about multiple men and women, but it has always been about at least one men and at least one women. That was the only constant. 

Anyone who claims otherwise is either being disingenuous or dishonest with his/herself. I don't say this to end the debate. I only say this to make the debate clear. 

IV. The Legal Debate Is Not About Anyone's Church

I think that the dumbed argument that anyone brings forth in this debate is that this will force your church to marry gay people. That is just untrue. It is a simply a lie.

The Catholic Church has rules about who it will marry and what they have to do before being married. Many religious officials won't marry anyone outside of their faith (i.e. mixed marriages). A church can refuse to marry people of different races. 

We have a separation of church and state in this country. The state (i.e. state and the federal government) cannot tell churches who to marry. Your church will never be told by the state that it must marry gay couples. 

Ever. Never ever ever. 

No one is talking about your religion. Get over it.

V. Is Marriage Legal or Religious?

I think that the real argument, the real discussion, should be about the dual nature of marriage. Historically, marriage was more a religious institution than a legal one. Priests would marry couples, and marriages did not have to registered with the state. In more recent centuries, the state got more involved, but it is only in the most recent times that the church's role became optional.

In some other countries, especially those with official state religions, the church maintains a huge role. For example, in Israel -- and I think France as well -- the church has complete control of marriage. And, as I said, it is only relatively recently that the marriage without a church or religious official entered the mainstream. 

And yet, at the same time, marriage is also a legal institution. There are legal rights and privileges that are associated with marriage, only the most obvious of which are inheritance right and tax files status. And these have nothing to do with the religious institution.

And so, people on both side of the debate should recognize the other side is not entirely incorrect. Those who decry same-sex marriage because marriage is a religious institution are not entirely incorrect. Those who clamor for same-sex marriage because it is a legal institution are not entirely incorrect. 

Of course, it is also a social institution. But that aspect of marriage has been the most fluid. That's where the change has occurred over the years, decades and centuries. But those who want to defend their religious institution do have a point. And those who want equivalent access to the legal institution do have a point. 

VI. Is Same-Sex Marriage a Threat to "Traditional" Marriage?

Frankly, I don't even understand this argument. If you and your spouse are both heterosexual and/or in love with each other and/or committed to each other, how does legalization of same-sex marriage threaten your marriage? There are many things that may be viewed as a threat to existing marriages, but same-sex marriage?

Of course, there is some small fraction of men and women who are in opposite-sex marriages, but would rather be in a same-sex marriage. Yes, legal recognition of such unions would be a threat their their marriages, but I don't think that that is what people are referring to.

So, that means those who put forth this argument are not referring to existing marriages, but rather the appeal of marriage to non-married people. Somehow, allowing same-sex couples to marry would prevent or dissuade opposite couples from getting married. Moreover, those dissuaded would outnumber the same-sex couple who did get married. I guess that they mean that if same-sex couples are allowed to get married, it would take some of the luster or exclusivity of marriage away, making it less attractive. I would think that allowed mixed-race marriages would have had the exact same impact, but I've never heard them mention that. 

But here is why I really don't understand the argument. Let us accept this premise for a moment, that for some people, allowing same-sex marriage makes opposite-sex marriage a little less attractive. Obviously, this wouldn't be true for everyone. Those godless heathens and/or liberals who clamor for same-sex marriage already have distorted views of marriage. It is obviously only those who have a proper and biblical reverence for the institution who will really feel this attack on "traditional" marriage. Right? O.K.

But those who have the "proper respect" for marriage would not let this hit on the dignity of marriage hold them back. They have so much respect for marriage that they still would have enough left to get married, anyway. And the godless heathens and/or liberals -- those who purportedly already lack the "proper respect" for marriage and therefore sometimes don't even bother to get married anyway -- they won't notice the hit. So, the only ones who might notice are those whom the hit is not great enough to dissuade them. 

Really, I ask who has a view of marriage that would have them believe that marriage is so tarnished by allowing same-sex marriage that they no longer would want to partake in the institution. I don't mean people who project that onto unidentified others. I mean identified people who are in the sweet spot? Show me a single survey that identifies any of them. Show me a single non-satirical interview with a single one.

Until then, either the argument is deluded, or I am simply not understanding it. 

VII. Separation of Church and State?

Unfortunately, I don't see a great answer here. I don't see us getting to a a solution that honors the valid arguments of people on both sides of the issue. 

Honestly, I think that the best answer -- and one that the California Supreme Court said is a legal one -- would be for the state to get out of the marriage business. Give marriage back to the church and let the state have all the legal stuff. The state could call it "civil unions" for both same-sex and opposite-sex couples. Or, the state could call it larriage (i.e. legal marriage). More specifically, the state could get out of the marriage game, and leave individuals and couples to decide whether or not they want to call their unions marriage, leave to them the basis on which they might make such a decision. 

I understand that were the state to get out of the marriage game, many on the right would feel that that was itself an assault on marriage. They would not see it as a move to protect their conceptions of marriage from the actions of the state. Rather, they likely would see it as another attack on their faith, an attempt to exclude faith from the public square. Of course, these are people are want more of their faith and religious beliefs reflected in government policy, people who do not understand that the separation of church and state is about protecting each from the other. These are people who might not support the Bill of Rights, were it to come up for a vote today.

VIII. My Answer

As much as I think that it should, the state is not going to get out of the marriage business. But I don't buy tradition as being a good enough reason to restrict marriage to opposite-sex couples. The institution has changed over the years, and it is now about building a loving and/or stable family, with or without children. Gay men and women can adopt and can have their own children, and they can even bring children they already have into a marriage, just as my mother and her husband have. Other traditional institutions have gone the way of history, from slavery to segregated water fountains, from small children working in factories alongside their parents to the one room schoolhouse. 

So, that means that we have to get to legal recognition for same-sex marriage, not just "civil unions." The nation's most populous state decided democratically, by a vote of legislature and a signing of the governor, to give same-sex unions all of the legal rights of opposite-sex unions, but for the word marriage. That is an enormously popular position throughout the nation. All that that leaves is the word marriage, and the arguments for denying that word quickly fall apart under any fair examination. You simply cannot say that you want to treat them equally, and yet at the same times make sure that they don't get access to the word that means so much to you. 

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