The same-sex marriage debate continues to floor me in its smoke and mirrors, its straw men, its red herrings. Both sides seem so completely fixated on their perspectives that the debate generally goes nowhere but is focusing on emotional appeals from both sides and only preaches to the respective choirs.
Couples are being limited in how they can love and told they're worthless by being denied? Bullcrap.
Moral majority setting rules is what democracy is all about, and if you don't like it, get out? Bullcrap (time marker 7:45).
I call bullcrap all around. We can go back and forth forever. Same-sex marriage proponents seem to believe this is the great civil rights battle of our generation. Same-sex marriage opponents seem to believe this is the great moral battle of our generation.
THE CRUX (AS I SEE IT)
Same-sex marriage proponents declare selective limitation of the right to marry to be an unconstitutional practice and an egregious civil rights violation, not to mention a sign of bigotry and tyranny in our society.
Same-sex marriage opponents declare opening marriage to all consenting adults to be a detriment to the foundation of healthy society and a forced redefinition and breakdown of a time-honored institution for the sake of social validation, not to mention it not being a civil rights issue.
"Wait...what? Not a civil rights issue? How can they say that? Of course it's a civil rights issue." "No, it's not a civil rights issue, it's a moral issue." Here, in the definition of marriage and whether it is, indeed, a civil rights issue (which is debatable depending on your definition of marriage, as is the question of whether marriage is a natural right), is where I think the problem is. If we have two fundamentally disparate definitions of what marriage is, the rest of the debate is mostly useless and superfluous.
WHAT IS "MARRIAGE"?
As I see it, to someone who believes the very word "marriage" is inextricably tied to a usually or ideally religious union of a man and a woman, generally for the purpose of raising a stable family, no matter how much that union has been abused over the years, "marriage" is not merely a civil contract but a moral, religious institution, and a heterosexual one by definition. In that sense, all people have equal access to the union called "marriage" because any gay man is welcome to marry a woman, and any gay woman is welcome to marry a man, if they so choose, as some do. If some feel they couldn't be happy in such a relationship, they are also free to choose not to marry or to enter into another kind of relationship. And from that perspective, marriage is, by its very nature, an institution which is unchangeable and fixed except perhaps by edict directly from God, so even if the word "marriage" is bastardized to include couples for whom it was never intended, it won't be authentic marriage but the government co-opting a religious institution which was never intended to be up for public revision.
As I see it, someone who believes "marriage" is a union by contract of two people who want to bring their resources and lives into one as recognized by society under the law naturally believes that to limit access to such a contract depending on sexual orientation and based on religious belief not only is fundamentally anti-American and a clear violation of civil rights but the terrible tyranny of religious beliefs mixing with government to marginalize those who don't fit an ideological mold. For some of them, their church would "marry" them if their church were allowed to, and they want the government to get out of controlling whom their church chooses to marry. Being "allowed" all the same rights under a civil union, or having a "commitment ceremony", may be nice, but feelings of degradation aside, it's just wrong to deny rights to people based on sexual orientation, and they see "marriage" as such a right.
Unfortunately, I'm afraid most people haven't even thought their own stance through to nearly that extent but have responded to emotional arguments. There are so many emotional appeals out there on both sides, and they're mostly irrelevant and specious. People who repeat them sound annoying and foolish after a while as they ring the same tinny bell.
- We're not allowed to love who we want to. What's wrong with love?
- Society will mock our traditional beliefs if gay marriage is allowed.
To me, the most galling examples of this were two ads during the Prop 8 campaign. The first, made by the organization sponsored by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, featured a young man saying if Prop 8 didn't pass, people upholding traditional beliefs would be subjected to social ridicule. I've rarely been so angry at a political statement, and if it's not obvious to you why that's such an offensive thing to say, it's probably not worth putting energy into convincing you. The second was an ad which targeted the church in a completely ridiculous and senselessly inflammatory way, a portrayal so absurd and so reflective of a lack of understanding that it's almost not worth mentioning.
THE (IR)RELEVANCE OF MOTIVES
Emotional appeals aside, there are also arguments for or against based on the motivations for supporting/opposing same-sex marriage.
I've heard from many people, including some gay rights supporters, that the gay marriage debate is not about the right to marry in and of itself but is about social validation and ending bigotry by changing cultural perception through legislation. I don't think any reasonable person would deny that there are activists who are trying to use same-sex marriage as a wedge to gain social acceptance at any social cost (though they may not believe the costs are or would be negative or grave, as many opponents do), but to say that the majority of same-sex marriage supporters are just seeking validation and forcing tolerance and not actually interested in preserving freedom and rights for all is diminutive.
I've also heard from many people, including some religious opponents of same-sex marriage, that opponents are only enforcing their morality on society and that they don't really care whether "equality" is obtained because gay relationships are inferior and unworthy of social recognition. I don't think any reasonable person would deny that there are religious conservatives who don't care whether this is a civil rights issue at all because the social good is what they're after, not equality (though they may believe, as I mentioned, that all have access to marry...someone of the opposite sex), but to claim that all opponents of same-sex marriage are bigots and homophobes and not actually interested in preserving the institution of marriage is diminutive.
Such accusations are, aside from being inflammatory and dismissive, almost entirely irrelevant because if something is right (legally speaking), it's right no matter why some people are pushing it, and if something is wrong, it's wrong no matter why some people are pushing it. If you try to tell me gay marriage should be illegal because gay people don't really want marriage because they don't stay together longer than two years anyway, and if you try to tell me gay marriage should be legal because those who oppose it are bigots, you've made no argument whatsoever. Seriously. You've just told me you're willing to deny rights or change the law based on someone else's motives, not on legal merits.
Where motives do become relevant, in the political arena, is in perceiving where a power grab is masked in championing a good cause. The greatest political players know that to accomplish anything, you have to hide behind heroism and strong ideology. So it's wise to question motives, and it's wiser still to prepare to respond to those and to negate them through negotiation or proposing alternative actions, but it still doesn't change whether something should happen on its own merits. It just means you have to be aware and wise about how legislation is worded and implemented, no matter which side you're on.
For example, most of us agree health care should be reformed, but we're cautious about what will sneak its way in with the reform, so we understandably have taken our time in figuring out what to do. We don't trust each other. We probably shouldn't. But that doesn't mean certain changes shouldn't be made, so we try to move ahead and negotiate and make sure nobody's going to use a good thing to completely overturn our country's foundation, like conservative worry about Obama's proposed health care reform pushing us towards socialism. But...then again, we don't see much open dialog there, either, mostly just all-or-nothing debate. Politics as usual.
ERA ALL OVER?
Speaking of politics as usual, I've heard talk, in relation to the church's involvement with Prop 8, of the church's successful opposition to the Equal Rights Amendment, a position which the church clarifies on its web site as not being against equality for women but against the implications of its wording and the lack of necessity based on other avenues of procuring "equality" while "allowing for natural differences". Today, you'll provoke the ire of many if you voice a belief in inequality of women and men, yet the Equal Rights Amendment is still not part of the U.S. Constitution. Things seem to have worked out fine with women achieving equal status but without the potential mess of the ERA's apparently sloppy or vague wording.
Or, if you flip it around, is it possible that Prop 8 was a sort of counterpart to the ERA: a quick blanket fix without regard to a more gradual, nuanced approach of achieving equality and protecting the rights of religions from government control by instead hastily changing a constitution to achieve the desired effect?
RENDER UNTO CAESAR...
And if we're going to change the constitution anyway, I propose a different change than those attempted thus far: take marriage out. I say if marriage is a religious institution, invented by and managed by "the church", then give it back to the churches, get the state out, and let the government govern the legal rights and obligations of "civil" unions, which would be required completely independent of marriage.
But aside from being very skeptical about our ability to change something that's been such a part of our history from the beginning (I can only imagine the outraged backlash from ultraconservatives, but let them fume), I think the battle would then move to civil unions and the ramifications of legalizing them and placing them on equal footing as heterosexual civil unions. Would adoption agencies not still have the same issues? Would schools not have the same ability to teach homosexuality? ...if those were ever valid arguments, won't they still apply with civil unions? Won't we still have a civil rights debate on our hands...?
THE UNEDUCATED HAVEN'T EARNED A RIGHT TO VOTE
I've heard it argued many times that gay people don't stay together anyway, and when they do, they have open relationships, so why do they even need marriage? It's a "farce", some say, to take gay people at face value when they say they want the right to marry because all they really want is social validation since they obviously don't know the first thing about real commitment. It's ridiculous that they even presume to be capable of marriage, others say (an idea possibly rooted in the belief that homosexuality is a symptom of emotional deficits, sexual disorder, gender role issues, men not being "wired" for monogamy and needing women to tie them down, or some such thing).
Besides, why should the majority of society bow to their whim in wanting marriage by changing the definition that has always existed and been the foundation of functioning society throughout all of recorded history, just so they can "feel" validated, especially when they can have all the same rights through civil unions and other legislation anyway?
To those who view marriage as an inherently male-female institution, this does make sense. To those who view marriage in a different way, somewhat like land ownership or the right to vote, it seems more like a copout reason to withhold rights. Once upon a time, there was no precedent for women to vote, and that was supposedly as it should be because it maintained well-working social structure and roles. Some see marriage as similarly denied based on archaic social constructs. Of course, the comparison runs into problems when sexual orientation is not seen as an innate characteristic, such as gender or ethnicity.
And of course, there may be some who don't care whether marriage is a civil right anyway because the social good overrides civil rights. Perhaps those same people are consistent in their views, such as believing uneducated people shouldn't have a right to vote because they haven't earned that responsibility, and we should therefore identify subsets of society in which lack of education is rampant and remove their right to vote. That argument certainly has been made in the past. But then, the definition of "vote" is pretty clear, so we have the added problem of debating what "marriage" means, whether a religious institution or a civil contract.
...though it may only make sense to me...
My point is that, as I see it, whether traditionalists will be socially ridiculed, and whether gay people are capable of lifelong fidelity, and whether schools will teach gender-neutral sexuality, and whether society "validates" homosexuality, and whether "love" is being denied people, and whether being allowed only civil unions makes people feel "second class" are all specious arguments. They are mostly valid concerns which should be addressed, but they do not make legal arguments as to whether "marriage" should include couples of the same sex. They're all distractions from the real discussion: what marriage is and whether it is a civil right. Everything else, like what ramifications it might have to open it or close it to same sex couples, is secondary and can probably be worked out in the long run.
It seems to me that if marriage is exclusively defined as a religiously ordained institution which is inherently heterosexual by nature, then we already have marriage equality, and any changes really are not issues of civil rights but of simple majority rule deciding whether to "change" the definition of marriage, and all talk of "civil rights" should cease as irrelevant. Perhaps then it'd be time to turn to gaining other rights that, to me, seem more important: employment and housing non-discrimination, domestic partnership rights for financial and medical protection and stewardship, etc. Here I'll admit I think of "marriage" as used in legal framework documents as inherently non-denominational, therefore subject to interpretation, and referring, in law, to civil contract by virtue of separation of church and state, but I also admit I have no formal education to support that view. That being the case, it seems to me that if this definition of marriage is adopted, government should divorce itself from the term "marriage", but we all know that's not likely to happen any time soon.
But if marriage is a civil right, then it seems to me we should grant it to all equally and pass any laws to protect or guard against possible consequences of it, such as those enumerated by Prop 8 supporters. But perhaps I'm deluded and need to face the possibility that even "civil rights" can and should be denied if there is a greater social good to be preserved or established. But that's a pretty scary philosophy, if you ask me, even if it were legal: feeling justified in telling a group they can't have rights you have because you think it's better for the republic that they not.
And if "marriage" is a vague term not well defined and under dispute, then the nation (or the states) probably should define it in its (or their respective) constitutions to clarify its role. Admittedly, if that's the case, then that is quite possibly what happened in California: the majority of the population simply decided marriage meant "man and woman" and is not a "civil right" for any two consenting adults, while the side which lost believed marriage to be a contract and therefore a civil right but were outvoted in their definition of marriage. My problem is that, judging from the scare-tactic ads about homosexuality being taught in schools and churches being forced to perform gay marriages, I seriously doubt most voters ever even considered whether they were removing someone's civil rights, and I suspect many indeed thought they were blocking civil rights for a greater social good, and that bothers me a lot. See, I'm more concerned about why people voted the way they did, on both sides, than which way they voted.
As far as I can tell, whether it's a civil right (or what the definition of "marriage" is) is still being decided and will continue to be decided state-by-state and through court cases nationwide. In the meantime, can't we have more dialog about compromise?