03 February 2011

Less than but equal?

It began with the question from my brother: "So I gotta ask you something I've never understood. If same-sex couples can have all of the same rights and legal privileges in civil unions as heterosexual marriages have, as has been done in California, why make so much noise about the word marriage, and change the meaning of something most of society believes means something else by definition? It seems like a grab at power or affirmation." Something like that. I groaned inside at the prospect of another of "these" conversations, but I was interested to get to the root of some of his views while explaining and refining mine and hopefully helping him see where 'the other side' is coming from as requested.

There were the usual elements of such a conversation, discussion about what the word means, religion's role in the definition, militant gay activism, the church's role in Prop 8, the role of prophets (from an LDS perspective), obedience, greater good, evidence for same-sex marriage being a positive change and whether existing evidence is valid or sufficient enough to make such a leap.

We fundamentally disagree on several fronts, such as religious beliefs, how to effect change in society, the value of social 'stability' weighed against the role of government or equality, the threat same-sex marriage actually poses to social stability, and probably along with that, where the best balance between progress and stability is found: I think in my mind he's the frustratingly "if it ain't broke don't fix it" type who tends to sacrifice progress to formulaic oversimplification, and I suspect in his mind I'm the organizationally naive type who overestimates society's capacity to adapt and self-correct and sacrifices proven stability to abstract analysis.

But what it came back to, after two hours of discussion, was two fundamental points:
  1. This is, at its root, related to what the word 'marriage' means to society in general, or to the majority of individuals in society, especially in religious connotation.
  2. Both sides are motivated primarily or exclusively by emotion or 'belief', and both are equally as outrageous and/or guilty as the other in each other's eyes.
It also helped hit something home a bit more thoroughly to me: if I find a great guy to spend my life with, and we form a union of whatever kind we're allowed, and we raise children (assuming I can ever afford adoption or surrogacy...let alone become more comfortable with the idea of surrogacy) our relationship will be inherently "less" than my brother's marriage in his eyes. This would not mean he would think any less of us as individuals. It would be because he values his marriage so very much that a relationship which doesn't include everything his marriage (which I've always thought is excellent) includes, such as procreative ability and a supposedly more ideal parenting pair (with sexual dichotomy) is simply a different kind of relationship and deserves a different label. More than being different, though, it's missing pieces that he considers essential to the definition of 'marriage', the sacred institution and relationship to which he aspired and worked so hard to be worthy of. In his mind, you get married because you're going to unify as a man and woman in order to bring lives into this world and raise them together, and there is one relationship set apart for that purpose. No matter how well-intentioned two men or two women may be, they just can't make babies, and that means their purpose in unification is patently different.

In trying to really grasp where he's coming from, I had to set aside the fact that he doesn't regard sterile mixed-sex couples as having a relationship inferior to his or 'missing' anything, even if they know before marrying that they're sterile. I tried to set aside my belief that procreation is not somehow more selfless or noble a goal than adoption (a point on which most people would likely disagree based on the genders of the parents). I didn't argue that my goal in marrying a man would, I think, be to raise children together: to have a family. I set aside my disregard for institutional and social approbation (I was never much for ceremony and recognition, so having any approval but God's and my own was never very important to me). I set aside the reality that many straight couples think of marriage more as a love-commitment than a child-rearing union because in his mind, they, too, are missing the point of marriage, but they at least have the key elements should they figure it out.

I had to face the fact that even if my relationship with my male partner was the kind of relationship most mixed-sex couples only dream of as far as our communication, intimacy, and partnership, and we worked together to raise children wonderfully, our relationship would be patently inferior because it could never be naturally procreative (at least not with current scientific knowledge or human physiology), it would deprive our children of a true mommy, and it could never be sanctified by God in a temple. No matter how amazing our relationship is, or how trashy and flimsy many sanctified mixed-sex marriages are, our relationship would be "less than" (his words, spoken in kindness, meant to be descriptive, not demeaning) his marriage.

Look at it this way: all else being equal, most people can describe what a mixed-sex marriage has that a same-sex marriage doesn't (e.g. penis + vagina = natural reproductive capability, male role model for Timmy and female role model for Sally, suburban neighbors' heads don't explode when they bring a casserole or cookies to the new couple on the block), but find me people who can describe what a same-sex marriage has that a mixed-sex marriage doesn't...that was my "ah-ha" moment in understanding where he is coming from and why he's comfortable saying it's a patently different relationship with limitations, not imposed by anyone but inherent in the kind of pairing it is.

It's a relative, perhaps qualitative judgment not on me as a person but rather on the type of relationship, not even necessarily on the specific relationship itself. Though I think I'd struggle to really distinguish those, since my relationship would be sacred to me (I can't imagine spending my life with someone without it being sacred), I think I can handle it, having faced that realization ahead of time. I'm gonna have to handle it regardless. That's just the way it is, as he said, and if most people were as honest with me, they'd probably admit the same.

Even so, he said he could get on board with civil unions being granted all the rights of marriages, inherently different kinds of relationships by nature, one being "more" than the other by procreation, eternal nature, and maybe a few other factors, but with equal legal rights, privileges, protections, and responsibilities. I told him I can respect that perspective.

As for me, I don't much care what any institution "calls" my union but do care very much that my partner has rights of partnership and stewardship over our pooled resources, and I very much care about making a lifetime commitment to each other by whatever means effective and binding in our own minds and hearts. And I care very much that we make sure we citizens aren't cherry-picking civil rights based on religious beliefs hidden behind smoke-and-mirror rationales. I think government should handle civil contracts equally for same-sex and mixed-sex couples and leave religions to exercise religious rites as they believe. "Render unto Caesar..." Of course, I think you'd still have a battle over whether marriage was a religious institution first and foremost, and any push to remove the word "marriage" from law would be attacked by right-wingers as just another attempt to remove God from society (as if politicians didn't add specific mentions of God just decades ago to our coins, mottos, and pledges), blah, blah, blah. I'm pretty convinced that even if you gave "marriage" to religions and "civil unions" (of same-sex and mixed-sex couples) to government, you'd still have a raging debate about whether such recognition of same-sex unions would have dire consequences for society, for our children, for cute little puppies, etc. Maybe that's another post.

1 comment:

Scott N said...

...but find me people who can describe what a same-sex marriage has that a mixed-sex marriage doesn't...

Approaching this from my own perspective, I'm going to assume that at least one of the partners in either the same-sex or mixed-sex marriages you're referring to is a gay male.

Given that assumption, the same-sex marriage (to another gay male) is going to have greater intimacy (in all aspects), a deeper emotional connection, and a more fulfilling sexual relationship than the mixed-sex marriage (to a straight female) is.