Sunday, April 8, 2012

Zero-Sum Marriage

In Andrew's post on the BYU-based "It Gets Better Video," Andrew provided a link to an anti-gay white paper arguing for why gay couples and families should be excluded from marriage. Andrew asked me to read and comment on it.

I generally try not to respond to these kinds of arguments. I do read them and try to understand them. I want to understand why some people are so threatened by marriage equality for gay people. The sound bites and arguments I've encountered in the media have never made any sense to me. I guess I've yet to understand how it is that my love and commitment to my husband takes anything away from anyone else -- much less committed married, heterosexual couples.

I grew up in a culture that despised homosexuality, that saw it as "abomination," as "gross immorality," as a sin that, in its seriousness, is "second only to murder." I was taught that it would be better for me to come home in a casket, than to come home with a same-sex partner. As I was coming out, I had to listen to people constantly comparing the kind of love I experienced as being on a par with incest, rape, and bestiality. In the world I grew up in, the more "compassionate" view of homosexuality was that it was a sickness or a disability. It was an "affliction" that I would have to suffer with for the rest of my life. True love, I was told, was not something I was capable of. The notion that gay couples could be committed to each other, that they could love each other with the same kind of devotion that straight people loved each other was ridiculed. The idea that gay people could be married was viewed as arrant nonsense.

And yet, in spite of this culture, I somehow managed to find love, to find a man with whom I could build a common life grounded on a commitment that has lasted coming on 19 years. We have shared that life -- the stability and love that has grown out of that commitment -- with a son. And nothing would make us happier than to be able to share that life with more children. So if we could build that kind of a foundation for our lives in spite of the extreme prejudice and outright hate directed toward homosexuals in our culture, to me it seems incomprehensible that heterosexual relationships and heterosexual family could be completely undermined and destroyed just because same-sex relationships are tolerated and respected. Is heterosexuality really that fragile? Will family and civilization really disintegrate unless we live in a completely hetero-supremacist culture?

Given my experience, it seemed to me that these kinds of arguments -- arguments that gay families literally pose a "threat to civilization," and that they will completely undermine traditional family -- as the last resort of homophobes, as a last ditch effort to keep gays in their place by posing as victims. Even though it has always in fact been heterosexual society that has made life intolerable for gays, that has attacked and undermined our attempts to form viable families, now we were being told it was the other way around. We were actually destroying their families, merely by trying to survive and carve out a niche of respect and love for ourselves.

At the heart of the argument of the the article Andrew referred me to is the concept parodied in Monty Python's "every sperm is sacred" song. Because a sperm is needed in order to fertilize an ovum, they would have us believe, it must be nature's intention for every single human being to be coitally paired with a member of the opposite sex. Homosexuality can ipso facto only manifest a form of moral degeneracy, or, at best, a pitiable kind of disability that disqualifies homosexuals from the benefits of marriage. They claim to be making an argument purely grounded in natural law. But they dismiss as irrelevant the mounting evidence that homosexuality is part of nature's design, that it is universal among higher mammalian species, and that it is sustained in the human population through biological mechanisms that do not require homosexuals to reproduce.

To suggest that homosexuality is part of nature's (or even, by extension, God's) design, is not necessarily to make the case that homosexual relationships should be protected by the institution of marriage. Except that the authors of this article clearly state more than once that the monogamously, lifelong, committed pair-bonding even of non-reproductive individuals is an inherent good. They describe sexual pair-bonding as "inherently valuable relationships that... organically extend two people's union along the bodily dimension of their being" (p. 275).

That being the case, if you accept the evidence that homosexuality is part of the natural design of higher mammalian species, if you consider the likelihood that human survival appears to be enhanced by the regular occurrence in every generation of a certain small but significant percentage of non-reproducing individuals, then there is no reason why homosexual relationships that uphold socially valuable norms shouldn't be sanctioned and blessed. Gay couples can be social role models of love, stability and commitment for straight couples. They can also, as adoptive couples, provide stable, loving homes for kids who -- through a variety of unfortunate circumstances -- end up without homes. But they can play these socially valuable roles effectively only if they are incorporated into the moral fabric of society that is represented by the institution of marriage.

The authors of this article claim to be concerned about moral values. But they also insist, at the core of their argument, that the suffering caused by discrimination against homosexuals and homosexual couples is necessary for some greater good. This should be a flag of warning. It has never boded well when societies openly embrace the notion that certain of its members are expendable, that their needs and their humanity must be sacrificed on the altar of some higher purpose.

The authors of this article, as marriage equality opponents frequently do, justified the exclusion of same-sex couples from marriage with citations of promiscuity and sexual libertarianism among gays. Ironically, their whole argument about the protection of marriage hinges on the notion that broadly held social norms have an impact on how people behave in their private lives. Yet, they failed to consider the possibility that it is much more difficult for gays to embrace monogamy as long as they are not offered the kind of stake in society that marriage offers. Nor did they consider the effect on marriage of creating one standard of socially supported love and commitment for one class of human beings, and another, inferior standard for another class of human beings.

We're not talking about a redefinition of marriage. A marriage is, has always been, and will always be a mutual promise to take and to cherish, to be true in good times and bad, in sickness and in health, a promise to love and to honor all the days of one's life. That's all I ask for me and my husband.

The authors of this article claim that allowing gays to marry will "decouple" marriage from child-rearing. But the unwillingness of heterosexual couples to have children is not related to gays taking wedding vows. It is related to selfishness. Gays partaking in the institution of marriage will not change the fact that marriage provides the ideal context for the rearing of children. And it does so not because there is something magical about the fertilization of a gamete. There are enough terrible heterosexual parents in the world (and enough excellent homosexual parents) to prove that point. Marriage lays the ground-work for child-rearing, because it creates a context of commitment, mutual giving and self-sacrifice.

In my experience, it was the stability and confidence that a loving, committed relationship gave me and Göran, that allowed us to contemplate becoming parents. And in turn, becoming parents changed our lives in every way imaginable for the better. I couldn't understand why heterosexual parents, similarly situated, wouldn't take advantage of the joys of parenthood, just because my husband and I are allowed to marry and enabled to do the same. Allowing gays to marry will invite them into the fullness of married family life, with everything that means socially and morally, not decouple marriage from child-rearing. If straight couples are too selfish to do the same, I suggest the fault lies elsewhere than among gays who wish to make similar commitments.

Marriage is not a zero-sum good. It's not as if there's only so much of it to go around, as if more for gays means there's less for straights. To the contrary, it seems to me that marriage is just the type of social good that is diminished in a society where we deliberately create haves and have nots. It is the type of social good whose value is enhanced in its universal availability to all who are willing to make the promises and accept the responsibilities.

All I ask is the opportunity to do just that. If I try and fail, I lose out. But if I succeed, everyone is enriched.

8 comments:

Knight of Nothing said...

Hey John - in an amazing coincidence, I was just drafting a "what do you think about X" email to you, where "X" is an anti-gay marriage piece. In your essay here, you have written a perfectly measured response which beautifully illustrates the flaws of the anti-gay white paper.

But what if the anti-gay essay in question makes no pretense of appealing to reason and logic? I'm speaking about this piece, which basically argues that if gay marriage is legal, religious groups won't be able to discriminate against gays without running afoul of the law.

On its face, it sounds a little silly. But if we are to persuade religious people to reject the Minnesota amendment, which seems critical to success, isn't it in our best interest to frame the question of state-sanctioned gay marriage as a secular issue? The article alludes to examples in which religious belief and practice have been invalidated by states which permit gay marriage. What are your thoughts on that question?

J G-W said...

Bottom line, Sam, is that no church will be forced to recognize or perform any marriage they don't believe in.

That is already the case. A Catholic priest does not have to perform a marriage between a Catholic and a non-Catholic. Mormons do not allow non-Mormons to get married in the temple. No religion has ever faced any legal consequences for doing so.

I followed the link you sent me... One of the biggest worries they express is the fear that those who refuse to accept same-sex marriages will increasingly be viewed as "bigots."

Well, that's just a reality of living in a pluralistic culture. Do people view as bigots Jews or Catholics who refuse to recognize inter-faith marriages? Are Mormons viewed as bigots for not letting non-Mormons -- even non-Mormon family members -- attend a temple marriage ceremony? Maybe some view them as bigots, hopefully most respect that they have the freedom to practice their religions as they see fit. All religions have to, at some level, be able to explain their religious practices to those outside the faith. Hopefully we will all contribute to a culture of respect in America that seeks to understand these differences rather than lambast each other as "bigots" because we disagree with each other.

Some of the other kinds of discrimination (say, by religious institutions that receive state funding, or by churches that offer to rent their facilities to the public, or by professionals who provide services to the general public) are probably already illegal, even without same-sex marriage legalized.

Knight of Nothing said...

If I read you right, your assessment of that essay is that it is mostly just fear-mongering. That's how I felt too, but I was interested to hear your take. What I would like to find now, though, is some evidence to corroborate that feeling.

J G-W said...

The one specific case they cite is the Catholic Charities case. I suppose I ought to read up more on that, since it's being cited by a lot of same-sex marriage opponents.

The fear of being discriminated against, hated or ridiculed because of your religious views is a legitimate concern.

In the aftermath of Prop 8, there were gay rights activists who said some hateful things about Mormons... I understood where the anger was coming from, but not helpful, IMHO.

Andrew S said...

Are Mormons viewed as bigots for not letting non-Mormons -- even non-Mormon family members -- attend a temple marriage ceremony?

Nope. Just cultists.

Knight of Nothing said...

The Catholic Charities example is not insignificant, but it doesn't trouble me as much as it might, because it is more of a gray area. After all, CC is a somewhat autonomous organization that receives public funding to perform many secular tasks (feed poor people, provide disaster relief, facilitate adoptions, etc). It does bother me a lot that CC closed up shop in MA, but I think that that reflects poorly on their commitment to their stated goals.

I'm more concerned by the claims that "...religious groups who have refused to make their facilities available for same-sex couples have lost their state tax exemption," and that "wedding professionals have been fined for refusing to participate in a same-sex ceremony". These seem like more direct assaults on the practices and beliefs of certain religious groups.

J G-W said...

Sam - Well, religious organizations are exempted from most antidiscrimination laws. And if you accept government funding, you generally have to waive those exemptions. This is why many religious agencies choose not to accept public funding.

You also generally waive those exemptions the moment you offer "public accommodations." If you rent space or provide services to the public, you are not allowed to discriminate. This applies to anyone who offers services that are deemed "public accommodations."

So if, for example, a church decided that only members of that church could use their sanctuary to have a wedding, they could legally refuse to allow a same-sex couple to hold a wedding there. But, if they rented the sanctuary to the public for a standard fee, they would no longer be allowed to discriminate. Anyone willing to pay the fee would have to be allowed to use the sanctuary, including gay or lesbian couples.

I suspect that the web site's mention of "wedding professionals" was probably an allusion to the case of Elane Photography, LLC in New Mexico. However, to use this case as an argument against legalizing same-sex marriage is misleading, because same-sex marriage is not legal in New Mexico. In this particular case, the photography studio refused to photograph the wedding of a lesbian couple and were fined $6000 for violating the state's antidiscrimination ordinance. It had nothing to do with legalized same-sex marriage. The company was found in violation of the ordinance because they refused service to lesbian clients, and were deemed to provide a "public accommodation."

J G-W said...

I should add -- offering public accommodations voids religious exemptions only so far as the public accommodation itself is concerned.

So, for example, if a Catholic Church rents its sanctuary to the public for weddings, it would only be deemed to be in violation of antidiscrimination ordinances if it refused to rent to gay folks (assuming sexual orientation is protected in the antidiscrimination statute).

Catholics could still refuse to perform same-sex weddings, could refuse to ordain a gay priest in a same-sex relationship, and could preach against homosexuality from the pulpit, and would not be deemed to be in violation of the law.