Archive | September, 2010

I think somewhat otherwise…

9 Sep

In an article in the National Review, The Case for Marriage , we are once again being told by the conservative, religious, “traditional marriage” supporters that we are attempting to redefine marriage to accommodate same-sex partnerships against the “will of the people,” although some are starting to realize that the will of the people is shifting toward a more reasonable attitude.  They then opine that their voices, and those of their ever-decreasing majority are being shut out of this debate, and that their definition of marriage will be seen as bigoted and irrational.  They put words into our mouths claiming that we are influencing Americans to marginalize them and take away religious rights, that by asserting our rights, we infringe on theirs.  They also declare that judges and lawmakers who vote against them are no more than activists and should be removed, and intimate that somehow these officials are influenced by our underhanded oppression of the religious.

There is a concerted push in fundamentalist circles to insist that marriage equality would change the entire structure of familial relations across the country.  The observable facts notwithstanding many groups insist that allowing homosexuals to marry would throw the entire meaning of marriage into such a morass of chaos and confusion it would never emerge.  They blatantly fail to acknowledge that where marriage equality exists, no such chaos has occurred, preferring to fall back on “it’s only been twenty years, wait and see, the destruction is immanent.”  When passing laws that are now being overturned as discriminatory, they argue vehemently against the comparisons to earlier racial based legislation that was overturned for the same reasons, and insist that, as Maggie Brown put it “it is not discrimination to treat different people differently.”  That the complete irony of that statement escapes her is simply evidence of another of the set of self-imposed blinders that mark such acts of discrimination.  Society’s tolerance for racism has waned drastically from where it stood before laws were enacted to guarantee equal rights to all races, and its tolerance for homophobia is showing signs of going the same way, more so each time another state legalizes marriage equality, or another court case moves to overturn gender discrimination.  Fear driven propaganda is less and less convincing when falsehoods like “churches will be required to…” preface statements that more and more people are coming to realize hold no weight at all.

If proponents of “traditional marriage” thought through these implications, their discriminatory attitudes might evaporate, for it seems highly unlikely that they will, in the end, find they retain enough of an audience that is interested in their cause, and impossible that they will be able to prevent our system of government from performing the duty we all expect of it in upholding the Constitution and granting equal rights for all, though in the interim they may try many divisive and disingenuous tactics to prevent it.  The fact that such a battle looms is not a deterrent, in the long run, from striving to achieve equality.  But first let us look at some of the reasons that “traditional marriage” supporters are so dedicated to their exclusivity.

A great part of the problem lies in the fact that there is no one absolutely certain, this is it, no other explanation exists, definition of marriage, and often conservatives take this as meaning that homosexuals don’t know what marriage truly is.  Some people see marriage as a way to form a family and raise children; others see it as the emotional bond between two adults, some as a way of protecting their own futures together.  As it turns out, marriage is all of these things, and more.  However, in order to make it about one thing that they feel they can keep as exclusive, traditional marriage supporters have taken to the one argument they feel is most strongly in their favor, that being reproduction.

While they will acknowledge that marriage does provide all sorts of other benefits, from reducing the burden on society in regards to care giving of the elderly, and they admit that marriage is, in part, a loving bond, they claim that these are not the primary purpose of the institution.  The argument goes like this:

The reason marriage exists is that the sexual intercourse of men and women regularly produces children. If it did not produce children, neither society nor the government would have much reason, let alone a valid reason, to regulate people’s emotional unions. (The government does not regulate non-marital friendships, no matter how intense they are.) If mutual caregiving were the purpose of marriage, there would be no reason to exclude adult incestuous unions from marriage. What the institution and policy of marriage aims to regulate is sex, not love or commitment. These days, marriage regulates sex (to the extent it does regulate it) in a wholly non-coercive manner, sex outside of marriage no longer being a crime.

The claim is that marriage is, at its core, an institution of procreation.  There is a great deal made about child rearing, the benefits of two parent households, and nurture by biological parents in such households.  In the article quoted a great deal of pixels are spent explaining that while it is understood that not all marriages produce children, this is their primary purpose and to remove it from the definition of marriage would be harmful to everyone from the parents, to the children, to society as a whole.

The truth of the matter is no one is trying to remove that as one of the definitions.  It is a straw man argument to say that we are.  Certainly, one of the things marriage does is it creates stronger family bonds.  It encourages parents to stay together, both for their own sakes, and for the sakes of progeny.   That IS one of the standard, understood, definitions of marriage, and there is no push at all to say that it is not.

However, when traditional marriage supporters claim that there is no way this familial relationship can happen in anything other than an opposite sex marriage they move one step too far.  “It takes a man and a woman to make a baby!” goes the rallying cry.  Once again, that is certainly true.  No argument from anyone over here, we all know quite well the basics of human biology.  So far, we are all on the same page.

Conservatives do agree that procreation is not always the reason that people get married.  They understand that there is no way that the government could institute a test for procreative intent as a prerequisite to marriage.  They admit that some people do choose to marry for other reasons, and marry in cases where procreation is not only unwanted, but may well be impossible.   Here too, we all agree.  Sometimes marriage is to raise families, sometimes it is not.

A second argument, although it relates to the first, that traditional marriage supporters misquote is that they believe we are trying to dissolve the link between marriage and family.  They point to statistics about single parent households and how children do better with two parents, and how removing biological parents from the equation is harmful and disadvantageous to children. Once again, we agree!  In studies of heterosexual parents, it has been shown that children do better with two parents.  A single parent struggles both financially and emotionally more than a heterosexual couple, and children do not do as well in that environment.  Likewise, children raised in orphanages or foster homes with one parent or two opposite sex parents do not do as well, on the whole, as those raised by their biological parents.  No argument there.  But that doesn’t tell the whole story.

The third objection, from this article, is quoted here in its entirety…

The third objection is that it is unfair to same-sex couples to tie marriage to procreation, as the traditional conception of marriage does. Harm, if any, to the feelings of same-sex couples is unintentional: Marriage, and its tie to procreation, did not arise as a way of slighting them. (In the tradition we are defending, the conviction that marriage is the union of a man and a woman is logically prior to any judgment about the morality of homosexual relationships.)

… so that we may dismiss it without fuss.  No one from the marriage equality side claims the traditional definition of marriage was developed as a method of slighting homosexuals’ feelings, and we can certainly agree that this was not its original intent.

And finally, the National Review article suggests this.

And does marriage really need to be redefined? The legal “benefits” of marriage — such as the right to pay extra taxes, and to go through a legal process to sever the relationship? — are overstated. Almost all the benefits that the law still grants could easily be extended to unmarried couples, including same-sex couples, without redefining marriage.

… which (even taking the writer’s odd disdain for those legal benefits into account) is actually a part of the explanation of why marriage equality is important.  But we will come back to this later.

So, we have several basic points.  Marriage is, among many other fine things, designed to protect and preserve familial relationships.   Biology requires a man and woman to make a baby.  Marriage is sometimes about procreation, and sometimes not.  Children do better in homes with married parents.  Marriage was not originally intended as a weapon against homosexuals.

Can we all agree on those points?  It certainly seems possible.  Why then, do we have any argument at all?

We all know the obvious responses to the arguments.  The government cannot and will not legislate that marriage is intended to produce children.  It does make provision for the care of any children, and as such is just as vital to the protection of familial bonds in same sex households as in opposite sex ones.  Studies prove that there is no appreciable difference to childrens’ welfare between having parents who are of the same gender and parents who are not.  Homosexuals are just as capable of procreating, either naturally or through medical means.  Adoption is vital to this country as we are overwhelmed with children who are either orphans or who have had to be removed from biological parents who were unfit.  People of any gender combination can and do choose not to become parents, yet still deserve the familial protections that marriage offers to sanctify and secure their relationships.  Marriage as a concept was not intended to harm us, but exclusion from it obviously and demonstrably does so.

And yet, despite all the places we agree with them on marriage, and all the ways we can show that our differences are not particularly consequential to the debate, conservatives still want to refuse it to us.

Lets get back to that final paragraph.  Does marriage really need to be redefined?  No, it does not.  Marriage is, and has been for quite some time, the union of two people who love each other and wish to demonstrate that bond through matrimony.  No need to redefine that, it works for every marriage, except, perhaps, marriages of convenience, marriages to grant legal immigration status, arranged marriages, all of which are legal too, so no redefining needed there.  The legal “benefits” of marriage are not so simply granted, as has been shown in many places, but most recently the debacle of civil unions in New Jersey, and certainly part of the issue is that it would be onerous to attempt to do so when the simple solution of marriage equality lies before us.

And then, buried deep in the article, we find the heart of the matter.

The campaign for same-sex marriage is primarily motivated by one specific benefit: the symbolic statement by the government that committed same-sex relationships are equivalent to marriages.   But with respect to the purposes of marriages, they’re not equivalent; and so this psychic benefit cannot be granted without telling a lie about what marriage is and why a society and legal system should recognize and support it.

Finally the writer gets to the meat of it.  Same-sex relationships are not the equivalent of heterosexual marriages.  And why?  Well, we know why all of the arguments about procreation and families are not valid differences; we end up arguing them over and over, on a daily basis.  We know that marriage is not, as the writer tries to claim over and over, simply a way to keep procreative impulses tied to governmentally sanctioned paperwork.  We know it is not that children will be harmed.  We know it is not that we want to change definitions of how others marry.

So what, exactly, is different?

We are.

At the heart of the matter, conservatives find us to be different, and different means wrong.

It all boils down, as we knew it always did, to a basic, civil rights issue.  Women are different from men; so they were kept as property, breeding stock, show animals, basically.  Thinkers like Copernicus were different from religious Catholics who did as they were told, so they were excommunicated, banned from society, and killed.  Blacks are different from whites so they were kept as slaves, sold and used as things, not people.  Japanese are different from Caucasians, so they were penned up in camps, regardless of their citizenship, irrespective of their actual service in the armed forces AGAINST their ancestral homelands.  Communists are different from capitalists, so they were blacklisted, ostracized and emotionally battered and abused.

And today, homosexuals are different from heterosexuals, so we are belittled, beaten, sometimes killed, and excluded from equality.

There is some really fantastic news about all this.  All of these groups have become part of society.  Racial prejudice has fallen out of mainstream acceptance to the very fringes of society.  Women have broken through the glass ceiling.  Internment camps are now recognized for the horrors they are, even when their residents are well treated.  Political differences are all part of the process, and we can find ways, though it is sometimes hard to do so, of working together.

The marvelous news that perhaps some conservatives have missed in all this is that we, as a species, have moved out of the dark ages.  We have had incredible advancements in so very many fields, from the study of distant stars, to cultural and artistic developments, to wonders in the field of medicine, to the realization that as humans, we are all, each and every one of us, regardless of gender, age, physical capabilities, religious beliefs, skin color, or any of a hundred other distinctions, capable of many amazing and wonderful things.  But most of all, we are capable of realizing those abilities and resources in each other.  As we progress, each generation in this increasingly global society realizes more and more that this business of “us” and “them” is a construct of an earlier time when tribal attitudes served us, but no longer do.

It has always been the conservative element of society that resisted this sort of a change.  And at times, there has been some good use for the dragging of feet, the erring on the side of caution.  But when the issue is one of treating one group of people as inferior because of perceived differences that produce absolutely no demonstrable harm, there is no reasonable justification for it.  And when we find that happening, we must react to correct the situation, as we are doing now with marriage equality.

At this point, the National Review piece devolves into nonsense.

The article goes on to discuss issues that are irrelevant to the marriage debate, throwing in red herrings about non-marital relationships like brotherhood and friendship, asking why those should not be granted the same rights.  It puts forth polygamy and polyamory as the obvious next steps.  These are, of course, as specious as the argument that someone will marry a goat or his or her washing machine, or that pedophilia follows naturally from homosexuality, and need not even be mentioned.  If heterosexual marriage has not led to any of these things, homosexual marriage will not either.   The writer says there is way to “say with any confidence” that marriage equality would cause increases in infidelity or illegitimacy, which again, we can all agree with, and which then disposes of anything following it about supposed harm to the institution of marriage itself.

And it closes thusly…

It may be that the conventional wisdom is correct, and legal recognition of same-sex marriage really is our inevitable future. Perhaps it will even become an unquestioned policy and all who resisted it will be universally seen as bigots. We doubt it, but cannot exclude the possibility. If our understanding of marriage changes in this way, so much the worse for the future.

… falling back to the tired old trope that everyone should fear that if marriage equality is legalized, anyone who wants to marry an opposite sex partner will be a bigot.  They doubt it, but cannot exclude the possibility.  Please, rest assured, we doubt it, and can exclude that possibility.

And if our understanding of marriage changes in this way, so much the better for this world and everyone in it.