By N.S. Palmer, Ph.D.
Note (August 23, 2010): Since writing this blog article, I have changed my mind about gay marriage. Everything I wrote in this article still stands, but I’ve become convinced that it’s more important to treat all members of society equally. To consign gay relationships to “civil unions,” even if those unions are legally equivalent to marriage, is to consign gay members of society to second-class status. That status is “separate but equal,” as the advocates of racial segregation used to characterize public schools for black children. Such treatment is unacceptable in a humane society.
Life isn’t fair. Everyone over 10 years old knows that. The American gay-rights movement has just been reminded of the fact. California’s Proposition 8 to ban same-sex marriage has received the most attention, but voters in Florida and Arizona also endorsed gay-marriage bans.
I’m tempted to say that “I don’t have a horse in this race,” but there are two reasons why I won’t.
First, it comes too close to the nervous disclaimer that people usually include when writing about homosexuality: “I’m not gay, but …” That disclaimer concedes, contra Jerry Seinfeld, that there really is “something wrong with it,” which I don’t believe.
As far as I can tell, gay people are usually born that way, just as they are born with various eye and hair colours. Moreover, there is nothing in homosexuality per se that one can fault on moral grounds. If two people want to express their love sexually, and they do it discreetly, without exploitation or coercion, then what difference does it make if they’re of the same sex? One searches in vain for any rational basis on which to make a distinction. It doesn’t make any difference.
The sins for which gays are usually denounced — such as promiscuity and carelessness about sexually-transmitted diseases — have no specific connection to homosexuality and are just as much of a problem for heterosexuals. And the Bible verses that condemn homosexuality are in close proximity to other verses, seldom mentioned, that forbid shaving and wearing garments made from different types of fabric. On biblical grounds, at least, one cannot consistently condemn homosexuals while exonerating clean-shaven heterosexual men, or women who wear cotton with wool.
Second, I do have a horse in this race. So does every person, gay or straight, who wants to live in a just and compassionate society. But there’s more to the issue than merely wanting justice and compassion for gay people. That’s what makes it difficult to resolve.
What’s All the Fuss About?
Why are some gay activists so adamant about wanting legal sanction for “gay marriage”? They state two goals:
- To gain the same legal rights for gay “married” couples as for heterosexual married couples.
- To further social acceptance of gays by enabling them to participate in an institution (marriage) that previously excluded them.
The legal-rights argument strikes me as a smokescreen. Civil unions for gay couples in the United States are defined by the laws of individual states. Currently, eight states and the District of Columbia recognize such unions. Some states give civil unions the same legal status as marriages, while others do not. If civil unions don’t give enough legal rights to gays, then it makes more sense to amend laws about civil unions than to stir up the political hornets’ nest of “gay marriage.”
The second goal, furthering social acceptance of gays, seems to be the real motive involved. As The New York Times noted in an article about rallies for gay marriage, it’s “an issue that many gay men and lesbians consider a critical step to full equality.”
So that’s the real bottom line. The gays who support gay marriage are tired of feeling that some straight people don’t like them. They won’t accept any compromise. They want the whole enchilada. They want to feel accepted by society. By everyone. No slackers allowed.
Not All Gays Support Gay Marriage
You wouldn’t know it from recent news coverage, but some gays think that the gay marriage crusade is a bad idea. Justin Raimondo, a libertarian columnist who is gay, dismisses gay marriage as a plot to make gays “as boring as heterosexuals.” Writing in Taki’s Magazine, he says:
Marriage is all about children: otherwise, there is no real reason for it, and especially not in the modern world, where internet hook-ups, de facto polygamy, and rampant promiscuity are widely accepted. It is, in short, an economic institution, a financial framework for the bringing up of a new generation. Marriage is an agreement between two adults that they will, together, provide for the needs of their offspring, and, indeed, when the time comes, pass on their accumulated wealth.
Raimondo quotes lesbian feminist author Camille Paglia (whose books I recommend, by the way; she’s a perceptive and entertaining writer):
That’s the problem: calling it a marriage. Marriage was traditionally meant for male and female. It was a bond for the raising of children, so it always had a procreative meaning too, and it has a long sacred tradition behind it. I hate any time that gay causes get mixed up with seeming to profane other people’s sacred tradition. The gay activist leadership has been totally clumsy about that. Rather than treating it in a serious way and saying ‘We respect the tradition of marriage,’ gay activism is associated with throwing balloons of blood at the steps of St. Patrick’s.
Marriage as a Historical Institution
Gay activists are right when they point out that the institution of marriage has changed a lot over the centuries. But they’re wrong when they portray “gay marriage” as just one more evolution of the concept.
It’s true that marriage has taken many forms. In ancient Sumer (from about the 6th through the 2nd millennia B.C.E.), marriage required the consent of the bride’s family. The married relationship was patriarchal, but women had more rights than they did in other Near Eastern countries of that period.
In classical Greece (about 510 – 323 B.C.E.), the Spartan marriage ceremony cut the bride’s hair and dressed her as a boy; she and the groom then had marital relations. After the wedding, husband and wife lived separately, with the husband returning to his military barracks. In Athens, which tolerated and even romanticized homosexual love, it was still considered the responsibility of adult males to take wives and beget children.
In the Roman Empire, weddings were seldom conducted by clergy and never required government officials to give their approval. The central element of marriage was the “bride purchase,” which transferred legal authority over the bride — who, as a female, had no legal status — from her father to the groom. Over time, the bride purchase became less significant: a new form of marriage called sine manu became the norm and gave far more rights to women. By the way, the Romans believed that a vein went directly from the third finger of the left hand to the heart. That was the basis of their custom (and ours) of putting a wedding ring on the third finger of the bride’s left hand.
In medieval Germanic and Frankish societies, male relatives of the bride arranged the marriage, with or without her consent. The families of the bride and groom agreed on terms, held a feast, and the groom’s family paid the “bride price” to the bride’s family. Women had few rights, but they were treated with a certain amount of deference both because of their reproductive role and because they did much of the skilled work, such as pottery, weaving, and even brewing beer. [See Marriage and Family in the Middle Ages by Frances and Joseph Gies.]
John Milton (English poet, 1608-1674), in Paradise Lost, hails “wedded Love, mysterious law, true source of human offspring.” Miguel de Cervantes (Spanish novelist, 1547-1616), in Don Quixote, writes that God “took a rib out of Adam’s left side, of which He formed our mother Eve … And then was the divine ordinance of matrimony first instituted.” John Locke (English philosopher, 1632-1704), writes in Some Thoughts Concerning Education that a young man “must be back home again by one-and-twenty, to marry and propagate.”
Saint Augustine (Christian theologian, 354-430) took a more negative view of marriage in his Confessions: “It is good for a man not to touch a woman. He that is not married thinketh … how he may please the Lord; but he that is married careth for … how he may please his wife.” But Saint Thomas Aquinas (arguably the greatest of Christian theologians, 1225-1274) preached a sermon in 1273 in which he listed the “threefold goods of matrimony: the birth of children, fidelity between man and wife, and the sacramental nature of the married relationship.”
Marriage has changed a lot over the history of Western civilization: gay activists are right about that. But amid all the changes, one thing has remained constant: Marriage has been seen as a relationship between male and female. Male-male and female-female relationships, whether legal or not, tolerated or not, approved or not, have not been considered marriages. Maybe that’s unfair, but it’s the truth.
What gay-marriage proponents actually seek is a redefinition of marriage to accommodate them. That’s not out of the question. We can do it. However:
- We should be quite clear about the fact that redefinition of marriage, and nothing less, is what some gay activists are demanding. In the name of being nice to a sexual minority — not merely granting them equal rights, which can be done with civil unions, but being nice to them so that they’ll feel better — we are being asked to revamp an institution that has lasted in various forms for thousands of years of our history.
- Activists who support gay marriage should ask themselves if it’s the best way to achieve their goal of increased social acceptance.
Why It Takes Time for Gays to Win Acceptance
Apart from everything else, there is a psychological barrier that makes it hard for gays to win acceptance by the majority. In part, people define their own identities by differentiating themselves from “the other.” As Harvard political scientist Samuel Huntington explains in his book Who Are We?:
To define themselves, people need an other. Do they also need an enemy? Some people clearly do. … The need of individuals for self-esteem leads them to believe that their group is better than other groups. Their sense of self rises and falls with the fortunes of the groups with which they identify and with the extent to which other people are excluded from their group.
Asking people to redefine “the other” — in this case, gays — is asking them to redefine themselves. For most people, that’s difficult; for some people, it’s almost impossible. And letting gays participate in the institution of marriage means that they will no longer be “excluded from the group,” in Huntington’s words. For some people, that means a diminution of the self-esteem they get from membership in the heterosexual club.
Yes, people can overcome their psychological biases. But it’s foolish to imagine that the process is simple or that people can easily be bullied into it.
Can Gays Win Acceptance Without Being Obnoxious?
In the Bible, Proverbs 15 tells us: “A soft answer turneth away wrath, but grievous words stir up anger.”
U.S. President-elect Barack Obama seems to follow this advice. It works well for him. His calm demeanor, thoughtful arguments, and winning smile overcame any remaining doubts that American voters had about electing a black president. Obama easily defeated his Republican opponent John McCain, who came across as an angry, blustering white man whose rationality wasn’t tied on too securely.
President Obama is an example of what can be achieved by respect and reconciliation, as opposed to attack and vilification. Gay activists would do well to pay attention to it. Yes, they’re angry, and not without reason. But provoking more anger from the people with whom they’d like to reconcile does not help their cause. To the extent that their campaign for “gay marriage” shows hostility and disrespect for the straight majority, it’s counter-productive. Their favorite chant, “we’re here, we’re queer, get used to it,” is not a hymn of reconciliation.
Gays Have Already Won Significant Acceptance
Gays have already come a long way. Television characters such as the lesbian couple Willow and Tara on “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” and the omnisexual Captain Jack Harkness on the BBC’s “Torchwood,” have done more to further social acceptance of gays than a thousand angry rallies and legal assaults on the institution of marriage. So have openly gay celebrities such as Stephen Fry, Ellen Degeneres, and Neil Patrick Harris (“Doogie Houser”), and openly gay politicians such as U.S. Congressman Barney Frank (D-Massachusetts).
Today’s New York Times brings the news that Rosie O’Donnell, an openly gay comedienne and television personality, is this year’s “Ambassador of Kids’ Night on Broadway.” Coming only a few decades after gays were routinely slandered as child molesters, the fact that a gay woman will host “Kids’ Night” is a milestone of great significance — and even more so because most people don’t think that it’s significant. It’s not a big deal. It’s just normal life.
In one of the most poignant scenes from the TV series “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” Tara asks her lover Willow why she hasn’t introduced Tara to her friends. Willow replies that although she shares everything else with her friends, “I like having something that’s just … mine.”
If gay activists are really interested in helping gays, and not merely in getting revenge on heterosexuals by taking away something that’s “just theirs,” then they should abandon their crusade for gay marriage and work on improving civil unions.
Society is becoming more tolerant of gays, but it won’t happen overnight. Remember what the Chinese philosopher Confucius said: “Patience is power.”
Copyright 2008 by N.S. Palmer. May be reproduced as long as byline, copyright notice, and URL (http://www.ashesblog.com) are included.