Posted by: N.S. Palmer | November 17, 2008

Gay Marriage: Evolution or Redefinition?

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.

Redefining Marriage

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 ( are included.


  1. I would agree with most of your points. You yourself make a good argument for the institution of marriage as a means to an end: providing for children. So what about gay and lesbian couples who want to adopt or have their own biological children? Even where agreements are in place, I wonder how civil-union versions of the “pre-nup” stand up in the face of custody, child support, and inheritance-centered legal battles. (Palimony is only broadly recognized in certain states, and is a civil court, rather than a family court, matter.) There’s likely lots of legal precedent, but is there more general protection in place for children and the primary caregiver sans “marriage”?

  2. You raise some important points.

    As for gay couples raising children, I think that the deciding consideration must be the welfare of the children. If children are just as well off with two gay parents as they are with two heterosexual parents, then it’s fine. If not, then I’m sorry but the “rights” of adults to raise children are less important than the welfare of the children. Beyond that, I don’t know enough about the effects of gay parents on child development to have an opinion on the issue.

    As for pre-nups and such, I don’t have a clue. But in any real-life society, some people will always end up being treated unfairly: you just try to minimize the number of such people and the unfairness of their treatment.

  3. Actually the big point here is that gay marriage is supposed to be about having equal legal rights as heterosexual couples. Right now things like benefits, legal guardianship. power of attorney and medical decisions are different for straight and gay couples.

    Ideally if you make civil unions have the same exact legal weight as gay marriage, it should give homosexual couples the equality they’re seeking with one caveat. The name.

    There are a lot of gay activists who also want the term “marriage” included in the package not to feel segregated into an alternative pocket from everybody else. But it’s hard to get around the fact that it is a different social construct, even for someone like me who thinks that gay people have just as much of a right to be legally miserable with each other until death or divorce do them part…

  4. I agree with you that gays should have the same legal rights as heterosexuals, except for access to the legal institution of “marriage.” However, if a particular religion wants to marry gays, and I’m not a communicant of that religion, then it’s really none of my business.

    I do remain more optimistic than you are about the prospect of wedded bliss. 🙂

  5. Maybe one day… But I’m Russian so I’m a pessimist by definition.

  6. Then Spasyeebah! My Russian is so bad … all I remember are things like asking for coffee and directions to the men’s room.

    You never know about marriage. I think that Maria Sharapova might be waiting for you to call her … 🙂

  7. Yeah, the police asked her to let them know when I call next… but I think I’ve said too much.

  8. I really enjoyed this post. I wonder what would happen if our government stepped out of the marriage business entirely and, instead, performed only civil unions.

    In years long gone by a marriage was, as I believe you suggested, almost entirely a way of providing a legitimate structure for children (and, I suppose, a means of knowing who, i.e., the spouse, should get property when a partner died). I am aware that it also provided the only socially acceptable avenue for sex, as well, but since almost anything goes today those barriers are significantly torn down. But today marriage provides a structure for other benefits, such as insurance coverage, that are increasingly seen as critical.

    Frankly, I am all for any two people who commit to care for each other being able to enjoy every benefit I might enjoy while married.

    But I think that perhaps the label of marriage should be left to God to apply. Let the government unite any two adults who want it. Let the churches sanctify the marriages.

  9. I agree completely. In an ideal society, marriage would be left to the churches to define.

    In an ideal society, the vast majority would also generally agree about moral, social, and religious values. Thanks to factors such as feminism and massive immigration from incompatible cultures, we don’t have such agreement: even the historic institution of the family is disputed and denigrated.

    If government takes any stand at all on marriage and family, I believe that it should encourage the traditional forms of those institutions — naturally, while respecting the rights of non-participants.

    We can see the evidence before our eyes: societies that have abandoned traditional families and sex roles are depopulating and disintegrating, while societies that encourage and support those institutions are expanding and strengthening.

    As a Jew, I’m no particular fan of Islam, but Muslims are very serious about supporting and preserving the family. They go too far in that they sometimes deny the legitimate rights of women, but the demographic and cultural results of their attitude are undeniable. The same applies to Orthodox Judaism, which however has a more benevolent and enlightened attitude toward women — as, by the way, do some Muslim reformers.

  10. Yes, I think it is about acceptance. The reluctance to share the term itself connotes a soft-peddled, but ultimately very real, disapproval. At the heart of it, the institution is the union of two people. It’s when you start saying which two people are good enough that the real perceptions become clear. That’s why I think it’s important that they have, as it was put, “the whole enchilada”.

    It wasn’t so very long ago that the doctrine of “separate but equal” was common in the United States… it was always the first, but rarely the second. White people always wanted to know why black people couldn’t be happy with what was “theirs”. But it was the idea of separateness and what it really implied that WAS the bone contention. It wasn’t JUST that the schools weren’t as good, the back of the bus wasn’t as comfortable, the restrooms were smaller and less ornate. It was having to be faced with the idea that someone object to you using the same drinking fountain as him, the same seats in the restaurant as her, the same theatres as you. It was about being something lesser.

    Reserving the institution and privilege of “marriage” to opposite-sex couples is cut from the same cloth, and opens the door to the same sort of “separate but equal” inequalities. Employers would be free to declare some benefits accrued only to married spouses, not to civil union spouses. Governments could reserve survivor benefits to married couples, not to civil unions. What is to become of the surviving half of a 40-year relationship when his/her partner dies, and the law provides that the dead person’s inheritors are his/her relatives, not the lifelong partner? This could never happen to a married couple, but the survivor of a civil union partnership could be denied such protection and find himself homeless when his/her partner’s relatives demand the sale of their home for “their” half.

    In the end, it’s not about forcing issues or waving a lifestyle in other people’s faces. It’s about acceptance. It’s about being fully human.

  11. When I started teaching, I quickly realized that in any class of 20 or more students, there would be at least one or two students who disliked me no matter what I said or did. I learned not to take it personally. In the same way, I believe that gays should learn to live with the fact that some people don’t like them and never will. Just as they have the right to be who and what they are, non-gays have the same right.

    “Separate but equal” domains don’t bother me as long as they really *are* equal. We agree that in the case of gays, civil unions are unequal in legal rights to marriage. I think that the remedy is to improve civil unions; you disagree. I note also, however, that any special status accorded to marriage has nothing particular to do with gays: unmarried straight couples are also denied both the legal and social status accorded to married couples.

    As long as legal rights are relevantly equal and respected, I would applaud anything that supports and encourages traditional marriage and family because I believe that they are essential institutions for our kind of civilization.

  12. It’s true that some people will never like gay or lesbian people, sure. In the same vein, some people will never like black people. Some people will never like Jews. I don’t think we would agree, however, that that implies an acceptable reason to exclude black people and Jewish people from human institutions. Blacks, Jews, Muslims, Northern Irish Catholics, Kurds, and on an on, all have to come to terms with the fact that someone does not like them, and never will; they can do so and still insist on their full rights to equality in the public sphere.

    While it is true that unmarried heterosexual couples deny themselves certain benefits, the fact remains that it is within their power to secure them unequivocally if they choose to do so. I believe what same-sex couples are seeking is exactly that same right, regardless of whether a particular given couple elects to avail themselves of it or not.

    It’s also true that as gays have the right to be who and what they are, non-gays have the same right; what neither has is the right to pronounce upon, prohibit, or limit that for others.

    Your argument about preserving the institution of the family is, to me, non sequitur. Unless you can explain how two men or two women legally being married prevents another heterosexual couple from doing so, or prevents the conception of a child, I don’t see how it is germane to the discussion. It’s not about practicalities; really, it’s about prejudice.

    Let me frame it in parallel terms. A few years ago, I went through Catechism as an adult, partly out of a spiritual need, partly out of cultural curiosity. I can’t claim to be a practicing Catholic, but I did learn a lot in the course of it. It took the better part of a year before I was communicant. One of the things I learned from my priest, who expressed it with some regret but was adamant about it all the same, was that the rest of you — Protestants, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, whatever — are not actually married in the eyes of God. You’re all living in sin. God doesn’t care how you feel about one another, or what words you spoke, or the lives you’ve shared. You weren’t married in the Church, and so you’re not really married.

    Now how does that make you feel? Does it make you angry? Does it offend you? Do you consider it arrogant that some other mortal man could presume to negate the depths of your feelings, your spirituality, your very humanity, and purport to declare profane in the eyes of God the deepest and most spiritual aspects of your life, the things that make you most human? Well, I think that’s how homosexuals feel when their feelings and their commitment to one another is denigrated and made less fully human by the similar supposedly holy pronouncements they hear. To me, it’s all the same thing.

    I know you’re not Christian, but many people who hold such views are, and so I think it bears repeating that the Apostle Paul remarked that of faith, hope, and charity, the greatest of these is charity… not faith. Let’s be honest. We don’t know — we just hope we know — what God wants, what lies ahead beyond this life. That’s faith. But what we do know, for sure, is that we live in a world of human beings, and it is within our power on Earth to make the lives of others happier or more miserable. This is charity. Surely, then, we must err on the side of charity, where no harm is done, and hope that we please God. If we turn out to be mistaken, we can at least say, Lord, I was torn, and I chose the path of charity. Surely for that we are to be forgiven. The only unpardonable sin, as Miss Sook told us, is deliberate cruelty.

  13. It’s interesting that Jim remarks, “But I think that perhaps the label of marriage should be left to God to apply. Let the government unite any two adults who want it. Let the churches sanctify the marriages.”

    I used to have a boss who was a German citizen. He was living with an Australian woman here in Canada, and they had decided, finally, to marry. I was surprised to learn that they had to do so twice. The big church wedding was planned for Germany, but in Germany, religious marriage are invalid. You’re not married until and unless you are wed by the state in a civil ceremony. Consequently, my boss and his fiancee were first married in a civil ceremony in Canada (which is valid in Germany) and then were married in a church in Germany. Apparently, this is common in Napoleonic Law in Europe. In the West, it’s largely only in English-speaking countries that ministers of religion are authorized to act on behalf of the state in this manner.

    So curiously, in much of the world, it’s not God at all who bestows the label of marriage, but the community. It’s worth reflecting on in a matter like this.

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