Monday, January 30, 2012

Same-Sex Marriage

There is a conflict of values for Americans on this issue. On the one hand, we want things to be fair and equal for everyone, at least at law. We have bound ourselves to a constitution under which we may not agree with what someone does, but “people have a right to do what they have a right to do,” a tautology that actually does have meaning in an American context, because in most places it isn’t true.

OTOH, every culture gets to define marriage – that’s Social Anthropology 101 – and Americans tend to believe that our culture has been part of our success, and don’t like to mess with it unnecessarily. At the loudest places of argument, in fact, we could break the conflict into those two groups, those who believe we have a great culture, dammit, and you’re trying to screw it up versus those who believe we have a deeply flawed culture which we’re determined to fix.

That said; let’s look at two basic facts about the conduct of the discussion. Gay marriage was not even on the radar 20 years ago. Ten years ago, it was still considered a radical idea even among most liberals, and five years ago, was considered too hot to touch publicly even by liberal Democratic politicians. Because, you may note, their black, ethnic Catholic, and trade union constituents were still (and largely are still) opposed to it. For those already formulating their argument against my little rant here, you must at least cast your mind back to 1992 and the candidacy of Bill Clinton. Thousands were dying of AIDS, and research funding took up most of the energy of gay advocacy. Civil unions were not a topic of discussion, let alone gay marriage. Not so very long ago.

Secondly, the history of every tribe and race until very recently is that marriage was between males and females. The main difference was whether multiple wives were allowed. Bending of historical and anthropological data in select times and places to suggest that some same-sex relationships that sometimes had cultural sanction could therefore be described as marriage is just stretching the truth beyond what it can bear. It ain’t so. Similarly, comparing the forbidding of same-sex marriage to the forbidding of inter-racial marriage is also not accurate. Many cultures discourage or even forbid marriage to members of other groups, and the penalties can be ostracism, exile, symbolic death, or even actual death. This includes the period in the American South when some localities, some of the time, had laws against what they called “miscegenation.” But in no instance I know, and certainly not in any American context, was it ever stated that such marriages were a fiction. They were possible but forbidden, like murder or theft, not impossible at their root, like flying or breathing water. Some, at least, of those opposed to SSM are so on the basis of its impossibility, not its distastefulness to them. They believe the thing does not occur, no matter what the laws of the nation say.

These are powerful facts, but they are not necessarily determining facts. That an idea is new may not mean it is wrong, and the fact that all of history is against it doesn’t mean that history is right. Most of history counted men as more valuable than women, or allowed for slavery in some form, and we’ve been pretty comfortable with discarding those. Americans, in fact, have something of a tradition of embracing rights that other cultures don’t. Yet both the newness and universality are important to keep in mind in the current rhetoric of debate. The wrist-to-forehead horror, the eye-rolling and condescension displayed by SSM advocates of how impossibly ignorant and bigoted those yahoos are, in this day and age, to be against gay marriage, is rather astonishing. Over at Tigerhawk, it immediately made one young person think of Matthew Shepard. Because that’s what this being opposed to gay marriage leads to, apparently, murdering gay men in bars. And you social conservatives should be ashamed of yourselves for contributing to murders in that way. Murders like Robert Eric Wone (which I only heard of because of the W&M connection) , lead to no social and political conclusions, whatsoever, apparently. (FRT, I believe neither has much to tell us about social legislation; but if anything, approximately equal.)

So, really? A right which you did not recognise yourself ten years ago and would have considered ridiculous twenty years ago you now consider obvious? And you think it is your opponents who haven’t really thought this through and are reacting tribally? That’s a red flag for me.

I still might be convinced to go along with allowing same-sex marriage, BTW. Civil unions, certainly. It’s not going to involve that many people - the percentage of people who are gay and lesbian is usually inflated, and many of them have no interest in marriage anyway. I think that in America, even if your judgement is absolutely correct that something will cause harm to others, you have to be able to demonstate it conclusively, not merely opine. (Yeah, I know, that’s the exact opposite of what we say about environmental and safety legislation, but that’s liberals for you.) Opponents of SSM are rather hampered in what they might prove, as they have little data to draw from on something so new, but it remains true that they have not submitted good evidence that gay marriage will be damaging, only a lot of co-occurrence and it-stands-to-reason stuff. In America, that’s usually not enough.


terri said...

As far as the newness of the idea of SSM goes, I think what you are seeing is that things have reached a tipping point in the thought process of the idea. Time doesn't flow backwards. Opinions don't flow backwards

There aren't many objections to it that haven't been made, or counter-arguments that haven't been given in response. There isn't going to be any "new" information that is going to come out to change the landscape on this issue.

I think it's getting to the point that so many things have changed in regard to marriage and its purpose and function in our modern age that justifying not having SSM for those who want it is going to be increasingly hard.

After all, in 2012 what is marriage for? What is it about? Is it about love or is it a financial transaction?

I was castigated once for making the point that marriage is chiefly a legal and financial institution. We don't like to think of it that way because it sounds rather cold-hearted and clinical, but that is what it is. When you marry someone you are declaring that you are legally and financially bound to that relationship. You have very specific and undeniable legal rights for as long as you remain married. That's why marriage is called an institution and not a love match.

Is marriage about love? Then why does it have to be certified by the government and church?

Is it about pro-creation? Then does that mean that barren people aren't married?

Recognizing marriage as a legal agreement between two people, like a working partnership, is really the only view relevant to the SSM debate.

Looked at from that angle, SSM doesn't seem like a big deal.

Looked at from the love angle, I don't think most Americans are comfortable declaring who a person can and can't love.

Perhaps the real reason I think SSM will eventually pass is because those who are most against it are arguing from a religious perspective that isn't necessarily shared by the general population. There just isn't enough support out there for a majority of Americans to decide that SSM shouldn't exist because the God of the Bible says that it shouldn't.

If SSM passes, think of how much the legal sector will grow to meet the demand of SSM divorces!

karrde said...

I also get the sense that most of the advocates of civil rights based on sexual behavior/self-identification are trying to mimic the path of civil rights for racial minorities.

That is, there was a hazy plan that equality-in-military-life and equality-in-marriage-law were both desired; there was also a plan to bring out notable members into the public eye in entertainment.

Thus, Truman's desegregation of the military was thought to be analogous to the gays-in-the-military debate.

Similarly, Jackie Robinson is thought of as similar to Rosie O'Donnell and company.

Lastly, the anti-miscegenation laws and SSM.

karrde said...

More thoughts: the SSM debate led me to rethink the assumption that is cultural in religious circles, that America is a "Christian nation".

The phrase "Christian-influenced nation is truer to the history.

Even that would be reduced somewhat if SSM ever becomes ordinary.

But that has me considering an argument of the separation of marriage and State...or at least the separation of religious ceremonies of marriage from State ceremonies of civil union.

Civil union would be required for most of the legal benefits of marriage (inheritance, power-of-attorney, the right to not testify in court against a spouse, etc.).

Religious ceremonies would be required for those who wish to declare that their union is religiously blessed.

Somehow, I suspect that even that idea would not get much currency among religious voters. Which almost brings me to despair.

james said...

Given that the legal benefits of marriage can be claimed with a set of legal documents, and that there doesn't seem to be any move to bundle these for convenience, I think it safe to say that the agitation for SSM is not, at its core, about the legalities. I would not be the first to say that it is instead about a demand for validation. (Or to predict that that hunger for validation, since it is trying to mask an obvious problem, will never end.)

Remember Mel Brooks' A History of the World? SSM was a (tasteless) joke then. Now, at least in Madison, laughing is risky.

I wasn't watching closely as the issue was shaped. It would be interesting to review how it was done. I don't suspect a grand conspiracy; more like a phase transition among the opinion-makers. I don't think it would have been nearly as effective as it has been if the ground hadn't been already made fertile for it with an ultra-individualism and sense of entitlement (to prosperity(*), sex, being able to follow your bliss).

(*) One of the scariest bumper stickers I've seen read "Prosperity is my birthright" So if you're not prosperous (by your standards), some villain needs to be punished?

terri said...

It is possible to create legal directives to give a SS partner the same legal benefits as marriage would....but it would take time, thoroughness and money to accomplish it completely. Even then, without overarching legal recognition of the relationship, SS partners are more vulnerable to contestations by other people when it comes to inheritance and other financial obligations and rights.

WIthout laws recognizing SSM there is no guarantee that those legal efforts will be foolproof.

Also, no legal directive will allow for health care coverage for a SS spouse or the tax benefits of being married in the eyes of the IRS.

Sure...SSM is about validation. That validation comes from recognizing the ability of two people to make a binding legal agreement that society will uphold.

Not upholding these agreements between consenting parties is a way in which society at large can show its disapproval and rejection of the very notion that such agreements are possible.

Homosexuals are already living together, adopting together, in some parts of the country, and mingling their finances together.

Withholding legal marriage isn't going to stop that.

Marriage is in a sorry state, in general. People divorce easily and remarry just as easily. Parents may have children from multiple marriages who are related but not living together. Marriage rates are declining for various reasons...economic, social, etc.

Single people can adopt. Single women can go the route of in vitro fertilization and have children on their own.

Marriage is not highly valued right now. With that kind of background sometimes it's hard to see why not SSM.

As a society we allow so much it is hard to see how SSM won't eventually come to pass.

Of course, most people who are against SSM are against many of the other things I just listed and would love to return to a time when people married for life and out of wedlock births were rare.

That simply isn't going to happen for a whole host of reasons.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Yes, it has been about validation, with the government forcing Mommy and Daddy to finally accept them, from the start.

Of course, one might make similar accusations - and they would stick - about those deeply opposed to SSM, at least in the main.

Similarly, of course there is an attempt to piggyback on the Civil Rights Movement. Doesn't everyone? Heck, even white-rights groups, when they get pouty (which is fairly often), make CR references. It's the gold standard of protests, surpassing even the Vietnam protests in boomer mythology.

We are in the position that the positive arguments on both sides are not very strong, so it comes down to "which shall be the default?" We have, as a nation, moved from status relationships to contract relationships throughout our history, and I think it is likely we will add it to the list. But the argument that it would be hard to guarantee recognition without the stamp of marriage doesn't impress me. Nor does the fact that homosexuality already happens, or that heterosexual marriage is not so impressive itself at present. I see that terri finds them persuasive, but I can't see why. Those seem tangential to me. If it is a national negotiation on the basis of what our current culture is, then SSM marriage is going doing in flames in most locations for the next decade. If, as is more commonly argued, it is a natural right that should not be denied regardless of majority opinion, then I would ask "on what basis?" What natural rights exist without deity, and who gets to make that call?

OTOH, the opponents are in the same position. If they wish to assert some natural abhorrence that the country should attend to, "on what basis?" How does one get there without a specifically biblical God, which should not be enforced on those who aren't believers?

Historical note: the Puritans were the original liberals on marriage, maintaining that as far as the state was concerned, marriage was a civil contract, with the religious part being entirely outside of the state's purview. They also considered companionship*, not just procreation, as a foundation of marriage, and thus allowed divorce in more circumstances than the C of E.

*Further, they regarded sex as a means to "knit the heart of a man to his wife," which is a lovely phrase and lovely idea, isn't it?

Anonymous said...

Robert Wone (and his example could be multiplied easily) trusted society's judgements about good and evil instead of sounder judgments. It cost him his life.

terri said...

It's not that I am particularly persuaded by the arguments as much as I can't see any way to get around it from a practical standpoint.

The only forceful arguments against it are religious, moral arguments...and while many people who aren't particularly religious may have an uncomfortableness with SSM, that doesn't mean they would actively fight against it.

It's not that I am a champion of gay rights as much as I think there is a certain futility to the opposition.

At this point I simply ask myself, "What do I have to lose if two gay people get married? What does my community have to lose if two gay people are married? What does the nation have to lose if two gay people get married?"

Personally, I lose nothing. Community-wise it may be awkward explaining SSM to my children if it were visible in any strong may create tension between various groups. Nationwise....I don't know how it would negatively affect the nation.....other than the constant ideological fighting about it.

If we go with the premise that the gay population is relatively small and those who would actually want a binding legal marriage are only a portion of that population....then I have a hard time seeing it as the end of civilization as we know it.

We are expending a lot of energy, time and resources on the issue as a nation, and I can't help feeling that, comparatively speaking, its a waste.

We're drowning in debt, at war, thinking about war with Iran, have more people at the poverty level than we did a number of years ago, etc., etc.

Is this particular issue really worth the time and energy we give it?

I guess I'm just at the point of saying , "Try SSM and see what happens." I predict that the nastiness of the debate before it passes will/would be much worse than anything after it passes.

I also think that if it were passed, about 5 years later people might be like," the end of the world didn't actually come. This wasn't as big of a deal as we thought it was going to be."

terri said...

Sorry. Just now followed the link about Robert Wone which I didn't the first time because of Anon's comment.

So perverted gay men killed him. And this is different than perverted straight men who torture and kill women in the same way?

How exactly?

Assistant Village Idiot said...

terri, I essentially agree with 7:57. Why choose this hill to die on? As for the link, it is not meant to be anything other than a counter to the idea that we can draw cultural conclusions from Matthew Shepard's murder. If A, then also B - and as you note, there are C's, D's and E's of horrifying events that occur, which don't tend to prove anything about a group unless we are in the throes of confirmation bias.

james said...

It is quite possible that terri is right about inevitability of SSM social attitudes. That I find the arguments and evidence substantially less than compelling I've already hinted at.

But as I wrote earlier, I'm interested in how something unthinkable becomes acclaimed.

I don't want to run afoul of Godwin's Law, so consider a more benign example.

When I studied at Little Rock Central High I participated in a research project making a movie about the events of 1957. We watched old footage and read the papers and the ugly fliers. But when I looked at the people then and now, I didn't see any great difference from the intervening 15 years. It was no longer the fashion to be racist, so they didn't act that way, but the people were essentially the same.

That was a good change(*), but I believe for many people it was as superficial and unexamined as any other fashion, and that the tides could change another way and sweep most unresistingly along.

So we have good zeitgeists and bad. My question is not how do you tell the good from bad, but how do they evolve and grow? Is it all just lucky advertising?

The cases that come to mind all involved "experts" to whom the masses were encouraged to defer. They had sound bite slogans too, and emotional anecdotes, and hints or outright promises of personal benefit. Those are necessary but not sufficient; other movements with the same characteristics won no traction.

(*) At least from a Christian point of view...(**)

(**) Yes, I know about Southern Baptist history. The pro-slavery groups weren't exactly in the orthodox mainstream, which tended (if not always strongly) to deprecate slavery. Slavery disappeared in Europe during the dark ages, IIRC.

terri said...

Zeitgeist can be good. Zeitgeist can be bad. Sometimes it's just neutral zeitgeist.

Part of the change in my attitude about this comes from becoming a little more liberal now and also from having viewed the issue from the inside of the Religious Right for a long time. That has practically made me immune to their point of view on this because the Religious Right has relied so extensively on fear-mongering and fantastical worst case scenarios for virtually every issue that they consider important.

When you listen to people for 15-20 years telling you that if such and such is passed civilization is going to crumble, or if so and so gets elected communist atheists will be eating babies in the classroom...well, you realize that these people survive on over-the-top rhetoric. Anything less than full compliance with their vision of things is portrayed as having apocalyptic consequences.

I simply don't buy that hype from the Religious Right, or from hardly anyone anymore.

Things will very rarely be as good as we want them to be in life and just as rarely be as bad as we fear them to be in life.

I think your example about Little Rock is a good one. People's inner prejudices don't automatically change. They do and can...but it takes a lot of time and some personal experiences to prompt those changes...and even then the changes may not be total reversals.

Maybe the people were the same 15 years later, but purposely not acting racist is a significant change. Learning to control your own actions against your own primal impulses is one of the marks of a mature person...and society. Not acting racist may not have done much for those particular people's inner lives, but for those on the other side of it , it probably meant a decrease in the outright hostility they had to face each day.

I don't think that's a superficial change; it's a real change that is happening in slow degrees.

And...if we want to look at things from a larger perspective...this is a lot of change in a relatively small period of time. Against the backdrop of history, it's a blink.

It still boggles my mind that women didn't get the right to vote until 1920. It hasn't even been a hundred years since then.

jaed said...

I'm a weirdo. In the mid-90s I was very much in favor of extending marriage to include same-sex couples. I started changing my mind, hmmm... maybe ten years ago, about at the same time it was becoming politically de rigeur. I'm not sure whether this is an example of my essential perversity, or just that the arguments of that time started me thinking more deeply about the nature of marriage and how the concept might or might not be applicable to the committed relationship of a gay or lesbian couple.

I do think one element of the shift in my thinking was the furious opposition to civil unions on the part of gay-marriage activists. It seemed, and seems, to me that if what you want is marriage, civil unions are at least a reasonable first step, politically speaking. Polls during the 2004 election showed acceptance of civil unions even among those who opposed same-sex marriage, so they were politically within easy reach. You can move from there in a number of ways, to bring civil unions to more states, or to make civil unions the full legal equivalent of marriage on the federal level, for example.

And yet there was and is enormous outrage among activists against civil-union proposals, even where they are legally equivalent to marriage in terms of the rights and responsibilities of the partners. I've never heard a convincing explanation of why that's so. That observation also had something to do with my changed thinking on this.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

"I've never heard a convincing explanation of why that's so." Or rather, you've never heard one that could be said in political debate.