Sunday, August 26, 2012

I support gay rights; I'm against gay marriage

Since coming of age in the 1980s, I have always vocally supported advances in gay and lesbian rights, especially advances in their visibility in society. I strongly believe gays and lesbians should be able to be "out" and comfortable with it in the public sphere. As a teacher of children and teens, I have used the classroom to defuse prejudices against gays and lesbians, doing my best to bring children to understand that homosexuality is an innate trait and that homosexuals deserve the same respect as anyone else. Now that the question of same-sex marriage has become so contested in America--with our president stating his support for it and with most of my friends elated that he has--I feel compelled to clarify my own thinking. In fact I am against legalizing same-sex marriage. In a few paragraphs I will try to explain why. 

But can I do so, I wonder, without drifting into the usual arguments--all the tired bromides one hears from conservatives: that heterosexual marriage is "natural," that it is "long-established," that there's "no basis in history" for homosexual marriage--thus no basis for claiming it as a right being denied? Will I be able to avoid repeating what has already been said elsewhere? 

In fact, regardless of how tired or shallow these arguments may seem, I think some of them represent serious issues. Though I have differences with many conservatives arguing against gay marriage, certain of the problems they raise are valid. 

"In our culture marriage is defined as a union between one man and one woman." Anyone who's followed the debate has heard this sentence a hundred times or more, but not often enough is the basis of the statement made clear. Our understanding of marriage as Americans is grounded not only in Judeo-Christianity, but also in the longstanding practices of all Western cultures, reaching back to antiquity. Among the ancient cultures especially important for our own was of course that of Greece, where homosexual relations were normal and highly respected. But even there, in ancient Greece, which often glorified homosexual love--even there marriage was considered as strictly heterosexual. Proponents of same-sex marriage might ask themselves why.

The understanding of marriage as heterosexual has been uniform across all the cultures we descend from, so this phrase as to how "we define marriage" is not simply a Christian ideology stating itself--no, it is a universal human fact. 

There have been many cultures that offered space to homosexual relations, but in world history, across the vast network of cultural differences, the number of cultures that have accepted gay marriages of any kind could be counted on two fingers. Cultures that have recognized anything like gay marriage (and always with restrictions) are about as common as cultures that have accepted first-sibling marriage. We are talking about a phenomenon that counts for perhaps .0001% of marriages over history. This should tell us something about the function of marriage not simply in Christian or Jewish or Western pagan culture, but in humanity as a whole. Marriage is a bond effected between the sexes.

To break this basic heterosexual meaning of marriage is to undergo a major cultural shift. Proponents have presented it as the extension of a basic right to a currently denied minority, similar in this respect to the extension of voting rights to women. As women are citizens who should have the same voting rights men have, so gays and lesbians fall in love and should have the same marriage rights heterosexuals have. But I find that this argument relies on a false parallel. Because allowing same-sex marriage is not really a matter of extending a currently denied right; it is not a matter of enfranchising a larger number of people. Rather, recognizing gay marriage is to change the meaning of marriage per se, and to change it in an unprecedented way.

Strictly speaking, a right is not being denied in any case. There is no law on our books that states a gay man cannot marry. Rather, given the heterosexual nature of marriage, gay men and lesbian women are not inclined to marry. To marry, after all, entails a particular kind of bond with a member of the opposite sex, which would of course conflict with homosexual orientation. Disinclined to exercise their right to marry, they nonetheless retain that right.

This kind of argument may sound callous, but it should not be misconstrued. I am not suggesting that homosexuals try to change their orientation and seek marriage with opposite-sex partners. No, I believe they must live and create relationships according to their desires. The point of raising the question of rights here is rather to clarify that, strictly speaking, all adults already have the same right to marry. In my state of Wisconsin, as a man, I can marry any unmarried woman who is not close family. A gay man has precisely this same right. That he is disinclined to exercise this right is not to the point. Claims that gay and lesbian rights have been denied are thus a misrepresentation. Individual disinclination to marriage is what is at issue here, and such disinclination, legitimate as it is, is different from the issue of the right in question. Strictly speaking, a right has not been denied. What same-sex marriage supporters want is not the same rights heterosexuals have (they already have these rights); no, what they really want is to change the meaning of marriage.

This basic distinction about rights should also make clear why the oft-heard comparison of the same-sex marriage movement to the civil rights movement is false.

But I want to return to the history of cultures, which after all puts the issue in its proper deep perspective. We must not forget that anthropologists have long sought a universal meaning for marriage--i.e., one that would apply to all world cultures that have been studied--and that the data gathered over the decades has been enormous. What have we learned from these many decades of study? One salient feature emerges: in all world cultures marriage relates to the conception and legitimation of children. Marriage, in its deepest cultural sense, is an imprimatur given by society for the right to bring forth a new generation. It is not so much a romantic contract between two people as it is a ritualization of the facts of human generation--the biological facts. Marriage is the way culture assimilates the difference between male and female as these pertain to bringing children into the world.

Marriage, then, is everywhere the founding relationship of future generations. On a ground of love and responsibility between the sexes, it provides the possibility of giving birth to children to be raised in the cradle of this love. That children have both a mother and father raising them is not necessary of course, but the Western institution of marriage rightly sees this as the ideal. After all, it is physically a mother and father who must conceive every child. Given the chaos of social life and the varied environments in which children end up being raised, we tend to forget that every single human being in history, gay or straight, has had exactly one mother and one father. Marriage sanctifies this biological fact; it is both fount and protector of new life. There is no worthy reason to depart from the universal human practice and only now, in the twenty-first century, bring different kinds of relationship within the borders of what is called marriage.

Though grounded in biology and the facts of childbearing, marriage currently exists in many people's minds as a kind of romantic contract. But this understanding of marriage as romantic contract is peculiarly modern and does not do justice to marriage's cultural depth--to its depth and meaning even in our postmodern society. What's more, our modern understanding based on romance is also, as many scholars have noted, responsible for the serial monogamy we now see in America: people marrying two, three or even more times in as many decades and thus undermining the vow of marriage as permanent.

As pointed out above, even the cultures that normalized or glorified homosexual relations, such as that of ancient Greece, never made a move toward instituting same-sex marriage. Now we can see why. Marriage is and has always been a ritualization of the difference between male and female as this difference pertains to the raising of the next generation. To change this basic understanding is to change much more than our thinking about what kinds of adult love are acceptable. 

I do not by any means think homosexuality is an acquired habit or a psychological perversion to be ashamed of. Most people who define themselves as homosexuals were born as such. Nonetheless, if one thinks in terms of the institution of marriage, homosexuality must be acknowledged as a problematic outcome in individual sexual development. 

I do not believe homosexuals can or should be "cured". Those who can be cured are probably not strongly homosexual to begin with. I do not believe homosexuals should be ashamed to be oriented as they are. Even so, again, homosexuality represents a problematic difference from the norm. 

Given that in all cultures sex is hedged about with rituals and restrictions (i.e., sex is inherently problematic) it should be no surprise that many cultures have seen homosexuality as problematic. In a society like ours, that claims to value all its members, the best we can expect is to develop ways to live with the difference that is homosexuality so that the least victimization results. The extreme positions we see now, however (traditionalists insisting that zero social recognition be given homosexual couples, liberals demanding that they be offered the title of marriage) do not seem to me to accomplish this goal. I believe both extremes are off-base, and hope, ultimately, that neither wins the day. 

American society has for the most part learned to treat gays and lesbians with respect. This does not mean, however, that gays and lesbians have the right to fundamentally alter social institutions to fit their difference. It is unfortunate, but homosexuality, the result of an individual's sexual development, brings with it certain limitations when the issue is marriage. These limitations should not be imposed on the whole of society; or, to put it another way, the difference that is homosexuality should not be legislated away, final costs to be paid by the heterosexual institution of marriage. 

To be gay does not stop one from being a genius. Or from being a hero. Or from being a model of ethical action. It does not stop one from being brave. 

It does, however, make it very difficult to marry. Because marriage is between male and female. To say so is not to make a value judgment about different kinds of erotic love, but simply to state a fact.

 It is a fact supported by the entire documented history of humanity.

I might also approach this issue from another angle, starting from a common criticism one hears from those supporting same-sex marriage, namely: "What gives you the right to decide that love between a man and a woman is better than love between a man and a man? Why judge some kinds of love to be better than others?" In fact my argument doesn't depend on this kind of judgment at all. The dignity of marriage isn't grounded in an assessment of this or that kind of love relation. Rather, it is grounded in the ancient social recognition that offspring result from male/female relations and that these offspring must be integrated into the social fabric. Marriage is the social contract that all cultures have solemnized to effect this integration. It is the basis of the transition between generations. As such, marriage has precisely nothing to do with any erotic relations that may develop between men and men or women and women.

There are many people who would acknowledge some of my points here, but who would finally want to stop with definitions and history and such and simply say: "But same-sex marriage--at the end of the day, who is hurt by it? Are heterosexual couples in any way threatened by allowing their lesbian neighbors to share the same social status 'married'?" 

My answer would be that there are some social changes that do not bring immediate problems for those who witness them--they do not threaten the people down the block, say--but that will nonetheless cause problems over the course of generations. 

Changing the meaning of marriage in the way proposed further weakens marriage as the institution ensuring new generations, and may lead to the irrelevance of marriage as such. Many people will balk at this assertion, I know, but it is not mere rhetoric. Such a change would represent a further shift away from biological meaning toward romantic contract, and, happening now, may be enough finally to sink an institution already battered by the phenomena of serial monogamy (easy divorce and remarriage in our society) and increasing out-of-wedlock births. I think it is no coincidence that these things are happening at the same time that same-sex marriage is gaining ground. All are instances of a current cultural disrespect for marriage in its deeper meaning.

A ritual that does not effect a union across the basic male-female division cannot be called a marriage. To call a relationship between two men a marriage is to stretch the meaning of marriage to breaking point: it becomes no longer a ritualization of sexual difference, ultimately grounded in procreation, but rather, as I've indicated, entirely a matter of romantic contract. Marriage loses its radical depth, which is that of biology, the most basic ground of human generation. 

Those who think legalizing same-sex marriage would have no impact on the status of marriage in general need only consider our neighbors to the north. When gay marriage became legal in Canada in 2005, legislators were faced with a problem they hadn't foreseen, a linguistic conundrum of sorts. All laws on Canada's books had been worded with heterosexual marriage in mind, the status quo up to that point, and thus contained language that didn't match the newly enacted reality on the ground. In an article in the the journal Touchstone, Douglas Farrow explains how Canada got out of this snag:

In its consequential amendments section, Bill C-38 struck out the language of "natural parent," "blood relationship," etc., from all Canadian laws. Wherever they were found, these expressions were replaced with "legal parent," "legal relationship," and so forth.

That was strictly necessary. . . . [T]he state's goal, as directed by its courts, was to assure absolute equality for same-sex couples. The problem? Same-sex couples could be parents, but not parents of common children. Granting them adoption rights could not fully address the difference. Where natural equality was impossible, however, formal or legal equality was required. To achieve it, "heterosexual marriages" had to be conformed in law to "homosexual marriages."
Farrow eloquently analyzes the implications of this subtle legal change. Not only is a crucial element of the meaning of marriage removed from Canada's law books (namely the biological link between parents and child) but what comes to fill the void thus created is none other than the power of the state:
[Marriage becomes] nothing other than a legal construct. Its roots run no deeper than positive law. It therefore cannot present itself to the state as the bearer of independent rights and responsibilities, as older or more basic than the state itself. Indeed, it is a creature of the state, generated by the state's assumption of the power of invention or re-definition. Which changes everything.
Farrow interestingly points out that this issue is generally ignored by both proponents and opponents of gay marriage. In fact only legal scholars would be likely to notice it as a problem in the first place. It is but one example of how redefining something as fundamental as marriage can bring unintended and potentially far-reaching consequences--in this case giving the state expanded jurisdiction over both families and the meaning of basic words like "parent" and "child".

The legalization of gay marriage would certainly impact our schools as well. Though our education system has rightly rethought issues of gender orientation in the classroom--teachers no longer code interests or subjects as especially "for boys" or "for girls"--one can easily imagine such efforts going overboard and leading to a kind of reverse-victimization. Whereas now our teachers correctly try to prevent boys from bullying others who show feminine characteristics, it's easy to foresee a time when teachers will be expected to bully boys who behave, well, like boys. Think this is unlikely? Well, take a look at the importance "gender-neutral education" has recently acquired in Sweden, which legalized same-sex marriage in 2009.

Swedish ideas of a gender-neutral classroom fit into a wider national movement to do away with traditional ideas of male and female, which are seen as impediments to individual development. Swedish "gender activists" do not simply seek equality between men and women (Sweden is already seen as a world leader in such respects) but actually the erasure of differences between men and women. As a recent piece in Slate makes clear, many Swedes think it is best if such erasure begins in the classroom:
Several preschools have banished references to pupils' genders, instead referring to children by their first names or as "buddies." So, a teacher would say "good morning, buddies" or "good morning, Lisa, Tom, and Jack" rather than, "good morning, boys and girls." They believe this fulfills the national curriculum's guideline that preschools should "counteract traditional gender patterns and gender roles" and give girls and boys "the same opportunities to test and develop abilities and interests without being limited by stereotypical gender roles."
Though I agree that girls and boys should have such opportunities, I am put off by the idea that some schools have "banished references to pupils' genders". This is, however, just the beginning of the sort of invasive gender-deprogramming to be expected once such movements gain traction. Swedish gender activists have also promoted a gender-neutral pronoun, hen, to replace the traditional pronouns for he and she. Such a neutral pronoun is no doubt useful, allowing one to write "A good driver keeps hens eyes on the road" instead of the more cumbersome "A good driver keeps his or her eyes on the road"--but usefulness is not the main reason the pronoun is being promoted. It is being used, rather, to replace the gendered pronouns he and she, as in "Lisa is a good student. Hen always does hens homework." In this sentence there is no stylistic reason to use hen instead of she; there is, however, a very heavy-handed ideological reason. Identifying Lisa linguistically as a girl suggests that the fact she was born of the female sex has some bearing on how she develops: it suggests that her femaleness is part of her identity. Gender activists think it shouldn't be.

The Slate piece, which is worth reading in full, ends by suggesting some of the difficulties in the offing for these attempts to "reform" Swedish education:
Ironically, in the effort to free Swedish children from so-called normative behavior, gender-neutral proponents are also subjecting them to a whole set of new rules and new norms as certain forms of play become taboo, language becomes regulated, and children's interactions and attitudes are closely observed by teachers. One Swedish school got rid of its toy cars because boys "gender-coded" them and ascribed the cars higher status than other toys. Another preschool removed "free playtime" from its schedule because, as a pedagogue at the school put it, when children play freely "stereotypical gender patterns are born and cemented. In free play there is hierarchy, exclusion, and the seed to bullying." And so every detail of children's interactions gets micromanaged by concerned adults, who end up problematizing minute aspects of children's lives, from how they form friendships to what games they play and what songs they sing.
Americans may wonder why a whole nation, in this case the Swedes, would ever let such a misguided clique of ideologues take over the education of their children. The Swedes, in fact, are vigorously debating these changes. But still, how is it that a wide sector of mainstream Swedish society came to accept such ideas in the first place? The answer, I think, has something to do with the indefatigable energy of gender activists.

The stigma previously attached to homosexuality has caused great pain for gays and lesbians, and many have understandably been pushed into an almost feverish need to normalize their status in society, to defeat at whatever cost the dominant culture of "heterosexism". Their efforts have had some success. In Western universities over the past thirty years, via the often radicalized curricula of gender and cultural studies, many educated people, heterosexuals among them, have learned to think of socially accepted sex roles as a kind of oppressive and unnatural system, an ideologically grounded system of domination. The more "progressive" approach suggested in many of these university courses, the more enlightened way to deal with the sexual dyad of male and female, is to do one's best to erase it: to suppose there is really no normal way to be male and female, that all gender roles are just "cultural constructs", and usually wrong constructs at that. The world would be a better place, many have come to believe, if the next generation could be raised without any notions of male and female at all: children could then grow up free to be what they really are--hen.

It should be no surprise to anyone, while we're on the subject of oppressive ideologies, that a disproportionately large percentage of the scholarly work supporting these views was written by gay and lesbian academics. Though I think some of their insights have merit, I would suggest that the impetus to their efforts was mainly personal. Working through university departments, they struggled both to theorize their own place in the world and to find a route of escape from the burden of their difference. So what if the route of escape they finally discovered entailed remaking the whole of society? They set to work building the movement. Their goal? To do away with the very idea of normal sexual development.

While I sympathize with gays and lesbians for the bigotry they've suffered, I don't support this theory-based quest against heterosexual norms. I don't support it because I see what happens once it gains traction--once, that is, the critique of normal gender development becomes ascendant in important areas like education. Forged on university campuses, the movement is soon making education policy in elementary schools. Its supporters are, as I've said, indefatigable, and their goal is nothing less than to transform society. Thus it soon can become official education policy that boys acting like boys and girls acting like girls is somehow wrong; that children need to be carefully monitored to prevent "heterosexist" tendencies from taking root. This is what is happening in Sweden, and it is clearly a kind of reverse-victimization. Children who develop normally must be victimized, they must be quickly deprogrammed, in order to ensure that the ensuing social order won't make gays and lesbians feel left out. (A further disturbing example of how enthusiastic some parents have become about this brave new "gender-free" world can be seen here.)

If there is such a thing as normal sexual development (and I think there is, although we can only define it in rough and imprecise ways) then the five or eight percent who do not develop according to this norm will inevitably, in some instances, feel just that--left out. The best that a just society can do about this is, first, to keep from stigmatizing them and, second, to give them space and freedom to develop in their way. Many on the American fringe (think Westboro Baptist Church) show absolutely no sense of the required justice. But while America still has a ways to go in respecting the dignity of homosexuals, this does not mean that homosexuals have a right to remake our culture according to their own difference. This is why, in terms of marriage, I am against legalization. What we need instead is a compromise that both respects marriage and gives space to gays and lesbians.

One suggested compromise that does just that was formulated by Ryan T. Anderson and Sherif Girgis in 2009. Anderson and Girgis refer to the two sides of the marriage debate as "revisionists" and "traditionalists". They presented their work initially in response to a previous compromise, published in the New York Times, that they believed gave too much to revisionists and too little to traditionalists. Specifically, and on this I agree with them, they stated that traditionalists would never support any definition of civil unions that could make them a steppingstone to legalizing same-sex marriage. Such attempts, they pointed out, had already been made in two state courts. The problem is that once a state defines civil unions in sexual or romantic terms, cases may be raised arguing that such "second-class marriages" are unjust because they are obvious instances of "separate but equal" institutions. The state is then cornered into enacting same-sex marriage.

The Anderson-Girgis compromise suggests creation of a type of civil union between two adults that is not defined in sexual or romantic terms, but that offers most of the substantive benefits offered to married couples. Such unions would be recognized by the federal government and would be supported by traditionalists as part of a trade off. The trade off is that revisionists, those now arguing for gay marriage, would have to desist from attempts to repeal the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) which defines marriage as between one man and one woman. DOMA, a US federal law signed by Bill Clinton in 1996, has been challenged on grounds that it is unconstitutional.

Although I am not keen on some of the formulations in Anderson and Girgis' original presentation of their compromise (some of their language seems to me needlessly slighting of homosexual relationships) I agree with them in general. Their proposal accomplishes the essential: it defends marriage as it's currently defined; it gives space and a degree of dignity to gay and lesbian couples. But although I can imagine most traditionalists supporting such a proposal, would the gay and lesbian community do so? I find myself doubting it. And the reason, I have to admit, relates to that indefatigable character of gay activism I noted above: it seems that what gay and lesbian activists really seek is not so much the tangible rights of marriage as the complete obliteration of any notion in mainstream society that they are not normal.

However the battle develops in the coming years, I think it is obvious that marriage traditionalists must, at the very least, hold to something like the Anderson-Girgis compromise if marriage is to be defended.


I admit that I hesitated writing up this piece and posting it. I did not want to offend. I think many Americans now find themselves in a position similar to mine on this issue. They've been supportive of gay and lesbian rights and understand that being homosexual is not a "choice". What's more, they welcome a world in which gays and lesbians can be open about who they are. But now these same Americans, who've accepted the reality of homosexuality, see the gay and lesbian community attempting to change the definition of marriage. They're deeply against redefining marriage this way, but don't know how to proceed. They're having trouble stating their opposition to such a change, because they don't want to seem intolerant of gay and lesbian friends, coworkers, family members, etc. Though they might have a clear position on what marriage is, they are trapped by their sensitivity to gays and lesbians from stating it.

In short, many Americans, at present, are hushed. Doubtless the gay and lesbian community is partly depending on this cowed silence of the majority to push through same-sex marriage. I don't think they can be blamed for trying. They've suffered much, and for them, the cost of changing the meaning of marriage is worth it. I don't however think that it is worth it for America as a whole.

Americans need to find the courage to fight for marriage. They must do so while showing respect for gays and lesbians. It doesn't show either hatred of homosexuals or intolerance or backwardness to argue that gay marriage represents a harmful modification of a millennia-old institution. Marriage long predates the current legal arrangements under which we live in our democracy. It is prior to the state, more fundamental than the state, and we should not allow the state to fundamentally change its meaning.

Homosexuals have the right to develop their relationships as they like; they have the freedom to do so. This does not mean, however, that they have the right to impose their redefinition of marriage on the whole American population. Marriage is and has always been a relationship between man and woman. We would be wise to keep it that way.

Eric Mader

Comments on an earlier version of this article posted May 20, 2012 can be seen below. An index of my further posts on this topic and rebuttals I have received can be found here. --E.M.

FROM Steve:


I recognize your three primary arguments, although vastly more nuanced and spoken with empathy towards the LGBT community, as not anything I haven't heard here in the South.

Let me start by refuting the part of your argument which I will call "the slippery slope" argument. The core of that argument is that if such a change in "marriage license requirements" as set by the state were to happen, the implications for other aspects of long standing law could have perverse, potentially dangerous, and certainly more pervasive government intrusion into the private affairs of people. Although I do understand there are risks associated with these possible implications, I find the argument specious. Mainly for the simple reason that legal statutes are changed, modified, interpreted and reinterpreted so often and with or without and legal criteria it is as if statutory law is malleable and without foundation if one brings enough legal and monetary fire power to a statutory la. So my answer to that argument is "so what"? Sure there'd be implications, but in the end, there always are, just as there were when women were elevated to "legal adult" status, or black ancestry was elevated to human status.

Your larger argument and the thrust of your argument was that marriage is steeped in historical "pre-government" status. I would argue that it was even pre-Christian, pre-language. That however is also not an argument that stands up to a deeper understanding of "the law" as it functions today. Marriage is either a special, holy, historically derived, agreement between two people (sanctified by a God, a group, or a power yet to be seen at a podium that can read a teleprompter). Or marriage is a license, issued by the government that provides certain legal rights to the qualified applicants. If it is the first, then there is no need for government to authorize, sanctify, or provide any reason to regulate it. Because it is made between two people and their "whatever". If it is the latter, then the qualifications for such a license as compared to the benefits enured by the possessor of such a license are of valid concern. Does it matter if they are of a certain age? Does it matter if they are a certain race? Does it matter if one party has a vagina and the other penis? And by the virtue of such paired genitalia, does this automatically mean that a private entity called "medical insurance" stands correct to deny medical insurance based on the contract "of licensure" called a Marriage Certificate? If this was merely an issue of medical insurance, this would be easy to fix. But it is not. There are all kinds of legal benefits that enure to the possessor of this "fishing license" known as a marriage certificate. And it is my opinion that the state should not be in the mixing of the first argument (historical reasoning) with the second. And invariably, once you mix these notions up - Christians in particular get confused about the difference between statutory law, and their belief in God's laws.

Your final argument is that once this happens, the evidence is that countries then feel an obligation to make everything gender neutral. I hear you brother. Except this is the same overreach that the "stop gay marriage" folks are doing by blocking marriage licenses from consenting adults. The social engineering may happen, but reasonable people will have to block that too. Not because it is immoral, or against history or a God, but because it doesn't serve our humanity. However, giving consenting adults a licensure within the culture will have no discernible impact on those who look to marriage as a construct that derives its meaning from many things, other than the license issued by the state.

I welcome your reply.



Thanks for the lengthy reply. Just as you say my arguments do, yours too take up positions I've heard before . . . in the North.

I find that your points hold together logically, and you obviously have the confidence in your position to deliver them in a hard-hitting way. You've spent time debating the issue with thoughtful people. My problem is as follows: It seems to me that your position holds together logically only because it deploys language that misconstrues what marriage is in our culture. You'll have to bear with me while I sort out our differences on this point.

I'll try to answer your main argument first, which is based on the two "choices" you offer as to how we might see marriage. But before I even begin that, I'd like to suggest a basic concept that I'm sure you'll agree with. Simply put: The question of what marriage essentially is in a given culture can only be answered by how marriage works in that culture. Thus, to give an example, if you want to know what marriage is for a particular tribe in the Amazon forest, you have to ask them what it is, then observe carefully how they practice it: the rules, rituals and expectations, etc. There would be no sense going to the Amazon and telling them: "You guys have it all wrong. Let me tell you what marriage is." I think you can agree with this basic point about defining a cultural practice.

And so: You write that marriage is either A) an "agreement between two people sanctified by a God, a group, or a power yet to be seen at a podium that can read a teleprompter"--in which case it is seen as "special" or "holy"--; or it is B) "a license issued by the government that provides certain legal rights"--in which case, I'm guessing, you'd say it is not seen as "holy". For your argument to hold up, we must choose one of these two as defining marriage.

For me, there are many reasons this either/or doesn't work as a ground from which to make worthwhile points about marriage. To begin with, as I think you'll see if you consider any of the actual marriages you know around you, marriage in our culture is obviously both A and B, so the dichotomy you pose is more or less false. We can't choose either A or B because real marriages are almost always both. I think this scuttles your whole argument.

Instead of dwelling on this problem, however, I'd rather set aside "choice A or B" for the moment and consider instead some of the language you use in your reply--the words you use to describe marriage from the get-go; the things you take to be "obvious" about marriage, but which, maybe, I wouldn't find so obvious. This, I think, is the best way to clarify our differences.

Right at the outset you try to get at the essence of marriage by saying it is "an agreement between two people". I think this fact that you take to be so obvious is crucial to where your argument goes subsequently. Now don't get me wrong here, I don't really disagree with you. Yes, marriage is always, in our America, an "agreement between two people". But still, I find this description only partial, and that if you use it as the definitive one, you will quickly, so to speak, throw the baby out with the bathwater.

In my thinking marriage is not so much an agreement as a status. It is a status shared by two people vis-a-vis society and God. You can even leave God out of it if you like, I think my point still stands. Marriage is not so much between two people as it is, first, between two people and, secondly, between that couple and society. What's more--again even if we leave God out of it--I think we can see here the importance of a kind of "sanctifying" in relation to marriage. Cultures everywhere, ours included, typically affirm the beginning of a couple's married life with a complex ritual. This universality of ritual demonstrates, I think, that marriage has an important communal element. And so I would argue: marriage is not simply an agreement between the two people marrying, and perhaps it is not even essentially such.

When you write that marriage is "sanctified . . . by a group . . . yet to be seen at a podium that can read a teleprompter", I find myself asking what you can possibly mean by "yet to be seen". You yourself chose to use the word "group"--because I think you acknowledge the communal element of marriage. To me it's obvious the pastors or priests or rabbis who perform the majority of marriages in our society do just this "teleprompter reading" when they conduct marriage ceremonies: they do it as spokesperson for the "group": i.e., the community gathered for the event. And they are present and visible. What I'm getting at here is this: Even if you don't believe in the God that is the ground of these religious systems, you still must recognize, anthropologically speaking, that this is a communal ritual meant to confer a certain status on the couple. Further, that the great majority of marriages still happen via these ancient rituals is just more evidence that, as I argue in my essay, the meaning of marriage pre-dates the modern state by a long shot. These rituals reach back centuries or millennia, as you know. Marriage, even our current understanding of marriage, is much older, and more primal, than the mere "registry of marriages" that our state governments provide in city halls across the country.

But then what does it mean to base your support for same-sex marriage on this state-sanctioned aspect of marriage that finds its most tangible form in a mere license (choice B in your dichotomy)? You seem finally to be arguing that marriage is just a matter of "two consenting adults" and "a license". For me, this is such a partial definition as to be almost meaningless. It fatally impoverishes one of the central institutions of our culture. You even choose at one point to evoke a fishing license as a kind of metaphoric parallel to marriage. I know, I know, you'll say that this is because here you're trying to stress the "non-holy" or merely "statutory" aspect of marriage, that in fact this is the whole point of choice B--namely, the state shouldn't "get involved" in issues that relate to the choice A aspect of marriage, the "special" or "holy" aspect. Well, I also believe in separation of church and state, but on this point, I think you're putting the cart before the horse--way before the horse. Because, in America, the state was not founded with a charter to establish the definition of marriage. That definition had already been established by the people the state was founded to serve. Yes, the state's business may have eventually extended to offering "marriage licenses", etc., but this doesn't change the fact: the state had no charter to impose either marriages or divorces upon the citizenry. The only instances otherwise would have been when the state enforced the divorce of accidentally married siblings (I don't know if this has happened in the US) or when the state outlawed Mormon polygamy. But this latter example only further proves my point: the state was there to support monogamous marriage as the only acceptable kind because this is what the American people had recognized from the beginning. In other words, in the Mormon case the state did what it was supposed to: it defended the marriages of the vast majority of citizens against a minority attempting to change the definition to suit their own new practice.

The idea, then, that the state is entitled to change the definition of marriage is wrong. Further, even if a slight majority of citizens were to vote for such a change it would still be wrong. Why so? Because marriage is a status recognized by the community; and in the case of state or federally licensed marriages, one must say: recognized by the community as a whole. Thus if even twenty or thirty percent remain unconvinced that a couple is viably married, this should be decisive in convincing the state not to license such a marriage. The license, after all, is not the marriage itself, but merely a recognition that the community acknowledges the marriage as real. And the community, in this case, is the whole of the citizenry, not a mere majority.

What we have, then, in the case of the "marriage equality" movement is an instance of a minority pressing a) an entirely novel definition of marriage that b) has zero historical precedent, and hoping to get it established in law by c) a majority of Yea votes, while ignoring d) the sizable percentage of Americans that, whether for religious or cultural reasons, will not regard such marriages as real. This, in short, is a serious impasse. And the state shouldn't go there. Because the state's business is only to recognize marriages recognized by the community: it is emphatically not to suggest that certain novel kinds of marriage be recognized by offering to license them.

Aside from the other problems I raise in my essay, I think this problem of tens of millions of American citizens who don't agree with this changed definition should already be enough to decide the issue.

It used to be the case, and doubtless still is in some churches, that the pastor conducting the ceremony would say: "Into this holy estate these two persons now come to be joined. If any person can show just cause why they may not be joined together--let them speak now or forever hold their peace." I think the case of same-sex marriage can be considered from this point of view. There are still far too many people who would stand up and say: "Sorry, but, er, yes, I do have reason these two should not be married. They're of the same sex." You might call this bigotry if you want, and in some cases it certainly is connected with bigotry, but usually it's simply a matter of our culture's idea of what marriage is.

If it some time comes about that 98 percent of the American population believes same-sex couples can be married, then we'd be talking about a different reality and my argument here would lose much of its force. Because 98 percent would amount to communal recognition. But this is nothing like American reality at present. And so I think: case closed.

Perhaps you can see by these remarks why I think your dichotomy A or B can't really support your argument. Marriage in America is both A and B. Anthropologically speaking, the two "choices" can't be separated, so ultimately they aren't choices, and your attempt to argue for same-sex marriage by saying that marriage is mostly B doesn't hold up.

And it doesn't hold up on one further ground as well: If one were pressed to choose which of the two, A or B, the institution of marriage could live without, one would have to choose B. Because choice B, as I've shown, is little more than the state's recognition of a communal reality. It is nothing but a license. It says something about the merits of their arguments that those pushing for same-sex marriage have to lean so heavily on this choice B.

I can't help but feel, Steve, that in many of my remarks above I am not so much arguing against your points as I am raising aspects of marriage you already recognize but that you have decided, in the interests of the same-sex marriage debate, to put aside. You can do this maybe because these aspects don't much matter to you.

You raise some other points, but I won't address them this time as I've already written more than I intended.


FROM James:

It's very thoughtful, Eric. The issue puts all of us at an impasse, and I wonder how we can move forward. Just a few weeks ago, I was called a bigot within my department (because I opposed the forced inclusion of sexually diverse literature in sophomore lit courses). I was asked by the chair and dean to issue a "clarification" of my views, which I did, because I consider myself someone who can be humble and someone who, as Auden says, "If equal affection cannot be / let the more loving one be me." You get the irony there...I'm quoting Auden! Anyway, what a mess. If one is a believer in the scriptures as divinely inspired, and the scriptures speak against homosexual practices, then one shouldn't take these things lightly. As many have pointed out, thousands of years of a standard shouldn't be considered lightly due to cultural shifts. Liberals would try to make us think that there is a direct correlation b/w race and sexuality, and that is a false comparison on many levels. Anyways, I have to get to some things this morning, but I thank you for your thoughtfulness, and I hope you don't catch too much flak for it. Surely, you will. Even though your statement is more liberal than most Christians would allow. You will catch it from both sides. Sexuality is a minor issue compared to many other things of importance to humanity, though I do believe that God's greatest metaphor of his relationship with us is based on that of bride and bridegroom, and when you start messing with the vehicle, the tenor is distorted.

FROM Steve:


I have to admit, your argument is very persuasive. And it has changed me. It has changed my perspective on the views of many of my more socially conservative friends' assertions by providing a deeper construct for what I view is something they have thus far been unable to articulate. Thank you. Going forward, I will be more empathetic to their views, simply because your insight into this matter has provided, for me, a firmament for building a bridge to theirs (yours). Nonetheless, I still think my argument is stronger. Although, my perspective has shifted from one that is clear cut, to one that needs to take into consideration a few deeper perspectives. Bearing your deeper points in mind, let me assert why I think the whole of my argument is still more valid as a matter of public policy.

The thrust of your argument rests on history, culture, and the role of government as it pertains to these concepts, and more to the point, asserts that I am using a trick of language to dodge that core issue. (Which I will confess was my way of avoiding the larger historical argument) It is my view, that history is both a starting point and a point of reference. As is the political appreciation for the concept of ‘the majority’. As I am sure you know, the founders of the American Constitution feared the tyranny of the majority more than the overreach of providing rights to minority interests. In other words, the majority as concept, is often times, and more often than less, not the ideal or even best methodology for determining morality, or even legally ethical standards. So, in my view, reliance on what the majority thinks is not of any value. This is not to say that the majority is never right. It is just not a valid way to determine certain matters, with specific focus being brought to cultural mores as it pertains to legal constructs. I agree that for many, if not for all, the concept of marriage is bigger than a licensure question. And in my view, ever since the John Marshall court in the US, the entire concept of law as it pertains to the citizenry is based on the deeply founded concept of contracts. Contract Law. That is what American law is all about. Starting with the Constitution and moving on down to the issuing of bonds by local municipalities, all rights, privileges and authorities are provided and grounded in contracts. When you blend these two concepts, the concept of protection from tyranny of the majority, with an insistence on contractual law, we are left without any other guidance for how to govern, with the sole exception of cultural, historical, and social precepts derived from a myriad of sources. What this means to me is that we can utilize ‘how things used to be’ to help guide us on how to govern today.

The challenge in utilizing the past as a means for determining how to govern for today, and in to the future is that it too is trapped into a logic of its own making, having its derivations stemming from the past that came before it.

This is why social change is difficult. This is why when social change occurs, government is impotent until the people in government no longer see the challenge and change occurs legally, or the worse route happens when the social order/change overwhelms governance, and we have temporary chaos.

Government is in the business of maintaining, and issuing contracts in the American system. The specific license in dispute is the marriage license, which is issued locally by states. It is not a federal contract. The social change that is upon us is that a minority of our citizenry wants access to the dignity that ‘they believe’ is conferred by issuance of this license to their minority group. By your larger argument, the issuance of this license WILL give them that dignity. It will provide them acceptance into a larger social and societal “pillar” in our culture. And it is this that is the very problem. It is my opinion that government contracts need to be just that. They should not, nor can they in truth, give dignity. And it is this very notion that is at the core of the problem. Only acceptance on a broader societal level can provide dignity and status. This broader dignity is earned by generational shifts and change in our social mores. Which leaves our generation with the challenge of having to balance two truths. The first truth is that from a legal and contractual basis, the marriage license is entered into and out of with such disregard for societal and historical precedence, and carries with it mythological and societal acceptance that it’s value in terms of spirit and culture is significantly more idealized than it is in actual practice. The second truth to be balanced is that legally this particular contract provides a myriad of actual, real world, benefits from private corporations, private entities, and governmental and societal agencies which require it.
When it comes right down to it, marriage licenses today are a contract that provides legal authorization for real world stuff. It also provides social, historical, and deeper meaning to many. That deeper meaning I would argue does not stem from the ‘license’ or contract itself. Since government agency can only be held to account for contractual obligations, and not the larger or deeper meanings of things, the balance of the scale is tipped to the real world.

I’ve been divorced twice now. I can say from my own personal experience that marriage is way more than a contract or a license. It does provide all of the many deeper things that you cited in your argument. But government cannot provide those things. And so in the end, if all the local municipality can provide me with, is a sheet of paper that states that I am qualified to marry, then that is all they should do. And since those qualifications are so low, so easily attainable, I believe it is unwarranted in any jurisprudence to block people with the same genitalia from engaging in that contract. 

I guess what I am saying is, and it is funny to think it, because it is a very modern conservative notion, but I think that the institution of marriage should be privatized. In that way, we remove the government from the determining of how societal mores are executed in real world contractual benefits. In that way, we could have Macy’s marriages, Facebook Marriages, Judeo-Christian Marriages, and Same-Sex Marriages, (and so on) all of which would be contracts that the state would recognize as legally valid, thus providing the contractual benefits to the engaged parties in the contract, while getting the government out of the business of determining what is socially acceptable (on this particular issue).

I look forward to your additional comments Eric.



Anonymous said...

I would be interested to hear your take on the traditional practice of polygamy (and to a lesser extent, polyandry).

Eric Mader said...

Both are kinds of marriage recognized at different times by different cultures. That American law doesn't recognize them could be argued as an instance of cultural chauvinism, but there are complex reasons that we don't. Polygamy and polyandry are of course part of that massive field of phenomena that needs to be looked into if one is to make a general or universal definition of marriage. Note that both have occurred in history, but that same-sex marriage has not, which would argue that it is not marriage. Marriage, as I've argued, is a culture's ritualization of the male/female difference, especially as this relates to procreation.

Unknown said...
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Renge' said...

Ok, finally got some thoughts in order, Eric Mader! The short version is 1) Bottom line: Who am I to deny others' happiness, by refusing them rights I currently enjoy? If my house is in order, they don't threaten me. 2) Times change, institutions were created to support social/environmental/political conditions and must adapt accordingly (read "Cows, Pigs, Wars & Witches" if you have not--fascinating book!). Please read on if you'd like to see the long version. And warning--it's long!