Monthly Archives: February 2006

Left-Handed Desks and Same-Sex Marriages

First published in Between the Lines on February 26, 2006

I have just completed a week’s worth of same-sex marriage debates with Glenn Stanton of Focus on the Family. During the debates, Stanton made an excellent case in favor of traditional heterosexual marriage. I really mean that.

What he did not do—what he utterly failed to do—was to make a case AGAINST same-sex marriage. There’s a difference, and it’s crucial.

As I’ve said repeatedly, extending marriage to gays does not mean taking it away from straights. It’s not as if there are a limited number of marriage licenses, such that once they’re gone, they’re gone.

So I have no problem joining Glenn is saying hooray for heterosexual marriage, an imperfect but extremely valuable institution. I love heterosexuals. My parents were heterosexual (still are). Some of my best friends are heterosexual. I support their marriages and wish them all the best.

All I ask is that they give me the same support. This is not a zero-sum game.

Consider an analogy: most school classrooms have both right-handed desks and left-handed desks. Now imagine a time before left-handed desks. A reformer then might have argued, “Hey, right-handed desks are great. But not everyone is right-handed. Left-handed desks would make life better for left-handed people; their classroom experience would be more productive, and in the long run, their increased productivity would benefit everyone, left-handed and right-handed alike.” Sounds like a strong argument for left-handed desks.

Now, imagine an opponent responding, “But we’ve always had right-handed desks! Right-handed-desks have served society well. We obviously don’t need left-handed desks; we’ve gotten along fine without them thus far. What’s more, introducing them is an untested social experiment, one that could have serious repercussions for our children!”

Before you dismiss this comparison as silly, recall that left-handedness was once considered a sign of moral depravity, witchcraft, or worse. It’s no accident that the word “sinister” matches the Latin word for “left.” But that’s not the point of the analogy.

Many of the arguments against same-sex marriage—including some of those offered by Glenn Stanton—commit the same fallacy as the response above. They rightly point to the many social benefits of heterosexual marriage, but they then wrongly infer that any other marriage arrangement must be bad. This is a non-sequitur.

Let me be clear on what I am not saying here. I am not saying that choosing a spouse is just like choosing a desk, or worse yet, that whether children are raised by mothers or fathers is somehow equivalent to whether they have right-handed desks, left-handed desks, or both. When I used the analogy during a debate last week, Stanton misread me to be saying just that. (In fairness to him, I should note that he was responding off-the-cuff.)

What I am saying is that we can recognize something to be good without inferring that any alternative must therefore be bad. Right-handed desks are good for most people, but they’re not good for everyone. Similarly, heterosexual marriage is good for most people, but it’s not good for everyone.

All analogies are imperfect. However, one of the differences between these two cases actually favors the case for same-sex marriage: any classroom can only have a limited number of desks, so left-handed desks mean less space for right-handed ones. By contrast, there are not a limited number of marriage licenses. Again, this is not a zero-sum game.

But what about the claim that allowing same-sex marriage would “redefine marriage for everyone”?

Nonsense. No one’s wife is going to turn into a man just because we recognize marriage equality for gays. No one’s husband is going to turn into a woman. Heterosexual marriages will go on being just as heterosexual.

What same-sex marriages would do is to acknowledge that society has an interest in supporting stable, committed unions for its non-heterosexual members. Those unions are good for gays and lesbians, but they’re also good for society at large, since people in stable, committed unions are typically happier, more productive, and less likely to place demands on the public purse. It’s a win-win situation.

Open Relationships and Double Standards

First published in Between the Lines on February 9, 2006

As I embark upon a week’s worth of same-sex marriage debates with Glenn Stanton of Focus on the Family, I am bracing myself for his arguments. (There’s a useful summary of his position here.)

In every debate we’ve had, Stanton has brought up Jonathan Yarbrough and Cody Rogahn, the first same-sex couple in Provincetown, Massachusetts to receive a marriageapplication. Yarbrough and Rogahn have an open relationship. “I think it’s possible to love more than one person and have more than one partner,” Yarbrough told a reporter on the eve of their wedding. “In our case…we have an open marriage.”

This admission is bound to generate an “Aha!” from any same-sex marriage opponent within earshot. “See—we told you so!” they sneer.

Told us what?, I wonder. That some gay people have open relationships? Well, duh.

Glenn’s argument seems to be that:

1. Yarbrough and Rogahn are representative of same-sex couples in general, and

2. Allowing such couples to marry will erode respect for monogamy, thereby wreaking havoc on society. Therefore

3. Society should reject same-sex marriage.

Whenever I hear this argument, I think of the first “open” couple I knew—or, to be more precise, the first one of which I was aware. One member was a fellow graduate student; the other, a professor at a different school. At the time I knew them (we’ve since fallen out of touch) they had been together over 15 years.

Their names? Katie and George.

Yes, the first “open” couple I knew was heterosexual—and married. Aha, yourself.

Katie and George were fully legally married, despite always intending to have an open relationship. They were just as legally married as Mr. and Mrs. Stanton, with all the rights, duties, and privileges appertaining.

Interestingly, conservatives never point to people like Katie and George as evidence that heterosexuals should no longer be allowed to marry. Doing so would commit the fallacy of hasty generalization (among others).

By similar logic, we could point to Britney Spears’s 55-hour (pre-Federline) marriage to Jason Allen Alexander and then conclude that celebrities should no longer be allowed to marry (not a bad idea, actually).

Stanton’s elaboration of his argument is revealing. “If we allow Jonathan Yarbrough and Cody Rogahn to marry,” he asks audiences, “what will that say to other married couples? What will it say to the heterosexual couple living next door? The husband might think, ‘Hey, that’s not a bad idea. I should keep my options open.’ How will that affect their marriage?”

Memo to Glenn Stanton: there are already heterosexual couples living next door to Jonathan Yarbrough and Cody Rogahn. (Or so I assume: the couple lives in Glenwood, Minnesota; population 3000—not exactly a gay mecca.) Yet their neighbors are not clamoring to have open relationships any more than they are clamoring to have gay sex.

Nor are Katie and George’s neighbors. Nor, for that matter, are Britney Spears’s neighbors (which is not to equate her stunt with Katie and George’s unconventional but enduring union). The moral of the story? Grownups can think for themselves.

What are conservatives so afraid of? Some homosexual couples, like some heterosexual couples, are what our parents used to call “swingers.” Marriage might or might not change that, but it certainly won’t entail that every other married couple will follow in their footsteps.

Nobody knows exactly how monogamous gays are compared to straights. More to the point, nobody knows how monogamous gays would be in a society that granted them marriage rights. (If you exclude people from major social institutions like marriage, you shouldn’t be surprised if they are less likely to conform to social norms.)

What we do know is that there’s a serious double standard involved in allowing people like Katie and George to marry but forbidding people like Jonathan and Cody to do so (except in Massachusetts). You don’t have to approve of everything a couple does in order to respect their right to marry.

But the most striking thing about Stanton’s position is not its logical gaps, or even its warped view of gay life. The most striking thing is its dim view of heterosexuals, as gullible copycats who can’t make simple moral distinctions. The good people of Glenwood deserve better.

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