Monthly Archives: March 2009

Why Not Plural Marriage?

First published at 365gay.com on March 23, 2009

Recent discussions of various civil-union proposals have revived some familiar questions, including “Why limit such recognition to couples, as opposed to larger groups?” and “Why limit it to romantic/sexual couples, as opposed to other interdependent relationships?”

Such questions come from various quarters, including both friends and foes of marriage equality. Although they’re sometimes offered as “gotcha” challenges, they deserve serious reflection.

I was mulling them over recently when two events occurred that hinted at an answer.

The first was a phone call from my home-security monitoring company about a false alarm I triggered with smoke from a minor kitchen disaster.

“While we have you on the phone,” the operator suggested, “can we update your emergency numbers?”

“Sure,” I said, remembering that some of my listed neighbors had eliminated their land lines.

After going through the numbers, she said, “So, you’ve given me your community patrol number, and numbers for Scott, Sarah, and Mike—all neighbors. But this Mark person—what’s your relationship to him?”

“He’s my partner.”

“Um, roommate?”

“No,” I replied, “partner.”

“I don’t have a box for ‘partner,'” she retorted. “I have a box for ‘roommate.'”

“Fine,” I said, “roommate.” Then I hastily hung up and returned to the kitchen, since I didn’t want my “roommate” to come home to a burned dinner. (Later, I regretted not asking for, and insisting on, the box for “husband.”)

The second event occurred not long afterward, when my high school called asking for a donation for their “Torch Fund” endowment.

Some background: I attended Chaminade, an all-boys Catholic prep school on Long Island. For years I notified them of my various milestones for their newsletter, and for years they declined to publish anything gay-related—publications, awards, whatever—despite their regular listings of the most insipid details of my classmates’ lives.

So now, whenever they ask me for money, I politely tell them where they can stick their Torch. I did so again this time.

“I understand,” the caller replied. “But while I have you on the phone, let me update your records…”

Here we go again, I thought.

Eventually she came to, “Any update in your marital status? Can we list a spouse?”

“Well, you CAN,” I responded testily, “but I suspect you won’t. My spouse’s name is Mark.”

“Why not?” she replied, seeming unfazed. “And his last name?”

I doubt his listing will stand long. But what interested me was this: here was someone representing my conservative high school, and she had a box—in her mind, anyway—for my same-sex spouse.

For all I know, she might be a paid solicitor with no other connection to the school. But she illustrates a significant cultural shift toward recognizing the reality of gay and lesbian lives.

The reality is this: like our straight counterparts, we tend to fall in love, pair off and settle down. It’s not for everyone, but it’s a significant enough pattern to merit acknowledgement.

And that’s at least the germ of an answer to the questions raised above.

Why do we give special legal recognition to romantic pair-bonds? We do so because they’re a significant—and very common—human category, for straights and gays alike. They benefit individuals and society in palpable ways—ways that, on average, “roommates” and most other groupings can’t match.

To put it simply, we recognize them because it makes sense for the law to recognize common and valuable ways that people organize their lives.

Of course, there are other significant human relationships. Some of these, like blood ties, the law already acknowledges. Others (like polygamy) pose serious social costs.

Still others may deserve more legal recognition than they currently receive, or may be dealt with on a case-by-case basis. (I doubt that we need to change marriage or civil-union law to accommodate unrelated cohabitating spinsters, for example.)

But none of these other unrecognized relationships holds a candle to same-sex pair-bonds when it comes to widespread mismatch between the social reality and the legal recognition.

Which brings me back to Mark. Mark is not just some dude I share expenses with. He’s the person I’ve committed my life to, for better or for worse, ’til death do us part. We exchanged such vows publicly, although the law still views us as strangers.

In short, he is—whether the law or our home-security company recognizes it—my spouse.

We fall in love, we pair off, we build lives together. The law may be a blunt instrument, but it need not be so blunt as to call that “roommates.”

Sex and Distortion

First published at 365gay.com on March 13, 2009

Sometimes we gay writers do such a good job cutting down one another that we scarcely need our enemies.

Consider a recent column [http://www.baywindows.com/index.php?ch=columnists&sc=realitycheck&sc2=&sc3=&id=88032] in Bay Windows, a New England GLBT newspaper, where Jeff Epperly identifies me as a “gay conservative” who’s a “a bit touched in the head when it comes to sexual issues.”

Epperly’s column analyzes “the tendency among right-wingers, gay or straight, that the louder they complain about that which offends their sexual sensibilities, the greater the chance that they are getting freaky with those same sexual acts in their personal life.”

Apparently I’m one of those freaky right-wingers.

I don’t know Epperly personally, although Bay Windows was one of the first papers to run my work, and Epperly was editor at the time. (I have great respect for the publication.) On what basis does he diagnose my supposed sexual neurosis?

Oddly, he bases it on a column [http://www.365gay.com/opinion/corvino-opponents-on-our-butts/] in which I, too, discuss conservatives’ obsession with sex.

In that column, I point out our opponents’ tendency to reduce our sexual intimacy to its bare mechanics. Since they find those mechanics weird, they label our sex—and by extension, us—as disgusting, unnatural, perverse.

My response was to point out that when we reduce it to bare mechanics, it’s not just gay sex that’s weird, but ALL sex. (There’s a reason people call it “doing the nasty.”) But it’s silly to think about sex merely in terms of mechanics.

I illustrated by way of an e-mail exchange with a closeted gay British 15-year-old, whose parents went off on a tirade about how disgusting it was for a man to stick his penis up another man’s bum. (With stunning insensitivity, Epperly describes the youth as “equally obsessed with the alleged grossness of homosexual sex.”)

Epperly quotes from my response to the young man:

“In the abstract, of course it’s weird (and from some perspectives, gross) to think of a man sticking his penis up another man’s bum. But isn’t all sex weird in the abstract? Sticking a penis in a vagina, which bleeds once a month? Sucking on a penis, something both straight women and gay men do? Pressing your mouth—which you use for eating—against another person’s mouth, and touching tongues, and exchanging saliva (i.e. kissing)? Weird! Gross! (In the abstract, anyway.)”

Perhaps if I had stopped there, Epperly might have been justified in his conclusion: “I know this is simply a gay conservative’s variation on the ‘we’re just like you’ argument to heterosexuals, but somehow I think that ‘our sex is as gross as yours’ is not the most effective argument in the world. But it says a lot about the person delivering it.”

But of course, I didn’t stop there. Immediately thereafter—in a section that Epperly, tellingly, doesn’t quote—I wrote:

“Sex makes no sense in the abstract. But then you have urges, and you eventually act on them, and what once seemed weird and gross becomes…wow.

“Our opponents recognize this in their own lives, but they can’t envision it elsewhere. It’s a profound failure of moral imagination—which is essential for empathy, which is at the foundation of the Golden Rule.”

The Golden Rule is something Epperly might brush up on. Or the Principle of Charity.

The point of that column was that our opponents are using a double standard. For their sex, they see the deeper emotional picture. For our sex, they see only the mechanics. No wonder they find it weird.

Epperly seems so keen to peg me a “gay conservative” that he completely misses—or deliberately distorts—that point.

(Though perhaps I shouldn’t write “keen to peg me,” since that wording might just fuel his hypothesis about my sex obsession.)

I always find it funny when people label me a gay conservative. It’s true that I write for the moderate-to-conservative Independent Gay Forum. And in some ways, given my work as “The Gay Moralist,” the label is apt. But in many of the standard ways it’s not.

I haven’t voted Republican in two decades, except in a primary where the Democrat ran uncontested. I’m an avowed atheist. While I support marriage equality, I don’t believe that marriage is for everyone, and in my column I’ve defended sexual pleasure for its own sake. I’ve also publicly supported affirmative action.

Of course, even if I were a hardcore gay conservative, I’d deserve a fair reading—just like anyone else.

As a columnist, I’m used to the occasional reader setting me up as a straw-man and then psychoanalyzing me on the basis of that straw-man. It comes with the territory.

But from a fellow writer—particularly one who shares my disdain for sexual small-mindedness and the distortions it engenders—I hope for better.

Strange Bedfellows

First published at Between The Lines News on March 12, 2009

Recently I wrote about a proposed compromise by David Blankenhorn, who opposes gay marriage, and Jonathan Rauch, who supports it.

On the Blankenhorn/Rauch proposal, the federal government would recognize individual states’ same-sex marriages or civil unions (under the name “civil unions”) and grant them benefits, but only in states that provided religious-conscience exemptions, allowing religious organizations to deny married-student housing to gay spouses at a religious college, for example, or to refuse to rent out church property for gay-related family events.

The Blankenhorn/Rauch proposal has prompted much discussion, including a counter-proposal from Ryan Anderson and Sherif Girgis at the conservative website thepublicdiscourse.com.

Anderson and Girgis—who unlike Rauch and Blankenhorn, come from the same side of the debate—reject the original proposal as granting “too much to revisionists and too little to traditionalists.” As they see it, traditionalists don’t merely seek to secure their own personal religious liberty, but to promote what they see as “a healthy culture of marriage understood as a public good.”

They believe that the Blankenhorn/Rauch proposal undermines that public good, because

“it treats same-sex unions (in fact, if not in name) as if they were marriages by making their legal recognition depend on the presumption that these relationships are or may be sexual. It thus enshrines a substantive, controversial principle that traditionalists could not endorse: namely, that there is no moral difference between the sexual communion of husband and wife and homosexual activity—or, therefore, between the relationships built on them.”

Anderson and Girgis instead propose the following: “revisionists would agree to oppose the repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), thus ensuring that federal law retains the traditional definition of marriage as the union of husband and wife …In return, traditionalists would agree to support federal civil unions offering most or all marital benefits.” But these unions “would be available to any two adults who commit to sharing domestic responsibilities, whether or not their relationship is sexual,” provided that they are “otherwise ineligible to marry each other.”

In other words, there would be federal civil unions for gays—but also for other domestic pairs: elderly widowed sisters, for example, or bachelor roommates.

At first glance, their claim that Rauch and Blankenhorn base their proposal on “the presumption that these relationships are or may be sexual” seems strange. After all, Rauch and Blankenhorn never mention sex, and the state neither knows nor cares (nor checks) whether people are having sex once they’re married or “civilly united.”

On the other hand, people generally assume (with good reason) that marriages and civil unions are sexual, or more broadly romantic. Romantic pair-bonding seems to be a fundamental human desire—for straights and gays—and part of what marriage does is to acknowledge pair-bonds. It does so not because the government is sentimental about such things, but because it recognizes the important role such bonds have in the lives of individuals and the community.

Anderson and Girgis are correct that there are other important bonds in society, and we may well want to extend more legal recognition to them. There is no reason that two cohabitating spinsters shouldn’t be granted mutual hospital visitation rights if they want them.

But the question remains whether we want to extend “most or all” federal marital benefits to any cohabitating couple otherwise ineligible to marry, as Anderson and Girgis propose.

And this question prompts additional ones: why limit such recognition to couples? Mutually interdependent relationships don’t only come in twos. Oddly, Anderson and Girgis seem to have more in common with radicals who seek to move “beyond marriage” than they do with anyone in the mainstream marriage debate.

Also, why limit such recognition to couples “otherwise ineligible to marry”? Can’t an unrelated man and woman have an interdependent relationship that’s not sexual/romantic?

Anderson and Girgis write that, “Our proposal would still meet the needs of same-sex partners—based not on sex (which is irrelevant to their relationship’s social value), but on shared domestic responsibilities, which really can ground mutual obligations.”

And there’s the crux: Anderson and Girgis assume that sex has social value only when open to procreation. But that’s just false, and most Americans know it. We acknowledge sexual/romantic relationships not merely because they might result in children, but also because of their special depth. Sex doesn’t merely make babies; it creates intimacy—for gays and straights alike.

The problem is that Anderson and Girgis divide couplings into two crude categories: (1) married (or marriageable) heterosexuals, and (2) everyone else: committed gay couples, elderly sisters, cohabiting fly-fishing buddies, what have you. They then implausibly suggest that those in column two are all of equal social value.

As David Link writes at the Independent Gay Forum, “The authors of this proposal are quite honest that they find it impossible to view same-sex couples in the category of marriage. But if these are the two categories offered: aging sisters or married couples, I’m betting more Americans who don’t already have an opinion, would view same-sex couples as more like the married couples than the sisters. With apologies to the traditionalists, the days when a majority of Americans simply closed their eyes to the loving—and sexual—relationships of same-sex couples are coming to an end.”

As they should.

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