Civil Discourse on Civil Unions

First published January 20, 2005, in Between the Lines

Some of the nastiest mail I receive is not from right-wing homophobes, or even bitter ex-boyfriends, but from members of our own community who think I’m not progressive enough. For example, shortly after I argued in Second Thoughts on Civil Unions that we ought to fight for civil unions now and marriage later, I received an e-mail message with the following subject-line:

“Why are you such an Uncle Tom faggot?”

There was no text to the message, and no signature — just the subject-line. With some ambivalence, I wrote back:

“I received a message from you with the subject-line ‘Why are you such an Uncle Tom faggot?’ but no text. Was there supposed to be text, or did the question in the subject-line exhaust what you have to say on the issue?”

I didn’t expect a response: I just wanted to remind the writer that there was a person receiving his e-mail on the other end of cyberspace. Not that it did much good: a few weeks later I received a message with a similar subject-line and a long tirade accusing me, in the most obnoxious terms possible, of selling out our rights.

That kind of attack is unfortunate for a number of reasons, not least of which that it distracts us from the productive dialogue we should be having instead. I’m the first to admit that I could be wrong in the strategy I proposed for securing equal marriage rights. But if you’re going to attack that strategy, please try first to understand it. In brief, I argued that:

1. Properly crafted civil-unions legislation could grant all of the legal incidents of marriage (albeit under a different name). I am not talking about “watered-down” civil unions here; I’m talking about the full legal enchilada.

2. The difference between such unions and marriage, since it is not a difference in legal incidents, appears to be a difference in level of social endorsement carried by the “m-word.”

3. Our best strategy (in most states) for securing the tremendously important legal incidents is to fight for them under the name “civil unions.”

4. Our best strategy for securing the social endorsement (i.e., marriage under the name “marriage”) is first to secure the legal incidents. Then people will look at our civil unions, realize that they are virtually indistinguishable from marriages, start calling them marriages, and gradually forget why they objected to doing so before. That’s what happened in Scandinavia, and it’s happening elsewhere in Europe.

5. Attempts to force the social endorsement too quickly (by demanding the name “marriage” above and beyond the legal incidents) may backfire, resulting in state constitutional bans not only on gay marriage but also on civil unions. The upshot would be to delay both the legal incidents and the social endorsement.

Any of the above points could be debated by reasonable people, but (4) and (5), especially, merit further discussion, including careful analysis of countries where similar strategies have been attempted. But rather than providing such analysis, my critics accuse me of endorsing a “separate but equal” line akin to that espoused by racial segregationists. Why should we settle for the back of the bus?

The segregationist analogy is a poor one. First, while it is certainly objectionable that we should ride on the back of the bus, we are barely even at the bus stop yet, much less on the bus. Let us not forget that in most places in this country, our relationships have no legal recognition whatsoever.

Second, and more important, I have argued that we should fight for identical legal incidents to those of marriage. This is not the back of the bus or a different bus: it’s the same bus with a different name.

Is that name difference silly? Yes, it’s silly — maybe even insulting. But when health benefits are denied to committed same-sex couples, when a person can’t get bereavement leave upon the death of her same-sex partner; when loving couples are split apart because one partner is a foreigner and can’t get citizenship, that’s far worse than silly or insulting — it’s downright cruel. I contend that we have a fighting chance at ending such cruelty, and that once we do so we’ll have an even better chance at ending the silly name-difference (again, see Scandinavia).

I could be wrong, but calling me nasty names doesn’t show why I’m wrong. More to the point, it doesn’t get us any closer to the front of the bus.

It Was a Good Bad Year

First published January 6, 2005, in Between the Lines.

New Year’s is a time for looking at where we’ve been and where we’re going. It’s a time for resolutions, such as “I resolve not to eat so much and spend so much during next year’s holiday season.” (Yeah, sure.)

As a college professor, I tend to organize my life in terms of the academic calendar, not the regular calendar. Years begin in September and end in May, and June through August is “free time,” sort of. Actually, it bugs me when people tell me I have summers “off”: just because I’m not teaching doesn’t mean I’m not working, okay? Or do you think my articles and columns write themselves?

(Memo to self: resolve to be less defensive in 2005.)

So when New Year’s rolls around, the “year” I look back on has really been only four months long. And how has the last four months been?

Pretty lousy, actually.

Before reacting, do me a favor. Please do not tell me “Yes, I understand. That horrible election…”

I agree that the election was upsetting. But to give you some perspective, let me tell you about my life over the last few months:

Early September: I am harassed by a large, armed Texas state trooper who after seeing me kiss another guy tells me that “homosexual conduct is against the law.” Although I cite Lawrence v. Texas and point out that Texas state law never banned mere kissing, he maintains his position. I relent, he lets me go, and the following week I file a formal complaint. (More on that later.)

Late September: A close friend commits suicide. 32 years old, bright, attractive, talented. Now dead. Turns out that, among various other problems, he had become involved with crystal meth.

Early October: My grandmother dies. Certainly more expected than my friend’s death, but still a terrible blow. She was one of the first people I came out to, and she’s always been one of my great supporters. Grandma Tess, rest in peace.

Late October: One week after burying his mother, my father is fired from his job. He and my mother decide to leave New York and retire to Texas, close to my sister, where the cost of living is better. (Be sure to say hi to my favorite trooper!). I am briefly reminded that Dad, my hero, is not invincible.

Early November: the election. Yes, it’s bad. But by comparison with other things happening in my life, it seems like a minor blip.

Late November: my sister undergoes surgery. She’s fine, but Mom and Dad — who have had their share of challenges in the past month — are further drained emotionally.

Early December: I discover that I need a new roof on my house — soon. A very costly new roof. (Better not ask Dad for help.)

So, how am I doing?

Just fine, thank you.

Abraham Lincoln once said that most folks are about as happy as they make up their minds to be. He was right.

This is not to say that we don’t face challenges that threaten our well being. But if we constantly dwell on the challenges, and never look at the “bright side,” we’re guaranteed to be miserable.

Admittedly, there is no “bright side” to a friend’s suicide. But I am thankful for my own health and well being. I’m thankful, too, that my sister is recovering well.

I’m thankful for 35 years of knowing a wonderful grandmother. Some people never know their grandparents. I knew all four (two still living) as well as five of my eight great-grandparents.

I’m thankful that my parents, who worked hard for many years, are able to retire comfortably. I’m thankful that, although I’ll have to tighten my belt in 2005, somehow I’m managing to pay for my new roof.

I’m thankful that I live in a country that holds regular elections. I’m thankful that my partner and I have a wonderful life together, even without recognition from the shortsighted Michigan voters who supported Proposal 2. I’m thankful we have the freedoms that we do.

And I’m thankful that the ignorant trooper who harassed me is being put on six months probation, was given a formal written reprimand, and will be required to take additional classes on Texas state law. Sometimes the system does work.
2004 wasn’t so bad after all. Resolve to be happy in 2005.

Similar Unions

First published in “Between the lines” in December of 2004.

On December 17 my current state of residence (Michigan) will amend its constitution to declare that “the union of one man and one woman in marriage shall be the only agreement recognized as a marriage or similar union for any purpose.”

Same-sex marriage is already against the law in Michigan, so that prohibition is nothing new. What is new is the prohibition of any “similar union for any purpose.”

But what, exactly, does that mean? Our opponents have long argued that our unions aren’t really “similar” to heterosexual marriage at all. Frankly, I’m tempted to agree with them: ours are much better, thank you very much.

Still, when I take an unbiased view, I have to acknowledge SOME similarities.

In themselves, such similarities cannot be “unconstitutional”: the constitution shapes laws and policies, not personal behaviors. Nevertheless, in a spirit of constitutional deference, I have decided to reduce the ways in which my relationship with my partner Mark constitutes a “similar union” to marriage. One can’t be too careful these days, after all.

So Mark will no longer be getting a card on our anniversary, since anniversary cards treat our relationship as a similar union for some purpose. No more anniversary cakes, either — although those are pretty high in carbs, so we’re probably better off.

Mark and I live together. Sharing a household is similar to marriage for some purpose — indeed, for many purposes.

Mark does most of the gardening at our household. When I help him rake leaves, we look a lot like our heterosexual married neighbors (only cuter and better dressed). Similar for some purpose. (I hate raking leaves anyway, so this is probably good.)

I do most of the cooking in our relationship, and when Mark tries to help, I usually shoo him away from the kitchen. Again, similar to marriage. I’d still like him to clean the dishes, though. Maybe there’s a constitutional loophole.

Mark does most of the driving when we’re together. (Now you know why my nickname is “Miss Daisy.” It has nothing — absolutely nothing — to do with those ill-advised cutoff shorts I used to wear as a teenager.) I suppose now we’ll take separate cars. Screw the environment — we’ve got to respect the constitution!

We have health insurance through our respective employers, so that’s not an issue. If one of us were to die, bereavement leave might be a problem, but at thirtysomething I prefer not to think about such things.

But Mark is the first person I call when something bad happens, like when my grandmother died last month. Mark actually flew home to New York with me and put up with my loud Italian family for four days. By talking Mark’s ear off, feeding him constantly, and embracing him as one of their own, my family was treating our union as similar to marriage. In New York we can get away with it, but in Michigan? No more.

No more code-phrases at parties. From now on, when I say to Mark, “My, these cocktail franks are DELICIOUS,” it’s going to mean that the cocktail franks are delicious, not “These people bore me to tears; can we please leave — now!”

(Note to my friends: when we used that phrase at YOUR house, it’s because the cocktail franks were delicious. Really.)

Those cute address labels with both our names on them? Gone. “For any purpose” means for ANY purpose, postal convenience included. So too with those tacky “His & His” hand towels someone gave us for our first anniversary.

No more shared expenses, shared chores, shared party-hosting, shared party-attending. No more inviting my parents to visit us for Thanksgiving. No more sending them — or anyone — a card signed “Love, John & Mark.” I repeat: “similar union for any purpose” means what it says. I take the constitution seriously.

No more renting movies together — or for that matter, renting movies myself, since I can’t work the darn DVD player without Mark. Our “similar union” used to compensate for my technophobia, but no more.

No more blaming Mark for not being able to read my mind. “Yes, I know I didn’t SAY I wanted to stop for lunch, but you KNOW I get cranky when I get hungry.”

No more bickering, followed by the silent treatment, then an apology — then silly, delightful affection. That’s all similar to marriage. No more quiet moments when words are unnecessary because, sometimes, it really does seem like we can read each other’s minds.

No more morning breath, farting under the covers, or asking Mark to help me shave my back hair. WAY too similar to marriage.

However, I’m guessing we’re going to get to have LOTS more sex. There have got to be some perks to this amendment.

Second Thoughts on Civil Unions

First published November 18, 2004, in Between the Lines.

Given our losses in the last election — all eleven states with same-sex marriage bans passed them, some by a wide margin — is it time to put aside the marriage fight?

You’re probably expecting me to say, “No, of course not!” But I won’t.

Let me be clear: I believe in equal marriage rights for gays and lesbians. I believe that we will eventually achieve them in this country — maybe even in my lifetime. I also believe that we never make progress unless we’re willing to push ourselves and others outside of our “comfort zones.”

But I’m fundamentally a pragmatist, and my pragmatic side is telling me that we need to put aside equal marriage rights for now and instead focus on civil unions.

The concept of civil unions perplexes many people. It differs from “civil marriage”:

marriage performed and recognized by the state.

Civil marriage, in turn, differs from “religious marriage”:

marriage performed and recognized by some religious institution.

(Most people want both, so they get married by a clergyperson who is also licensed by the state.)

“Civil union” is a term invented by the state of Vermont in order to grant all the (statewide) incidents of civil marriage to gays without using the M-word.

Civil unions are not necessarily recognized by other states. But neither are same-sex civil marriages (such as those in Massachusetts). Thus, with respect to state-level legal protections, civil unions and civil marriages seem identical.

What, then, is the difference?

It would be wrong to answer “just the name.” Names are powerful, and the difference in names seems to indicate a difference in reality. Polls suggest that many Americans who strenuously oppose same-sex civil marriage are willing to accept same-sex civil unions.

I used to think that such Americans were simply confused. Doubtless, many are. But I think there’s more to be said.

To understand why, let’s distinguish three things: (1) relationships, (2) legal rights and responsibilities, and (3) social endorsement. (Naturally, these things are related: relationships don’t occur in a vacuum, and legal recognition is often tied to social recognition.)

Now compare Adam and Eve, who have a heterosexual civil marriage, and Adam and Steve, who have a civil union. What’s the fundamental difference between them?

Despite what our opponents may claim, it’s not a difference in their relationships. Adam and Steve may be just as committed to each other as Adam and Eve. Adam and Eve can be married even if they can’t have children or don’t intend to, so it’s not that either. (And don’t even get me started about the “complementarity of the sexes,” as if the only or most important way in which partners complement each other were through gender.)

Nor is there a difference in legal rights and responsibilities-¬at least not at the state level. True, Adam and Steve lack important federal legal benefits-¬but that problem could be fixed with a federal civil union bill.
So we’re left with door number (3): social endorsement. It turns out that the M-word carries a blessing that most Americans are not yet prepared to grant to Adam and Steve.

Now here’s the kicker: you can’t force social endorsement. You can argue for it, fight for it, plead for it — but you can’t force it. Indeed, attempts to do so often backfire (as they arguably have in the last year, as over a dozen states created constitutional bans that they previously lacked).

If I’m correct, then there’s a sense in which marriage is not a fundamental civil right. For there is no civil right to social approval. The government can make and enforce laws: it cannot control minds and hearts.

To say this is not to deny that we have a moral right to such approval. Nor is it to deny that we have a civil right to the legal incidents of marriage — and thus to civil unions. These should be our focus now.

Many of us have long viewed civil unions as a compromise: fight for marriage, settle for civil unions. But the fight for marriage may have made civil unions less likely in some states. In my home state of Michigan, the constitution will now prohibit not only same-sex marriage but also “similar union[s] for any purpose.” And that’s unfortunate, since many people who voted for the amendment reportedly have no objection to civil unions.

So I suggest a different strategy: fight for civil unions now — with all the legal incidents of heterosexual marriage — and let marriage come as it will. We have a decent chance of securing legal protections for our relationships. In the long run, focusing on those protections may be our best strategy for securing the genuine equality that we want and deserve.

200 Million Americans Can Be Wrong

First published September 9, 2004, in Between the Lines.

Gay-rights opponents are fond of noting that the majority of Americans are against same-sex marriage.

This is a reasonable claim for them to make. For one thing, it’s true (although by increasingly narrow margins). Furthermore, it’s rhetorically effective. America is, in spirit if not always in practice, a staunchly democratic society.

So what’s the problem? The problem is that, when it comes to minority rights, the majority has historically been an unreliable moral guide.

Forget the debate about whether gays and lesbians are a “minority” in the same sense that ethnic minorities are. The point is that we’re a relatively small segment of the population (indeed, exceedingly small, if you believe our opponents’ numbers). Small, often invisible, and largely misunderstood.

And so it should come as little surprise that the straight majority often doesn’t “get it.” That’s changing as more of us come out of the closet — hence the improving statistics on gay-marriage support. But we’ve still got a ways to go.

Return, then, to the claim that the majority of Americans oppose gay marriage. President Bush often sounds this theme, complaining about “activist judges” subverting “the will of the American people.” (Notice that the will of the American people appears irrelevant when it comes to abortion, stem cell research, and other issues on which the American majority is more progressive than the president. He doesn’t govern by consulting polls, you know.)

The president’s inconsistencies aside, the fact that the majority of Americans oppose gay marriage isn’t an argument against gay marriage. It’s backdrop.

After all, no one on either side denies that most Americans currently oppose gay marriage. The question is not whether they do, but whether they should. Pointing to the “will of the people” doesn’t answer that question, it begs it.

But doesn’t majority support for an idea lend credence to the idea? Sure it does. As the old saying goes, 50 million Frenchmen can’t be wrong.

Except that the French are a lot more relaxed in their attitudes toward homosexuality than Americans. Bad example.

See the point? Suppose we’re debating whether to adopt X or Y, and we both agree that most people favor X. In arguing whether to adopt Y, it does no good to repeat that most people favor X (or for that matter, that most people somewhere else favor Y). One must put forth reasons for favoring X or Y.

So our opponents should stop grumbling about gay-rights activists “foisting” their “agenda” on an unsuspecting public, and start explaining why people should prefer their moral vision to ours. (Apropos, why is it that when they voice their values, it’s a “moral vision,” whereas when we do it, it’s an “agenda”? Funny, that.)

This November many states will offer ballot initiatives to prohibit recognition of same-sex marriages. In Michigan, for example, voters will be able to decide whether to add the following amendment to the state constitution:

“To secure and preserve the benefits of marriage for our society and for future generations of children, the union of one man and one woman in marriage shall be the only agreement recognized as a marriage or similar union for any purpose.”

Ballot initiatives seem very democratic and fair — until you remember what history teaches us about the majority’s handling of minority rights.

The Michigan amendment is especially worrisome. It precludes not only gay marriage but also “similar union[s] for any purpose.” It would thus strike down existing domestic-partnership benefits.

In talking about the amendment, we should emphasize the latter point. We shouldn’t call it “the amendment to ban gay marriage.” We should call it “the amendment to roll back domestic-partner benefits” — for that will be its primary practical effect. Gay marriage is already illegal in Michigan.

Such subterfuge is part of our opponents’ strategy. They lead with a call to “secure and preserve the benefits of marriage” — and who can argue with that? It isn’t until the end of the amendment that they slip in language that quietly rolls back existing benefits.

Imagine an amendment that banned the use of marijuana — already illegal in Michigan — and then slipped in ambiguous language that also outlawed tobacco without ever mentioning the word. Sneaky, huh? Well, that’s what we’re up against.

Now, fair or not, we’ve got to make our case to the majority. And just as we’d have a better chance at garnering majority opposition the “anti-tobacco amendment” than to the “anti- marijuana amendment,” so too we have a better chance of garnering majority opposition to the “anti-domestic-partner- benefits amendment” than to the “anti-gay-marriage amendment.” (Note to the Coalition for a Fair Michigan: remember this when deciding on slogans for lawn signs.)

The only way to stop the tyranny of the majority is for the minority to make its voice loudly heard.

Nature? Nurture? It Doesn’t Matter

First published August 12, 2004, in Between the Lines

One of the most persistent debates surrounding homosexuality regards whether gays are “born that way” or whether homosexuality is a “chosen lifestyle.”

The debate is ill-formed from the start, in that it conflates two separate questions:

1. How did you become what you are? (By genetics? Early environment? Willful choice? Some combination of the above?),

and

2. Can you change what you are?

The answers to these two questions vary independently. My dark hair color is genetically determined, but I can change it (though I’d make a rather frightful blonde). The fact that my native language is English is environmentally determined, but I can’t change it. (I can learn a new language, of course, but at this stage it would never have the character of my native language.)

The fact that I put the last sentence in parentheses is a matter of willful choice, and, like most matters of willful choice, it can be changed (although my editors had better leave it alone if they know what’s good for them). Still, some choices are not so easily undone. Having chosen never to practice piano as a child, it would be possible, but rather challenging, for me to become proficient at piano now.

Of course, sexual orientation is not like piano-playing. I never turned down “straight lessons” as a child. (“No, Mommy, I wanna play with my Easy-Bake oven instead!”) I never chose to “become gay,” and I’m not even sure how one would go about doing so. We do not choose our romantic feelings — indeed, we often find them thrust upon us at surprising and inopportune times. We discover them; we do not invent them.

So we must be born this way, right?

Wrong. For several reasons. No one is born with romantic feelings, much less engaging in sexual conduct. That comes later. Whether it comes as a result of genetics, or early environment, or watching too many episodes of Wonder Woman is a separate question that can’t be settled by simple introspection.

Moreover, the fact that feelings are strong doesn’t mean that they’re genetically determined. They might be, but they might not. Sexual orientation’s involuntariness, which is largely beyond dispute, is separate from its origin, which is still controversial, even among sympathetic scientists.

But here’s the good news: It doesn’t matter whether we’re born this way.

A lot of gay-rights advocates seem to think otherwise. They worry that if we’re not “born this way,” then homosexuality would be “unnatural” in some morally significant sense.

Nonsense. Again: the fact that I speak English rather than French is learned behavior, but it does not follow that my doing so is unnatural or in need of reparative therapy.

But wouldn’t a genetic basis for homosexuality prove that God made us this way? No, it wouldn’t — at least not in any helpful sense. Put aside the difficulties about establishing God’s existence or discerning divine intentions. The fact is that there are plenty of genetically influenced traits that are nevertheless undesirable. Alcoholism may have a genetic basis, but it doesn’t follow that alcoholics ought to drink excessively. Some people may have a genetic predisposition to violence, but they have no more right to attack their neighbors than anyone else. Persons with such tendencies cannot say “God made me this way” as an excuse for acting on their dispositions.

“Whoa!” you might object. “Are you saying that homosexuality is a disorder like alcoholism?” Not at all. The difference between alcoholism and homosexuality is that alcoholism has inherently bad effects whereas homosexuality does not. But this distinction just reinforces my point: we do not determine whether a trait is good by looking at where it came from (genetics, environment, or something else). We determine whether it is good by looking at its effects.

Nor does it matter whether sexual orientation can be changed. For even if it could (which is doubtful in most cases), it doesn’t follow that it should. Much like my hair color.

Remember: bad arguments in favor of a good cause are still bad arguments — and in the long run not very good for the cause. This is not to say that we shouldn’t frequently remind people that homosexuality, like heterosexuality, is a deep, important, and relatively fixed feature of human personality. It’s just that those facts can only get us so far.
In a 1964 speech to the New York Mattachine Society, an early gay rights group, activist Frank Kameny announced:

“We are interested in obtaining rights for our respective minorities as Negroes, as Jews, and as Homosexuals. Why we are Negroes, Jews, or Homosexuals is totally irrelevant, and whether we can be changed to Whites, Christians or heterosexuals is equally irrelevant.”

Kameny (who is still going strong at 79) was absolutely right. Too bad people still haven’t gotten the message.

Is Homosexuality Harmful — and So What?

First published June 17, 2004, in Between the Lines

The more things change, the more they stay the same. Or so it seems as gay-rights opponents, in a desperate last-ditch effort to win their cultural war against homosexuality, trot out arguments that have been discredited for decades.

Many of these focus on the alleged harms of homosexuality. Having failed to make a convincing moral case, gay-rights opponents often shift to claims of “health risks” — including disease, decreased life expectancy, higher suicide rates, and so on.

Such scientific-sounding concerns give these opponents a veneer of objectivity. Indeed, their arguments sound almost compassionate at times. Consider the following question posed by Marquette University professor Christopher Wolfe:

“On the basis of health considerations alone, is it unreasonable to ask if it is better not to be an active homosexual? At the very least, don’t the facts suggest that it is desirable to prevent the formation of a homosexual orientation and to bring people out of it when we can?”

The correct answer to Wolfe is, “It depends.” For there are three key questions we must first ask:

(1) Are the allegations of harm accurate?

This question seems obvious, but it’s crucial. Many of the studies cited by gay-rights opponents are abysmally bad.

Consider the oft-repeated claim that homosexual males face a dramatic decrease in life expectancy. The claim is rooted in the research of psychologist Paul Cameron, who argues that even apart from AIDS, gay men on average die over thirty years sooner than their straight counterparts.

How did he reach this startling conclusion? By comparing obituaries in 16 gay publications with those in two mainstream newspapers.

As Dave Barry says, I am not making this up. Cameron’s methodology is laughable even to those with no formal statistical training. Newspaper obituaries are unscientific. Those that appear in gay publications are far more apt to record the deaths of those lost in their prime than of those who died elderly, especially given the target demographic of such publications. There was no control group (after all, gays have obituaries in mainstream publications too). And so on.

It should thus come as no surprise that 1983 Cameron was expelled from the American Psychological Association for ethical violations. Yet his work continues to get cited by otherwise respectable researchers like Wolfe.

But suppose, purely for the sake of argument, we were to grant the allegations of harm cited by gay-rights opponents.

We would still have to ask a second question:

(2) Are the alleged harms caused by homosexuality itself, or some external factor?

In particular, we would have to ask whether many of the alleged harms result from anti-gay sentiment. In that case, there would be a vicious circle: opponents of homosexuality would be basing their opposition on factors caused by that very opposition — a classic case of “blaming the victim.”

In some cases these external factors are complex. Gays are, to a considerable extent, a wounded people. Many experience ostracism from their own families during formative years, with deep emotional scars resulting.

To say this is not to say that gay life is miserable or that we should not take responsibility for our own well-being. Rather, it is to remind those who allege various problems in gay life that they may share responsibility for those problems.

But suppose I’m wrong. Suppose — again for the sake of argument — that the alleged problems result from homosexuality itself, rather than social pressure. There is a third question that must be asked:

(3) What follows?

This is the question most people miss. They assume that if a practice is riskier than the alternatives, the practice must be wrong. But that assumption is demonstrably false.

Driving is riskier than walking. Being a coal miner is riskier than being a newspaper columnist. Football is riskier than chess. Yet no one thinks that the former activity in each example is wrong just because of the risks involved.

There are too many holes in the argument that links homosexuality with risk and risk with wrongness. Consider how Wolfe’s argument would look if we applied it to football:

“On the basis of health considerations alone, is it unreasonable to ask if it is better not to be [a football player]? At the very least, don’t the facts suggest that it is desirable to prevent the formation of [an interest in football] and to bring people out of it when we can?”

After all, there are safer hobbies, like chess!

Well, sure. But football players don’t want to play chess; they want to play football. The argument reminds me of an old joke:

Question: What’s the best way to avoid spilling your coffee while driving?
Answer: Drink tea.

Gays, like everyone else, can take steps to minimize risks in their lives. They can start by confronting the pseudo-science and invalid inferences of their opponents.

Senator Kerry’s Marriage Contortions

First published October 1, 2003, in Between the Lines

In a recent Advocate interview Massachusetts Senator and Democratic presidential hopeful John Kerry told reporter Chris Bull that, despite his otherwise strong support for gay rights, he could not bring himself to support gay marriage.

In a previous Washington Post interview Kerry had stated, “Marriage is an institution between men and women for the purpose of having children and procreating.”

Whoops — wrong answer. If marriage is for procreating, what’s the story with Kerry’s current marriage (his second), which is childless?

Having been confronted on this point, Kerry backtracks in the Advocate interview: “I don’t make a procreation argument. I was explaining the historical background. Someone was asking me where my opposition came from, and I said it’s basically from an old religious belief of what defined marriage. Procreation has nothing to do with my argument.”

Whoops again. Religious belief? While Kerry might be right about why most people oppose gay marriage, the reporter was asking for Kerry’s reason, not most people’s. More precisely, the reporter wanted to know Kerry’s political position on the issue. And as Kerry himself recognizes, religion and politics don’t mix well. In the same Advocate interview he states, “In 1960, President Kennedy [another Roman Catholic] distinguished between those things secular and those things religious. He drew the line between his church and his state. It is a bright line, and I do not take my articles of faith and seek to legislate them against people who don’t share them. The establishment clause regarding religion is clear… ”

Confused yet? So was the reporter, who asked, “Doesn’t church-state separation apply to marriage?” Kerry’s response is a textbook example of arguing in a circle:

“So many people in the country view it as the cultural component of it, the religious component of it. That’s how people view it with the religious component of it.”

So, just to make sure I’m clear on his point: We ought not to legislate people’s religious beliefs except in the case of their religious beliefs.
Got it.

I don’t mean to pick on Kerry here. He’s been a solid supporter of gay rights, even voting against the anti-gay Defense of Marriage Act in an election year. (It passed anyway, and President Clinton signed it into law.)

Moreover, every other Democratic presidential hopeful goes through the same verbal contortions when pressed on the issue of gay marriage. Even Howard Dean, who went to bat for us on civil unions in Vermont, is officially opposed to “gay marriage.”

It’s an issue they’d all much prefer to avoid. They want to support gays, but they also want to win the election. And thus they must face one of the great paradoxes about American life: We are simultaneously one of the most secular and most religious societies in the world.

Do we support freedom of religion? Oh yes, absolutely. Except when it gets weird. Like that Mormon polygamy thing. And gay marriage — ick.

Marriage and religion are intimately tied in most Americans’ minds. Most marriages in this country are performed by clergy — to whom the state gives the power to perform not merely religious but also civil marriage.

Politicians know this. And they have a hard time talking about civil marriage without talking about religion, for two reasons: (1) they want to appeal to a largely religious electorate, and (2) they are themselves largely religious.

And so Kerry, in the same interview, talks about both his religious view of civil marriage and the separation of church and state, without noticing the contradiction.

Similarly, when discussing the (anti-gay) Federal Marriage Amendment, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist calls marriage a “sacrament” and President Bush mentions “sinners.” Meanwhile, here in Michigan, Jackson County has passed a resolution against same-sex marriage in order to protect the “sanctity”of traditional marriage, and Lapeer County has passed a similar resolution citing “God’s intentions for mankind” and “faith in God through Holy Scriptures.”

Kerry had it right when he said that articles of faith ought not to be legislated. By definition, articles of faith go beyond rational evidence (hence “faith”); they are learned through revelation. Law, by contrast, is supposed to be based on reasoned argument.

The problem is that the secular arguments against gay marriage just aren’t very good. And so opponents of gay marriage — including politicians — resort to the one area where they may respectably abandon reasoned argument: religious faith. You can’t really argue with “God says so.”

Writer Michael Woodson asks,

“Suppose the government declared a particular mode of communion, baptism or circumcision to be valid, and required all valid communion, baptism and circumcision to be licensed by the state. Certainly, there would be an uproar — and should be a rebellion. Why is marriage different?”

Damn good question. Don’t hold your breath for an answer.

Gay Marriage and the ‘Ick Factor’

First published August 19, 2003, in Between the Lines.

It was the sort of headline that’s become common these days: “When gays advance, America squirms.”

I should be used to such headlines by now. When the U.S. Supreme Court struck down sodomy laws in June, we all knew there would be backlash. But I still find it rather unsettling, and this particular headline triggered my malaise full force. “When gays advance, America squirms.”

Not “their opponents squirm.” Not “some Americans squirm.” AMERICA squirms. Suppressed premise: Gays are not real Americans.

Okay, so headlines need to be pithy. Unfortunately, the ensuing news feature on gay marriage underscored the message: gays are outsiders trying to move in. “Us” against “them.”

But why? Giving marriage to gays doesn’t mean taking it away from straights, any more than giving the vote to women meant taking it away from men, or letting blacks at the front of the bus meant that whites could no longer ride there.

Yet the latter analogy is instructive: when blacks moved to the front of the bus, many whites felt a visceral negative reaction, what some refer to as “the ick factor.” Now gays are triggering the ick factor in their fight for marriage, and the results aren’t pretty.

Some object to the comparison between the “behavioral” characteristic of sexual orientation and the “non-behavioral” characteristic of race.

But this objection misses the point. In both cases, there’s a group whose behavior (moving to the front of the bus in the one case, pushing for marriage rights in the other) prompts hostility. In both cases, the hostility is largely visceral and inarticulate: “I can’t explain it, it just FEELS wrong.” And in both cases, the hostility results from, and contributes to, false beliefs about the group in question: “They’re going to ruin everything for the rest of us!”

But how are gays going to “ruin” marriage? There are several possible interpretations of this charge:

1) “If gay marriage is permitted, people will choose it over heterosexual marriage.”

This claim is, of course, ludicrous. After all, the usual response to a gay person is not, “No fair! How come he gets to be gay and I don’t?!”

2) “Permitting gay marriage will cheapen heterosexual marriage by turning it into ‘just another lifestyle choice.”

Well, yes and no. Yes, it means that gay marriage will take its place alongside heterosexual marriage as an option to which persons might aspire. But again, these are GAY persons. It is not as if they would have, or should have, chosen heterosexual marriage otherwise. Let’s face it: pressuring gays into heterosexual marriage is a bad idea for everyone involved.

Moreover, the fact that gays are fighting so hard for marriage rights should make it abundantly clear that they don’t think of marriage as “just another lifestyle choice.” Choosing to live in a high-rise instead of a ranch house is a “lifestyle choice.” Choosing marriage is a major personal and social commitment. If gays didn’t realize that, they wouldn’t be fighting so hard for legal marriage rights.

3) “Gay marriages will be weak, setting a bad example for everyone else.”

The idea here is that gay marriages will be less stable/monogamous/successful than their non-gay counterparts. Of course, it is difficult to substantiate this claim, since we do not know how gay relationships would fare given the same support that heterosexual marriage currently enjoys. But the more striking point is that on this logic, Hollywood actors ought not to be permitted to marry either.

4) “’Gay marriage’ is an oxymoron.”

The main argument against gay marriage seems to be definitional: the very meaning of marriage requires a man and a woman; thus gay marriage is a contradiction in terms. Gays who want to be called “married” are like steak-eaters who want to be called “vegetarians.”

Thus understood, the argument betrays a fundamental confusion. The main issue is not whether gays should be “called” married. This is not to deny that words are important: they are. But the fight for marriage rights is not primarily about words. It is about legal protection for our relationships. It is about guaranteeing hospital visitation rights when a partner is sick, immigration rights when a partner is foreign, inheritance rights when a partner dies — and a host of other safeguards that married heterosexuals currently take for granted.

Steak-eaters are not vegetarians. But if steak-eaters were denied various legal protections that vegetarians routinely enjoyed, we could not justify such discrimination on the grounds that most vegetarians find steak-eating “icky.” Absent better reasons, we would need to confront the ick-factor and work to make things right.

If the gay-marriage issue makes some Americans squirm, perhaps it’s a sign of growing pains.

The Inclusive Santorum

First Published at Between the Lines on May 1, 2003

By now you’ve no doubt heard the flap about Senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, who, in response to a question about whether homosexual persons should remain celibate, stated that “if the Supreme Court says that you have the right to consensual sex within your home, then you have the right to bigamy, you have the right to polygamy, you have the right to incest, you have the right to adultery. You have the right to anything.”

The slippery-slope argument linking homosexuality with polygamy has become a familiar rhetorical move in antigay rhetoric. Unfortunately, its use is not limited to those (like Santorum) whose mouths clearly move faster than their minds: there are a number of smart, thoughtful people who believe that the case for one lends support to the case for the other, and not all of these people are anti-gay.

But Santorum’s version seems to go further than most. And it’s not just because he extends the list from polygamy to incest, adultery, indeed, to “anything.” It’s because the thing that initiates Santorum’s parade of horribles is not “homosexual sex” but simply “consensual sex.” According to Santorum, if the Supreme Court says you have “the right to consensual sex within your home … you have the right to anything.”

Okay, so not everyone speaks in final draft. Maybe the “you” here refers to “you homosexuals.” Or maybe Santorum thinks no one has a Constitutional right to consensual sex, and thus that laws limiting such activity are all Constitutional (which is not the same as saying that they’re wise or justified).

Attention to the full text of the interview, as well as to follow-up interviews, suggests that Santorum didn’t really know quite what he was saying, jumbling together some defensible constitutional concerns with radical views on privacy rights and a clear antipathy toward all things gay.

Santorum went on to argue that polygamy, adultery, sodomy, “all of those things, are antithetical to a healthy, stable, traditional family.” In his view, the state’s failure to regulate people’s sex lives — even when they are consensual and private — “destroys the basic unit of our society.”

Santorum is the third-ranking Republican in the Senate, so you might think the president would be a bit concerned about the image he’s creating for the party. And Bush, finally, has weighed in. The “compassionate conservative,” the man who so ardently defends freedom from oppressive religious regimes (but only where oil is involved), has come out in support of Santorum, calling him “an inclusive man.”

Excuse me?

And then I thought about it for a while, and realized that the president is right.

Recall that Santorum claims that right to consensual sodomy entails not just the right to polygamy but indeed, to anything. Anything. Rape. Tax fraud. Mass murder. You name it. That’s pretty damn inclusive.

Or consider Santorum’s position on gay marriage: “In every society, the definition of marriage has not ever to my knowledge included homosexuality. That’s not to pick on homosexuality. It’s not, you know, man on child, man on dog, or whatever the case may be.”

So, according to Santorum, gays’ interest in securing marriage rights for their consensual adult relationships is not merely akin to polygamists’ doing the same. It’s also akin to “man on child” or “man on dog.” That’s pretty damn inclusive too.

(Although if he were really inclusive, he would have included “dog on man” as well. Why should the man always get to be on top?)

Santorum’s “man on dog” comment was so surprising, it prompted the reporter to interrupt, “I’m sorry, I didn’t think I was going to talk about ‘man on dog’ with a United States senator; it’s sort of freaking me out.” Santorum’s reply scaled new heights of inclusiveness: “And that’s sort of where we are in today’s world, unfortunately. The idea is that the state doesn’t have rights to limit individuals’ wants and passions. I disagree with that. I think we absolutely have rights because there are consequences to letting people live out whatever wants or passions they desire.”

So Santorum thinks that the state needs to limit not just harmful behaviors, but “individuals’ wants and passions.” Lest you think this was a verbal slip, he repeated it again in response to the next question: “I’ve been very clear about that. The right to privacy is a right that was created in a law that set forth a (ban on) rights to limit individual passions. And I don’t agree with that.”

(If this is being clear, I’d hate to see what he’s like when he’s being muddled.) What is clear is that Santorum thinks that your bedroom should be included among the places the state belongs.

If this is inclusiveness, count me out.

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