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.