Marrying Sheep and Cell Phones — Not

First published April 14, 2005, in Between the Lines.

In recent weeks I have been traveling the country doing lectures and debates on gay marriage. The first was at Texas A&M University, a school I hadn’t visited since 1992. At that time I was working on my Ph.D. at the University of Texas at Austin, where we tended to view the “Aggies” as — well, a bit backward.

The rivalry between the schools has not abated, and “Aggie jokes” remain a popular pastime. For example:

Q: What’s the difference between Aggie cheerleaders and sheep?

A: If you get lonely, you can always find good-looking sheep.

A&M was founded as an all-male military college, and it currently boasts the largest uniformed body of (now co-ed) students in the U.S. outside of service academies. Unsurprisingly, it is not known for being liberal or diverse. Indeed, its provincialism manifests itself in interesting ways. When being given directions to campus I was told — I am not making this up — “Turn left on Texas, right on George Bush, right on Houston.”

Needless to say, I got lost, although I’m not sure whether that was because all the street names sounded the same or because I was distracted by hoards of handsome cadets in uniform (who very courteously gave me additional directions).

The day before my event, the Young Conservatives of Texas (YCTs), a student group, hosted “YCT’s Big Fat Obnoxious Wedding” to protest gay awareness week. The flier for their event read:

“Free weddings…Homosexual, Polygamous, Bestial, Incestuous — or even marry yourself!”

In light of the Aggie jokes I knew, I found it ironic that these guys were encouraging incestuous and bestial marriage. Indeed, just a few weeks ago at the UT-A&M basketball game, one UT student dressed as a sheep and held up a sign that read “Baaah means No.” (As their guest, however, I kept my amusement to myself.)

At the YCT wedding, one guy “married” his dog. Another married a poster of Reagan. A woman married her cell phone.

Now, I’m a liberal, but I draw the line at posters of Reagan. (Clinton, maybe, but never Reagan.)

The slippery-slope argument motivating the YCT event is not new. If we make one change in the definition of marriage, it says, what’s to stop us from making any other change? I often call this argument the “PIB” argument (for Polygamy, Incest, and Bestiality — the most common examples), but it works equally well (or I should say, equally poorly) with cell phones, bicycles, and Reagan posters.

The PIB argument assumes that gays want the right to marry anyone (or thing) they love. But love is only part of the case for gay marriage. Marriage is a social institution: public recognition is part of its essence. (If it were not, then you could indeed marry whomever or whatever you happen to love.) Therefore, in considering whether marriage should be extended to same-sex relationships, we cannot simply ask whether same-sex partners love each other. We must ask whether recognizing that love in marriage is good for society.

I don’t think the latter question is terribly difficult to answer. Committed gay relationships, like committed straight relationships, are typically a source of support and stability in people’s lives. Happy, stable individuals make for a happy, stable society. That’s one reason we recognize heterosexual marriage, even when the couple has no intention of having children and everyone knows it. We believe that marriage is good for people (at least for most), and we have a stake in the well being of those around us.

Contrast this with marrying cell-phones and farm animals, and the facetiousness of these suggestions is readily apparent. Everyone agrees that such “marriages” provide no social benefit, and so the question of whether to recognize them is off the table.

Which is precisely what I told my audience (including the front row, occupied by the YCTs) at A&M: The question before us is whether recognizing same-sex marriage would be good for society. We get no further toward answering that question by considering the merits of polygamous, incestuous, or bestial marriage (any of which can be heterosexual or homosexual), or by staging mock marriages to cell phones and bicycles.

That said, I found the Aggies to be a thoughtful and friendly bunch. I was especially surprised the next morning at breakfast, when I approached the cash register at the campus coffee shop and discovered that my meal had been surreptitiously paid for. I scanned the room, and a cadet I recognized from the previous night’s audience smiled and nodded. I thank him and all the Aggies for their gracious hospitality.