Monday, September 08, 2003

On Gay Marriage

I've decided to approach the question of gay marriage by addressing a series of issues that have come up in my online reading and in personal discussion. I don't know whether the end result will approximate a coherent position, so let me make clear from the outset that I am all for gay marriage. If a gay couple (I'm using the term "gay" in a blanket sense for gays and lesbians, despite whatever risks that might entail) wants to get married, they should be able to. Further, they should be able to enjoy the same legal benefits and privileges enjoyed by hetero married couples. The question of whether all religions should accept gay marriage isn't my primary focus here, but I'll say that, in my heart of hearts, I believe that would be the right direction for organized religions to lean toward, and since some of the arguments I'll be addressing are sourced in religious convictions, I'll be providing what I hope to be religious responses.


Andrew Sullivan makes a very strong case that marriage is a basic civil right to be enjoyed by all citizens, hetero or gay. He writes:

Marriage, under any interpretation of American constitutional law, is among the most basic civil rights. "Separate but equal" was a failed and pernicious policy with regard to race; it will be a failed and pernicious policy with regard to sexual orientation.

Sullivan writes, in a different piece:

...marriage is not merely an accumulation of benefits. It is a fundamental mark of citizenship. In its rulings, the Supreme Court has found that the right to marry is vested not merely in the Bill of Rights but in the Declaration of Independence itself. In the Court's view, expressed by Chief Justice Earl Warren in Loving v. Virginia in 1967, "the freedom to marry has long been recognized as one of the vital personal rights essential to the orderly pursuit of happiness by free men." It is one of the most fundamental rights accorded under the Constitution. Hannah Arendt put it best in her evisceration of miscegenation laws in 1959: "The right to marry whoever one wishes is an elementary human right compared to which `the right to attend an integrated school, the right to sit where one pleases on a bus, the right to go into any hotel or recreation area or place of amusement, regardless of one's skin or color or race' are minor indeed. Even political rights, like the right to vote, and nearly all other rights enumerated in the Constitution, are secondary to the inalienable human rights to `life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness' ... and to this category the right to home and marriage unquestionably belongs."

Prior even to the right to vote! You can see Arendt's point. Would any heterosexual in America believe he had a right to pursue happiness if he could not marry the person he loved? What would be more objectionable to most people--to be denied a vote in next November's presidential election or to no longer have legal custody over their child or legal attachment to their wife or husband? Not a close call.

In some ways, I think it's because this right is so taken for granted that it still does not compute for some heterosexuals that gay people don't have it.

Sullivan's argument is hard for me to ignore. He does make me wonder, though, why a basic civil right, something of even greater magnitude than the right to vote, should be sanctioned only at the state level and not at the federal level. I'll chalk this up to Sullivan's own conservatism and maybe even a willingness to compromise (he does note, after all, that states already regulate marriage), but if marriage is as fundamental as he is insisting, why not aggressively pursue a constitutional amendment that enshrines marriage as something available to all?

What does the US Constitution say about the "basic civil right" of the right to vote? Does the Constitution even talk about basic civil rights (I think we already know the answer to this question)?

First, we have to note Amendment X, which says:

The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the states, are reserved to the states respectively, or to the people.

This covers a lot of ground, and I imagine that Sullivan here would include marriage among those "powers not delegated... nor prohibited." But Sullivan's argument, relying as it does on Hannah Arendt, seems to place marriage at an even more basic level than the issue of voting.

But, yes: the Constitution does indeed deal with the "basic civil right" of voting. Amendment XV affirms that voting is a basic civil right when it addresses the issue of race:

Section 1. The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.
Section 2. The Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.

Amendment XIX comes along and widens the issue further by making sex a non-issue:

The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.
Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.

Amendment XXVI makes age a non-issue, so long as a citizen is 18 or older:

Section 1. The right of citizens of the United States, who are 18 years of age or older, to vote, shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or any state on account of age.
Section 2. The Congress shall have the power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.

So the Constitution does indeed seem to have a lot to say about the "basic civil right" of voting. If Sullivan is arguing that marriage (gay or hetero) is a basic civil right, he may have trouble reconciling how the Constitution deals with basic civil rights in Amendments XV, XIX, and XXVI, and how it deals with states' rights in Amendment X. It almost seems that Sullivan should be arguing for a constitutional amendment making sexual orientation a non-issue for marriage, if he maintains along with Arendt that marriage is a basic right prior even to voting.

I became aware of this inconsistency in Sullivan's position while I was writing the previous Sullivan-heavy post. Sullivan is right to point out that marriage regulation is currently a states' rights issue, and he is probably correct to confine his fight to that arena. But in employing Arendt's emotionalism to argue his case, he seems inadvertently to be pushing to make this a federal issue. There may in fact be cause for this: to the extent that the gay community remains marginalized in American society (and this is true no matter how prevalent gay-friendly dramas and sitcoms may appear on TV), this is a "sit in the back of the bus" justice issue.

My own instinct, now that I've seen this inconsistency, is to agree with Sullivan's current tactic of arguing his case at the states' rights level. The reality is that marriage is regulated at the state level. Barring a major social upheaval, this is, I think, where the argument should rest for the moment. At the same time, I think Sullivan is correct to maintain that marriage is a basic civil right, since this is, at heart, his response to those who believe gay marriage to constitute a less urgent issue.

Whether one grants that marriage is a basic civil right is crucial to understanding people's position with regard to gay marriage.

[UPDATE, January 23, 2004: I've since changed my position on this, largely thanks to Dr. Keith Burgess-Jackson's arguments re: the inconsistency of Sullivan's faux-federalism. I am now firmly in the (small) camp that advocates a constitutional amendment that makes one's sexual orientation irrelevant-- on the legal level-- to the question of marriage.]


The Maximum Leader, in his very meaty post on this subject, writes:

While I am not trying to say that the adoption of homosexual marriage laws in the United States will be the equivalent of the overthrow of all society and culture[, it] is one more step down a path [whose] end I am confident is not a pleasant one. Sometimes you just have to plant the flag, and hope someone will rally to it.

Sullivan deals with "hell in a handbasket" arguments fairly directly. His strongest argument is this:

The argument that gay marriage would subtly undermine the unique legitimacy of straight marriage is based upon a fallacy. For heterosexuals, straight marriage would remain the most significant--and only legal social bond. Gay marriage could only delegitimize straight marriage if it were a real alternative to it, and this is clearly not true. To put it bluntly, there's precious little evidence that straights could be persuaded by any law to have sex with--let alone marry--someone of their own sex. The only possible effect of this sort would be to persuade gay men and women who force themselves into heterosexual marriage (often at appalling cost to themselves and their families) to find a focus for their family instincts in a more personally positive environment. But this is clearly a plus, not a minus: gay marriage could both avoid a lot of tortured families and create the possibility for many happier ones. It is not, in short, a denial of family values. It's an extension of them.

Elsewhere, Sullivan notes that gays constitute perhaps three percent of the population, and goes so far as to call them "a permanent minority." Sullivan places his stress on the word "permanent" (as in, "Deal with it... we're not going away"), whereas I prefer to place my stress on the word "minority."

The "hell in a handbasket" argument is a response to a perceived threat. To subscribe to it, one has to feel threatened-- perhaps not immediately threatened, but threatened all the same, because of one's feeling of belonging to (or possession of) whatever is being threatened. When I say this, I'm not claiming that feeling threatened = cowardice. To rise up in defense of a perceived threat to one's family, for example, doesn't involve cowardice at all. So I leave that issue aside.

If gays are a permanent minority, there is simply no way we can view them as representing any kind of threat to heterosexual marriage. Even if every gay couple suddenly chose to marry within the next week, what exactly would this mean on the larger scale? Are there studies out there demonstrating that gays who marry also tend to be in positions of great power-- i.e., somehow able to effect sweeping, top-down, gay-friendly social changes? I doubt it. Are there studies indicating that gays tend to be found only in certain socio-economic strata? Again, I doubt it. The net effect of gay marriage on hetero marriage is zero (or close to it!), and Sullivan makes the case well when he says that no hetero will ever be persuaded to marry someone of the same sex: gay marriage is not an alternative to straight marriage.

On misperceiving threats: an example from Sankara's advaita vedanta school of Hinduism, in talking about the mental phenomenon of subration, i.e., moving from an inferior, clouded level of perception to a truer level: You walk into a dark room and see, coiled in the corner, a snake. Quickly, you bring your lantern to bear, illuminating the snake. You see that, in fact, it's just a coiled rope. For an instant, you felt threatened. What you realized when you perceived truly, however, was that no threat existed. The snake seemed real enough; in fact, it wasn't real. Sullivan claims the "hell in a handbasket" argument is based on a fallacy; I claim that, at least in the case of gay marriage, it's based on a simple misperception of the actual situation.

The "hell in a handbasket" argument involves moving quickly to an extreme case, a bit like jumping to the conclusion that your house will collapse when a chip of paint flakes off the wall. Actually, it's not wrong to conclude from this that your house is impermanent! But there's an emotional misstep occurring here: most of us in fact don't live in constant fear of our house's collapse, even as we recognize the house can't last forever. Whether we view our house's impermanence negatively or as something that's only natural will determine how we live in and deal with that house. This is directly applicable to one's view of the House of Marriage.

In an open and fairly progressive society like America's, it seems to me that a gay-inclusive notion of marriage is simply part of the natural flow of American society. It doesn't necessarily indicate that some sort of degradation is occurring. There is a case to be made that this kind of inclusiveness is in fact beneficial. Attachment to a narrow, specific, inviolable definition of marriage (Sullivan notes that the reality defined by the term "marriage" has been undergoing constant change, a rather Buddhist observation for a Catholic) only leads to one's own suffering (in the form of worry, etc.) and possibly to others' suffering (should such an inflexible attitude be expressed to others and/or acted on).

The reality of marriage is a human reality, not something inscribed in the cosmos. Marriage is as we define it, and to say it's rooted in biology/family is simply to define it in terms of biology/family. This is human arbitrariness which gains momentum as tradition. No cosmic imperatives enter the discussion.

To anticipate the typically dualistic response at this point: "So you're saying marriage can be defined any old way, irrespective of tradition, history, and the fact that the traditional definiton does imply biological reality, etc.?"

This cannot be stressed enough: when the nondualist notes the lack of essence in a term, concept, argument, or position, he is not therefore arguing that the term, concept, etc. has no value at all, nor that it should simply be ignored in favor of a "let's do whatever we want" style of living. The same "leap to extremes" tendency that produces the "hell in a handbasket" argument is operative when the dualist asks this question, because he assumes my position, like his, must oscillate between the stark black-and-white of P and not-P. Unable to see past his own dualism, he is often compelled to view situations in terms of their extremes.

So I would never argue that marriage should mean... just anything. When I acknowledge along with Sullivan that the reality behind the term "marriage" is always moving, I am not therefore implying that we can/should start marrying our livestock (to use a Scottish example... cough). If anything, I'm being a realist: the term "marriage" is in fact applied to a rather wide variety of scenarios already (including homosexual marriage, since plenty of gays have already gotten married!). Do you consider mass weddings in the Moonie Church to be "real" marriages? No? Well, too bad: they're called marriages, anyway. To argue specifically against gay-inclusive definitions of marriage is a high-handed attempt to legislate meaning.

One last note: the perception of threat also arises from a feeling of possession of or belonging to the thing threatened. Indeed, people who view hetero marriage as an institution that may be degraded by gay interlopers are adopting an unjustifiably proprietary viewpoint, reifying "marriage" into an object for possession and control (recall the teddy bear image from my essay on right and wrong: when you try to pull the teddy bear away, the child desperately clutching the teddy goes nuts! On a smaller scale, the feeling of being threatened is rooted in the same dynamic of attachment to a thing that at no point ever truly "belongs" to one).

CS Lewis wrote about this in The Screwtape Letters (I only vaguely remember this, so bear with me and write in with corrections). The senior devil tells the junior devil, at one point, that one great human weakness is the inability to distinguish various forms of "my." When a person says "my teddy bear," then that implies the teddy bear lies in his control; it's his to play with or destroy as he pleases. But this same word "my" gets used in phrases where such control doesn't exist, as in "my God" or "my country" or "my church." Something like this dynamic is at work when people adopt a proprietary view of marriage: a misapprehension of which "my" is applicable to a given question.

So if you don't like Buddhist examples of attachment, at least listen to CS Lewis, because he's on to something!


The Maximum Leader writes:

For the sake of open and honest disclosure, I have a problem with homosexual behavior. My problem, firmly rooted in a Judeo-Christian upbringing, is that I believe that homosexual behavior is wrong by virtue of it being against the "laws of God/Nature."

This sums up the basic religious conservative argument, though the Maximum Leader's position differs somewhat. In fact, I need to address something he says:

What about the "it's not natural argument?" I have read many articles attempting to prove that homosexual behavior is "natural" because there is behavior in the animal world that can be characterized as being analogous to homosexuality among man. I disagree with these arguments. I find it odd that we will use the animal kingdom to justify behavior among humans when it suits us. We wouldn't justify polygamy using examples from the animal kingdom? Would we?

I think the Maximum Leader is right to note that we turn to the animal kingdom when it suits us. From holy scriptures to evolutionary psychology, human behavior has been compared to and correlated with the behaviors of animals and even insects. We do indeed resort to such examples when it's convenient.

But in the specific case of the "it's not natural" argument, the original reason this argument was promulgated by religious conservatives was the false belief that homosexual behavior was simply nonexistent in the animal kingdom, a belief that, despite massive evidence to the contrary, persists today. The basic point, of course, was that this meant only humans were capable of homosexual behavior, which in turns buttressed the theological point that homosexual behavior, along with being forbidden by scripture, was perverse even in the eyes of nature. It was the twisting of God's creation.

"Did God create Adam and Eve, or did He create Adam and Steve?"

I personally am not too impressed with theological arguments against homosexuality, because I don't literally subscribe to the relevant scriptures. Nor am I impressed when a religious conservative (I am at pains here to exclude the Maximum Leader, who despite his claims about "Judeo-Christian upbringing," has proven himself repeatedly capable of, uh, transcending that upbringing) shows his ignorance of current biology. Homosexual behavior in the animal kingdom is plentiful. Scott Bidstrup writes an essay on the subject (found here). He says, in part:

"The universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose."
--J.B.S. Haldane, evolutionary biologist

The "Crime Against Nature"

Sodomy has been stigmatized for century upon century, and in many cultures across the world and through time, mostly seeking to stigmatize relationships between members of the same sex. Almost invariably, when it is criminalized, those who criminalize it (or would do so) refer to it as the "crime against nature" or the "sin against nature." The presumption is that homosexual behavior is a perversion, and a uniquely human perversion, engaged in as the result of what is presumed to be a learned attraction to members of the same sex.

There's only one problem with that assumption: None of it is true.

J.B.S. Haldane may not have had homosexuality in mind when he uttered his famous quote about a queer universe, but it has proven to be far more prescient than he could ever have imagined. In the approximately 1,000 to 3,000 species whose behavior has been well researched and described in the literature, approximately 450 have been shown to have clear homosexual behaviors. As we'll learn in this essay, homosexuality is not at all exclusively a western, European cultural pattern as some Christian and Muslim fundamentalists and Afrocentrists (and even some African politicians) have long maintained. It's not even unique to humans. And any homosexual behavior you care to name - anal sex, same sex kissing, long-term pair bonding between members of the same sex, courtship rituals unique to homosexual couples, all these and many more are all commonly found in the animal kingdom.

The "it's not natural" argument originated in what we today might call religiously conservative circles. It's been around a long, long time, and has no support from the modern scientific community. Which makes me wonder why the Maximum Leader writes the following:

I do not know what the "cause" of homosexuality is. It has not been proved, to me at least, that there is a genetic predisposition towards homosexuality. (Frankly, I do not believe any particular personality trait has been successfully linked to a particular gene or genetic code.) I believe that ultimately it is a choice a person makes. When the question is posed to me "Why would a person choose a lifestyle that could cause them to be discriminated against or even killed?" I don't know.

There is, nowadays, too much literature out there on the biological roots of most homosexual human behavior for this position to be tenable, except in exceptional cases like Ann Heche (who, we have to admit, made the gay community nervous because she was a prominent figure who quite consciously chose to give her love to Ellen Degeneres).

This isn't something I care to argue by using evidence from gay-sponsored websites. The very fact that such sites are gay-sponsored may make them suspect, so I've turned to simple medical references. One scientific article found through says the following:

["Homosexuality" by William H Wilson, MD, Associate Professor, Department of Psychiatry, Oregon Health Sciences University; and Douglas A Bigelow, PhD, Associate Professor, Department of Psychiatry, Oregon Health Sciences University; found via search at, enter "homosexuality" into site search engine]

At the very least, biological factors have an influence on variations in fundamental cognitive and emotional processes, which together determine temperament, intensity of sexual urges, desire for nurture versus adventurousness, and the like. These characteristics influence how an individual reacts to social opportunities and could influence choices. At most, gender orientation is profoundly influenced by biological factors. At this point, data are simply insufficient to know how much of the variance in gender orientation should be credited to biological factors.

While the authors grant that we can't yet know the extent to which biology plays a role, it does play a role in sexuality. As one online writer smartly put it: "When, exactly, did you choose to be a heterosexual?" This is as odious a question as "When, exactly, did you go gay?"

With regard to the psychological aspect of the homosexuality question, the authors of this article write:

The status of homosexuality in psychiatric theory and practice has undergone a remarkable transformation in the past 35 years (Krajeski, 1996). For much of the 20th century, homosexuality was regarded as a personality defect, a symptom of psychiatric illness, or a psychiatric illness in its own right. In the early 1970s, homosexuality was removed from the American Psychiatric Association's list of mental disorders with the recognition that homosexuality in and of itself is not pathologic. That point of view has continued to the present and has gathered strength through the years. As with almost every issue in psychiatry, a minority opinion exists. Some psychiatric theorists continue to assert the pathology of homosexuality, but they are well outside the mainstream of contemporary psychiatric theory.

So homosexuality has not been regarded as a disorder by the greater scientific community since the early 1970s. I suppose one could insist on siding with the minority opinion...

One of my favorite resources, the Merck Manual, has this to say about homosexuality:

About 4 to 5% of the population are preferentially homosexual for their entire lives. Since 1973, the American Psychiatric Association has not considered homosexuality a disorder. Like heterosexuality, homosexuality results from complex biologic and environmental factors leading to an almost inevitable preference in the selection of a sexual partner. FOR MOST, IT IS NOT A MATTER OF CHOICE. Nevertheless, many people, including physicians, regard homosexuality as immoral and sinful, and a physician's intense aversion to homosexuality (homophobia) may interfere with appropriate care of homosexuals.

[all-caps were added], an increasingly popular online medical reference, is rather terse on the subject of homosexuality:

Why Are Some People Homosexual or Bisexual?

Most scientists today agree that sexual orientation is the result of a combination of environmental, emotional, hormonal, and biological factors. In other words, there are many factors that contribute to a person's sexual orientation, and the factors may be different for different people.

However, homosexuality and bisexuality are not caused by the way a child was reared by his or her parents, or by having a sexual experience with someone of the same sex when the person was young. Also, being homosexual or bisexual does not mean the person is mentally ill or abnormal in some way, although there may be social problems that result from prejudicial attitudes or misinformation.


Can a Person's Sexual Orientation Be Changed?

Most experts agree that sexual orientation IS NOT A CHOICE and, therefore, cannot be changed. Some people who are homosexual or bisexual may hide their sexual orientation and/or live as heterosexuals to avoid the prejudice that exists against people who are homosexual and bisexual or to avoid their own moral dilemmas felt when their sexual orientation is incompatible with their personal beliefs.

[emphasis added]

In other words, the current, mainstream medical wisdom is that one's homosexuality, whatever factors may produce it, is in most cases not a matter of choice.

I've tried to make my points in this section without resorting to data from gay advocacy sites, or from religiously conservative sites. By going straight to the mainstream medical community, I hope to dispel the backward misconception that most homosexuality can be described in hurtful terms of perversion, disorder, or unnaturalness. And as to whether homosexuality is a choice: in most cases, it's not.

To me, this means that homosexuality is, for the most part, on about the same moral plane as one's preference for-- or hatred of-- onions on pizza. I should mention, at this point, that I share with the Maximum Leader a certain instinctual discomfort about gay male behavior. Put simply, I don't like watching guys kiss (women kissing... that's another issue). Should this bother a homosexual? I should hope not, so long as we both understand that this dislike is, in my view, no different from my refusal to eat pizza with onions on it. It's a preference I can't control, and while I, like the Maximum Leader, may tolerate gay male behavior, this doesn't mean I'll be able to change my tastes. I think Sullivan is also acknowledging this when he argues that gay marriage simply isn't an option for heterosexuals. Some things we can't change.

My point with the above "onion" image, though, is that just as an onion lover doesn't judge me according to my hatred of onions, I don't judge them for their love of onions. To spell this out, then: while the gay person really has no grounds for resenting my distaste of male-male kissing, I have no grounds for condemning it just because I find it distasteful. In this matter of unalterable tastes, the Maximum Leader and I share a certain narrow common ground.


Another friend of mine, AM, has made a compelling case that gay and straight marriage are fundamentally different, and this difference is rooted in biological reality. At one point, he writes:

I think my feelings on the subject of gay marriage are rooted in children. Or rather, the ability to have children. And my feelings are completely subjective, based on my one data point of marriage. Marriage is the potential beginning of a family. More to the point, it's the joining of two families, and the beginning of a new family. ...This is something that is a natural extension of a marriage to me. The potential to have kids, and start a family. It's a soul altering experience in a very real sense. It's really dificult to quantify or describe. And this is something that is the exclusive domain of a hetero marriage due to biology, or whatever.

As our discussion evolved, the focus became more and more on the very specific question of how kids arrive-- the experience the mother goes through while pregnant, the experience the father goes through during the same time span, the moment of birth, the "soul altering" realization that one is a parent, etc.

Without recapping the entire discussion (which has spanned quite a few spirited emails), my position remains as I described above: the label "marriage" is a descriptor for a moving-- not fixed-- reality. While AM has very convincingly described his experience as husband and father, and made quite clear how natural he feels it is to flow, in thinking, from "marriage" to "family," I don't feel he's made a case relevant to the wider issue.

Sullivan again (from "Marriage or Bust"):

...[Hillary Clinton's] appeal to the moral, historical, and religious content of an institution unchanged since "the beginning of time." But even a cursory historical review reveals this to be fragile. The institution of civil marriage, like most human institutions, has undergone vast changes over the last two millennia. If marriage were the same today as it has been for 2,000 years, it would be possible to marry a twelve-year-old you had never met, to own a wife as property and dispose of her at will, or to imprison a person who married someone of a different race. And it would be impossible to get a divorce. One might equally say that New York's senators are men and have always been men. Does that mean a woman should never be a senator from New York?

The point Sullivan's making (the point I called "Buddhist" earlier) is that the reality behind the word "marriage" is evolving, always has been, and (it's reasonable to assume) always will. Because AM's position is so specifically rooted to experience, he undermines any general case he might hope to make. Marriage, as a point of simple fact, is an umbrella term that includes childless couples, couples who adopt, etc. A sudden focus on one very specific aspect of marriage might make sense to AM and his particular situation, but what broader implications can be teased from it?

The question strikes me as very similar to the battle going on between conservative, exclusivist Christians and pluralist Christians (if you haven't heard of this battle, that's because the battlefield lies, for the most part, in academe).

The conservative claim about Jesus is that he is unique. Unique as in, The One and Only. The conservative Christian is imagining the playing field in the shape of a mountain, with Jesus on the summit, which can be occupied by only one person. It may be uncomfortable for other people that only Jesus can occupy that position, but that's the direct implication of the pinnacle analogy, whine and cry all you want.

The pinnacle analogy grants Jesus two things: uniqueness and normativity. Christian pluralists have no trouble with Jesus' uniqueness (just as I have no trouble with AM's contention that the hetero set of experiences is different from the gay set of experiences), but pluralists do not envision this as a pinnacle: they see Jesus as residing more or less on a level playing field. Most pluralists (not all) prefer this way of imagining things because it acknowledges Jesus' uniqueness while refusing to grant him normative status.

Something of this normativity is visible in AM's contention about what is unique to the hetero married experience. Although AM claims no value judgements against gay married couples, this negative valuation becomes evident when he argues:

What I'm afraid of is that a broader definition of marriage will reduce the perceived importance of the relationship between family and marriage.

I believe AM when he says he is neither greatly concerned about the prospect of legalizing gay marriage, nor in any practical way against said legalization. He and I agree on 99% of the particulars, but I still feel he may be revealing his own negative valuation of gay marriage when he emphasizes hetero marriage's uniqueness and expresses concern over what will happen to the institution (i.e. the hetero institution) of marriage.


Is marriage about family? I think the fairest answer is: It can be, and in fact it is for most people. That's an undeniable reality. But because marriage is a term describing a reality that is constantly in flux, I feel it's healthier all around to adopt a non-proprietary attitude toward both the term and the reality. Unlike sexual orientation or a hatred of onions, things not necessarily amenable to reason, I believe the proprietary attitude (and much homophobia) is quite amenable to reason.

The Maximum Leader's essay makes the case that reason itself is problematic. I may have to re-read his essay, but he seems to be saying two very different things about reason. On the one hand:

The Framers of the American Constitution, and thus the framers of our overall political system, acted (perhaps inadvertently) in a rather Hobbesian manner at the time of the founding. While textbooks and American History professors highlight the ideas of the Enlightenment as a guiding influence on the Framers, there was another influence. In true Hobbesian fashion, the Framers use both their reason (an Enlightenment tendency) and their experience when framing our political system. If the Framers had used only their reason (in the tradition of Locke, Voltaire, and Rousseau) who knows what system they would have created. To be sure (if I may corrupt Lincoln), it would not have long endured. Because Reason (Rationality if you will), in and of itself is a destructive faculty.

Why would I say that reason is a destructive faculty? Put simply, outside of science and mathematics, reason can take you anywhere you want to go - if you just define the terms and set your parameters early on. I think I finally learned this during my freshman year at college. I listened to a debate between two philosophy professors concerning abortion. While I will not go into that subject here, the style of the debate opened my eyes. The professor arguing for abortion started out by soliciting a few characteristics that make men "human beings." These included the ability to reason, to use language, to create tools, and others. And using these premises (after some redefinition) she created a logically sound, completely rational, argument proving that abortion should be legal, safe, and available. Of course the other professor confronted her with the unpleasant fact that using her argument one could justify killing infants up to about the age of 6 months. This didn't faze the professor making the argument. She simply said, "Of course. We've determined that they aren't really human before that age."

The simple declaration is put forth that reason is a destructive faculty. I'm not comfortable with this. However, the Maximum Leader immediately writes the following:

The use of reason, unchecked, can - and often has - been used to justify some of the most horrific acts in human history. The Terror of the French Revolution, very rational. The mass-murders of the Communists around the world, all justified by the system of scientific socialism espoused first by Marx. (And later modified to ghastly perfection by Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, and Fidel Castro.)

There is, to my mind, an enormous difference between declaring that reason is a destructive faculty, and merely that it can be so. As far as I'm concerned, there is nothing inherently destructive about reason ("inherent destructiveness" is a stand taken by many postmodernists who view reason-- or "rationality"-- through a consequentialist lens and deem it the primary cause of the so-called "death event" that was the 20th century). Reason is merely a tool, and when the Maximum Leader introduces that auxiliary verb "can" into his argument, he's acknowledging this.

The Maximum Leader's dire picture of where reason can lead us is softened, he contends, by the addition of experience to the equation. I'm not against this view that reason and experience operate well together. Because I've argued from a primarily nondualist viewpoint that borrows heavily from a Buddhist metaphysic, I actually agree that there should be an empirical element wedded to our use of reason! But what is the Maximum Leader contending? If I'm not mistaken, he's contending that a slow but steady perversion of the notion of "equality" has been occurring in American society (though I'm kind of lost about where reason fits in toward the end of the argument... I need to reread).

To wit:

We in America evolved from the Anglo-western tradition that began with despotism and morphed into feudal monarchy, limited monarchy, constitutional monarchy, and finally a constitutional republic. Along the way the legal system itself morphed from being nothing more than the whims of the King to a complex system of rules and precedence passed on from generation to generation. And it is in the very slow evolution of our legal and political system that we find the kernel of the problem of equality.

The Anglo-American legal tradition has been based for many centuries on equal treatment, equal justice if you will, under law. If we all agree to abide by the laws (and not force the state to compel us to obey them) we'll be all right. Equal justice under law. Equal access to the courts. Equal consideration by judges. Equal treatment by the laws themselves. This is the nature of equality espoused by the Anglo-American tradition. This is the essence of equality upon which our nation was founded.

This concept of equal treatment under law did not mandate equal outcomes to all. After all, we have centuries of experience (tradition and custom) that demonstrate for us that there is no such thing as an equal outcome. What we should strive for is a system that doesn't stand in the way of individuals acting in a responsible fashion within society. We should respect the law, and be tolerant of those people who, although different from us, choose to abide by the same laws and institutions we do.

[and later]

What has started to happen in our modern society is that many people have taken up the rational Enlightenment language of the Framers while at the same time discarding their experience and our traditions and culture. These people are generally identified as Liberals. However, don't let labels fool you, there are plenty of Moderates and Conservatives who are guilty of exactly the same folly.

People have started to apply a different definition to the terms we use as a medium of political discourse. By changing the definition of the words we use, they hope to also change the truth or idea that the word or term was supposed to represent. Two of the words most under assault are equality and toleration. Indeed, they have become largely synonymous. We are asked to tolerate behavior by assenting to the notion that no one behavior is better than another. Since no behavior is better than another, they are all equal. And when behaviors, or the people that exhibit them, are all equal there is no rational basis to object to them.

It is through this process of redefinition and rational process that we are [losing] the valuable anchor that is provided by custom and tradition. It is custom and tradition that provide continuity to civilization and prevent us from sliding into the abyss of barbarity at any moment. This is not to say that we will never change the way things are, but we should value the tried and tested things that are before discarding them for a logical idea; or a plan that seems "well thought through."

What people advocating homosexual marriage are asking us to do is to substantively do away with a significant element of our societal traditions when it comes to the family. The family is a societal concept suffering from the erosion of rationality. The "traditional" notion of family is the object of assault, because it is based, ultimately, on religious custom and tradition. One can also make an argument for a biological basis for family as well. The institution of the family is at its core, an irrational one.

I disagree with the Maximum Leader on several points. When he writes, "It is custom and tradition that provide continuity to civilization and prevent us from sliding into the abyss of barbarity at any moment," I'm with him until the alarmist ending of that sentence. Sociologist Peter Berger used the Greek term nomos (law) to refer to the social order embodied in tradition, an order that in many ways appears to assume an objective reality. Berger contends that "objectification" is one of the steps we go through as we become more and more inculturated into our society: we come to accept that "society" and "the law(s)" all exist in some real sense outside our heads. Because these notions become objectified, they do indeed carry weight and momentum. Most traffic laws written before I was born will be applicable to American drivers long after I die, for example. In this sense, the nomos is indeed objective: its existence is independent of my own individual existence.

And social order, whether we call it tradition or something else, has its salubrious aspect. Far be it from me to deny tradition's significance. But let it be known that traditions have beginnings; they come from somewhere, are made before they are passed on, and in the final analysis, traditions-- and the larger nomos-- reside in the mind. My metaphysical point is the same as it always is: we're talking about frangible, dynamic, impermanent realities. While tradition and law are important for the structure they provide to the system, that same system also requires dynamism to stay viable. An alarmist viewpoint that equates dynamism with collapse does not, in my opinion, contribute constructively to society. I advocate the abandonment of such alarmism in favor of a more balanced view of order and chaos (what process theologians politely call "novelty").

The Maximum Leader also writes above, "What people advocating homosexual marriage are asking us to do is to substantively do away with a significant element of our societal traditions when it comes to the family." I completely disagree. The entry of a small demographic into the larger realm does not equate to the overthrow of the larger realm. What traditions are being done away with, as we move through "traditional" marriages/families on a case-by-case basis? What traditions will the Maximum Leader cast aside at the advent of legalized gay marriage? What traditional families will now suffer the awful tyranny of rampant homosexuality as a fraction of that fearsome, overwhelming 3-5% of the population makes that terrifying, society-eroding matrimonial commitment?

I'm being somewhat facetious in tone, but I hope I'm making clear that this problem isn't even a problem. In the end, the reality is that gays are already getting married in religious ceremonies across the country. The final step, for gays in America, is obtaining legal recognition, whatever the lingering religious issues. Further, Sullivan is probably right that gays represent a "permanent minority," with his stress on "permanent" and my stress on "minority." Modern science is leaning heavily toward the idea that homosexuality is perfectly natural, and if you subscribe to evolutionary theory and grant that homosexual behavior has been occurring in life forms on "less developed" branches of the evolutionary tree, there is no justification for the irrational belief that homosexuality is a perversion, a disorder, or even a choice (save in a few cases). And if marriage (without qualifiers) is a basic civil right, then at the very least you agree that any legislation against gay marriage should occur on the state level.

I don't believe that instinctive distaste for homosexual behavior equates to homophobia. I do believe that it's homophobic to stand in the way of one element of social progress that by no means signifies the collapse of gentle society. In the end, there don't seem to be many tenable arguments against homosexual marriage-- they're either overly medieval ("unnatural, evil, perverse"), or overly specific ("unique experience"), or forwarded in denial of actual reality ("marriage is about family," which ignores the reality that many hetero couples have no intention of starting families).

So I think we should go for it and let Adam and Steve get hitched.

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