Friday, September 05, 2003

the unimpressed, the testicle-free, and Andrew Sullivan on gay marriage

The Unimpressed

Neither of my closest friends seemed impressed by my link yesterday. They both wrote asking, basically, "And... what, exactly, were we supposed to see?" Well, as I said, this was a "captured on film" moment for me: a freeze-frame on a sweeping scale of some of the more urgent ideological debates going on inside (and outside) US borders. So the best answer I can give is: one-stop shopping. You get to see a lot on a single scrolling page. Many issues covered, many personality types in view. Summaries and subtext. Other comment threads have this as well, I grant, but I think I was also charged up by Glenn Reynolds's intro to the link. Some of the liberal posters seemed to confirm Reynolds's sentiment. If you didn't find the thread as enlightening as I did, that's probably because you're not lazy and you already scan a lot of different political sites for your daily intake of ideology. I, however, have always had a Cliff's Notes, survey-course streak in me, and this kind of link fit the bill too nicely for me to sit on it with out saying anything. That's why I said something. Still not impressed? That's fine. It's a free country, I think. Mr. Ashcroft? It... is still a free country, yes? Heh.

Gawd. I graduated from Catholic University last year, in May. Ashcroft was our speaker during the "main" portion of the graduation ceremony. I don't remember a thing he said. Lynne Cheney spoke to the School of Languages and Linguistics undergrads (or just-grads) in 1991. I remember she had, like, Three Points to Remember. Or was it Five Points? Hell if I know. Maybe it was Five Pillars, or Four Noble Truths, or something.

The Testicle-free

Yours truly. Ball-less, after spending 40 minutes inside a Hello Kitty shop on Chongno Street. I could actually feel my scrotum shrinking while I was walking around, examining pink thermoses and glossy, kitten-patterned lunchboxes to send my goddaughter for her birthday (happily, one day after North Korea's anniversary... HAPPY NUKE TEST, RACHAEL!). If the Infidel were to accuse me of being a girly-man right now, I'd have no choice but to acknowledge the truth. I have no balls at this moment. (They're currently soaking in re-masculation solution and should be full size again tomorrow morning.)

Hello Kitty is like a focused Kryptonite beam aimed straight at the male crotch. I'm not kidding-- that ENTIRE SHOP was floor-to-ceiling plastic pussy.

Andrew Sullivan on Gay Marriage

I'm all for homosexual matrimony being fully recognized and providing all the benefits to gay and lesbian couples currently enjoyed by hetero couples. Before I write my own specific material, however, I want Andrew Sullivan to do a lot of my talking for me. I'll be quoting excerpts from some of his essays on gay marriage, not so much in response to anything the Maximum Leader or anyone else has written, but because Sullivan, being in the thick of it, has written voluminously and eloquently on the subject. The following selections won't address everything I want to cover, so a second post with more Hominid-heavy content will be excreted soon.

Let's start with Sullivan's latest post. He provides an excerpt from a Washington Post article by Alan Simpson. That excerpt in full:

In our system of government, laws affecting family life are under the jurisdiction of the states, not the federal government. This is as it should be. After all, Republicans have always believed that government actions that affect someone's personal life, property and liberty - including, if not especially, marriage - should be made at the level of government closest to the people. Indeed, states already actively regulate marriage. For example, 37 states have passed their own version of the Defense of Marriage Act.

I do not argue in any way that we should now sanction gay marriage. Reasonable people can have disagreements about it. That people of goodwill would disagree was something our Founders fully understood when they created our federal system. They saw that contentious social issues would best be handled in the legislatures of the states, where debates could be held closest to home. That's why we should let the states decide how best to define and recognize any legally sanctioned unions - marriage or otherwise.

As someone who is basically a conservative, I see not an argument about banning marriage or "defending" families but rather a power grab. Conservatives argue vehemently about federal usurpation of other issues best left to the states, such as abortion or gun control. Why would they elevate this one to the federal level?

Sullivan's comment to the above:

Why indeed? Unwarranted fear; baseless panic; fundamentalist fervor. Three things conservatives have always been against. And should be today.

Yes, I think there's a certain unwarranted something happening in the mind of anyone who puts forth a "hell in a handbasket" argument. Maybe it's fear. Maybe it's defensiveness. Maybe it's something else entirely. I want to discuss this at length in my second, Hominid-heavy post.

Moving now to Sullivan's essays...

Sullivan writes in a 1989 piece titled "Here Comes the Groom":

Legalizing gay marriage would offer homosexuals the same deal society now offers heterosexuals: general social approval and specific legal advantages in exchange for a deeper and harder-to-extract-yourself-from commitment to another human being. Like straight marriage, it would foster social cohesion, emotional security, and economic prudence. Since there's no reason gays should not be allowed to adopt or be foster parents, it could also help nurture children. And its introduction would not be some sort of radical break with social custom. As it has become more acceptable for gay people to acknowledge their loves publicly, more and more have committed themselves to one another for life in full view of their families and their friends. A law institutionalizing gay marriage would merely reinforce a healthy social trend. It would also, in the wake of AIDS, qualify as a genuine public health measure. Those conservatives who deplore promiscuity among some homosexuals should be among the first to support it. Burke could have written a powerful case for it.

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.

Of course, some would claim that any legal recognition of homosexuality is a de facto attack upon heterosexuality. But even the most hardened conservatives recognize that gays are a permanent minority and aren't likely to go away. Since persecution is not an option in a civilized society, why not coax gays into traditional values rather than rain incoherently against them?

There's a less elaborate argument for gay marriage: it's good for gays. It provides role models for young gay people who, after the exhilaration of coming out, can easily lapse into short-term relationships and insecurity with no tangible goal in sight. My own guess is that most gays would embrace such a goal with as much (if not more) commitment as straights. Even in our society as it is, many lesbian relationships are virtual textbook cases of monogamous commitment. Legal gay marriage could also help bridge the gulf often found between gays and their parents. It could bring the essence of gay life--a gay couple--into the heart of the traditional straight family in a way the family can most understand and the gay offspring can most easily acknowledge. It could do as much to heal the gay-straight rift as any amount of gay rights legislation.

If these arguments sound socially conservative, that's no accident. It's one of the richest ironies of our society's blind spot toward gays that essentially conservative social goals should have the appearance of being so radical. But gay marriage is not a radical step. It avoids the mess of domestic partnership; it is humane; it is conservative in the best sense of the word. It's also about relationships. Given that gay relationships will always exist, what possible social goal is advanced by framing the law to encourage those relationships to be unfaithful, undeveloped, and insecure?

Sullivan is right to take conservatives to task on this issue, which by all rights should be a conservative one.

In a 2001 piece, "Unveiled," Sullivan writes:

Perhaps concerned that their movement is sputtering, the opponents of same-sex marriage have turned to new arguments. Stanley Kurtz, the sharpest and fairest of these critics, summed up the case last week in National Review Online. For Kurtz and other cultural conservatives, the deepest issue is sex and sexual difference. "Marriage," Kurtz argues, "springs directly from the ethos of heterosexual sex. Once marriage loses its connection to the differences between men and women, it can only start to resemble a glorified and slightly less temporary version of hooking up."

Let's unpack this. Kurtz's premise is that men and women differ in their sexual-emotional makeup. Men want sex more than stability; women want stability more than sex. Heterosexual marriage is therefore some kind of truce in the sex wars. One side gives sex in return for stability; the other provides stability in return for sex. Both sides benefit, children most of all. Since marriage is defined as the way women tame men, once one gender is missing, this taming institution will cease to work. So, in Kurtz's words, a "world of same-sex marriages is a world of no-strings heterosexual hookups and 50 percent divorce rates."

But isn't this backward? Surely the world of no-strings heterosexual hookups and 50 percent divorce rates preceded gay marriage. It was heterosexuals in the 1970s who changed marriage into something more like a partnership between equals, with both partners often working and gender roles less rigid than in the past. All homosexuals are saying, three decades later, is that, under the current definition, there's no reason to exclude us. If you want to return straight marriage to the 1950s, go ahead. But until you do, the exclusion of gays is simply an anomaly--and a denial of basic civil equality.

A point I've tried to make in discussions with friends is that, given how tiny the gay minority is, whatever "degradation" may occur in the institution of marriage will occur primarily because of the failings of hetero couples (speaking on the whole, not about particular couples, obviously). Gays comprise too small a slice of the pie graph to represent any kind of threat to the institution, or even the notion, of marriage. And I reject the idea that gay marriage is in any way degrading. We can view such change positively, negatively, neutrally, or whatever. But it's our view that layers value on top of reality.

Sullivan continues:

...given the enormous step in gay culture that marriage represents, and given that marriage is entirely voluntary, I see no reason why gay male marriages shouldn't be at least as monogamous as straight ones. Perhaps those of us in the marriage movement need to stress the link between gay marriage and monogamy more clearly. We need to show how renunciation of sexual freedom in an all-male world can be an even greater statement of commitment than among straights. I don't think this is as big a stretch as it sounds. In Denmark, where de facto gay marriage has existed for some time, the rate of marriage among gays is far lower than among straights, but, perhaps as a result, the gay divorce rate is just over one-fifth that of heterosexuals. And, during the first six years in which gay marriage was legal, scholar Darren Spedale has found, the rate of straight marriages rose 10 percent, and the rate of straight divorces decreased by 12 percent. In the only country where we have real data on the impact of gay marriage, the net result has clearly been a conservative one.

When you think about it, this makes sense. Within gay subculture, marriage would not be taken for granted. It's likely to attract older, more mainstream gay couples, its stabilizing ripples spreading through both the subculture and the wider society. Because such marriages would integrate a long-isolated group of people into the world of love and family, they would also help heal the psychic wounds that scar so many gay people and their families. Far from weakening heterosexual marriage, gay marriage would, I bet, help strengthen it, as the culture of marriage finally embraces all citizens. How sad that some conservatives still cannot see that. How encouraging that, in such a short time, so many others have begun to understand.

In his 2000 "Marriage or Bust," Sullivan makes clear that he is not satisfied to "settle for" such compromises as civil unions and domestic partnerships.

The conditions, in short, were ripe for a compromise: a pseudomarital institution, designed specifically for gay couples, that would include most, even all, of the rights and responsibilities of civil marriage but avoid the word itself. And last week, in a historic decision, Vermont gave it to us: a new institution called "civil union."

Understandably, many gay rights groups seem ready to declare victory. They have long been uncomfortable with the marriage battle. The platform of this weekend's Millennium March on Washington for gay rights merely refers to security for all kinds of "families." The Human Rights Campaign, the largest homosexual lobbying group, avoids the m-word in almost all its literature. They have probably listened to focus groups that included people like my mother. "That's all very well," she told me in my first discussion with her on the subject, "but can't you call it something other than 'marriage?'"

The answer to that question is no. 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. The many advances of recent years--the "domestic partnership" laws passed in many cities and states, the generous package of benefits finally granted in Hawaii, the breakthrough last week in Vermont--should not be thrown out. But neither can they be accepted as a solution, as some straight liberals and gay pragmatists seem to want. In fact, these half-measures, far from undermining the case for complete equality, only sharpen it. For there are no arguments for civil union that do not apply equally to marriage. To endorse one but not the other, to concede the substance of the matter while withholding the name and form of the relationship, is to engage in an act of pure stigmatization. It risks not only perpetuating public discrimination against a group of citizens but adding to the cultural balkanization that already plagues American public life.

I'm curious about the part Sullivan glosses over: gay discomfort with the term "marriage." How widespread is this discomfort? How representative, then, is Sullivan's viewpoint?

Sullivan continues (after quoting Hillary Clinton on the subject of gay marriage):

So, if we accept that religion doesn't govern civil marriage and that civil marriage changes over time, we are left with a more nebulous worry. Why is this change to marriage more drastic than previous ones? This, I think, is what Clinton is getting at in her second point: "I think a marriage is as a marriage has always been: between a man and a woman." On the face of it, this is a statement of the obvious, which is why formulations of this kind have been favorites of those behind "defense of marriage" acts and initiatives across the country. But what, on further reflection, can it possibly mean? There are, I think, several possibilities.

The first is that marriage is primarily about procreation. It is an institution fundamentally designed to provide a stable environment for the rearing of children--and only a man and a woman, as a biological fact, can have their own children within such a marriage. So civil marriage is reserved for heterosexuals for a good, demonstrative reason. The only trouble with this argument is that it ignores the fact that civil marriage is granted automatically to childless couples, sterile couples, couples who marry too late in lifeto have children, couples who adopt other people's children, and so on. The proportion of marriages that conform to the "ideal"--two people with biological children in the home--has been declining for some time. The picture is further complicated by the fact that an increasing number of gay couples, especially women, also have children. Is there some reason a heterosexual couple without children should have the rights and responsibilities of civil marriage but a lesbian couple with biological children from both mothers should not? Not if procreation is your guide.

Indeed, if it is, shouldn't we exclude all childless couples from marriage? That, at least, would be coherent. But how would childless heterosexual couples feel about it? They would feel, perhaps, what gay couples now feel, which is that society is diminishing the importance of their relationships by consigning them to a category that seems inferior to the desired social standard. They would resist and protest. They would hardly be satisfied with a new legal relationship called civil union.

A friend of mine has written some very compelling emails about the powerful experience of becoming a husband, and then a father. This, he feels, is the unique province of hetero couples and constitutes a fundamental difference between hetero and gay marriage. He doesn't use the phrase "character building," but there is something of that in what my friend is saying when he contends that one is radically, profoundly, positively changed by the experience of married life and fatherhood.

Sullivan says:

Leave aside the odd idea that heterosexual relationships are more difficult than gay ones. The problem with the character-building argument is that today's marriage law is utterly uninterested in character. There are no legal requirements that a married couple learn from each other, grow together spiritually, or even live together. A random woman can marry a multimillionaire on a Fox TV special and the law will accord that marriage no less validity than a lifelong commitment between Billy Graham and his wife. The courts have upheld an absolutely unrestricted right to marry for deadbeat dads, men with countless divorces behind them, prisoners on death row, even the insane. In all this, we make a distinction between what religious and moral tradition expect of marriage and what civil authorities require to sanction it under law. It may well be that some religious traditions want to preserve marriage for heterosexuals in order to encourage uniquely heterosexual virtues. And they may have good reason to do so. But civil law asks only four questions before handing out a marriage license: Are you an adult; are you already married; are you related to the person you intend to marry; and are you straight? It's that last question that rankles. When civil law already permits the delinquent, the divorced, the imprisoned, the sterile, and the insane to marry, it seems--how should I put this?--revealing that it draws the line at homosexuals.

Indeed, there is no moral reason to support civil unions and not same-sex marriage unless you believe that admitting homosexuals would weaken a vital civil institution. This was the underlying argument for the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which implied that allowing homosexuals to marry constituted an "attack" on the existing institution. Both Gore and Bush take this position. Both Bill and Hillary Clinton have endorsed it. In fact, it is by far the most popular line of argument in the debate. But how, exactly, does the freedom of a gay couple to marry weaken a straight couple's commitment to the same institution? The obvious answer is that since homosexuals are inherently depraved and immoral, allowing them to marry would inevitably spoil, even defame, the institution of marriage. It would wreck the marital neighborhood, so to speak, and fewer people would want to live there. Part of the attraction of marriage for some heterosexual males, the argument goes, is that it confers status. One of the ways it does this is by distinguishing such males from despised homosexuals. If you remove that social status, you further weaken an already beleaguered institution.

This argument is rarely made explicitly, but I think it exists in the minds of many who supported the DOMA. One wonders, for example, what Bill Clinton or Newt Gingrich, both conducting or about to conduct extramarital affairs at the time, thought they were achieving by passing the DOMA. But, whatever its rationalization, this particular argument can only be described as an expression of pure animus. To base the prestige of marriage not on its virtues, responsibilities, and joys but on the fact that it keeps gays out is to engage in the crudest demagoguery. As a political matter, to secure the rights of a majority by eviscerating the rights of a minority is the opposite of what a liberal democracy is supposed to be about. It certainly should be inimical to anyone with even a vaguely liberal temperament.

Special note: my friend has no trouble with the idea of gays getting married, and seems to be for legalization (we'll get into this more later). Sullivan's argument, as you see above, is aimed at those not in favor of gay marriage, including those who would settle for civil unions and domestic partnerships. My friend finds himself in the unique position of feeling that legalizing gay marriage is indeed "the right thing" to do, while simultaneously subscribing to the "hell in a handbasket" view that the institution of marriage is somehow degraded ("we all lose") when it becomes more inclusive. More on this in another post.

Sullivan's continues:

There remains the more genuine worry that marriage is such a critical institution that we should tamper with it in any way only with extreme reluctance. This admirable concern seems to me easily the strongest argument against equal marriage rights. But it is a canard that gay men and women are unconcerned about the stability of heterosexual marriage. Most homosexuals were born into such relationships; we know and cherish them. It's precisely because these marriages are the context of most gay lives that homosexuals seek to be a part of them. But the inclusion of gay people is, in fact, a comparatively small change. It will affect no existing heterosexual marriage. It will mean no necessary change in religious teaching. If you calculate that gay men and women amount to about three percent of the population, it's likely they will make up perhaps one or two percent of all future civil marriages. The actual impact will be tiny. Compare it to, say, the establishment in this century of legal divorce. That change potentially affected not one percent but 100 percent of marriages and today transforms one marriage out of two. If any legal change truly represented the "end of marriage," it was forged in Nevada, not Vermont.

But if civil union gives homosexuals everything marriage grants heterosexuals, why the fuss? First, because such an arrangement once again legally divides Americans with regard to our central social institution. Like the miscegenation laws, civil union essentially creates a two-tiered system, with one marriage model clearly superior to the other. The benefits may be the same, as they were for black couples, but the segregation is just as profound. One of the greatest merits of contemporary civil marriage as an institution is its civic simplicity. Whatever race you are, whatever religion, whatever your politics or class or profession, marriage is marriage is marriage. It affirms a civil equality that emanates outward into the rest of our society. To carve within it a new, segregated partition is to make the same mistake we made with miscegenation. It is to balkanize one of the most important unifying institutions we still have. It is an illiberal impulse in theory and in practice, and liberals should oppose it.

And, second, because 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. I have been invited to my fair share of weddings. At no point, I think, has it dawned on any of the participants that I was being invited to a ceremony from which I was legally excluded. I have heard no apologies, no excuses, no reassurances that the couple marrying would support my own marriage or my legal right to it. Friends mention their marriages with ease and pleasure without it even occurring to them that they are flaunting a privilege constructed specifically to stigmatize the person they are talking to. They are not bad people; they are not homophobes. Like whites inviting token black guests to functions at all-white country clubs, they think they are extending you an invitation when they are actually demonstrating your exclusion. They just don't get it. And some, of course, never will.

There's one more thing. When an extremely basic civil right is involved, it seems to me the burden of proof should lie with those who seek to deny it to a small minority of citizens, not with those who seek to extend it. So far, the opposite has been the case. Those of us who have argued for this basic equality have been asked to prove a million negatives: that the world will not end, that marriage will not collapse, that this reform will not lead to polygamy and incest and bestiality and the fall of Rome. Those who wish to deny it, on the other hand, have been required to utter nothing more substantive than Hillary Clinton's terse, incoherent dismissal. Gore, for example, has still not articulated a persuasive reason for his opposition to gay marriage, beyond a one-sentence affirmation of his own privilege. But surely if civil marriage involves no substantive requirement that adult gay men and women cannot fulfill, if gay love truly is as valid as straight love, and if civil marriage is a deeper constitutional right than the right to vote, then the continued exclusion of gay citizens from civil marriage is a constitutional and political enormity. It is those who defend the status quo who should be required to prove their case beyond even the slightest doubt.

I'm not completely comfortable with Sullivan's country club analogy. I think plenty of hetero folks will invite gay friends, fully conscious of the harsh realities facing gays, but wanting those gay friends to attend their wedding not because they are "the token gays," but because they are simply friends. Perhaps there are indeed hetero couples who feel that having gay friends confers some kind of status or makes them look more open-minded. But I agree that, for too long, the burden of proof has rested on the wrong side of the discussion.

More on this later. Have fun digesting your Sullivan. His essays, from which I quoted above, are all available here.

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