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on the recent gay marriage vote

 As I mentioned earlier, my home state of New York just passed a law legalizing same-sex marriage. This is a cause I care about deeply because it drives home the fact that love isn’t defined by what’s between your legs. Because I grew up in a world where (feminism be damned) women were in their element within the home and family, laws like this offer a different vision of the way to structure life. Linda Hirschman over at Slate put this really well: gay marriage really is good for straight women.

This post isn't going to be a congratulatory note about the law. Nor is it going to be a defence or criticism of it, or a parsing on marriage vs. civil unions vs. whatever semantics, etc. See, as interested as I was in the issue, ultimately I found the political debate pretty unsatisfying. I'm a philosopher at heart and there are a lot of really interesting philosophical questions that homosexuality touches on. Questions worth thinking about.

Instead, we get an ear-full about how gay marriage will only affect homosexuals and the rest of us should just stay out of it. The thing, though, is that it does impact the non-LGBT. It affects everyone because we all live in the same society, and it's disingenuous to pretend otherwise. Two law suits related to state recognition of gay partnerships jump to mind: the Catholic Charities' suit that they be allowed to exclude couples in civil unions but not in marriages from being foster parents through their agency, and the suit brought by a gay couple refused a room by U.K. bed-and-breakfast owners Peter and Hazelmary Bull (the gay couple were part of a civil union, which the judge found was legally equivalent to marriage). You may say that those people shouldn't be discriminating against gay people, but that's not really the point. The point is that these changing laws affect straight people as well. I've always thought it was a cop-out to say heterosexuals had no skin in the game.

That word, discriminating, can have a nasty connotation. It doesn't have to, of course – technically, the word just means that you are good at separating into groups and that can be a good thing. (Think "discriminating palate.") Marriage of any kind, whenever there are benefits to go along with it, carries a certain cost. If people want a better tax rate, right to take over a lease, health insurance through a partner's work, whatever – these things cost someone money. The question is, is there a good reason to say heterosexual relationships are worth this cost and homosexual ones aren't? Otherwise it's a bad distinction.

Two possibilities spring to mind, and I see these ideas thrown around by the anti-LGBT crowds. First, there's the idea that marriage is for producing the next generation, and societies have a real interest in encouraging that. The biggest problem with that is, most people don't get married to have children. They marry someone because they love that person and want to make a life with them; and if children are part of that future, they don't seem to be the main point of the marriage. If we really believed marriage was just to produce children, you wouldn't see golden-age marriages. More importantly, this country has a bumper crop of kids. We have kids in foster care and waiting for adoption. And if that wasn't enough, there are whole overcrowded orphanages in Russia and China and India and Vietnam and everywhere else. Providing those kids with a stable family contributes to the next generation every bit as much as bringing another child into the world. Arguably moreso.

The other benefit people point to when explaining why marriage is a good thing is, love and companionship pushes us to become better people. Humans are social animals, we do best when we are in relationships and so it makes sense to encourage that in people because it helps people live a good kind of life – basically, there's a high happiness pay-off for relatively little investment of resources on society's part. At first this would seem to argue in favor of gay marriage (after all, homosexuals do best in relationships as well). But some people believe that men and women have very different natures, that they complement each other. The idea is that men make better spouses, friends, whatever for women than any woman ever could. Opposites attract, or in this case complement.

The trouble with this is, most people I know don't think gender is essential. To make that argument work, you have to be prepared to say that two people of opposite genders will always be better positioned to develop the right kind of relationship than people of the same gender would be. Which only seems possible if you're prepared to say there's certain character traits that are always found in men, and others in women. Otherwise the character traits that really complement you could be found in the same gender. In which case that same-sex relationship would be just as valid (and just as deserving of recognition and support, on this view) as a heterosexual relationship.

Put more personally: I'm straight because I tend to be attracted to men physically, and so I am interested in men with a certain character. When I think of love, I think of someone I'm drawn to physically and emotionally. The physical attraction is incidental (I might have been attracted to women), and so is the emotional connection (those character traits I am attracted to in men might also be found in a woman – there's nothing saying they have to be only in men). Need convincing? Watch one of the Star Trek episodes involving the Trill and romance, like "The Host" or "Rejoined."

The bottom line for me is this: if you can point to a way heterosexual and homosexual relationships are different – a significant way, one that bears on why we should support marriage to begin with – then it's not wrong to say some of the benefits of marriage shouldn't carry over to homosexuals. And only then. (Btw, as long as we're not talking about theocracies, "the Bible tells me so" won't cut it.) But also, the idea that it only concerns the LGBT doesn't cut it, either – it effects everyone. I tend to think that defining marriage as a way to develop love (and recognizing that, yes, the LGBT can love just as well as heterosexuals) is for everyone's good. That's why I'm in favor of it.

I really, really wish the debates over gay marriage would get into this, though. What do we mean by masculinity and femininity? Why is marriage worthwhile? And why do we need the state's recognition, anyway? (One possible answer is we don't...) These are such fascinating questions, and I really wish we could talk them through like adults in these kinds of conversations. But then, that's a big part of why I find politics so fascinating and frustrating at the same time: it is an opportunity (so often missed) to really work out our principles. Maybe I expect too much of democracy, though.

Comments

( 5 comments — Leave a comment )
virtuella
Jun. 27th, 2011 02:53 pm (UTC)
Agree completely. I didn't follow that debate, but I can imagine that it might have been shallow and homing in on secondary issues. I would really like to see a thorough debate about what exactly marriage is. It is obviously not the same in modern Western nations than it was in biblical Palestine.
telperion1
Jun. 28th, 2011 04:13 am (UTC)
Whenever things like this happened, I'm reminded of a West Wing scene (from "Mandatory Minimums" where the president talks about experts on both sides debating options - he calls it a "great conversation" (in the sense of magnificence). And I hunger for that. It's good to know I'm not the only one.
gardengirl6
Jun. 28th, 2011 02:46 am (UTC)
I don't think it's that you ask too much of democracy, per se. I think that you're seeking an academic or philosophical discussion, which few people anywhere are interested in or capable of conducting. I confess I know the feeling, though I don't personally seek out this topic for such discussions... WHY aren't more people interested in why the possessive 'its' doesn't have an apostrophe, or the difference between who and whom? You do philosophical geekiness; I do philological geekiness. It can be lonesome, especially when we can see ample opportunities for addressing in a relevant way topics already being discussed in other conversations!
telperion1
Jun. 28th, 2011 04:12 am (UTC)
That's the thing... I don't think this is particularly geeky. Sure, the way I frame it is philosophical and maybe more formal or detailed than a lot of people would. But thinking about our reasons for our beliefs is pretty well the definition of being human. We all can do it, and we all should as far as time and energy allows.
mrowe
Jun. 28th, 2011 05:33 am (UTC)
Just a short response...
And why do we need the state's recognition, anyway?

Umm, because marriage is a contract and involves property and inheritance rights, insurance cover, power of attorney, custody of children etc. as much as it does 'love', so having it registered somewhere central (i.e. by the state) only makes sense?

Incidentally, here in the Netherlands it's the civil marriage that 'counts'; people can have a church wedding as well, but they can't have the church ceremony without the civil one.
( 5 comments — Leave a comment )

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