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Same-sex marriage and the end of the world

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Sometime later this year the Supreme Court will probably rule, by a narrow margin and on narrow grounds, to uphold Proposition 8, the California law enacted last year that bans gay marriage in the state. It will slow, not end, the inexorable progress of this country toward justice on this issue.  But meanwhile, we have a dilly of a trial going on in San Francisco, Perry v. Schwartzenegger, with David Boies and Theodore Olson, from opposite sides of Bush v. Gore, ganging up against the marriage-is-just-for-boys-and-girls crowd.

Historically speaking, of course, marriage has always been a man-on-woman thing. The question is: why should we or shouldn’t we expand that definition?

As recently as the mid-1960s it was illegal in Virginia for a white person and an African-American to marry one another. People say that banning marriage between races is “fundamentally different.” They are wrong. It’s almost exactly the same: a fundamental civil right, like the right to name your own children. (Which some folks do very badly, by the way.)

As the conservative Olson commented on NBC Nightly News on January 11th, “…people on death row can get married, people that have no interest in raising children can get married in California, people who are child-abusers can get married.” So why shouldn’t people be allowed to marry anyone they please, regardless of gender, or a rock or a tree?

What opponents of same-sex marriage cannot explain is how exactly same-sex marriage undermines the institution of marriage. It broadens the definition, to be sure; but that definition still includes opposite-sex marriage. We broadened the definition of voting when we allowed non-landowners, women, minorities, and 18-year-olds to vote. Democracy is a process of broadening; it’s an evolutionary thing.

It doesn’t mean that men and women would no longer be able to marry each other. So how exactly are heterosexual couples or prospective couples threatened if gay people are allowed to marry as well? I cannot fathom the answer to that question. Nor, I believe, can anyone else.

Having been married to a wonderful person for more than a decade and divorced for longer, and having enjoyed aspects of both conditions, I personally think marriage is fine but overrated. It’s a voluntary submission to legal and emotional bondage – which sometimes works.

But taking children into account, and they are the real crux of the matter, the innocent bystanders, as it were, I’m not sure if on balance the institution of marriage creates more happiness or misery. Probably a lot of both.

That’s not to say that co-habitation, child-rearing, or personal commitment are overrated. But marriage, after all, is a voluntary, two-party legal contract with economic implications. It isn’t a magic potion for human happiness or the welfare of children. There are no doubt families in which marriage protects children, and others in which kids are abused (directly or indirectly) because marriages cannot more easily be dissolved. No marriage “protects” children if they are not first of all protected and loved by at least one, and preferably two, parents.

We enter into such contracts partly for legal and economic reasons, partly for symbolic and traditional ones, and partly just to please our partners or parents or to have a great party. All of those reasons are valid, in the absence of duress, but none of them applies in every case. There are loving, responsible parents who are not married. There are terrible parents who are.

The real issue, I suspect, is not that we need more straight marriages to ensure the continuation of the species (there are too many of us, in fact). Nor is it the legal protections that marriage affords (and would afford to the spouses and children of gay marriages). Rather, it’s the conservative-traditionalist view that a mommy and a daddy make better parents than two mommies or two daddies.

It may be true in general that (other things equal) children are better off with both male and female parental figures. I don’t know, and I’m not sure I’d trust most so-called experts on the subject. It may be very untrue. It may make no difference. But we allow all kinds of rascals and deviants to have children in wedlock and raise them very badly.   So unless a demonstrable case can be made (as, for example, a case can be made against allowing children or siblings to marry), gay marriage should be allowed. And in time it will be. Five states (Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Iowa) already allow gay marriage, and that would have been unthinkable five years ago. Four other states and the District of Columbia recognize gay marriages performed elsewhere. Same-sex marriage is also legal in Canada, Belgium, Spain, Sweden, Norway, and South Africa, and there are no indications that those societies or traditional marriage within them have collapsed as a result. The world of straight-only marriage is gradually ending. None too soon.

Jeff Scheuer is a writer and critic based in New York. He is the author of two books about media and politics: The Big Picture: Why Democracies Need Journalistic Excellence (2007), and The Sound Bite Society: How Television Helps the Right and Hurts the Left (1999), named a Choice “Outstanding Academic Title.” Jeff is currently writing about critical thinking and the liberal arts.

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9 Responses to “Same-sex marriage and the end of the world”

  1. Well done. It’s a good article and I agree with the points. It will likely happen in the military eventually as well. Not sure exactly how I feel about that. That is a bit more complicated. But I think you make the obvious case for legal gay marriage well.

  2. Great article! I agree gay marriage should be legal. I can’t believe IOWA beat California at legalizing it! Thank you for sharing.

  3. Jeff, what do you make of “David Boies and Theodore Olson, from opposite sides of Bush v. Gore, ganging up against the marriage-is-just-for-boys-and-girls crowd”?

  4. Scott,

    Funny you should ask. I don’t know what got into Olson, maybe he’s bored. He does seem to believe in the case, though, and I take him at his word. On a personal level it’s nice to see erstwhile opponents cooperating.
    The thing is… and perhaps this gets back in a way to our discussion of libertarianism… it’s hard to square Olson’s belief in radical equality of opportunity, including civil rights and due process, etc., which are at issue in the gay-marriage debate, with the radical inequality he espouses as a market conservative. My problem with that conjunction of views is not that they are intrinsically inconsistent in principle, but rather that (uh-oh, here comes the liberal) in the real world they exist in tandem, not in vacuums, such that formal inequalities feed material ones and vice versa, and relative equality in one area likewise feeds relative equality in the other. (As a liberal I would further argue that both political and economic equality contribute to the health of a political democracy and to general economic well-being; unemployed people are a waste of human capital, etc.) It’s an argument based on complexity, but not the traditional conservative argument that the world is so complex we cannot afford to try to change or govern it too much.

  5. Veering into all kinds of territory here. Equality before the law vs. equality of outcome; whether market capitalism causes radical inequality, as you say, or instead, or concurrent, causes wealth and rising living standard, even for the poorer in a country, in an absolute vs. relative sense. Obviously, I don’t share your economic assumptions and I believe that neither does Olson. His position seems to be the libertarian position that rejects the left/right dichotomy that makes you see a contradiction where there is not one. There is no contradiction between wanting people to be free to enter into contracts of both marital and business kinds with a minimum of government interference on both fronts. Leave people alone, basically. I don’t know Olson’s motivation here, though, or his politics. And we don’t need to rehash our discussion, though others interested can see it here in the comments section.

  6. All the Republicans out there need to keep in mind that their Anointed One, Ronald “I can’t recall” Reagan, said:

    “Let’s keep the government out of our bedrooms.”

    I whole-heartedly agree with both Reagan and the idea of legal same-sex marriage.

    Good post.

  7. i completly disagree to agree, although, if we do agree-is that a disagreement???

  8. One other thing, two Jefferson quotes of which I am reminded:

    “All… being equally free, no one has a right to say what shall be law for the others. Our way is to put these questions to the vote, and to consider that as law for which the majority votes.”


    “Bear in mind this sacred principle, that though the will of the majority is in all cases to prevail, that will, to be rightful, must be reasonable; that the minority possess their equal rights, which equal laws must protect, and to violate would be oppression.”

    Majority rules, as in Prop 8, but only so long as the minority retains their full bevy of freedoms under the majority’s decision.

  9. Well said. I am an ultra-fiscal-conservative and one of my best friends happens to be a gay man who is married in Massachusetts. I would never take a stance on gay marriage I could not defend to his face. More and more of my Republican friends are taking similiar stances. The GOP had better notice or the Tea Party is going to swallow the folks that really matter.

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