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Gay Marriage: Why Not?

originally posted: July  8, 2004
last updated: September 22, 2008

Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments.
 - William Shakespeare

Before San Francisco started issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples in February of 2004, I, like most Americans, had hardly given the question of gay marriage any serious thought. This didn't stop me, or much of anyone else, from having an opinion ready to hand. My immediate reaction was to think that any two adults who want to marry ought to be allowed to, and it was no business of the government to be saying they can't. Though I can hardly say I was surprised that most of America seemed to wake up on the other side of the issue, I had a real Miss Clavel moment when I started reading statements from people opposing gay marriage: In the middle of the night Miss Clavel turned on the light and said, "Something is not right!"

The arguments against gay marriage that I read were just incomprehensible to me. I don't mean that they failed to convince me. I mean that I couldn't find anywhere in them anything recognizable to me as an argument. The effect was approximately the same as if the author had just written "Gay marriage is bad bad bad bad bad bad..." for six pages - convincing only if you are convinced by sheer vehemence. They'd be full of silly statements like "gay marriage will destroy civilization" but would not give the slightest hint about in what sense or by what means it would do so. Then they'd reference other articles that they claimed said it all so much better, but those would be every bit as incomprehensible.

I generally try hard to give respectful consideration to opinions opposed to my own. I understand why intelligent, principled people hold positions different from mine on topics like abortion and gun control. I believe that until you understand opposing opinions you can't usefully argue with them. Unless I can figure out the opposition to gay marriage, my arguments in its favor are unlikely to come out much better than six pages of "gay marriage is ok ok ok ok ok...".

The genesis of this series of articles was, then, my project to find and evaluate the arguments against gay marriage. Over the years I have, in fact, identified several general arguments. These were probably all present even in the first articles that I read, but they were initially invisible to me because they are based on assumptions that I found transparently absurd. I describe several here, without, at first, finding much that makes any sense to me. They all seem to be so easy debunked.

Then, in the final section, I describe a point of view that can be taken from which all the other arguments, and the notion that gay marriage will destroy straight marriages and civilization in general, begin to be understandable. I can't say I am convinced, because that isn't the way I see the world, but maybe it gets me to where I can kind of see what opponents of gay marriage are talking about.

The Childbearing Argument

The first argument against gay marriage that I found went something like this:
The the purpose of marriage is to create a legal context for childbearing. Since same-sex couples cannot have children, it makes no sense to allow them to get married.
To buy this argument, it seems to me that you need to believe three things:
  1. That only important function served by marriage is raising children.
  2. That gays do not raise children.
  3. That something should be illegal just because it serves no purpose.
That's a pretty sorry set of assumptions - so much so that I think I can be forgiven for not noticing that this was supposed to be an argument the first few times I ran across it.

But the first point, at least, does raise an important question. What is marriage? For a reasonable discussion of the question of whether or not gay marriage should be legal, it seems to me that we need to know what exact rights and responsibilities would be granted to gay couples if they are allowed to marry. So I started accumlating a list of the ways in which the law treats married couples differently from unmarried couples, a subject I happened to know a bit about already.

Based in part on that list, I developed a short essay arguing that inability to bear children is not a sound basis for banning gay marriage. Though the basically it should be obvious to anyone who has ever been married that marriage is about a lot more than raising children, and that those other elements of marriage have great intrinsic value. The fact that neither of the other basic assumptions that this argument is built on hold water either leaves it in a rather poor state.

The Polygamy Argument

The next interest argument that I saw was a slippery slope argument. It goes something like:
If we allowed gay marriage, then we would not be able to justify not extending marriage rights to polygamous marriages as well.
In my essay on gay marriage and polygamy, I consider the same two questions that come up in evaluating any slippery slope argument:
  1. is the bottom of that slope really undesirable, and
  2. is the slope really slippery?

Slippery slope arguments are usually weaker than they look because these two questions tend to interact. The worse the bottom of the slope is, the better people are at avoiding the urge to slip down it. In reality society only slips down the slope if a substantial portion of society doesn't mind doing so. This leads to a built in slippery slope paradox - the scarier the future is that is presented by the argument, the less plausible it becomes.

Polygamous marriage is, at this point, acceptable to many fewer Americans than gay marriage is. If that wasn't the case, nobody would be trying to scare us off of gay marriage with the spector of polygamous marriage. So right off the bat it is obvious that the slope isn't going to be as slippery as all that.

In fact, a quick survey of the slope leading from gay marriage to polygamous marriage shows that there is actually a lot more traction than you'd think. Gay marriage could be legalized with the stroke of a pen - only a few words of the law need to be changed. Legalizing polygamous marriage would require a much more comprehensive revision of a significant fraction of marriage-related law. If gay marriage is a step away from where we are now, polygamous marriage is a long day's journey.

And what's more, while legalizing gay marriage certainly would enshire the principle that people should be able to marry whomever they want, it simultaneously greatly increases the complexity of legalizing polygamous marriage. This is because once gay marriage is possible, the range of different kinds of multiple marriages gets much larger, and the laws to deal with all the variations get proportionally more complex.

The Gays Can Already Marry Argument

The next anti-gay-marriage argument was one I first saw at the beginning of Orson Scott Card's essay on gay marriage. This one's a real jaw dropper in the stupidity department. It argues that gays already have equal rights to get married. They can marry any person of the opposite sex who'll take them. All they lack is the right to marry the person they happen to love.

Is there really anyone on the entire planet who thinks being able to marry someone that you don't love is just as good as being able to marry someone you do love? The right to marry is meaningless if it is not the right to marry the person whom you love and who loves you. I guess this is consistent with the theory that the whole purpose of marriage is to have children, and that love between the people married has nothing to do with it. As such, it's another fine demonstration of what's wrong with that premise.

The Theft of Grandchild Argument

Later in Mr Card's essay, he claims that allowing gays to marry will "strike a death blow against the well-earned protected status of our, and every other, real marriage." How? Well, legalizing gay marriage will effectively say that it is "just as good" as hetrosexual marriage. Given that opening, the propaganda mill will leap into action.
Society will bend all its efforts to seize upon any hint of homosexuality in our young people and encourage it. [...] They will make it harder for us to raise children with any confidence that they, in turn, will take their place in the reproductive cycle. They will use all the forces of our society to try to encourage our children that it is desirable to be like them. [...] All the while, the P.C. elite will be shouting at dismayed parents that it is somehow evil and bigoted of them not to rejoice when their children commit themselves to a reproductive dead end. But there is nothing irrational about parents grieving at the abduction-in-advance of their grandchildren.

Notice that this isn't really about gay marriage any more. It's about social acceptance of gays. It applies equally to anything that might signal that society thinks it is OK to be gay, such as allowing gays in the military. I think that's a clue that we are getting closer to the heart of things.

This "theft of grandchildren" argument requires us to believe three things:

  1. We each have a right to our place in the gene pool,
  2. gays don't have children, and
  3. If homosexuality is socially accepted, more of our children will be gay.

Are our lives rendered meaningless and irrelevant if our kids don't have kids? There is certainly some reassurance in knowing that your genes will be passed on, but the idea is actually kind of silly. Your sister's children actually have about as many of "your" genes as your grandchildren do. Your second cousin's children have about as many of "your" genes as your great-great-grandchildren. Not having children doesn't remove your genes from the gene pool. Your genes aren't really yours - they are just a selection of the genes already widely circulating in the gene pool. Even if you have children, the particular combination that is you is going to be mixed and mixed away in only a few generations. If keeping your genes together is your goal, you should have clones, not kids.

Whenever we interact with people, be they our children, our friends, or our coworkers, we influence them. We change their lives. Like our genes in the gene pool, these influences combine with others and take on new forms, but we have a lot more control over our social influences on people than on our genes. Surely it would be better to focus on making our contribution to humanity here rather than purely genetically?

In any case, if we accept the idea that the laws of the land should be written to ensure that our children bear us as many grandchildren as possible, then there are quite a few things that ought to be changed. Contraceptives should be banned. Only proven infertile couples should be allowed to adopt. You don't want your kids wasting their time raising other people's kids instead of having their own. Women shouldn't be allowed to work. It clearly gets in the way of maximizing childbearing. Arranged marriages would be a good idea too. This would solve the problem of those troublesome children who don't get married, make it easier for your children to start having children at a younger age, and allow you to maximize your gene's future role in the gene pool deciding who's genes they get mixed with. And until cloning becomes an option, incest might be the best way to ensure the preservation of your particular combination of genes.

Even if we accept the absurd idea that we have a right a to a place in the gene pool, we still have the second point to contend with. As I discussed in my gay marriage and childbearing article many gays do, in fact have children. If your sole interest is that your children pass your genes on, you might be troubled by the fact that the children in gay households have genes from at most one of their parents. But you should remember that those children must have gotten their other genes from someplace. So you could alleviate this problem by encouraging your gay children to donate to sperm banks or make arrangements with opposite sexed gay couples.

The third leg of the theft of grandchildren argument is by far the most interesting. The question of whether people are born homosexual, or learn to be homosexual has been hotly debated for decades. In fact, science is pretty far from finding a conclusive answer to the nature or nuture question for any form of human behavior, much less for something as complex as how we select sexual partners. But I don't think I'd be going out on a limb very far by guessing that whether or not a person chooses same-sex partners depends on a very complex interaction between genetic predispositions and environmental influences, and the particular predispositions and influences involved differ widely from one individual to the next. My guess would be that if society grows more accepting toward gays, then the number of people having gay sex will, in fact, increase. I'd expect a sizable increase in the number of people who experiment with gay sex, and a more modest increase in the number of people who end up in committed gay relationships.

Those arguing against gay marriage tend to see this as the result of a neferious conspiracy. In the quote above, Mr Card hypothesized a media conspiracy reprogramming our children to be gay. He goes further, saying,

The dark secret of homosexual society -- the one that dares not speak its name -- is how many homosexuals first entered into that world through a disturbing seduction or rape or molestation or abuse, and how many of them yearn to get out of the homosexual community and live normally.
This preditory vision of people being forced to be gay is an absurd exaggeration. Sure, these things happen, but they aren't unique to gays. A 2002 CDC study found that, among teens who have had sex (presumably mostly hetrosexual sex), 6% of males and 13% of females hadn't wanted it to happen, and 31% of males and 52% of females had mixed feelings about it. 9% of these teen females said they were forced. If we are going to condemn all sexual practices that are sometimes coerced, then the only acceptable form of sex will be masturbation. And the one gay person I've known who wanted to "escape" the gay community seemed to have no problem at all doing so - he just started dating women, and he now has a wife and a child.

Of course there will always be people trying to convince other people to have sex with them. That's nothing new. We don't need conspiracy theories. If homosexuality becomes more accepted more people will likely try it, but I wouldn't worry too much, as some authors seem to, about your spouse and all your children dumping everything for gay relationships. Hetrosexuality is fun too.

The Laundry List of Evil Arguments

Many readers will have been completely unconvinced by my argument in the previous section. After all, I am conceding, quite willingly, that legalizing gay marriage would signal greater social acceptance of homosexuality, and that greater acceptance would mean that more people would be having gay sex. And that, for many people, is the end of the story. Never mind that the "theft of grandchildren" argument itself makes no sense, they know, in their guts, that homosexuality is evil. Having more of it in society is thus evil too. No further argument is required. Their votes are cast.

Except, of course, that is just prejudice, which is not widely accepted as a criteria for judgement. So opponents of gay marriage readily roll out a whole laundry list of proofs that homosexuals and homosexuality are bad. I'm sure you've heard it all. Gays are promiscuous, spread disease, use drugs, and abuse children. They suffer from every imaginable mental illness, and, all around, show every imaginable sign of degeneracy. Statistics are available to prove it all.

It is all, of course, bogus. Just for instance, nobody who has been paying any attention to the news from Africa can still believe that AIDs is a gay disease. I am not, however, going to take the trouble here to address the specific flaws in every item on the laundry list. This is partly because they have all been adequately addressed many times, and partly because even if all the statistics quoted by the anti-gay folks were true, it still wouldn't add up to a reason to keep gays from marrying.

I don't doubt that there are some nasty gays in the world, but they don't seem to be noticably more common than nasty hetrosexuals. None of my best friends are gay, but I've been acquainted with many gays over the years in many contexts, and by and large, they are pretty much like everyone else. If you try to tell me that you have evidence that all gays are evil, then I'm not going to give you much credence, because I know better from personal experience, and so does anyone else who isn't living in a barrel.

Although it is certainly possible to prove that some gays are evil, that does not justify restrictions on the rights of all gays. If that was an acceptable principle, then we'd need to really clamp down on the rights of men, because there is plenty of very good evidence that all sorts of crimes are mostly perpetrated by men.

Clamping down on whole classes of people in hopes of squelching the misbehavior of a few is always tempting, but it's a temptation that we must resist whenever we can. You should never be punished for the putative crimes of people that someone thinks resemble you. That is a fundamental principle of justice.

And, furthermore, in nearly all cases, to the extent that these problems do exist, legalizing gay marriage could reasonably be expected to reduce them. It would also help alleviate an evil that doesn't usually get included on the laundry list - teen suicide. Punishing whole groups of people for the crimes of a few doesn't make the world better, it makes it worse.

The Moral Foundations Argument

When I first started reading articles arguing against gay marriage, I kept encountering claims that gay marriage would "destroy civilization" or "undermine the institution of marriage." I dismissed this all as nonsensical hyperbola. It wasn't until I read George Lakoff's short book, Don't Think of an Elephant, that I began to realize that there was, in fact, an argument hiding behind those statements.

It all comes down to what you think the foundations of morality really are. Lakoff suggests that there are two fundamentally different moral frameworks in our society, which he calls "strict father morality" and "nurturing parent morality." Most of us understand both, and use both in different contexts.

To understand the moral foundations argument, we need to step into strict father morality. In this view, morality descends from authority. In our natural, childish state, we are all immoral. Morality is applied to us from the outside. Rules are dictated to us, and we are taught to internalize those rules. If we fail to do so, we are punished. As we mature, we internalize those rules. Self-discipline replaces discipline.

Morality, then, is passed down from one generation to the next. This chain of moral authority which reaches back into time is called tradition. Traditional values aren't just a historical curiousity, they are the root of morality, the foundation of civilization. The very definition of a moral person is one who applies self-discipline to ensure that they fulfill the social role defined for them by tradition, and who is not shy of disciplining those who fail to do so. This is what provides the structure that make civilization work for us all.

Marriage, of course, lies at the very heart of everything. It channels our selfish sexual impulses into a formal institution, one that provides the context in which morality is passed from one generation to the next. The institution of marriage is not just a convenient mode of alliance for two people who like each other, it's a template for how to live a moral life. If you make a good marriage and fulfill all the duties traditionally expected from you as a husband or a wife, then you are, by definition, a successful and respectable member of society. Marriage is the glue that holds civilization together, because it defines moral behavior for men, women and children.

The concept of gay marriage blows this traditional template to smithereens. A gay marriage is, necessarily, a marriage without a wife or a marriage without a husband. By sanctioning gay marriages, we are saying that it is optional for anyone in a marriage to perform the functions of husband and wife. Though children may appear in a gay marriage, they definitely don't appear in the traditional way or have the traditional relationships to the marriage partners.

Clearly, when you look at it this way, social recognition of gay marriage does impact traditional straight marriages. When society declares that a marriage without a husband or a marriage without a wife is just as good as the traditional kind, then that traditional template for what constitutes good, moral, respectable behavior is gone. It can no longer be taken for granted that the woman in hetrosexual marriage should be the wife and the man should be the husband. In a world where all combinations are acceptable, all roles are up for negotiation. How can anything so unstructured glue a civilization together?

If the social function of marriage is rooted in tradition, then the notion of "non-traditional marriage" is an oxymoron. Marriage is the very institution that is supposed to pass along the moral tradition that is the foundation of society. To sever marriage from tradition is to explode the whole moral basis of our civilization.

Of course, people who believe in the sanctity of marriage in this sense, are well aware that marriage in the 21st century has already fallen far from the traditional ideal. Things like women's liberation, easy divorce, and "living together" have already shaken things up a lot. Many opponents of gay marriage also condemn all those things to some degree, but even if they don't, perhaps it is possible to understand why they aren't eager to go farther along that path.

An awful lot clicks into place if you follow this line of reasoning. It is possible to see why the arguments I listed above, which seemed meaningless or nonsensical to me, resonate with some people. The childbearing and theft of grandchildren arguments touch on the importance of marriage as a vehicle from transmitting moral values. If the purpose of marriage is not personal fulfillment, but providing moral structure to our lives, then saying gays can already marry begins to make sense. The polygamy and laundry list arguments touch on the idea that the essence of immorality is deviation from traditional values. The arguments still don't stand up to close examination, but at least it begins to make sense why anyone would even bother presenting them.

This also explains why married gays evoke greater anger than unmarried gays. It explains why redefining womens roles outside the home has met less resistance than redefining their roles within the home. Lakoff suggests that the whole conservative agenda is rooted in strict father morality.

How compelling the moral foundations argument is depends entirely on the degree to which you believe in strict father morality. I, obviously, don't.

Though my partner and I are of different genders, we never got married, largely because we were uncomfortable with the traditional roles of husband and wife. The fact that the growing acceptance of gay marriage made marriage look more attractive to us was my first clue that the legalization of gay marriage really does impact non-gay relationships. As far as we are concerned, the opening up of idea of marriage, is a pure improvement. But I can see that this would feel like being thrown out into the jungle to people who lean more heavily on tradition for guidance on how to live their lives.

I don't believe that morality will vanish without traditional marriage. On the contrary. If the only way that traditional morality can be preserved is by continuing to oppress gays, then I think traditional morality is immoral.

I believe in a moral code that is, at its root, simple. It's bad to hurt other people. It's good to help other people. By "help" and "hurt" I mean aiding or hindering them in achieving the things that they want. So long as the things a person wants can be achieved without disproportionate harm to others, then it is moral to assist them in achieving those goals, and immoral to stand in their way. If you want a biblical authority for that, the golden rule is there.

As a parent, this is the one moral principle that I want to instill in my children - responsibility toward others. I believe that it is a principle that most people can, with guidance, find within themselves. It is my responsibility to society to provide my children with that guidance.

Once a person has embraced the principle of responsibility, then that person becomes capable of choosing right and wrong actions for themselves. They have a basis from which they can question authority. Tradition becomes a resource. They can take from it what is useful to them, and discard what is not. The fabric of society is not a traditional moral code, but many free individuals, all committed to each other's fundamental welfare.

In this view of the world, neither gays nor gay marriage are even the slightest threat to civilization. Any two people who want to be together, and who would like to be recognized as a couple by society, are welcome to that recognition, and all power to them in their quest for happiness.

Which definition of "right" is right? Well, it depends on your definition, doesn't it? I say make the choice with your heart, but then I'm biased.

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Originally created with Backtalk version 1.4.5 / Wasabi version 1.0.3 - Copyright 1996-2005, Jan Wolter and Steve Weiss