This summer’s US Supreme Court ruling on DOMA and California’s Proposition 8 has tossed the issue of same-sex marriage back to the states [read on OCR here & here]. This means that Ohioans (indeed, all Americans) must revisit the legitimacy of the sincere claims of same-sex partners who want their unions to be recognized as legal marriage.
It’s hard to talk about this issue because emotions run so high. Cries of “hate” and “abomination” are quick to fill the air, shutting down the possibility of actual discussion. But this is a discussion we must conduct with clear minds and, in light of its volatility, with carefully chosen words.
There are four questions we must answer as we consider the question of same-sex marriage.
1. Should something as private as sexual orientation constitute minority status? There is no question that people with differing sexual orientations feel like left-handers living in a right-handed world. They have endured ridicule and discrimination, especially in the past. Gay rights supporters point to the brutal death of Matthew Shepard, the gay man whose 1998 torture and murder focused the nation’s attention on hate crimes legislation, as an example of the kind of intimidation they’ve faced. Shepard’s death is an extreme example, no doubt, but gays sometimes do still live in fear of violence and intimidation.
It’s also true that gay kids sometimes suffer horrible bullying in schools and that schools are sometimes slow to respond to their plight. And it’s true that gay teens have a high suicide rate.
The gay rights lobby has skillfully woven together stories like these to portray gays, lesbians, transgendered, and bi-sexual people as an oppressed class, a group that has been unjustly marginalized in American public policy. They point to parallels to the civil rights movement and in particular to laws banning interracial marriage, laws that we’ve had the good sense to repeal.
Critics, even some blacks who fought for civil rights, counter that the comparison is flawed. Can gays and lesbians really compare their plight to that of Southern blacks in the middle of the twentieth century? Are they really so marginalized and oppressed? Have their voting rights ever been threatened? Do they as a group suffer poverty and unemployment in disproportionate numbers? Demographically, their case is weak.
But this is the argument that ultimately prevailed in the Supreme Court. So even though the question is still salient, it is more or less settled, at least for the time being.
But it was the Court’s answer to the first question that leads us to the second.
2. Is the legalization of same-sex marriage a proper and reasonable response to the injustices same-sex citizens have endured? To many, this seems like a grand non-sequitur, to leap from addressing discrimination to redefining marriage. What is the connection?
The truth is that gays and lesbians want more than deliverance from cruelty and intimidation. Their interests in securing the right to marry also lie along economic and legal lines. They want the same rights to end-of-life decisions, estate distributions, tax advantages, and other rights that accrue to married couples.
But it’s not just about the money and the protection from intimidation. They long for the same kind of public acceptance that other people enjoy: they want to express their affection in public without fear of ridicule, they want people to celebrate their romances and their weddings, they want children raised in their homes to be free from ridicule and cruelty. Legalizing gay marriage would not only provide legal and economic benefits to same-sex couples, but more importantly it would go a long way toward achieving the goal of creating broad public support for their unions.
Their case is compelling. Notwithstanding an onslaught of positive portrayals of gays in pop culture, it must be conceded that gays are still sometimes the target of cruel jokes, slurs, and even violence. And it must also be conceded that law has the power to sway public opinion: once gays secure the right to marry, many people will be persuaded to think differently about homosexuality.
But this all begs the question. Are there only two choices here? Does sympathy with the problems of gays translate automatically into support for gay marriage? Redefining society’s most basic social structure seems, to many, an illegitimate over-reaction to a legitimate problem.
I oppose the bullying of gay teens in schools; does that mean I must support gay marriage?
Someone I love is gay; does that mean I must support gay marriage?
I think Matthew Shepard’s death was an outrage; does that mean I automatically support the rights of gays and lesbians to wed?
This is just a bridge too far for many people.
3. Why should only LGBTQs (gays, lesbians, bi-sexuals, transgendered, queer) be permitted to redefine marriage? If the definition of marriage is a personal matter, shouldn’t all opinions about sexual expression – no matter how bizarre – be regarded as valid and granted the same legal status? Some have brought it up in conversation with gay rights advocates and been met with outrage from those who think the question irrelevant, impertinent, and condescending.
It’s true that this is a slippery-slope argument: if we allow this, all these other things will surely follow. LGBTQs want to limit the discussion to their particular case, while their opponents (they say) want to create panic by conjuring images of men marrying their dogs or siblings reciting vows at the altar. No one is suggesting such bizarre sexual scenarios, say gay marriage supporters, just same-sex marriage.
But the question persists: surely, in a nation of more than 300 million people, there must be dozens of answers to the question of what constitutes normal sex. Gays have made a compelling argument that it’s not fair that heterosexuals have had a monopoly on that definition for thousands of years. Now, in view of recent forays into questions over pedophilia, incest, and polygamy, gays themselves must answer that question: why should only one sexual taboo be dismantled? Why should only one group be permitted to expand the legal definition of marriage?
For that matter, as it has been argued in the book What Is Marriage?, the model of marriage suggested by gay rights advocates wouldn’t have to involve sex at all because it is based on the desires and wishes of the parties themselves. Two (or more) friends who live together asexually and trust one another implicitly with important decisions would have just as much right to call their union marriage as any other couple. An expanded, revisionist definition of marriage looks less and less like marriage and more and more like a deep friendship, a relationship in which the law has no proper legitimate interest.
Critics of gay marriage argue that gays can’t have it both ways. Either they want to claim a right that they would deny to others who hold sincere but unorthodox views of sexuality, or they must allow any definition of marriage to stand, which simply evacuates the meaning of the term. Any word that can mean whatever anyone wants it to mean no longer functions as a word; it becomes a meaningless concept.
It is incumbent on the supporters of same-sex marriage to explain why the definition should expand to accommodate only their desires and not the desires of others who are equally sincere and feel even more marginalized.
4. How will we accommodate conscientious objectors? Gays are quick to attribute the motives of their opponents to “hate.” It has become a truism that any opposition to gay rights must, by definition, be motivated by hatred.
And it must be admitted that homophobia sometimes is a motivating factor. LGBTQs have gotten used to the idea of unorthodox sexual expressions, but many people in the public they wish to persuade are still squeamish at the idea. The “ick” factor will probably always be a factor in this discussion, and images of men kissing at the altar do little to alleviate those feelings. It must be admitted that motives in such a heated debate must always be mixed.
But there are other reasons that people oppose gay marriage, reasons that must be contemplated apart from hatred of gays or revulsion at the thought of gay sex. The question we’re considering here is not what kind of romance we can tolerate and enjoy, it’s a question of sound public policy. LGBTQs have got to understand that there are people who oppose gay marriage for reasons of conscience and prudence.
Religious liberty issues come to mind immediately, of course, but it is not only religious people who have questions about the wisdom of this kind of sweeping social change. Marriage isn’t just a social custom, it’s a legal institution designed in part to protect children. What effects will same-sex marriage have on children? On sex education in public schools? On adoptions?
But religious liberty and free-speech issues have come to the forefront in this matter of conscientious objection to same-sex marriage. If same-sex marriage is legalized in Ohio, should churches and other religious organizations be allowed to discriminate against same-sex couples by refusing to allow their facilities to be used for religious and celebratory purposes? Will pastors whose sermons interpret same-sex relationships as immoral be censored as hate-mongers? Most are willing to let religious organizations have a pass on this one.
The real controversy emerges here, as with the HHS mandate, with businesses owned by people with religious convictions. Do religious liberty protections extend to privately owned businesses? Should businesses owned by people with religious objections to same-sex unions be allowed to deviate from public policy? This question affects not just Christians but conservatives of other faiths as well. How can the State with one hand affirm the rights of gays and lesbians to marry and with the other hand protect businesses that refuse to participate in that policy?
Gays want to relegate these questions to the category of details to be worked out later. Their opponents, who see the law of unintended consequences at work, are not so cavalier.
These are the questions Ohioans (like all Americans) must carefully consider as we discuss the issue of same-sex marriage. It is clearly not as simple as either proponents or opponents would like us to think. There are several serious questions involved, and we must consider them calmly and carefully if we are to craft a just and wise public policy that serves not just an interest group but the greater good.
The OCR Editorial Staff
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