News and opinions are swirling around the concept of "same-sex marriage." I have long been a staunch supporter of equal rights and protections for gays and lesbians, but until recently I have had difficulty articulating my frustration around the public debate on gay marriage. And then I had two conversations that crystallized my thoughts.
The first was a kitchen conversation with my daughter Justine. She finds it rightly infuriating that incarcerated serial murderers are allowed to get married to women they have met through pen-pal services but have never seen in person, and yet gay people who have had long-term supportive relationships lasting decades cannot. Likewise, straight people may marry (and divorce) once, twice, fifteen times, and every marriage is sanctioned and considered legitimate.
If a straight person can be so cavalier about the "until death do we part" commitment of marriage as to make and break the same one a dozen times, why shouldnt a gay person who fully intends to abide by such a commitment be entitled to make it?
"I think we need to get the word marriage out of the debate," Justine says. Shes right: It has a religious connotation, and the arguments against it based on religion just arent relevant. If religious people want dominion over the word "marriage," let them have it. The real issue is about equality under the law. For that, we can have a separate but equal terminology - "civil unions," if you will.
"The religious right is doing a good job of making the debate about religion by controlling the language," Justine says. "They make it sound like, if we legalize gay marriage, suddenly our children will be learning the finer points of sodomy in their elementary-school classrooms. Its absurd."
The debate it should have nothing at all to do with religion, nor with sex. Marriage is a civil institution, not simply a religious one. And the blurring of this line is dangerous in a secular society. Religious freedom (which includes, lest we forget, freedom of the state from religion) is one of the few, precious things that distinguishes our governments from the Taliban.
No, this debate has everything to do with recognizing loving same-sex relationships as valid and legitimate. It is about being allowed to visit a dying partner in the hospital, and to have access the same social and financial benefits as straight married people. I mean, gay people pay taxes, too, and they may have fewer children and therefore use less of the public services like education, and yet they are shut out of some basic institutions sanctioned by the state.
"If it really were about morality, why would those who want to defend marriage not decry marriages between teenage girls and elderly men, which are perfectly legal? Why not restrict marriage to law-abiding citizens? Why not make divorce more difficult? Why not outlaw Las Vegas weddings between strangers who met two hours prior to tying the knot? Why target couples who have healthy, stable, committed relationships, simply because of their genetic make-up?"
What really gets Justine going is the hypocrisy of the religious rights "morality" play. "According to their logic, a child murderer just has to tell God hes sorry, and hes still a better person than me or you."
Good points, those.
I also just heard of a story of a lesbian couple in California who have just been married. Well, one of them first had a sex-change operation and became a man, but they had been together for five years before that. Once she became a he, the state was perfectly happy to grant a marriage license (he did not undergo the operation with object of being married; it was just a happy side-effect). This, for me, is a perfect illustration of the absurdity of banning same-sex marriages. The two people were not fundamentally different, no more in love, than before. One had just had a radical mastectomy and taken some hormones. Yet they had passed over some invisible and ridiculously arbitrary line into Acceptability.
My friend Chrys Ingraham sent me an essay she wrote on the subject, which brings up these arguments, and others. Ingraham is a professor of Sociology at Russell Sage College, and author of "White Weddings: Romancing Heterosexuality in Popular Culture."
She notes that the religious right and the politicians who do their bidding are quite careful to keep the word "love" out of the public conversation. That may well be because they know full well that it is perfectly legal and "moral" for a man and a woman who do not love each other to be married, but not for two women or two men who love each other deeply to enjoy the same luxury.
And it is not just a matter of having ones relationship publicly acknowledged as valid (although that is certainly an important part of it). Its about denying equal access to an entire class of people. This is no more defensible than permitting the teachings of white-supremacist church to dictate the rights of people of color in a state or country. "As social conservatives express their fear that traditional marriage is endangered by the liberalization of marriage laws, what they really fear is an erosion of heterosexual privilege," writes Ingraham.
At bottom, this debate is about equality. Its about inclusion and dignity and fair play. And face it, its about love. And until someone can explain to me what is so Christian and loving in denying our fellow human beings an equal seat at the table, Im with Justine.
(Home page photo by: Phyllis Christopher)
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