Many issues in American politics confuse me, but the widespread opposition to gay marriage truly boggles my mind. In a bizarre turn of events, California banned same-sex marriage, then Iowa struck down a similar ban. Until just recently, the U.S. was one of the few western nations that refused to decriminalize homosexuality. Miss California became a GOP star last week because of her opinion on this issue. My personal reaction, on the other hand, was similar to Jon Stewart’s:
I’ve tried to seek out differing opinions on this issue, to see if it’s possible to oppose gay marriage for thoughtful reasons. Here’s what I found:
Gay people already have the right to get married; they don’t need special rights!
How is this argument any different from saying that paraplegics already have the right to use the stairs, so they don’t need wheelchair ramps?
Activist judges are pushing gay marriage on us!
Activist judges are probably judges who make decisions you don’t like. There are many flaws in our current model of government, but this isn’t one of them. Constitutional republics such as our own differ from pure democracies by setting limits on the will of the majority. For instance, the Bill of Rights restricts the majority of voters from removing a group’s right to free speech or right to bear arms. This issue isn’t fundamentally different.
Marriage has been defined as man-and-woman for thousands of years!
At different points in history, marriage has been defined as an arrangement where a man bought his wife with a dowry and subsequently owned her, beat her, and held the unilateral right to add more wives later. Deuteronomy says that a virgin rape victim should be forced to marry her rapist (her father gets fifty shekels of silver, so it’s fair). Women are still forced into arranged marriages, occasionally before puberty. Either way, by definition a wife couldn’t be raped by her husband. Divorce used to be impossible, especially the variety initiated by the wife. Marriage has been denied to couples of particular races, castes, and interracial couples.
During the hotly debated reforms that incrementally abolished these prejudices, the opponents of expanding individual rights made similar arguments. They didn’t seem to realize that the nature of marriage has been changing for centuries. More fundamentally, they made the mistake of equating “the way things have been done in the past” with “the way things should be done.”
Gay couples can’t conceive children!
Neither can straight couples containing a man who’s had an effective vasectomy, a woman with a successful hysterectomy or a post-menopausal woman. In fact, lesbian couples are probably more fertile than some of these straight couples because they have access to the same in vitro fertilization procedures available to straight couples. But what’s the point of this kind of comparison?
Next we’ll have to let people marry horses!
Are the people who make this argument really serious? I’ve never once met a person making plans to marry an animal. However, I’ve met quite a few gay people who wanted to be able to get married.
Furthermore, a marriage is a type of contract. Signing any contract requires sapience and full awareness of the responsibilities involved. That rules out child marriage (depending on each culture’s reasonable definition of adulthood) and horse marriage (unequivocally).
These bizarre claims tend to distract attention from the real issue, which is that married couples receive over 1,000 tangible benefits. For instance, married couples are allowed to:
- Visit their spouse in the hospital, and make medical decisions if necessary.
- Simplify their taxes and finances in a well-rehearsed manner.
- Get property and inheritance rights, even without a will.
- Get discounted “family” rates for many types of insurance.
- Receive Medicare, Social Security and veteran’s benefits for a spouse.
- Adopt children.
- Take bereavement and funeral leave.
- Transfer property tax-free between spouses (including on death).
- Enter a prenuptial agreement and change surname upon marriage using standardized forms.
- Obtain domestic violence protection orders.
- Visit their spouse in jail.
The only “slippery slope” argument of this variety that’s worth mentioning is the polygamy issue. Polygamists modify the usual marriage contract by allowing for more than two partners. This modification remains a valid contract between adults, so it’s not a strawman argument. The distribution of benefits to each spouse would, however, require careful thought. For example, a default polygamous contract where one partner has a high-paying job would likely need to specify that each of the other spouses would divide up the benefits that would usually go to a single person. Otherwise polygamists would be prohibitively expensive to hire, among other disconcerting effects. But this doesn’t seem like a particularly difficult accounting problem.
Gay marriage is bad for children!
The second asserts that both male and female role models are important in a child’s emotional development. Quite frankly, this is the only argument I’ve seen that makes the slightest bit of sense, even if it only applies to couples who intend to conceive or adopt children. Furthermore, I’m very skeptical of the claim that the lack of a strong role model for one gender is worse than (or even comparable to) being one of the half million children stuck in foster care right now.
Disturbingly, this rationale seems to suggest that children should be taken from single parents who aren’t actively searching for an opposite-sex partner. I’ve also never seen any discussion of how this problem could be mitigated by ensuring regular interaction with an opposite sex role model– can anyone provide links here?
Gay marriage would cheapen traditional marriage!
Only if your sole reason for getting married was to taunt gay couples. If you got married for some other reason, like mutual love and commitment, then how do other marriages affect your bond?
The Family Research Council points to statistics on gay relationships to show that they’re shorter, more promiscuous and more violent than heterosexual relationships. Questions of skewed sampling jumped to mind, so I searched for the first reference they cited to support their claim that “Lesbians, for example, suffer a much higher level of violence than do married women.” (Incidentally, cohabitating lesbians should be compared to heterosexual cohabitating unmarried women otherwise two variables are changed at once.) Imagine my surprise when I found the paper and read the following paragraph:
Women living with female intimate partners experience less intimate partner violence than women living with male intimate partners. Slightly more than 11 percent of the women who had lived with a woman as part of a couple reported being raped, physically assaulted, and/or stalked by a female cohabitant, but 30.4 percent of the women who had married or lived with a man as part of a couple reported such violence by a husband or male cohabitant. These findings suggest that lesbian couples experience less intimate partner violence than do heterosexual couples; however, more research is needed to support or refute this conclusion.
That’s right, one of the references actually contradicted the claim it was used to support. The second reference didn’t discuss lesbian couples at all, unless I missed something while reading it.
Even if this kind of statistical difference really existed, it’d likely be due to the social marginalization experienced by gay couples. In other words, perhaps marriage really is a stabilizing influence, and gay couples are worse off because they’re not as well integrated into society. Marriage would be strengthened, not cheapened, by extending its rights to other couples.
Homosexuality is a choice!
Homosexuality is a fascinating topic in evolutionary biology/psychology, but we don’t yet have a complete scientific description of this facet of human nature. Experiments have suggested that homosexuality is caused by some combination of genetic and prenatal factors, though.
Even without science, the claim that “homosexuality is a choice” confuses me. I say this because– speaking as a heterosexual– I’m having trouble remembering when I chose to be attracted to women. They just began to appear… fascinating… when I was a young boy. I don’t remember having a choice about it. What about you? When did you choose your sexual orientation?
I’m not sure how a gay marriage opponent would react to that question. Perhaps he’d say “May 7, 1985: I decided to be straight so I wouldn’t go to Hell.” Or perhaps he’d say that heterosexuality is the normal orientation, so everyone is really heterosexual. Homosexuals, on the other hand, are choosing to fake a sexual urge that they don’t really feel. This makes even less sense to me, because I don’t think I’d be able to fake an attraction to other men. My sense of duty to science stops here, unfortunately, so I can’t falsify this hypothesis.
Update: Watch these straight people answer that question.
But– more importantly– why would anyone want to engage in such a masochistic charade? Gay people face rampant– sometimes violent— discrimination. They’re drastically outnumbered by straight people, so their dating options are reduced by a factor of ~20.
Homosexuality is condemned by (INSERT DEITY HERE)!
I think this is the only genuine argument against gay marriage. Some people try hard to phrase their opposition in secular terms, but they consistently fail to demonstrate that gay marriage does any harm except to religious beliefs.
“If a man also lie with mankind, as he lieth with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination: they shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them.” Leviticus 20:13
This verse is an unambiguous condemnation of homosexual behavior. Confusingly, though, this verse is an unambiguous condemnation of lobsters:
“And all that have not fins and scales in the seas, and in the rivers, of all that move in the waters, and of any living thing which is in the waters, they shall be an abomination unto you: They shall be even an abomination unto you; ye shall not eat of their flesh, but ye shall have their carcasses in abomination. Whatsoever hath no fins nor scales in the waters, that shall be an abomination unto you.” Leviticus 11:10-12
Some theologians account for this cognitive dissonance by labeling the homosexuality law “moral” and permanent. But the lobster law is “ceremonial” and later repealed by Mark 7:19, even if Matthew 5:17-19 complicates the matter. The method of determining whether a given verse is “moral” or “ceremonial” appears to depend greatly on the tastes of the person interpreting the verse.
People who quote an ancient book to support their prejudices are able to do so because it’s possible to support just about any position by selectively quoting a sufficiently large and complicated book.
Furthermore, politics is so inherently confrontational (and historically quite deadly) that it’s a really bad idea to combine it with another inherently confrontational (and also deadly) subject: religion. In other words, government should be secular in the sense that political arguments should be made without reference to religion simply in the interest of getting things done without interruption by constant shouting matches.
It might be hard for an American Christian Fundamentalist to understand why our society shouldn’t enforce his particular denomination’s set of holy laws. Appeals to individual rights aren’t likely to persuade him, because those concepts aren’t enshrined in the Bible. But consider this: if America can enforce religious laws on your behalf today, what happens if (or when) America no longer has a Christian majority? It seems like organizing the government in a religiously neutral manner is– in the long run– the only way to guarantee that Christians aren’t persecuted in the future.
The fact that we’re even having this debate is symptomatic of a deeper problem, though. Political debates shouldn’t ever involve religion, but the debate over gay marriage seethes with religious themes. Maybe it’s best to decouple religion from government in matters relating to marriage. Every government document that currently refers to marriage should be changed to refer to a “civil union” that doesn’t discriminate on any basis such as race, religion or sexuality.
Marriage should be a purely religious ceremony, defined and implemented by churches however they see fit. You wouldn’t seek the government’s approval to baptize your child, would you? What about the notion of filling out a government form to get permission to hold a Bar Mitzvah or Confirmation? If it’s a bad idea to allow the government to regulate those sacraments, it’s probably also a bad idea to allow the government to regulate marriage.
Many people seem to equate the term “secular government” with “atheistic government” by arguing that the removal of religious language from political debate is tantamount to state-mandated atheism. I disagree, because there seem to be three basic ways that governments can deal with religion:
A completely religious government is best exemplified by Iran, Afghanistan under the Taliban, and Spain during the Inquisition. Each day the government reaffirms its mission to enforce the rules of the national deity, and punish non-believers or believers in a different deity. Oh, and if they get a chance, maybe they’ll get around to making sure the trains run on time.
A completely atheistic government is best exemplified by the communist Soviet Union, North Korea, and Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge. Each day the government reaffirms its mission to eradicate all religions, and punish believers. Oh, and if they get a chance, maybe they’ll get around to making sure the trains run on time.
A completely secular government, on the other hand, has never existed. Each day, such a government ignores inflammatory rhetoric and strives to protect the individual rights of all people– believers and non-believers alike. Making sure the trains run on time is essentially their only concern, along with other theologically neutral responsibilities.↩ back