This November in Minnesota, there will be a constitutional amendment to permanently ban gay marriage on the ballot. I oppose this amendment for countless reasons, and for the past few months, I have been doing my best to engage and persuade family and friends to vote against it.
In my efforts to talk about this issue, I have tried to listen to and genuinely understand the objections that opponents have to extending marital rights to same-sex couples. I have discovered that there are four basic arguments against gay marriage. What follows is a discussion of each, and why in the end, none are adequate to deny martial rights to same-sex couples.
Religion seems to make the strongest case against marriage equality for gays. Christians who oppose same-sex marriage argue that homosexuality is a sin, and have long pointed to the Bible as the primary source of their objections to same-sex relationships. It is the most difficult argument against same-sex marriage to counter, because religious beliefs can be so genuinely and deeply held.
The most obvious problem with this argument is that ours is a nation in which the separation of church and state is the law of the land. I would like to think that this alone does away with the need to address religious objections: the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment should eliminate religion from consideration in public policy on this issue. I get the sense that Christians feel that this is a cheat, though; a legal technicality that forces them to accept and/or tolerate something that they find morally wrong. And so I will set aside the First Amendment for the moment, and consider the Biblical argument against same-sex marriage more closely.
The Bible contains over thirty-one thousand verses; of those, only six mention same-sex relations. Right away, this is not exactly a clear indication of the significance of homosexuality as a sin: contrast it to lying or murder, for example: each of those sins are denounced as such in scores if not hundreds of passages. Still, these six passages seem to speak rather forcefully on the subject, and so deserve some attention.
It turns out that these verses have been carefully scrutinized, and surprisingly, they lack a straightforward, clear meaning. Current Biblical scholarship, as well as new translations of the earliest versions of these texts, has thrown traditional interpretations into
question. This video, for example, is an extended explanation of these new understandings.
Over the course of his lecture, the speaker eloquently discusses the passages in which homosexuality is mentioned in the Bible, and makes a strong case that the Bible does not in fact issue a blanket condemnation of homosexuality. He actually petitions his audience to consider the possibility of Christian same-sex marriage. I challenge everyone, Christian or non-Christian,
supporter or opponent of gay marriage, to watch the whole lecture and not be affected by it.
My ultimate point here is not to say that any and all Christian objections to homosexuality are invalid, nor to argue that one must endorse these more recent interpretations of the Bible. My point is to illustrate that Christians themselves do not agree on the question of homosexuality. Since among Christians there is no consensus on the morality of homosexuality, it is unreasonable to try and codify a particular sect's teachings on the subject. In short, this argument does not work because it cannot be applied as a universal, secular law.
The natural law argument against same-sex marriage goes something like this: the procreative efforts of human beings are fulfilled by biologically-ordained heterosexual coupling, and society is built and maintained through reproduction, and so the state must support and favor long-term, opposite-sex relationships. At first glance, it sounds secular, scientific and reasonable. Interestingly, though, the only people who invoke this argument are religious, and very often Catholic; I know of no secularist who has made this argument (in fact, I know of no secularist who opposes same-sex marriage). At any rate, by invoking this argument, church leaders seem to acknowledge that Biblical arguments will not prevail in a society in which not everyone is religious, and in which some religions actually recognize and endorse same-sex marriage.
In order for the "natural law" argument to work, however, one must first ignore the research that demonstrates the presence of same-sex attraction in hundreds of species of animals. There is a growing body of evidence that throughout the animal kingdom, same-sex preference is a naturally-occurring phenomenon that serves useful functions among social creatures. And so it is with human beings: basically, same-sex attraction is natural for a subset of humanity.
Once the naturalness of same-sex attraction is established, it is
difficult to maintain a "natural law" argument against same-sex
marriage. Even so, it is worth discussing the argument further, because of its central conceit: that the state should favor opposite-sex relationships, because the state in turn reaps benefits from these relationships. This logic puts the cart before the horse: couples do not marry to gain privileges from the state, nor do they marry for the benefit of society. People marry for love, for security, to build a family, to make a life together, and for a host of other reasons. In short, people marry - regardless of the state's interest in marriage.
Does society benefit from stable, lasting relationships? Absolutely. It is true that opposite-sex
pair-bonding is a building block of society. But same-sex pair-bonding has the same effect. There are actually many ways
in which the community, businesses, and the state could benefit by recognizing same-sex marriage. Essentially, pair-bonding immediately creates a private, familial social safety net, which is inherently stabilizing for society as a whole, regardless of
the sex of the partners.
Another canard of this argument posits that marriage is intrinsically
heterosexual, and thus same-sex marriage is a contradiction in terms.
This is simply a tautology: marriage is a social institution, not a
biological function. The fact that historically, gays and lesbians have not had access to marriage does not make marriage any less of a social institution.
The people who use this argument focus on the biology of the married couple, and the couple's ability to bear children. This leads us to the most basic problem with this argument: its premise simply does not reflect marriage as it is legally defined: the state has never had any requirements regarding children. Historically, the state's interest in marriage has been quite limited, and centered on practical matters: marriage defined the property rights between the familial clans involved, and determined the lawful heirs of the couple.
In the end, the "natural law" argument becomes a religious one,
because the state has never been concerned with a couple's interest in or ability to reproduce. Religion, on the other hand, has long sought to conflate the two. Ultimately, "natural law" fails because the state does not hold opposite-sex couples to a reproductive standard, and same-sex couples would offer the same benefits to society as opposite-sex couples.
Think of the Children!
Speaking of children, we arrive at the next objection. As we go through the list of arguments against gay marriage, they become less compelling. This argument suggests, without any evidence to support it, that children will be harmed by exposure to gays and lesbians. It simply has no basis in reality. In fact, age-appropriate sex education has been repeatedly shown to be beneficial to children of all ages. My favorite response to this trope is an anecdote: a child once asked his mother, "why are Mike and Steve always together?" The mother answered, "because they are in love, just like me and your dad." To which the child replied, "Oh, okay. Can I have a cookie?"
This argument is really just a form of salacious innuendo, and deserves to be called out as such. Enough said.
The most degrading and dehumanizing of the arguments against same-sex marriage is that allowing same-sex marriage will lead the state to recognize forms of marriage that most would find repugnant. It is difficult to overstate how genuinely cruel this argument is. Anti-gay activists attempt to conjure specters of polygamous clans, parent-child and sibling incest, and even pedophilia and bestiality. They openly compare the healthy, monogamous relationships of same-sex couples to these fringe expressions of human sexuality. It takes a special contempt for gays and lesbians in order to make such an argument - one must have no respect for the basic humanity of people with same-sex attraction.
Fortunately, there are real-world examples from states and from countries that have
legalized gay marriage. We can see from these examples that there aren't any movements to allow any of the types of extreme relationships described above. It turns out that "gay" marriage
coexists just fine alongside "traditional" marriage, and it does not lead to the legalization of fringe or deviant behavior.
Another fundamental problem with this line of reasoning is that so-called "traditional" marriage itself offers no reasons which explain why these extreme relationships are inappropriate, deviant, and harmful. Instead, it places the burden upon same-sex marriage advocates to articulate the reasons for these taboos. This is unnecessary. The same moral standards that forbid these kinds of relations for opposite-sex couples hold true for same-sex couples.
It is also worth noting something not mentioned by gay marriage
opponents when they cite polygamy as the bottom of a slippery slope:
polygamy is a heterosexual form of mating, and one that can find many
cognates in the natural world among higher mammals. This simple fact demonstrates that the arguments against gay marriage do not automatically support a "one man,
one woman" conception of marriage.
Essentially, this argument attempts to
evoke shock, horror, and revulsion, and to associate those feelings with homosexuality. The idea that gays and lesbians belong in a
category with the extreme simply does not have a
rational or evidentiary basis, and it unfairly demonizes an otherwise unremarkable minority group.
The most disheartening feature of all of these arguments against same-sex marriage is that they display a callous lack of experience with same-sex couples and with families led by same-sex parents. It is very easy to make abstract paeans to traditional marriage when same-sex couples are made invisible. These arguments represent a nullification: in a real way, they assert that actual gays and lesbians and their families do not exist, and they place a heavy mask over the everyday experience of thousands of same-sex couples.
The first response to this apparent erasure is to cry out: gay couples exist! Gay families exist! We must lay down our defenses and acknowledge the humanity of our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters. We must listen a while. When we do so, we will find that the wisdom of these couples and the wholesomeness of these families will enrich our own lives.