Radical Change by Definition
Since this is my first post on same-sex marriage on this blog, it is probably relevant to note that I’ve already written extensively on the topic.
Barbara Gordon of Pawtucket is “distressed” at various efforts to write into the law explicitly what, until recently, everybody thought to be there by definition:
I believe it is immoral to discriminate against any minority group solely because they differ from the norm and make some of us uncomfortable. I believe it is un-American to deny civil rights to certain citizens not because of any crime, but just because of who they are and whom they love. I cherish the U.S. Constitution and am concerned when those who would have their religious beliefs dictate the laws that affect us all seek to undermine the constitutional separation of church and state. …
Whom another person wishes to love, comfort, and honor threatens none of us; codifying discrimination in anti-gay marriage laws or amendments harms us all.
If the law — as it already exists — is clarified, you see, then those who wish to change it will find it more difficult to convince a judge to declare that marriage is something other than what the language means it is. I’ve come to think that this is less a conscious stratagem than a flaw in reasoning.
Mrs. Gordon might be edified to learn that I agree that civil rights oughtn’t be denied “just because” of whom somebody loves, and that I’m also wary of people who rely entirely on irrational beliefs to dictate laws. I suspect she’ll be a bit less enthusiastic about my suggestion that her irrational beliefs are a case in point.
I’ve given Rhode Island’s marriage laws a pretty thorough look, and I see not a word about “love.” In fact, the words that Gordon uses to describe marriage are conspicuously religious-sounding, and while civil officiants may use them as boilerplate, they aren’t required to do so by law. This isn’t just a cute debater’s point, because it underlies the two critical concepts in her argument: “civil rights” and “discrimination.”
At Gordon’s urging, I found and read Charles Bakst’s November 11 column on the topic. Therein, Providence Mayor David Cicilline takes the same approach as Mrs. Gordon (and most other supporters of same-sex marriage). Petitio principii, he embeds his conclusions in his assumptions:
You cannot on the one hand say ‘I respect people’ and ‘I agree with tolerance’ and at the same time argue for discriminating against the same group of people. And, frankly, gays and lesbians aren’t asking to be ‘tolerated.’ We’re asking to be valued and we’re asking for the same rights and responsibilities that everyone else has. You ‘tolerate’ an annoying noise in a car.
But is the equivalence of same-sex marriage and opposite-sex marriage a civil right? Is refusing to recognize same-sex marriages invidious discrimination? It is only so if, as the innovation’s proponents contend, society’s interest in recognizing marriages in the first place has nothing to do with the spouses’ being of opposite sex. For “discrimination” to deserve the revulsion that the word too often sparks even in its most neutral sense, two groups must be similarly situated. It is not invidious discrimination, for example, for a carpenter to be denied a tax break intended for teaching supplies. That unjust discrimination is so often assumed in the opening salvos of the same-sex marriage discussion ought to be cause for concern.
To declare so haughtily that traditional marriage laws violate the rights of homosexuals, one must believe that there are no differences between men and women that are relevant to marriage. If marriage is not centrally about gender, then it is not centrally about the most obvious thing that men and women can only do together: create children. And if marriage is not about procreation, then there’s no reason it has to be about sex. And if it isn’t about sex, then intimate love — as opposed to other forms of mutual interest or affection — needn’t be definitive. Marriage, in other words, becomes a partnership in the most bland, contractual sense of that word.
That outcome has proven all but inconceivable to many who support same-sex marriage (at least those whom we trust about their intentions). They take for granted that the emotional culture of marriage is written in firm ground that they imagine at the core of our social being. As they, themselves, prove that ground is not as firm as it might seem. Even if it were, however, we would still have to keep in mind that the law does not require married couples to act married, or even to proclaim that they are. Any stigma associated with same-sex marriages of convenience would have no readily visible identification on which to accrue and would therefore quickly slip away.
I can only muse that those who are most willing to force radical changes on our culture are also the most naive about the ways in which the culture can change. And I can only be distressed that too many seem to believe that same-sex marriage would represent no change at all.