Simplifying one part of the same-sex marriage debate

There are a fair number of people who say that it's not anti-gay sentiment or discomfort with homosexuality that drives their opposition to same-sex marriage. I imagine plenty of them honestly believe that.

Such people often find themselves convinced by reasonable-sounding arguments against same-sex marriage that appear to be grounded in factors other than disapproval of homosexuality per se.

To such people, I have this to say:

Imagine, for the sake of argument, truly holding the belief that there's absolutely nothing wrong with being gay. (Or lesbian, or bi, or whatever, but for this entry I'll use “gay” for ease of phrasing.)

To most people who really honestly hold that belief, most of the anti-same-sex-marriage arguments not only aren't valid, they don't make sense.

Here are some of the most common such arguments, with responses based on the premise that there's nothing wrong with being gay:

“We need to protect children from being exposed to the idea that being gay is okay.”
No need; being gay isn't bad, remember?
“But homosexuality is a choice.”
There's a lot of evidence that that's not true for most people—but why is the issue even relevant, if being gay isn't bad?
“We need to protect children from predators.”
Absolutely; I think we all agree that this is a good idea. But being gay isn't bad; it's being a predator that's bad. And since gay people are no more likely to be predators than straight people, this issue isn't relevant.
“We should allow people to worship as they please.”
I agree. But bear in mind that some of those people are engaging in prejudice, because they still believe that being gay is bad. But yeah, people are allowed to be prejudiced, and if that prejudice is part of their religion, we cut them extra slack. Still, we usually frown on encoding people's prejudices into law. Also remember that some religions do marry same-sex couples; those religions should be treated fairly too.
The main point here is that civil marriage (recognized by the state) is not the same thing as religious marriage (recognized by a religion).
“Businesses might be forced not to discriminate.”
Yeah, in some contexts that might happen. But that's because we already agree, as a society, that businesses shouldn't discriminate against people. Unless the people in question are bad. And being gay isn't bad, right?
So we should prevent businesses from discriminating against gay people, to the same degree that we already prevent businesses from discriminating against other non-bad kinds of people.
“We have to preserve traditional marriage.”
Civil marriage (in the modern US, anyway) generally involves two people who love each other getting state recognition for committing to each other. And since there's nothing wrong with being gay, there's no reason to put any particular gender restrictions on that recognition.
So why not include same-sex couples in the tradition of civil marriage? (Religious marriage is something different; see above about worship.)
“It's fine as long as they use some other word for it, not ‘marriage.’”
But if being gay isn't bad, and if a gay couple's civil marriage is in all other respects legally identical to a straight couple's, then why should they use a different word for it? We don't normally use two separate terms for two identical and equal legal statuses.
“Marriage is about procreation.”
Lots of gay people have kids, whether biological kids or adopted. And since there's nothing wrong with being gay, there's also nothing wrong with gay people having or raising kids.
(Also, on a side note, the procreation argument is obviously unfounded for various other reasons. For example, back in October, pro-Prop 8 lawyers said marriage was for procreation; “Judge Walker scoffed at that idea, saying the last wedding he officiated was between people aged 95 and 83. 'I did not demand that they prove they intended to engage in procreation,' he said.” But this and other related stuff is outside the scope of the issue I'm discussing in this entry; I'm trying to keep things simple and focused here.)
“Moral disapproval of gay conduct isn't the same as prejudice against gays.”
Most people who talk about “moral disapproval of gay conduct” in this context really mean religious disapproval of gay sex; see above about worship. But remember, homosexual sex isn't the issue under discussion; that's already legal throughout the US. Same-sex civil marriage is the issue we're talking about.
Anyway, if there's nothing wrong with being gay, then why should anyone care what same-sex couples do or don't do in the privacy of their homes? We don't base our civil-marriage laws on what kinds of sex couples are likely to have. (Lots of opposite-sex couples do things in bed that some people are morally opposed to, but those couples still get to get married.)

It all comes back to the same thing:

If you truly believe that there's nothing wrong with being gay, then there are no good arguments against same-sex couples having as much right to marry as different-sex couples, and you shouldn't let yourself be convinced by reasonable-sounding arguments that rely on underlying unspoken prejudice.

(Side note: Some people have raised interesting issues from the other direction: they don't feel that marriage should have the prominent place it has in modern American civil society. But that's also beyond the scope of my post here; I still intend to discuss that another time.)

Conversely, of course, if someone starts from the premise that there's something wrong or bad about being gay, then of course same-sex marriage is bad (and several of the above arguments become valid). But people who are starting with that premise should be clear about it—both to themselves and in their public statements.

There are plenty of people who do explicitly start from the premise that homosexuality is bad. This entry doesn't address those people's concerns. But when such people are making ads to convince voters to vote against marriage equality, they often use the above arguments without mentioning their starting premise, and that's not just hypocritical, it's actively deceitful. It works, but that's largely because there are a lot of people who are uncomfortable with homosexuality but aren't sure why and don't want to admit it, so they're happy to hear rational-sounding arguments that they can hold onto.

My real point in this entry is this:

The whole anti-marriage-equality house of cards is founded on the usually unspoken, and often even denied, belief that homosexuality is bad. Some day, we as a society will get past that idea, and marriage equality will seem as obviously harmless as any other normal part of life.

(Mostly written in late January; didn't get around to posting 'til now.)

4 Responses to “Simplifying one part of the same-sex marriage debate”

  1. Cat Faber

    I see we are thinking along broadly the same lines today. 🙂

  2. Jackie M.

    “Moral disapproval of gay conduct isn’t the same as prejudice against gays.”

    I’d actually counter this argument with “it is the same if that moral disapproval leads to systematic denial of rights, with demonstrable harm to gay citizens and their families as a result.”

    (And then a few iterations late, and as an ally, I usually add for emphasis that we’re talking about demonstrable harm to my gay friends and my gay relatives, and therefore by extension to me, straight as I may be.)

  3. Benjamin Rosenbaum

    On the point you are making in general, I obviously agree with you completely, and this is a very carefully-spelled-out and admirably calm argument.

    I do have one quibble which is largely a side issue of phrasing, with this: “But that’s because we already agree, as a society, that businesses shouldn’t discriminate against people. Unless the people in question are bad.”

    I don’t think that’s technically accurate — on the contrary, businesses are generally allowed to discriminate against people on whatever criteria they like — whether they look hot (when you are in line for a club), whether they seem smart (for selective admissions to colleges), whether they are fun to work with or for, etc., etc. — except for a small number of historically charged categories: race, gender, national origin, disability (often), and (most places, thankfully) sexual orientation (and some others, depending on where you are; much of this is state and local law, or in federal law only regarding things like funding and public institutions — on a federal level, we still don’t have the ERA!).

    The general presumption is that people will and may discriminate on every single criterion except those criteria which we’ve included on a list. We are basically saying, as a society, that certain types of discrimination rise to the level of virulent oppressions.

    In my opinion anti-gay prejudice eminently deserves this categorization, and is in fact more of an active, virulent tool of oppression than some of the others on the list. So it’s only your phrasing that I’m objecting to, not your point. But I feel like it’s an important argument, because it’s actually stronger to say “make distinctions between people all you like, but this is a broad social injustice people require legal protection from” rather than (to caricature and reduce ad absurdum what your phrasing might suggest) “any kind discrimination between people is not nice and should be therefore illegal”.

  4. Jed

    In case others missed it, here’s Cat’s entry that she’s referring to above, in response to the Ross Douthat piece that’s been making the rounds (the one about how heterosexual marriage is awesome).

    Jackie and Ben: thanks, and good points. I’m waffling about whether to try to change this entry to reflect your comments; I think I will (with a note indicating that I’ve made changes), but I’ll have to think about it a little more.


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