Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Yet Another Gay Marriage Debate Again Already

I read in the paper today that there is going to be a yet another debate about gay marriage on campus tonight.




What an annoying little issue this is! I can think of few other "policy debates" in the public discourse today where both sides are as disingenuous.

Let me explain.

For starters, talk of "banning gay marriage" is stupid because gay marriage doesn't exist. There is, simply put, no marriage tradition in the gay community. How can anyone demand the "right" to legal recognition of a custom they don't, as a rule, practice? It's as if a Presbyterian minister were demanding the right to refuse to testify in criminal cases about information he learned in Confession. Great - on the surface, it sounds like he has a case. Catholic priests have this right after all - shouldn't all clergy? Well, no - and for obvious reasons. The Catholic Church has a long tradition of hearing confessionals. There are real taboos about it. Priests can be defrocked and excommunicated for revealing what they hear in Confessional. More than that, the Catholic community takes this stuff very seriously. They go to Confessional on the understanding that what they say is heard in confidence. A priest who breaks that confidence has real consequences to contend with. This isn't at all the same for a Presbyterian minister, who would have effectively invented the tradition from scratch if he started practicing it. The government makes a special exception for Catholic priests beacause there are special circumstances. Baring that, all citizens are required to testify in criminal cases if subpoenaed.

Gay marriage is something like that. It is not a binding tradition in the gay community. Mothers do not pressure their gay sons to find guys and settle down. Fathers do not haze any girl seeking their daughter's hand in marriage. No one sits on the front porch with a shotgun waiting for the son-in-law that cheated on his son to come home. Gay men do not hesitate to tell their friends about their extra-marital affairs for fear of how their friends will judge them. No one blackmails lesbians with threats to tell their wives they're stepping out. The list goes on. Monogamous, heterosexual marriage is well-entrenched in cultures around the globe, and in every one of these cultures taboos, rituals, and other social pressures have evolved to sustain the institution. There simply are no such pressures associated with gay marriage. While I do not doubt that there are indeed plenty of committed gay couples, "marriage" as a societal institution does not exist for them. And yet surely such an institution is a requirement for bringing in government oversight?

Now, it will be argued that I'm posing a Catch-22. Until gays are legally allowed to marry, how can they be expected to form the social institutions that go along with marriage? Fair enough - but that brings me to my second point.

Which is: talk of "allowing gay marriage" is stupid because gay marriage already exists. The main thing I've never understood about this issue is why gay people think they need the government's permission to get married? How lame is that? Shouldn't it just be an issue between the individuals in question, their lawyers, and their god(ess/s/esses/the Great Pumpkin/plus alpha)? Is there honestly anyone alive who thinks their love is less if it doesn't have a government stamp on it? Any time two of you are gathered in My Name, or however that goes... Well, any time two gay guys get together and honestly promise to love each other till death them do part, aren't they married in the relevant sense?

Well, no, they argue, because the government won't give them the full legal benefits that come with its sanction of marriage. This is a very good point. In this sense, I fully accept the gay lobby's argument that gays are oppressed. What they are talking about, of course, are the rights to bequeath their property to their partner upon death and/or have their partner make medical decisions for them in situations where they are not capable of doing so themselves. I really have to wonder what interest the government thinks it has in denying them these rights. Even assuming we buy the case that the government has an interest in encouraging stable hetero families (and I want to be very clear that I DON'T accept that the government has such an interest) though tax incentives, etc. - what possible interest can it have in telling adults to whom they can and cannot transfer their property? What possible interest could it have in denying people the right to chose for themselves who makes their medical decisions? Surely any conceivable free society reserves these rights to individuals???

So we have two problems to solve. First, we have to find a way for the gay community to convince the government that it has a tradition of marriage deserving of legal respect. Second, we have to obtain for gay couples the property and medical rights they surely deserve. Hmmm.... Is there anything that might accomplish these goals? If only we could have some kind of marriage-like contract - you know, like a marriage, but not completely. Call it...I dunno...a "civil union" maybe?

Well, they tried that, but no one wanted to bite. The conservatives thought it was granting too much. God wouldn't like it, or something (never mind that His opinions aren't supposed to matter in public affairs). It would "ruin the family" (how, exactly?) or "open the door to polygamy" (which is somehow worse than gay marriage?) or "allow bestiality" (gee, do let's try to explain THAT one...). But more to the point, the gays didn't think it went far enough (you know, because even though it got them all their property rights and their government certificate, they wanted the one that said "marriage" on it. 'Cause it just ain't a marriage until it's blessed by the Holy Government).

I think the number one thing that gets on my nerves about this issue is precisely this. Why can't gays accept civil unions? It seems like a perfectly rational, adult strategy. For one thing, it's legally more likely to succeed than outright marriage, which has a dismal record at the polls, to put it mildly. For another, civil unions are virtually guaranteed to lead to full marriage once the public gets used to the idea. Indeed, civil unions would seem to be the mature choice. It's like saying "look, we're people like you, we fall in love and get married like you. It saddens us that you don't know that because you don't spend enough time getting to know us - but we accept that. We just want our legal rights for now, and in the meantime we'll work on the cultural side of it which, we recognize, takes longer." Instead what we get is a whiny, intolerant temper tantrum. People who make up only 4% of the population and have a radically different sexual orientation think it should somehow be obvious to everyone else that they fall in love and mate in exactly the same way as everyone else? And this despite no record of any society in all human history having ever sanctioned gay marriage.

But to come clean, I do not actually think civil unions are the answer either. I think the answer is even simpler than that: the government should get out of the marriage industry altogether.

The truth is that marriage is different things to different people. Some marriages are purely political: the families decide to marry their children to forge a business alliance, or to preserve their mutual bloodlines. Some marriages are for comfort: old friends marry so as not to be lonely, having never been sufficiently interested in anyone to tie the knot. Some marriages are for passion: a deep and primal emotional desire takes over and demands full possession of the partner. Some marriages are for children: the parents think they would make a good match for raising a family. Some marriages are for love: the other person is so absolutely perfect for you you never want to be apart from them. It wouldn't be too much of an exaggeration to say that there are as many reasons to get married as there are married couples. This simply isn't a matter for the government. Rather, as I said earlier, it's a matter for the people involved, their lawyers, and whatever religion they believe in (if any), and whatever cultural norms they subscribe to. No free society should seek to regulate matters this personal, this tied to the culture - especially in nations like the United States.

Marriage exists in all cultures, but it is not exactly the same anywhere in the world. Gay people are 4% or so of the population. I promise you that letting them marry isn't going to bring the institution down. Nor is allowing polygamy, which, after all, has existed in stable form in many cultures throughout history. Fears of bestiality are unwarranted: there is no way to have contracts with animals. But the real concern is this: property rights should be absolute. People should be allowed to decide for themselves, and on whatever basis, who gets their property when they die, as well as who makes decisions for them when they are incapacitated. As for the rest of it: I don't much give a crap what the government's opinion of my marriage is. Give me my property rights, and we're good.

I think what the ongoing debate about gay marriage means, though, in a larger cultural context, is that monolithic cultures are inappropriate for large societies. I touched on this in a post about fairness yesterday. When you live in groups of 100 or so, imposing norms on people isn't such a big deal. It's feasible, in such groups, to redistribute wealth, practice a uniform religion, preserve traditions, etc. Once society gets bigger and more complex - that is, once interactions are no longer limited to your one little village - the situation changes. Emotion-based societies no longer really work on the larger scale. We can't take into account every individual's feelings, and we don't have the time and resources to sit down with everyone and explain to them how they are "supposed" to live. The principle that works in a big society like the nation-state is the principle of rational self-interest. We recognize that all people are free agents - and that means letting them live their lives as they wish, provided they do not violate the rights of others.

There is no possible way that allowing a consenting gay couple to decide to share money and make medical decisions for each other, and to commit to live the rest of their lives together, can violate anyone's rights. If some people refuse to call it "marriage," that is, of course, also their right, and there is no reason to have on file any paper that tells them otherwise. Devolving marriage is a solution that works for everyone - and it is a solution that is commensurate with the kind of "hands-off" society that the modern world demands. So let's stop arguing about "gay marriage" already. It is a stupid debate about legal semantics that is entirely inappropriate in a free society.


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