Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Gay Marriage: A Conservative Response to Conservative Bigotry

I have noticed over the past week or so that a good dozen of my friends on Facebook have signed on to a group stating, "I will vote No on the marriage amendment." Like many other U.S. states in recent years, Minnesota will have a measure on the ballot next year trying to codify in the State Constitution heterosexual marriage as the sole legitimate form of marriage. It's been one of the lynchpin issues of the religious right in this nation, who are hellbent on keeping the GLBTQ community oppressed, marginalized, and vilified.

While I appreciate the sentiment of the Facebook page, and articles like this one, my views on this issue are more complex, and not easily measured by a yea or nay vote.

First off, I plan to vote No on the ballot measure next year because using the Constitution to restrict people's rights is astoundingly stupid in my view.

However, here's where I diverge from the norm.

The pro-Gay marriage movement has always felt like a conservative response to a conservative attack on the GLBTQ community. One of the underlying assumptions being that once gay folks can marry like straight folks currently do, things will be better. Which is true in one sense, but not necessarily true for those who aren't, for whatever reason, interested in getting married.

And those reasons are far more diverse than many of us tend to imagine. Some people are simply players, or afraid of commitment. Some are just exploring. Some haven't healed from past relationships. I know older folks who want to be in an intimate relationship, but have no interest in going through another marriage ceremony. Some are deeply invested in polyamory, and have found ways to sustain long term relationships with multiple people.

One of the driving points behind the Gay Marriage movement has been that gay folks deserve to have the same social rights and privileges bestowed upon married straight couples. And the way I see it, gaining legal gay marriage will certainly open the door to many more people, it doesn't address some of those examples I listed above which can fall under the "long term, committed relationship" category.

There's another issue though. Marriage is a religious ceremony, and plenty of people for a variety of reasons aren't interested in doing religious ceremonies. Furthermore, while I deplore the bigotry of these conservative Judeo-Christian institutions pushing for things like marriage amendments, I feel a strange sympathy towards their general fear of being controlled by the government. The intertwined nature of marriage's current relationship with civil society is problematic when you consider desires for a separation of church and state. At least, it's problematic in my view.

It seems to me that a better course of action would be to leave marriage to the spiritual/religious sphere, where those of us who are members of said communities can choose to partake of these ceremonies as a part of our commitment to our partners.

And as such, the government's role would then be to offer civil union to all who wish to make a commitment to another, with all the financial and social rights, privileges and responsibilities that currently are tied to marriage.

This would open the door for more folks in general, remove the church and state marriage tangle, and also, I believe, would lessen the intensity of opposition from the religious right. Certainly, there are plenty of people who will argue that offering civil unions is still an "affront" to marriage, and I doubt there's anything legally that will get these folks to either stand down or change their minds. However, when the leaders of conservative church X or mosque Y aren't feeling like the government is going to come in and shut them down for not performing a marriage ceremony between two men (that's the standard fantasy), I bet some of them will move on to other issues. It's much easier right now to rally the right wing troops when amongst their worries is one of being told by the government what they can and can't do.

So, I'm not sure what to do about that Facebook group. To join or not join, that is the question.(Not a terribly serious question, but it is the one that led me to this post.) Your thoughts?


Petteri Sulonen said...

I agree. Beats me why it doesn't already work like this. Would save a lot of bellyaching on all sides. I like the French PACS, only I think it should be the norm rather than an option.

I also don't see any reason to restrict it to just two people; I think any number of adults should be able to form one, for any reason. Whether these reasons include tabs Y going into slots X shouldn't even enter into it.

Jack Daw said...

"Marriage is a religious ceremony"

Is it? I always thought it was a civil ceremony. People just feel the need to make it soemthing more. For example, my wife and I were married in the legal sense a day before our religiously-infused party/ceremony.

That is why i just don't understand the insistance that this is a religious issue. It isn't. It is a civil one pure and simple. It is just easier to rile up a group by appealing to their regilious ethics and bigotry.


Jack Daw said...

Sorry. Popping in again. Where is it codified in law that a marriage has to be religious. It only requires a state officiant.

Am I incorrect in this?

NellaLou said...

I see it too as a change in legal status since most of what is affected by marriage relates to civil or legal issues such as taxation, powers of attorney, registration with the government, beneficiaries to benefits etc. Technically it is a contract that one requires a form of tort law to break. That is one partner must "sue" the other partner for a divorce. (at least that's what my divorce papers say)

It may provide some sense of emotional security (or not!) or satisfy people's wish for supernatural or social sanctification on the religious end but that's as far as I can see the "benefit" of religious forms of marriage or partnership.

I also agree with Petteri that neither state nor religion should interfere with the decisions of adults in terms of forms of marriage or partnership.

Jack Daw said...

NellaLou? You got divorced? Unthinkable...

love you.

Nathan said...


You're right that officially, marriage isn't a religious ceremony. A straight couple can easily go down to a courthouse, for example, and get married.

However, it's roots are tied directly to religious institutions. Go back far enough in history (probably not even too far), and you can't find anyone besides a priest officiating at a wedding.

And so the way I see it, it's fruitless spending endless amounts of energy trying to allow all of these commitments to fall under the label "marriage."

I'm not interested in appealing to the religious right's notion of right and wrong. I'm interested in bypassing their notions all together.

Adam said...

Now here is a liberal that IS attacking the "sanctimony" of marriage!!!

Here in the Pacific Northwest, I'm finding that the term "partner" is becoming more and more common amongst straight couples. It's a bit sketchy as to how many are legally married or not. Some have just committed themselves to eachother, some have the paperwork to back it up. But I'm seeing (here, at least) it to be more and more common to identify in this way, stripping "marriage" and religion out of the equation altogether. I know of a few straight couples like this that have even avoided using wedding rings/bands even though legally married.

I don't know what chance that has of becoming law though. I think that a more likely scenario is that gay marriage will become recognized by the state, and then (maybe) we'll start to use the term "civil union" to apply to legal marriages, and "marriage" left up to the religious communities.

Captcha for this comment: labelania ha!

Richard Harrold said...

Hi Nathan, I must disagree with you that the roots of marriage "are tied directly to religious institutions." That's simply not true. Even in Biblical times, marriages were always arranged by the parents ahead of time, it was a contractual arrangement. The rabbi was brought in merely to conduct a public ceremony, but by the time of the ceremony, that marriage was contractually sealed.

Priests, rabbis and ministers often conducted these ceremonies for a fee, which is why we have something called a "common law" marriage, as this was for the poor folk who couldn't afford to pay a minister to conduct their ceremony. Nonetheless, the community often recognized these couples as married despite it never having been officiated by a clergy or even a judge.

From ancient China to Babylon to Judea, marriages involved a property transaction that was agreed upon by the parents of the couple to be wed.

A wedding does not make a marriage. Never has. It's just that the religious conservative anti-gay marriage faction has cleverly confused the issue, just as they completely and erroneously assert that marriage has always been "one man one woman." Tell that to Abraham or King Solomon.


d.sullivan said...

I have to agree with Richard. Marriage is not a religious ceremony - it is a simply a civil one. It has been a part of society much longer than organized religion has, and religion has simply condoned the practice, not the other way around.

NellaLou said...

Yes Jack I got married in 1996 after living together for 4 years and divorced in 2005. I am the one who sued for the divorce. They even called us plaintiff and defendant on the papers. We remain friends and mutual supporters.

Nathan said...

Ok, I'm willing to admit that I don't have all the finer points of marriage history down. I was well aware of the property exchange piece, a practice that still is pretty easy to find around the world. I also was aware of the long history of "common law" marriages.

Here's the thing. We can sit and debate the origins of marriage. We can sit and debate with muddled Christians and others about the origin of marriage. People have been, and continue to.

Seems like a dead end to me. There are enough of these folks who have been wound up for a good three decades now to keep blocking any legislation changing who can get married.

So, my point is that we already have civil ceremonies for straight couples. Why not work to expand that, call it a civil union or whatever, and bypass those who mostly feel their religious views are under attack?

I honestly don't know exactly what the best way forward is, but my own state was, not too long ago, fairly progressive - so if we're going backwards on this issue, that says to me "Time to try a new tactic."

So, I'm offering one here.

Richard Harrold said...

Nathan, I think I see where you're going with this, but I'm concerned about the vernacular.

Marriage is marriage, whether its consecrated religiously or civilly. But a civil union is not marriage.

I've written about this before, and I am anti-civil unions not just because they're not marriage, but because civil unions pose more danger to the institution of marriage than allowing same-sex marriages. And the reason is pretty simple - it's an alternative to marriage, hence it makes marriage less desirable. Ironically, this is the same argument that the anti-gay marriage people use, that allowing same-sex couples to legally marry weakens the institution. But they have no evidence.

On the other hand, there is plenty of evidence that when an alternative choice is offered, the original choice becomes less attractive. If we want to strengthen marriage, then we embrace same-sex couples.

We don't need civil unions to create an alternative to marriage because that is and has been already legally possible for anyone to create. But it's truly amazing to see how so much of our law is connected to marriage, everything from immigration status to the transfer of retirement accounts.

By and large, we're not going backwards. Time is taking its toll on the negative attitudes toward same-sex marriage. While frustrated at times, I am eternally optimistic.

As Edmund Burke said, all evil needs to triumph is for good people to do nothing. So the best thing for our straight allies to do is be our advocates and witness for us. It's like water dripping on a stone, eventually an impression will be made.

Nathan said...

Richard, I have struggled to know what to think about this issue for years. I have gay and bisexual friends who take a similar position as I'm taking here. I have others who take a position similar to yours. I know straight couples who won't get married as long as it is discriminatory towards the GLBTQ community.

So, I really don't know what to think to be honest.

I think part of the problem with civil unions is how many different versions of a "civil union" exist around the world. Some are almost exact replicas of a marriage contract while others are decidedly second class in nature. Most of what exists in the U.S. is pretty second class, with the possible exception of civil unions in Vermont.

It's important for me, though, to say that I have never had a deep connection to the marriage contract. Marriage has never been a dream of mine, which doesn't mean I will never get married, but I have long viewed it in terms of it's baggage. The long term association with oppression of women, for example. Or all the ways that people who don't fit the model are left out.

And furthermore, I tend to view things like the rise of divorce to be a mixed bag. On the one hand, more people might not take marriage as seriously as in the past. On the other hand, besides the obvious benefit of those being abused to be able to get out more easily - people also sometimes greatly change.

Nathan said...

I guess you might say it gets into that whole impermanence thing. I have long wanted to have a lifelong companion, but at the same time, part of me wonders if the great prevalence of, and attachment to, that narrative - if that isn't just leading many of us to suffer greatly for entire lifetimes, either by staying with someone you've been miserable with for years on end, or by chasing after that once and for all person endlessly.

All of that impacts how I view this.

Nathan said...

Adam above jokingly (I think jokingly) referred to me as a liberal attacking the sanctity of marriage, but really, most liberals wouldn't take me into their club. My views are too unruly.

Here are a couple of examples to ponder. I have a retired friend who had a long and happy marriage with her husband, who is now deceased. She has been in a relationship for a few years with a new partner, and while they love each other and stand with each other regardless of what's happening, neither are interested in getting hitched at their age. What happens though if one gets sick and/or dies? Why should they have to get married to have some of those benefits/protections married couples have?

I have another friend who fell in love with a man from another country. In order for him to be able to be with her here in MN, they got married. They hadn't been together long enough to really establish a deep, committed relationship, and once he got here, it didn't take long to realize they were a bad match. She stuck it out for about three years before breaking up with him.

I guess I'm interested in working on some of those benefits/protection laws associated with marriage as much as anything. Because I know plenty of people, regardless of sexual orientation, for whom marriage isn't necessarily what they want or need.