… are not going to be the topics of today’s conversation. I got bogged down this weekend in a protracted and eventually caustic Facebook argument over same-sex marriage. The only silver lining to the situation was the support I got from friends, who thought I’d done an okay job of defending my position… thanks guys.
Given that it’s an election year and “gay marriage” is hot issue for all of the Republican candidates, it’s something we’re likely to hear about ad nasueum in the upcoming months. I think it’s an important issue (albeit a no-brainer one), and so I’m going to digress from the usual math nonsense and Bug stories to talk about it. I promise I’ll get back to fart jokes and Doctor Who tomorrow.
Last week the 9th Circuit Court in California struck down Proposition 8, a constitutional ban on same-sex marriages passed by the voters of what was once a pretty laid-back state. The court’s reasoning, as expressed in their ruling, is that since same-sex marriages had been granted in California previously, and the only reason behind the new amendment was to deliberately remove this right from a class of citizens, it violated the the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Or, for the Tea Partiers out there, they ruled “No take-backsies.”
The court argued there was no compelling reason to retract the previously established right to marriage for same-sex couple, but clearly there are a lot of people who feel otherwise. What reasons do they have, and do they have merit? Let me address three of the most common ones I’ve heard:
Reason 1. In the Bible, God says marriage is between a man and a woman, and that’s that.
On the face of it, this point is not debatable. In Genesis 2:24, God plucks Eve out of Adam and says that a man “is united to his wife, and they become one flesh.” Jesus himself repeats the passage in the New Testament (Matthew 19). So, yes, the Bible does say that marriage is between a man and a woman.
The Bible also says that marriage is between a man and woman and a woman and a woman, like Jacob and his two wives or David and his many wives and Solomon and his seven-hundred wives, for example. It also says marriage is between a man and a woman and her property, including her slaves (such as pre-Abraham “Abram” in Genesis 16) or her concubines (like post-Abram “Abraham” with his 2 concubines). It also says a rapist can marry his victim, provided she was a virgin at the time of the assault and he can pay 50 shekels of silver to her father to cover the property damage (Deuteronomy 2:28-29). In fact, if we really want get to the heart of marriage in the Bible, just look at the Tenth Commandment, the last of the instructions God Almighty himself felt so important that he wrote them down himself: it explicitly lumps a man’s wife with the rest of his property, nestled neatly between his house and his livestock.
It doesn’t take much reading through either Testament to discover that the God of the Bible allowed for some truly unpleasant marriage constructs that, when viewed from the filter of the 21st century — hell, when viewed through the filter of common sense or basic empathy — we now deem extraordinarily wrong. Every single one of those ideas has fallen by the wayside of progress, casualties of common sense and basic human decency. If history is any guide, the Biblical arithmetic of “1 man + 1 woman = marriage” is almost certainly on the wrong side of common sense and decency as well.
The faithful might argue that I’m taking these verses out of context, which, given my complete lack of training in textual analysis, is imminently likely. But ask yourself: what possible context could make sense of any of those repugnant ideas? What could possibly justify the treating of another human being as property to be bought, bartered, or sold? The men who wrote the Bible got that part about as wrong as they possibly could, pure and simple. As a consequence, everything else they wrote about marriage is therefore subject to inspection and critical reflection.
But more to the point, whether or not the Bible says marriage is between a man and a women is utterly irrelevant. Marriage is a legal and civil arrangement in the United States. Any religious criterion by which this legal recognition is obtained treads dangerously close to violating the Establishment clause of the First Amendment and the Equal Protection clause of the Fourteenth. Simply put, “Because my God said so” is not a valid legal reason for anything under the secular government crafted by the Constitution.*
* While we’re on the topic, let’s also dispel the notion that “the United States is a Christian nation.” Supporters of this position often point to the Declaration of Independence and its reference to the “unalienable rights” granted by God. In point of fact, the Declaration posits these rights come from “their Creator.” Not “God.” Not “Yahweh.” Not “Jesus Christ.” In fact, the rights in question — life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness — are routinely skewered or shunned upon by the God of Abraham. Moreover, the Declaration’s author Thomas Jefferson most strongly aligned himself with the Unitarians, who supported a deistic worldview (one in which the Creator had nothing much to do with the workings of the universe after its initial inception), and once wrote to contemporary patriot John Adams that he hoped “the day will come when mystical generation of Jesus … will be classed with the fable of the generation of Minerva in the brain of Jupiter”). Given these facts, I think it’s safe to say that “Creator” in question ain’t Jesus.
But, even if we suppose this to be the case, while the Declaration of Independence is a beautiful piece of rhetorical work, it is not the governing document of the United States. That document is the Constitution, that THAT document asserts that the power of the government comes from the people. Outside of the nominal “year of our Lord” in the date, there is not a single mention of any supernatural or divine entity to be found in the entire document. Hell, given that the very first amendment in the Bill of Rights specifically allows for the freedom of religious worship and the prevention of the establishment of a national religion — two concepts that completely contradict the singular religious focal point of the first few Commandments — it is patently clear the framers of the Constitution went out of their way to make it clear that it wasn’t the God of Abraham who is in the driver’s seat of the USA.
Reason 2. Same-sex marriage promotes homosexuality, which is unnatural.
This is silly on at least two grounds. Let’s first focus on the “homosexuality is unnatural” bit. Presumably by “unnatural,” proponents of this reason mean that homosexuality is something you don’t find in nature, which is wrong in just about every fiefdom in the animal kingdom. It’s been observed in over 1500 species, ranging from primates (Hi!) to gut worms (Ew.)
One of our closest genetic relatives is the pygmy chimpanzee, or bonobo, a species that actually lives by the matra “make love, not war.” Almost every social interaction begins with a quick shag, be it guy-girl or guy-guy or girl-girl. (About 60% of all bonobo social interactions involve sexual activities between 2 or more females, which shows that humans are not only not very kinky by comparison, they’re not even particularly original.) Apparently for these primates, homosexuality is anything but unnatural. Imagine if humans played by the same rules: “Hi Steve.” “Hi Joe.” “You catch the game last night?” “A real nail biter.” “Ready to drop trou and get it on?” “Damn straight.” Grunt-grunt-grunt-grunt-oooo. “So, you’ll get those TPS reports to me?” “I’m on it, Joe.”
Republicans might argue that since chimpanzees are one of those foreign animals, they don’t count. You’d never see that level of perversion in good old American fauna. Maybe… except, for example, the American Bison — that iconic symbol of the American West and our nation’s Manifest Destiny — which is well-known to engage in more steamy bull-on-bull action out on the prairie than an all-day marathon of Brokeback Mountain. Indeed, the Mandan Native American people of North Dakota even ceremonially reenact this particular trait of the buffalo in their annual Okipa festival to “ensure the return of the buffalo in the coming season,” which even I will admit, at this point, sounds rather dirty.
This brings me to the second point. Let’s, for the moment, ignore these facts, and suppose that homosexuality is unnatural, and that same-sex marriage promotes it. Is that reason enough to ban it? You are certainly reading these words on a computer — a complex machine to be found nowhere in nature. Should we ban all the Best Buys for promoting this unnatural behavior? Hell, even reading is a completely unnatural act, as evidenced by the contrast between the effortless manner with which my daughter learned to speak English and the brutal struggle she now has learning to read it.) Should we ban all the schools for promoting this unnatural behavior? (Oh wait… Republicans do want to do that too. Bad example.)
Just because a human behavior is unnatural doesn’t necessarily make it harmful or wrong, and without evidence of harm or wrongdoing, talk of banning it makes about as much sense as banning clouds because you worry the sky might be falling.
Reason 3. Gays can have their “civil unions,” but “Marriage” is defined as being between a man and a woman.
Really? An entire segment of the population should be deprived of a basic legal right because of Mirriam-Webster? I’ve visited this idea before, but it bears repeating. To plagiarize from an older post:
There is a basic problem inherent with legislating the use of language. Language, be it French or English or Swahili, is a living entity, and it evolves with each generation of people who speak it, adapting to reflect the realities and circumstances of the culture it serves at the time. A language’s greatest strength is its ability to modify itself and adapt. Said differently, it is the character of the people that influence their language, not the other way round. It’s like arguing that, say, George Bush would have had a better grasp of international diplomacy if he could have only forced to say “nu-cle-ar” instead of “nu-cu-lar.”
As a language changes and sheds its disused layers, its more archaic aspects are preserved in texts and art, acting as a uniquely human time capsule capturing that aspect of culture and history. Hence, anyone who claims to be “protecting” people by “preserving” language is doing no such thing. Rather, they’re hoping that by “freezing” language — preserving it by embalming it as if already dead — they can “freeze” society they way they like it. In this case, it’s nothing more that homophobia disguised as logic predicated on the false assumption that P implies Q similarly demands that Q implies P.
But then what should “marriage” be? Well, look at what it is. Modern marriage in the U.S. is a legal institution that recognizes a union between committed individuals and codifies a social and legal dependence for the purposes of founding and maintaining a family. In practice, it provides a legal means to extend the rights and privileges ordinarily extended to immediate blood relatives to a committed partner. Given this working definition, there is absolutely no reason said individuals must be of opposite genders, any more than there was any reason once upon a time for the individuals to be of the same race (despite the numbers of people who thumped their Bibles in theologically justified opposition).
Why should two committed human beings — two sentient, thinking, feeling, flesh and blood people — be denied this very simple act? Why should they be denied the right to have their commitment legally recognized? Why should they be denied the right to found, extend, or maintain a family? Churches can refuse all they want: it’s their right to wallow in whatever bigotry has not fallen into complete disrepute. However, the U.S. is not a church. It has no church. It derives its power not from an invisible magic man who promises an everlasting Disneyland in the sky to those folks who don’t let their penises touch anything other than a vagina (and then, only after Marriage with a capital M).
The United States derives its power from the people.
It is a country of the people, by the people, for the people.
And that would be all the people.