Six weeks ago, HopeSpringsATurtle at Deep Confusion asked me to think about how to win gay marriage rights in the depressing context of California's anti-marriage Proposition 8 passage. The issue simmered in the Crockpot of my mind long before she asked. Other than my own, the most beautiful and perhaps most conventional wedding I ever attended was a good friend and business school classmate's. She and her partner were starting what is now a national chain of sex shops, Toys in Babeland. Unless you're an inconsiderate driver, I'm fairly tolerant.
Being an ex-Mormon and having grown up in a small conservative town, I know the opposing motivations and doctrines to my friend's union like the palm of my hand. And when a gay or lesbian couple waits in line with their adopted child for a latte, everything had prepared me for their continued absence, so I must now readily admit to cognitive dissonance. It was, in short, unthinkable. As a refugee from that background, I have made a reconnaissance in force; I have a leg up on knowing how to deescalate opposition and fit solutions past the forces of conservatism.
To the Mormon Church, being gay is perfectly acceptable, so long as you don't act on it, marry a nice gal or guy for time and all eternity, bear children and raise them devoutly. I've known two marriages and suspected more in which a lesbian beards a gay and he veils vice-versa. While going to a Mormon undergraduate college, quite a number of my friends and acquaintances were gay, and I witnessed the ugly consequences of intolerance on their lives. My sympathies naturally lie with their cause, but the fact is that for them, a painful leave-taking is necessary to find acceptance. They won't find it in the Mormon church in this lifetime, nor in many others.
After an unbridgeable gap between doctrine and his sexuality was exposed, a classmate killed himself. Years later one of my best friends tried to do the same--he was an instructor at the same college, son to a beloved member of the church hierarchy. There is no solution to his anguish or his family's. Retaining his sanity was a more attainable goal. Rigid doctrines which don't accommodate immutable aspects of human nature precipitate misery; ones which disallow sacred vows seem cruel and unwise. Sexuality is a complex continuum, and of course lesbians and gays, bi-sexuals and tri-sexuals want what everybody else wants. If they find their soul-mate, allowing them to cleave to one another in the eyes of community and even god should at least be tolerated, and one would think celebrated. It's probably good for society, children are adopted into loving homes, it takes a village, etc.
And yet, it seems unwise to engineer gay marriage in one leap, to attempt one great span. Not because the concept is wrong, more because a historical analog doesn't come to mind, and it's too much for numerous, strongly established networks of belief to accept. Call them crazy, backwards, intolerant, but winning well requires empathy with the enemy, and the victories which endure often exhibit solid architecture with many points of support. Given the prevailing gaps and conflicts, one might better seek to co-opt or by-pass reflexive oppositions, not galvanize them with gongs in their ears.
Mormons are relative moderates of the anti-gay contingent, but they will never perform same-sex marriage in their church. If any law forced them to do so, they would either exodus or devolve to violence. They fought so hard over Prop 8 because, as they understood it, California law would require them to perform same-sex marriages. In their doctrinal views these are not only distressing, but also impossible. I'm not defending their doctrines per se, I'm stressing that understanding their objection is the path to solution.
Back to high-level: when it comes down to it, the battle over gay marriage is primarily over the definition of the word "marriage." What is it, really? I'm married, and am still puzzled sometimes. It's a bit fuzzy, a distillation of quotidian tradition, tax status, commitment and official blessing. In truth, marriage is ill-defined, so tactically, the battle to extend the term should be winnable, particularly by focusing on its various rights and responsibilities. Legislation for the explicit arrangements of marriage for same-sex parties and partners, state by state, should be lobbied and enacted. Notably, extending the office of marriage changes the nature of family on deep levels. If your wife or husband is hit by a car and lies in a hospital, when you rush to their room that's all you need to say to gain admittance. You're family. That's the primary detail to push for.
A rights-based approach may represent time and a whole lot of work, but if the goal is to establish practical equality and acceptance without backlash and hate crimes, it seems worth pursuing. There are a lot of elements to equality as an ideal, as precedent, as law. Lincoln freed the slaves by proclamation in 1863, but a supporting web of legal structure didn't gird it, so it took another century and more to build a triangulated base of rights and moral commons which could be climbed, by a child of any color, to our system's apex. The triangulation best starts at the weight-bearing members which make sense to everyone: remember how the Republicans pushed us into our present political and financial corner? They started out with the most reasonable of propositions, not showing their full agenda, building bigger levers, always keeping their end prize in mind.
Few Mormons would object to granting medical visitation rights to domestic partners. There should be a law for that! Corporations would assemble more resistance to employee benefits to civil unions than would Mormons. And there should be a law for that! This is ground begging to be taken, ground which builds into the larger cause. Obviously these base-battles won't be won uniformly; there will be a hodge-podge of uneven progress across states and churches. But it will be progress, and far less risky than coming by Federal fiat.
Because it treads on religious ground, any Federal activism on gay marriage will be constitutionally vulnerable to legal attack with regards to separation of church and state. The blade is on that whetstone, but it should not be sharpened. On the other side, the churches' efforts to amend marriage as a union only between a man and a woman shares the same vulnerability. They too want to "go there" in the Constitution, but they would be most ill-advised to do so. "Congress shall make no law," etc., and the battle should not be cast as a church issue. Gay marriage is first and foremost an incompletely addressed social issue of living arrangements, benefits, and inheritance.
Seeking to win the will of god and scripture is folly, so strategically, churches and religions should be ignored altogether, and the marriage cause should be placed entirely under the umbrella of civil rights. That shield will frustrate religious opponents by placing them on unfamiliar and sometimes hostile ground, terrain which has already been legally won for minorities. "Marriage Is A Civil Right"–that should be the slogan, the definition, a linguistic flank attack on “marriage between a man and a woman.”
Even under a non-compulsory civil rights umbrella, lesbian and gay members of many churches, and residents of states like Alabama will not be vindicated. People caught in those situations will still be miserable, and I wish there were more comfort, but at least they'll soon be able to get married somewhere. As tolerance spreads, opposing sides will re-appraise the value of their relationships, and over time the context will shift. Perhaps those left out might consider moving to places like California, where Prop 8 will probably be challenged and overturned, and a Unitarian church will perform a beautiful ceremony either way.