Saturday, December 27, 2008

Same-Sex Marriage & How To Achieve It

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.”

While consummating negotiations, marriages, and vows, there are often bitter pills to be swallowed by both parties. In legal contexts, those pills are called "splitting the baby." There are undeniable doses of it here. Catholic, evangelical, and Mormon leaders should be continuously reassured via marketing, direct communication, even engagement in drafting legislation. For churches, participation in same-sex marriages must be voluntary. Forced compliance is their greatest fear, and taking it away will effectively dilute their opposition.

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.


Naj said...

"o 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."

Same in to the Muslim Mosque.

What do you think of atrocities in Gaza?! What do you think Obama's reaction would be? Tapping Israel in congratulation?

Vigilante said...

Well argued, Marc. If the Progressives make steady progress on the mega-issues, than Liberals will be satisfied on the micro-issues, as you said, "over time".

Anonymous said...

Another option is to allow heteros to have civil unions (which is now pretty much prhibited, even in Cali). Then progressives of all stripes would enter only into civil unions. After a few years of government being forced to keep the records separate but equal, they would likely realize that the expense was silly and do away with it.

As you know, being a eurogeek, Europe offers civil unions as it currently stands. If you want God invoked, go to a frickin Kirche.


Vigilante said...

What SLL said...

Anonymous said...

Well said, Marc.

I've always suspected that this brouhaha from the republicans over the issue was a diversionary tactic, not unlike OJ's glove, simply a distraction from what really needs to be worried about. Gays marrying and destroying the world is not something to be worried about. IN fact, the idea is ludicrous. The right is "self-evident" that it is indeed a civil rights issue, and should only be argued as such by the supporting side, with no distractions allowed by the opposing side. Too many times the gay/lesbian and liberal supporters side lets itself get caught up in the diversionary language of "god and family" rather than the true language of self-evident right.
The problem with California's Prop 8 is that while people may put up with being denied a right, they will not put up with having a right taken away that they have enjoyed for any amount of time, be it a century or a week. California faces the important question of can this right be taken away?
I do agree that the churches should be mollified to some extent with the knowledge that no, they won't be forced to carry out same-sex marriages. They should be told time and time again, though, that they should want to.

MarcLord said...


yep, it seems you know something of a religion's denial.

Re: Israel freaking out again, umm, no, Obama's reaction will be cool. Because Israel's bombing, and probably invading, Gaza makes his job more difficult. Neither do I expect chastisement of Israel, or Hamas. He has to find a way to lower the temperature.

Israel. The gift that keeps on giving. These attacks are coming before their elections, no? Israel fails to understand that punitive action which kills only a few hundred people is worse than pointless. They completely misunderstand their enemy, and Hamas will have many new recruits.

MarcLord said...

Thanks Vigilante,

yeah boy this is a touchy one. California, where Hope fortunately lives, will probably lead the way on this issue.

Gay marriage is a fault line. Where it goes, so will the future diversity- and innovation-rich economic zones. Maybe city-states, if this all goes to hell. Where it is absent, there will be the hinterlands, where the assault rifles wait.

MarcLord said...


that's a brilliant idea. Civil unions for all, that would really mess with the govt.

Lord Wife and I would have far preferred a civil union option, what with the marriage tax and not needing a church.

If you recall, in Germany they have the option of donating a set amount to the approved churches through their yearly taxes. Sounds pretty compelling by comparison, and gives the state a measure of control ours doesn't have. A dangerous road, I know, but more dangerous than what we've got?

MarcLord said...


thankee, and yes the religious right is well-served by bringing the discussion round to god, because they can cite scripture for their purpose.

The progs and particularly gays have fed the religion trolls by arguing their point. There are no scriptures I know of which condone homosexuality, so, ahh...let's not go there.

The left has generally exhibited poor message and impulse control, and provoked well-organized religious groups into action. No matter how just the cause, the backlash seemed predictable given the set-up. Now they're stuck with the uncertainties of a Prop 8 battle, which I think will turn out favorably. But you never know.

One thing for sure, Cali should not be replayed in other states. There should be a template for proceeding and doing it right the first time.

Naj said...

I Say Obama's neither Black, nor Muslim, he is Canadian! ;)

HopeSpringsATurtle said...

OMG Naj! Obama is a super-secret-Canadian-terrorist? Who knew? Great to see you.

Thank you so much Marc for your thoughtful and as always, well-written essay. As you so presciently commented at my place, I don't agree.

I have just written my longest post EVER (after nearly 1000 posts) in response to your post.

I'm still editing it and will post sometime this evening, but I wanted to get back to you ASAP.

Here's a bit of my post. It's rather an aside to Gay marriage, but spot-on in regards to the Gay rights thing:

"And another thing while I'm at it... Why is it that Gays are always getting thrown under the bus? Even by the so-called 'left.' The latest bus-tossing comes with Obama and his invitation to anti-gay bigot Rick Warren to give the invocation at his inauguration. Warren, who has compared Gay relationships to incest and pedophilia, is nice how-do-you-do slap in the face to the GLBT community. Why is it in Obama's new spirit of a 'team of rivals' and "we all must agree to disagree" is it that Teh Gay and basic human rights are simply ignored?

To quote columnist Dan Savage, " You know, there ain't no white supremacist giving an invocation at the inauguration, nobody who authored, 'Barack Obama is a super-secret-Muslim-terrorist-emails' is giving an invocation. The only people it seems in America today who are expected to join hands with, and agree to disagree with, and make nice with, and just try to get along with the people-who-hate-us, are fags and dykes. No anti-Semite would be invited to participate. No racist would be invited to participate. No fire-breathing atheist, religion-basher would be invited to participate in the inauguration, but Gay-bashers are welcome at Barack Obama's inauguration. It's kinda pissing me off..."

Not to mention that in the arena of " civil rights", it's always Gay rights that get sent to the back of the bus so to speak in the hierarchy of civil rights issues. And that is downright uncivil."

will post a linky as soon as I'm finished...

MarcLord said...

Hi Hope,

Looking forward to your post! Keep the wheels squeaking.

Not being (an active) part of the GLBT, I can be dispassionate, so my post's approach was pure advocacy, not morality. In the moral battlespace, neither I nor anyone who preaches incrementalism on gay rights, is right. All citizens should have a level playing field, in keeping with the progressive spirit of the Constitution.

The core of my argument is the fact that gay rights can't be enacted or enforced in all places and churches. So I don't see how total victory can be quickly achieved. The moral thing, of course, would be to try anyway.

It's tremendously important for the GLBT masses to keep pressing for full rights, and I think it would also be really effective to have a national organization, break it out state by state and issue by issue, and establish relatively neutral interfaces with the opposition.

As for Rick Warren, heck, let's use it to gain leverage. Obama's people are well aware of the slap in the face, but otherwise it's a brilliant political bridge play. Warren is not a pre-millenial rapturist, he's an organizer of world-wide charity efforts, and he took all the anti-gay stuff off his web site. Which is half a glass of progress.

HopeSpringsATurtle said...

Yikes, finally. All 1500 words of it.

My post on Gay Marriage