Guest Blogger

California, Homophobia, and the Living Rebuttal

Filed By Guest Blogger | May 21, 2008 9:30 AM | comments

Filed in: Marriage Equality, Politics, Politics, Politics
Tags: California State Supreme Court, gay marriage, Jeffrey Rosen, marriage equality, same-sex marriage

Editors' Note: Guest blogger Tyrion Lannister is a Bilerico-Indiana blogger. This post ran yesterday on B-IN, but it's good enough it deserved more attention here on the main site.

As I've written before, I generally place anti-gay marriage arguments into one of two camps. The first camp starts with the assumption that gay sex is sinful. Therefore, this line of reasoning continues, the state is justified in doing whatever it can to discourage and punish gay sex, any and all practices that might lead to gay sex, and especially any practice that might normalize the "gay lifestyle" -- which is imagined to be composed exclusively of non-stop, sweaty gay sex. From this perspective, gay marriages are problematic largely because they are intrinsically evil -- unions built around a fundamentally immoral act. Their practical or empirical effect is irrelevant.

In other words, this argument is not premised on the idea that gay marriage is bad because bad things will happen if gays marry. Rather, it believes that gay marriage is, in and of itself, a bad thing. This argument is often buried in a naturalistic fallacy of some sort -- usually "marriage is definitionally between a man and a woman, therefore same-sex couples can't be married" -- but at its core it takes issue with fundamental moral qualities of gay sex. Given that core, one cannot rebut this argument by discussing the empirical consequences of gay marriage, since it is utterly indifferent to those consequences.

More after the jump.

The other camp is a bit more thoughtful and nuanced, though it still relies upon the idea that same-sex relationships are inherently inferior to different-sex relationships. In general, it posits that there is unique social value in monogamous different-sex marriages and that the broadening of "marriage" diminishes that value -- if anyone can get married for any reason, marriage will soon be meaningless. The deterioration of marriage, furthermore, will herald a series of other catastrophic social consequences: increasing delinquency, crime, and poverty.

This argument is usually indifferent to gay sex itself. People are entitled to privacy and freedom in the bedroom, it reasons. Gay relationships are only problematic when they move from the bedroom to the town hall -- when gay people seek wider social acceptance and protection for their relationships in ways that may harm or weaken society in a broader sense. This argument, thus, has a predictive quality which allows it -- at least hypothetically -- to be falsified. It predicts that heterosexuals will perceive marriage to be a less attractive and meaningful arrangement because of the of gay marriages. Fewer straight people will want to get married and, once married, they will be more likely to get divorced because gay people can also marry.

In practice, these camps are not entirely distinct, but its important to understand that they function differently and are, thus, rebutted differently. Most opponents of gay marriage argue variations of both, or mix and match components of each. Nor do either of these arguments suggest much about the intellectual honesty or animating experiences of the particular advocate: some people have deep personal animosity towards all gay people and the argument they deploy is little more than a pretext to justify that hostility. They cannot be convinced or persuaded. In general, if pushed, they collapse back on the first argument, which, by resorting to a fundamental moral truth, cannot be contested except by sticky theological jousting.

My sense is, however, that most people who oppose gay marriage argue in good-faith and can be persuaded. Most Americans, as public opinion shows, aren't as obsessed with gay sex as the folks over at the American Family Association. They are simply anxious about possible consequences for what they feel is a substantial change to an important social institution and they are, by and large, ignorant of the serious harm that denying marriage rights does to queer families.

This a long and somewhat circuitous route to getting to the main topic of this post: namely, predictions of a so-called "backlash" against GLBT rights as a result of judicial actions like the recent California Supreme Court holding in In re Marriage Cases. The ink on the decision was barely dry before Jeff Rosen, The New Republic's legal correspondent and Professor of Law at George Washington University, was already declaring that the California Supreme Court was too far ahead of public opinion and had handed down a needlessly inflammatory decision. Rosen has memorably encouraged fellow leftists to abandon Roe v. Wade, under the analysis that courts were ineffective vehicles for social change and that defending Roe had been too costly for the left.

In the very short-term, Rosen is undoubtedly correct. Opponents of gay marriage will mobilize around the California decision. Already anti-marriage activists in Arizona are doing just that and our own home grown Hoosier homophobes are reportedly "re-energized" by the development. It's entirely possible that this agitation will result in the passage of ballot initiatives and constitutional amendments that otherwise would not have passed and will prove difficult to undo in the coming years. That was certainly the case after the Massachusetts and Vermont decisions.

In addition, critics like Rosen contend that such ballot initiatives are particularly harmful to Democratic electoral ambitions because they tend to mobilize solidly Republican constituencies. Such critics argue that the presence of ballot initiatives in response to Goodridge helped Bush cruise to victory in 2004 (though that argument appears quite dubious given public opinion polling).

One can help but notice that with each additional pro-gay marriage decision the kerfuffle smaller, the opponents more shrill, and the electorate more indifferent. New Jersey' s October 2006 marriage bomb may have played a role in the passage of Virginia's 2006 constitutional amendment, but its effect on the larger electoral map was entirely negligible. It did nothing to save the GOP from a ballot-box blowout, even in districts like IN-02, IN-08, and IN-09 where Republican candidates attempted to make gay marriage an issue in districts usually receptive to socially conservative wedge issues. Rosen may be correct that there is a short-term rallying effect for anti-marriage forces, but it's not clear that gay marriage will be a particularly salient issue in any larger sense for conservative forces.

Part of the problem is that the experience of living in a "post-gay marriage" world simply does not match well with the predictive elements of anti-marriage advocacy. Straight folks are beginning to notice that their own marriages look pretty much the same now that gay folks can marry too. The country isn't falling apart because gays can marry; it's falling apart because the folks who rail against gay marriage appear to be incapable of managing the economy, guiding our foreign policy, and governing effectively.

In other words, the most powerful rebuttal to the second anti-marriage argument I outline above is simply the experience of living in a world in which large, populous states have legalized gay marriage and have not collapsed under the weight of ensuing anarchy and bacchanalian orgies. Good-faith critics of gay marriage will revise their opinions when faced with that empirical data. Bad faith critics masquerading as good-faith critics will try to pretend like that data doesn't exist or they will abandon the argument.

In either case, the presence of actual gay marriages serves an incredibly important purpose for pro-marriage advocates precisely because it rebuts arguments based on erroneous predictions. And I don't mean rebuts in some sort of cheap rhetorical sense, where its just another tool in the gay activist's handbag to-be-deployed-in-case-of-blog-war. I mean rebuts as in every morning Micah Clark wakes up and notices that California hasn't fallen into the Pacific, it makes his job harder and his arguments more divorced from reality. The presence of actual gay marriages strips anti-marriage forces of their most useful argument, an argument that presents itself as more than mere animosity to homosexuals.

In that sense, Jeffrey Rosen's argument is more than a little bit silly. Every dime the right spends on fighting the gay marriage tide is wasted. Let conservatives build their houses on the sand of opposition to gay marriage and it will only mean that in ten years they will be homeless. Gay marriage is infectious in one very real sense: its presence in any state allows gay people to performatively rebut the worst slurs against them, turns living openly and happily into the best response to homophobia, and it thus makes it just that much easier to win marriage rights in other states. The California Supreme Court is helping thousands of queer families show that gay marriage is not a threat to straight marriage, but an ally. Good for them.

Tyrion's home blog is Tyrion's Point.

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Robert Ganshorn Robert Ganshorn | May 21, 2008 11:04 AM

Thank you Tyrion,

I will think on this and perhaps readjust some of my own attitudes about marriage. In the 1970's, and I mean early 70's, the first generation of out Gay people did not prioritize marriage in the way it is done now.

I have stated before, the institution is anti woman in it's historical footings, and was an instrument of allying families, securing property etc. It had nothing whatsoever to do with love until about 1900. A marriage was "a good match" rather than romantic love. It could have been devotion that became love over time, but it was usually undertook for material security.

Gay partnerships at their core are superior for a lack of societal glue to hold them together. I have known some very powerful relationships that endured in the face of societal prejudice.

But still, with 50% of hetero marriages failing despite all of their "societal glue" what are we getting ourselves into? Laying aside the usual "equal access, not being a second class citizen" arguments are we agitating for something that will be better for the individuals involved ultimately?
Or, are we blindly rushing toward something, we think we need, that is a bankrupt concept.

I have been in a partnership for nearly 32 years and I do not yet know the answers to these questions with the certainty you have. Perhaps it is that I love living in "sin."

I will keep thinking on it, and again, thank you for your posting.

You and your partner are not living in sin. Jesus loves us all equally. "Sin" is a religious concept created based on obscure passages in the Bible in order for the Church (Catholic, at first) to exert extreme control of its people.

Also, keep in mind that those who translated, and retranslated and re-retranslated (to the Nth degree) the Bible inserted their own concepts to make their version of the Bible what they want it to be. Whenever humans touch something, it becomes flawed. Read the Red Letter version of the Bible. The red letters are what Jesus said, and even that was tainted by the Apostel who wrote it down.

Mr. Lannister,

Thank you for writing such an even tempered and concise intellectual counterpoint. It is a true coup de grĂ¢ce to those who seek to deny us our inherent natural right solely based on their archaic, oppressive, theocratic dogma.

In my estimation, we shall soon begin to see DOMA weather and crack before finally being cast asunder as entirely unConstitutional.

The religious theocrats realize the sun is setting on their generation long stranglehold as our nation's morality police.

Here, here to the New Age of Enlightenment and au revoir to this most oppressive 3rd Christian Revival.

I consider us fortunate to be present at the twilight of this tyranny of theocracy over common sense.



Robert Ganshorn Robert Ganshorn | May 21, 2008 12:19 PM

Oh, Monica, sin is so much fun! Not evil stuff, just naughty stuff. We are on the same page about biblical accuracy. I consider it to be a political book only. The 23rd psalm is pretty though.

I truly only meant "sin" as a joke. Remember the, now old, but groundbreaking "Victor Victoria?"

Remember when Julie Andrews asked Robert Preston:

"Don't you believe in shame?"

Responce: "No, I believe in happiness."

Preston also remarked: "Shame is an invention of Piety to control the human race." :)

Let conservatives build their houses on the sand of opposition to gay marriage and it will only mean that in ten years they will be homeless.

Let's hope so. Most of them really deserve it.

Tyrion Lannister Tyrion Lannister | May 21, 2008 1:05 PM

Hi Robert!

Thanks for commenting.

I'm not advocating that all gay people should get married. I suspect that enough want to be married that it will be more than enough to performatively contradict the anti-marriage crowd without needing to corral any other queers in the marriage pen.

In general, I am reminded of a brief exchange between my women's history professor and a student. The student essentially dismissed all feminist complaints because she didn't want to work, wanted to be a housewife, and liked the image of 1950s domesticity. My professor -- a very wise woman -- replied simply that feminism (and I think the GLBT rights movement) wasn't about decisions, it was about choices. In other words, what you decide to do with the choices society offers you is your business (you can decide not to get married and live in "sin" ;) if you so desire), but we all have an obligation make sure that people have equal access to choices -- that they get to decide for themselves the shape of their own lives.

As it happens, I think your analysis of marriage suffers from the same naturalistic fallacy that anti-marriage activists deploy. Yes, the legal doctrines of marriage in American society were quite sexist, but marriage has also been a dynamic institution -- never static, always in the process of change (See Nancy Cott's Public Vows or Dirk Hartog's Man and Wife in America). The fact that marriage was sexist hardly seems like a good reason why marriage must be sexist.

Thank you, Tyrion. Does that mean marriage equality really does challenge "traditional marriage" because marriage equality means equality within marriages, too?

I hope so.