Tuesday, March 30, 2004

Andrew Sullivan on the Case for Gay Marriage

Having recently bashed Sullivan for his characterization of male circumcision as "genital mutilation", it's only fair for me to point out a piece on which I think he makes a very convincing argument. A lot of the arguments we're seeing against gay marriage have been seen before, and if we found them false then, we are logically bound to find them false today.

Marriage rights for homosexuals have not been dressed up as a civil rights issue as a means to sell them to the broader public. The original arguments were often socially conservative ones--namely, that encouraging stability, fidelity, and family among homosexuals was a tangible social good. But when the matter came before the courts, they really had no alternative but to address the matter in a civil rights context. "The freedom to marry has long been recognized as one of the vital personal rights essential to the orderly pursuit of happiness by free men," wrote Earl Warren in Loving v. Virginia, the landmark miscegenation case in 1967. "Marriage is one of the 'basic civil rights of man' ..." The right to marry whomever you wish is a fundamental civil right. That is not contestable in the history of this country's jurisprudence. Now you may argue that marriage is definitionally heterosexual and therefore such civil rights only apply to heterosexuals. But you have to make that case--that civil marriage as currently practiced and enforced is inherently heterosexual--before you can dismiss the notion that it is a matter of civil rights. And there is some irony in the fact that the very same arguments that Steele is now using against civil marriage for gays--that it is not a civil right--were once used to argue in defense of anti-miscegenation statutes. The anti-miscegenationists argued that marriage was about procreation and that mixed-race marriages would lead to "mongrel" offspring; and, besides, blacks were already as free to marry as whites were, as long as they married someone of the same race. There was no discrimination involved, the opponents argued, and no civil rights being denied. This was merely an extremely awkward issue having to do with the compatibility of racial mixing and the institution of marriage, which had always been uni-racial in much of the United States. (emphasis added)

Opponents of gay marriage are going to have to do better than this if they're to retain any claims to intellectual respectability. Personally, I think the government plays far too prominent a role in marriage as it is, and that a lot of the benefits bestowed on marriage couples are both discriminatory and unnecessary, in as far as there are already advantages of scale to having any two income earners living together under the same roof. I see no reason for the government to discriminate between gay marriage, straight marriage, or even exotic (by Western standards) combinations like polyandry and polygyny, as long as there's no coercion involved.

Of course, saying that last bit puts me on the fringe of Western public opinion, but I don't really see why polygamous family units should be regarded as more abhorrent than any others, once the element of coercion is removed, and as long as all partners get to have a say in deciding whether or not to bring other parties into the arrangement. If a woman thinks her life would be improved by having a companion to share the domestic chores and overheated attentions of her husband, who are we to argue with her? Or if a man feels like sharing his wife's charms with another man of her desiring, what business is it of anyone else, as long as no one else's tax dollars are going to subsidize the arrangement? Polygamy may make a lot of people feel squeamish, but mere squeamishness is no basis on which to make public policy. The thought of touching, let alone eating, amphibians makes me nauseous, but I don't imagine that this is reason enough to ban frogs' legs.