Thursday, June 30, 2011

Some Thoughts -- Both Personal and Otherwise -- About Same-Sex Marriage

-- Posted by Neil H. Buchanan

"Did I say hooray?" Professor Dorf's post analyzing New York's Marriage Equality Act was appropriately celebratory. With the initial surprise now giving way to deep satisfaction, attention has turned to what it all really means, who deserves credit for this historic turn of events, and what can be learned for other major political battles.

One bittersweet aspect of the new world in New York involves thinking about all of the people who did not live to enjoy the spoils of victory. Thousands of people died before their time, never imagining that marriage would have been an option for them during the course of a full lifetime. (One such couple was Gabriel Casuso, who died in 1988, and Kevin Buchanan, who died in 1991. It is a joy to imagine how those two men, who would now be in their mid-50's, would have celebrated the right to have their relationship recognized by the state as a marriage.) As The New York Times columnist Frank Bruni pointed out, however, the AIDS crisis was a central part of the process that made the recognition of same-sex marriages possible.

Bruni's persuasive argument is that standing up for civil rights required being willing to out oneself. Before AIDS, even in the post-Stonewall era of gay activism, it was still too tempting to stay either in the closet or, at least, to decide not to make waves. When it became a matter of life and death, however, the calculus changed. It was necessary to stand up and make noise, simply so that fewer people would die. The sad irony, therefore, is that the deaths of so many men -- men who would have loved to have their love recognized by the state -- was a key component of making the new reality possible. A counterfactual history in which they all lived quite possibly would not have seen the civil rights gains of the past few decades.

One of the more remarkable aspects of the winning glow is the stories of how straight people made peace with the notion of gay marriage, and with the entire notion of homosexuality. In Maureen Dowd's most recent op-ed, she related the following story from Governor Cuomo: “A father, maybe 60 years old, came up to me and said, ‘You know, I have a gay son, and I never really accepted him and I shouldn’t have needed you to tell me that it was O.K. to accept my own boy. But I did.’ ”

A key result of this political process, therefore, was the large numbers of people who discovered that they knew someone who is gay. (For what it is worth, however, not everyone was so reluctant to accept reality. In my family, the response to Kevin's announcement that he was gay was, "Well, obviously. And ... ?") This made the gay rights struggle more like the struggle for women's rights ("Think of how this will affect your wives, daughters, and nieces"), where "othering" does not work as it does for racial and other differences in a segregated society.

Finally, in the rush to spread around the credit for this civil rights breakthrough, it is worth remembering just how important it is to have a crazed, unreasoning opponent. As the humorist and lesbian activist Kate Clinton pointed out several years ago, the person most responsible for making gay marriage a reality is arguably Pat Robertson, the televangelist. In their never-ending search for wedge issues, Robertson and his kind grabbed onto gay marriage as a threat to all that is good and decent.

As Clinton noted, plenty of gays, and progressives more generally, were initially ambivalent about the idea of fighting for marital rights for gays. Nearly everyone I knew thought (circa 2000) that gay marriage would never happen, and that it probably did not matter much, because marriage is hardly a perfect institution. It was only when the wingnuts really started to push the issue that we even started to think about the practical aspects of being married (the property and inheritance issues, the hospital visitation rights, and so on), much less the dignitary rights that still attach to the much-maligned idea of marriage. In a weird sense, we needed to be told that this was worth a fight.

The tide of history is clear. Even Obama's "evolution" will be complete sometime soon. There will be more fits and starts, but there is no going back. We should thank the heroes, appreciate the useful flaws of our foes, and take a moment to remember those who are not here to enjoy the victory.

17 comments:

egarber said...

Well said Neil.

egarber said...

As a cultural observation, it's interesting to look at the entertainment field for signs of shifting attitudes.

My wife and I love Modern Family. But I've noticed that many of my politically conservative friends enjoy the show as well. My sense is that it's because -- like you say -- more people know gay couples, and it has become clear to most of us that they're simply regular people with normal problems. Mitch and Cam sort of embody and reinforce that on the show.

michael a. livingston said...

The reality is that gay marriage has been rejected by every electorate that has had a chance to consider it. Like affirmative action and other causes, it is essentially being forced on the public by a relatively small elite that, as Professor Buchanan's comments suggest, has contempt for anyone who disagrees with it. Such things often work out for a short time, but they rarely turn out well in the end, and I don't think that this will either.

Michael C. Dorf said...

Michael,

Really?? A "small elite"? Neil's post--like my earlier posts on this topic--celebrates a piece of LEGISLATION enacted by the NY legislature, including one house which has a majority of Republicans, after being pushed by a governor who won in a landslide, after a campaign in which he clearly promised that legalizing same-sex marriage via legislation would be a priority of his administration. Ah, you say, but it wasn't a referendum. Talk about moving the goalposts! Public opinion polls show consistent generational movement on this issue. The difference between same-sex marriage and an issue like affirmative action--which is understandably perceived as a zero-sum proposition--should be obvious. As for your perception of contempt, note that Neil did not say that everyone who opposes same-sex marriage is a frothing bigot. The only person he singled out was Pat Robertson, who blamed the earthquake that struck Haiti on a supposed pact with the devil and warned that gay-friendly policies at DisneyWorld might bring a hurricane. In taking offense at Neil's well-justified contempt for Robertson "and his kind," you associate yourself--I can only hope unwittingly--with what can most charitably be described as lunacy.

Paul Scott said...

Is it really lunacy? Well, yes, I think so.

But what I mean is once your accept the fact of an omniscient, omnipotent God - and one that most Muslim/Jewish/Christian religions believe involves itself directly in human lives - why is Robertson's specifics on the nature of that intervention any crazier than the rest of it?

I really can't see a difference.

Joe said...

I think Obama's much maligned (in some quarters) "evolution" reflects the evolution of society in general. I think is a reasonable pragmatic path to take akin to how some treated the fight against slavery (e.g., loathing be labeled "abolitionists").

If he came out for SSM, full stop, he would be pressured to go too far, too soon as a matter of what is practicably possible. Instead, he can do things like not defending Sec. 3 of DOMA and supporting individual states that allow SSM.

I think it is fine to put pressure on him but those (current company not intended) who ridicule his position are a tad off base.

Joe said...

"I really can't see a difference."

This all or nothing view about religious belief with no shades of gray is akin to saying a person who pinches a person is "a man of violence" w/o any different as someone who slugs the person with a pipe.

michael a. livingston said...

@MCD Couple of points:

1. Gay marriage has lost in every statewide referendum yet held; there is probably no issue in America with such a clear result. Polls, at best, show something like a 50-50 split. There is clearly no consensus.

2. The vote was unusual in quite a number of ways. Even for NYS, it is unusual to have a sitting mayor--one who effectively purchased his own reelection-- make direct financial threats against individuals who did not vote as he would like. As you and others have noted, the bill contains a highly unusual "nonseverability" clause together with a series of exceptions that undercut much of its logic.

3. Even if gay marriage were approved in all 50 states--a highly unlikely result--the issue would not end here. As Katherine Franke has noted, many or most gays don't want to marry, but prefer changes in the law (I think the term of art is "thin" or "light" marriage) which are precisely the things that traditional marriage advocates are afraid of. As the issue spreads from similarity to difference, and from liberal to mainstream states, the reaction is likely to be quite strong I think

In short, from my perspective, the gay marriage push looks less like the 1964 Civil Rights Act and more like the Equal Rights Amendment: something with strong elite but very dubious mass support, which is likely to be ensconced in a few liberal outposts but not beyond, at least not for a long time

Michael C. Dorf said...

ML: The ERA is a very odd choice for an example of an "elite" movement. It passed both houses of Congress and was ratified by 35 state legislatures. Nearly all of its substance has been achieved through the Supreme Court's equal protection jurisprudence--which virtually no one has sought to overturn through constitutional amendment or via judicial appointment. Indeed, if we imagine an otherwise attractive Supreme Court nominee saying that he or she thought the Court's sex discrimination cases should be overturned, it's hard to imagine that nominee winning confirmation. So I rather like the comparison.

Joe said...

1. We are a republican system that works by legislatures. Several legislatures passed same sex marriage while a few more passed "civil unions" that have most of the benefits (the federal limits out of their hands).

2. The assembly passed it easily and the financial pressures to my knowledge did not result in 29 of the 33 Democrat votes in the NYS.

Fiscal and political pressures repeatedly affect somewhat legislation. There is nothing "irregular" about it. If anything, fiscal and political reasons, not mere voting conscience, led a few Rs to vote against it.

Religious exceptions undermines its logic how exactly? Do the religious exemptions undermine federal civil rights laws? Or, as with fiscal pressures, is this just raised as a matter of special pleading?

3. I don't know what "most" gays want but I do know many heterosexuals don't want to marry either. They have the right to do so if they want though. Most whites or blacks don't want to marry inter-racially either. What is the point of that statement?

Michael Dorf answers the ERA pretty well though there we had a FEDERAL amendment, which probably was a bit too fast in hindsight. Many STATES actually have mini-ERAs that continue to work pretty well.

As to "liberal" outposts, I was not aware New Hampshire was known for its liberalism. BTW, it's same sex marriage. You don't have to be "gay" to marry a person of the same sex any more than you have to be straight to marry a person of the opposite sex (which in some states, given how the word is defined, often result in de facto "gay marriages" anyway).

Paul Scott said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Paul Scott said...

On terms of the actual belief being "lunacy," how else can religion be viewed other than in "black or white?"

When it comes to the harm done, yes, clearly there is a whole spectrum ranging from largely harmless to extraordinarily destructive. Also, there is another spectrum where religion is personal and benign running to being public and offensive. I certainly agree that Robertson's proselytations are offensive in a way that the pastor/rabbi/etc. at the local religious establishment generally is not.

But that was not what was suggested.

The assertion was that Pat Robertson's beliefs that God was striking down cities because of moral outrage are "lunacy."

I don't see how that is any more insane than the belief in the first place. You already have a God who is all-knowing and all-powerful and a book that is the word of that god in which actual examples of God doing that very thing are present on more than one occasion. If you believe that such a being exists that has done such things in the past and that believing those things is somehow not "lunacy" then how does it become "lunacy" to believe that those things are being done now? I don't see how you draw any distinction there.

Joe said...

A belief that God creates earthquakes because women dress in a certain way is more "looney" or distant from rational thought than the belief that God exists at all.

I don't think it evident that all religious beliefs are equally "looney" so I don't see how one can see things in "black and white" even beyond offensiveness or the like.

Paul Scott said...

Joe,
It would seem to me more persuasive if you argued something other than "Is too!".

Your claim is that belief that God would use natural disasters to punish sinful behavior is more "loony" than merely belief in God (we are talking about the Judeo-Christian God here, right?).

You did seem particularly interested, however, in addressing the particulars.

I noted prior that the text that purports to support the existence of this God has specific accounts of that same God previously destroying cities (or in one case, nearly the entire world's population) as a punishment for sins committed. Those specific accounts include both natural and supernatural means.

If that is your beginning premise and you do not consider that belief "loony" then how does it become "loony" merely because the exact things are claimed to have happened during our lifetime instead of in more ancient times?

I am not asking you for your opinion - that has been given twice and I understand it well. I am asking you for a reasoned defense of your opinion. How are you distinguishing the claims of Robertson from nearly identical claims contained in the most relevant religious texts?

Michael C. Dorf said...

Joe and Paul,

I feel bad that I seem to have generated this theological dispute. For what it's worth, I'm with Joe here. Let me try to explain why.

Belief in God is, in my view, a non-loony reaction to the unanswerable ultimate metaphysical question: "Why is there something rather than nothing?" I don't happen to think belief in God is a very GOOD answer to that question, because it then raises the question: "Why is there God rather than nothing." But still, I can see how one can end up thinking that one needs some sort of extra-material explanation for why the universe gets going in the first place, and how one could call that answer "God."

Now, at this point Paul says perhaps, but the God of the Bible is not some deistic God or animating spirit of the universe; He's a hellfire-breathing, take-no-prisoners, collective-punishment-inflicting BadAss. To which Joe can say: exactly right. Belief in THAT kind of God--which is the kind that Robertson and others who take the Bible as literal Truth believe in--is lunacy. But if one believes in a deistic God and affiliates with some moderate branch of Judaism or Christianity, then one understands the Bible as the work of earlier generations who tried to make sense of the world given their much more limited science and somewhat harsher values.

To be sure, I have to concede to Paul that about half of Americans (or somewhat more or less, depending on the survey) qualify as lunatics under my definition, because that's about the fraction that accept the Bible as literally true.

Joe said...

It would seem to me more persuasive if you argued something other than "Is too!".

I defined looney -- "distant from rational thought." Rational thought determines the causes of certain things. Saying "God" randomly causes earthquakes because women dress a certain way is belied by observation. It's harder to say that God didn't create the universe.

I'm not sure this is me saying "is too!" That's unfair. Also, I'm not talking about any one religion here. I'm not sure where I said I was. I referenced "religion."

I don't know if you actually know my position. But, Michael Dorf helped me out either way. I agree with his sentiments.

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