Wednesday, June 10, 2009

"Our Problem" with Marriage

My father, who knew it first hand, always said anti-Semitism is not a problem of Jews but of anti-Semites.  I thought of that when seeing white men deride Justice-designate Sotomayor’s musings about the wisdom of a Latina woman.  Let’s remember that this is a country in which such men were long considered the only people wise enough to make any decisions from the bench, much less vote, and that the current President of the United States is in office despite, not because of, the start given us by the founding white males.  So, beyond the now retrograde partisanship of these extreme voices, there is also a disingenuousness that speaks much more to their problem then hers.  What’s really bothering them is not what Sotomayor said, but that they still prefer seeing “one of their own kind” sitting on the Court.

In many ways that kind of self-serving thinking is what was always at the root of the civil rights suppression that gripped and stained our history.  It is how change impacts on our self-perception, how it affects us personally that counts, so we resist it.  I believe that dynamic is what’s at play in the ongoing controversy over same sex marriage.  If you have any doubt about how personally threatening it is, just consider that bill entitled, “The Defense of Marriage” – read that “self-defense”.  In many respects, the recent brutal murder of Dr. George Tiller notwithstanding, it is much deeper than that surrounding abortion.  True, opponents of choice consider abortion a “life and death” matter, but it’s not their life that hangs in the balance or more precisely their view of themselves.  Homophobia is not the problem of gays and lesbians but of heterosexuals who feel threatened by it.  In a very profound way, what some wishfully characterize as a “lifestyle” challenges what society has ingrained in us as “normal”.  I say wishful, because those who invoke that antiquated thinking are actually afraid that sexual preferences can be influenced like choosing one hairstyle over another just as racial bigots thought color could be transmitted at the water fountain.  Sexual orientation, like the pigment of our skin, is something we’re born with.  It can’t be acquired.  Regardless, the idea that gays and lesbians represent what is just one normal expression of human life is too much for some people to contemplate or to admit.

So the question we have to ask ourselves is not why same sex couples seek the right to marry, but why so many of us oppose it.  In that opposition, religion plays a central role and one that seems increasingly hard to defend.  Rick Warren, who some see as America’s pastor, doesn’t speak for all religions – some liberal clergy do embrace the idea of same-sex marriage – but expresses a classic answer that religion gives for many “why” questions: the force of longevity.  In explaining his opposition in a 2008 interview with Steven Waldman of Beliefnet he put it this way, “For 5,000 years, marriage has been defined by every single culture and every single religion - this is not a Christian issue.  Buddhist, Muslims, Jews - historically, marriage is a man and a woman.”  In short, we do it this way, because we always did.  By that logic Judge Sotomayor wouldn’t qualify for any bench, certainly not our highest court.   But Warren doesn’t leave it at that, adding what are much more revealing and substantive reasons for his opposition.  “God,” he tells Beliefnet, “who always acts out of love and does what is best for us, thought up sex.  Sex was God's idea, not ours.  Like fire, and many other things God gave us, sex can be used for good, or abused in ways that harm.  The Designer of sex has clearly and repeatedly said that he created sex exclusively for husbands and wives in marriage.”  No religious argument against same sex unions could be more clearly or honestly stated.

Same sex marriage goes against tradition and everything we’ve learned since hearing “see Dick and Jane run” or that has been inculcated in us by our religious upbringing.  The idea that the ideal life culminates in coming together with that perfect opposite sex partner – being “fruitful and multiplying”, doing the right and expected thing – is ingrained in us.  And for 90% of the population that’s exactly what can or does happen, though many very happy marriages don’t produce offspring either by choice or physical circumstance.  So, beyond all the other emotional and practical challenges they face in their ”failure to live up to the dream”, same sex couples find themselves fighting an uphill battle on marriage just because it threatens so many of our self-perceptions, our ideas of the norm.  All they want is to have what the rest of us can so effortless acquire for ourselves, and we don’t like it one bit.  How dare they?  Contrary to what Rick Warren and others contend, it isn’t so much that these unions redefine marriage; it is that we see them as redefining our own marriages, which is of course absurd, totally in our own minds.

Warren is right when he says, “A committed boyfriend-girlfriend relationship is not a marriage. Two lovers living together is a not a marriage. Incest [a gratuitous and inflammatory inclusion on his part] is not marriage.  A domestic partnership or even a civil union is still not marriage.”  That’s precisely the argument put forth by same sex couples.  But what he leaves out is that, in the end, marriage which has become such a loaded word, is the simply the formal institution that transforms an emotional commitment between two people into a contractual, theoretically permanent, obligation.  No more, no less.  We may opt to impose religious ceremonial on it, “sanctify” it, but that doesn’t change the underlying fact, nor is such ritual required by our legal system.  Why entering into that legal obligation called marriage, including the sanctifying part, should be denied any couple, heterosexual or homosexual, defies logic and fairness, equality under the law.  How can we honestly speak of family values without promoting the building of family units for everyone, even those don’t look like Dick and Jane, much less Adam and Eve?

A few states have finally legalized same sex marriage.  The tide may be changing.  In that, the recently announced alliance of the famously opposing litigators (Gore v. Bush), conservative Ted Olson and liberal David Boies, in representing litigants against California’s unfortunate Proposition 8 is particularly heartening.  It is likely that the case will end up before the Supreme Court where both are seasoned and noted practitioners.  Not only is this joint effort unusual, it may suggest that more of us are beginning to face the real and broad nature of being human in all its natural manifestations.  Indeed even people like Dick and Lynne Cheney, whose daughter is gay, understand that this is not a conservative vs. liberal but a real-life human issue.  I don’t know if the Olson/Boies Constitutional argument will prevail in court, but it appears that we are on our way to an inevitable change.  One of the benefits, perhaps the ultimate benefit, will be that it may make us think differently about ourselves.   Then it won’t be an “our” or “their” problem, but no problem at all.

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