Monday, November 24, 2008


The pages here dealing with the recent election reported European euphoria about our new President. Americans living abroad also experienced this, but in a different key, some part of which had to do with being freed from the burden of embarrassment (or shame) concerning government in the home country. We could feel we were a progressive nationality again, no longer despised by most of the world.

Now that the shouting has died down, it’s time to look at a negative political theme that surfaced on the fourth of November. California voters passed (though not be a huge margin) Proposition 8, a measure overturning a court decree earlier in the year that had legalized marriage between people of the same sex. Two other states (Arizona and Florida) passed bans against gay marriage and one other a ban against adoption by gay parents. There are, obviously, no Federal guarantees or protections for gay marriage or gay civil rights in general. From the standpoint of marriage (or civil unions), this puts the U.S. in the rear guard of progressive legislation, behind the United Kingdom, Canada, Spain, Denmark, and the Netherlands. Gay civil rights are of course guaranteed throughout the E.U., just as they are in the government constituted in South Africa under the leadership of Nelson Mandela.

The reason commonly given for the U.S. failure to remain at the forefront of progressive legislation in this area is the power of fundamentalist Protestant sects and the Roman Catholic church in our country. To which we should now add the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints (the Mormons), who spent huge sums of money on TV ads during the months before Election Day to persuade Californians to pass Proposition 8. This was done in contravention to Federal law, which prohibits churches or any tax-exempt institution from engaging in political activism. And I gather that legal briefs are being prepared to challenge the Mormons’ right to tax exemption on the basis of their direct intervention over the past months.

But does Christian religion really account for disapproval of gay people and opposition to their civil rights? In Roman Catholic doctrine, abortion is a more serious sin than homosexuality, but no state nor the Federal government outlaws it. Biblical prohibitions against same-sex relations are mostly limited to Levitican law (which Christians are not required to follow) and one or two ambiguous statements made in Paul’s Epistle to the Romans. Jesus never mentions homosexuality or abortion. On the other hand, in more than one instance, he castigates divorce, and the Roman church has fallen into line with this prohibition—though of course annulment can provide a loophole for practicing Catholics who want to get out of a destructive marriage. But certainly neither state legislatures nor Federal law would ever institute a ban on divorce. And among the fifty-plus percent of couples who have divorced in America, millions must be Catholic or fundamentalist.

So I don’t think the widespread prejudice against gay people is really based on religion. Religion is used merely as a justificatory screen for personal uncertainties and fears. We should also note that many atheists are thoroughly homophobic and opposed to gay rights. The explanation has to lie in human psychology and the near-universal template of the nuclear family: Dad, Mom, and a couple of siblings. Anything that disturbs that template introduces insecurity and stirs up emotions of fear and fear disguised as anger. The populist objection to same-sex couples is expressed as, “It was Adam and Eve--right?--not Adam and Bruce.” That’s about as far as the reasoning goes; in other words, reason isn’t in the picture at all.

The term “marriage” did not always have a religious meaning. Atheists have freely married in civil ceremonies for a very long time. To go back in history, we discover that marriage was primarily a legal entity, set up to regulate exchange of property and guarantee lineage. In the Roman church, marriage was not a sacrament until the 13th century. Before then, it was rather looked down on. Except for the high nobility, marriages were not permitted inside church sanctuaries. In his Epistles, Paul devalued marriage in favor of celibacy but conceded, “It is better to marry than to burn.” If the religious right of the past few decades has decided to regard marriage as primarily a religious rite and to reinforce its religious status through law, then the federal and state government should have nothing to do with it, in keeping with the Constitutional principle of separation between church and state. If marriage belongs only to religion, then, as far as government is concerned, all unions between people of whatever gender should be regarded simply as civil unions. “Marriage” would become the property of our various sects, which could then decide who is qualified for it according to their own canon. Such is now the case in France, where men and women sometimes enter into civil unions without proceeding to religious marriage. So long as the legal rights adhering to civil unions between people of the same sex are indistinguishable from those attached to religious marriage, then I see no objection to civil unions for gay people. Government should also recognize that for state purposes, marriages between men and women are civil unions and nothing more, and legally demote marriage’s definition to a purely religious meaning as is the case with “baptism,” which has no legal status or force. But if government continues to apply the term “marriage” to unions between men and women, it should also be applied to couples of the same sex. The argument that marriage deserves special regard because it is designed to assure proper rearing of children instantly falls apart when we note that millions of married couples have no children, either by choice or for biological reasons. I don’t think that even fundamentalist extremists would deny that those couples are married. There is also the fact that many gay couples have adopted children or are bringing up children of one of the spouses in a process of joint parenthood.

The reasoning above will not convince those who don’t reason, I know. I don’t expect gay civil rights to be instituted overnight. Education is needed, and the schools have to do their part in this and not be swayed by fundamentalist objections. But at the private level gay people will also have to take action, first, by being forthright about their identities and speaking to those who don’t understand sexual difference and therefore fear it. Some of the most rapid changes of heart occur when homophobes discover that a family member belongs to the minority they have been vilifying.

Nearly forty years ago, I interviewed the celebrated British philosopher A.J. Ayer. Among the things I asked him about was his view on contemporary philosophy’s engagement in political issues. He said that it could play a part and cited his own activism with respect to the legality of sex between people of the same gender. He was heterosexual and the change wouldn't especially benefit him. But he had unusual powers of mind and therefore could see past the unreasonable objections to sexual variance. I’m not sure how many people besides gay historians will recall that the U.K. passed the Sexual Offences Act, which decriminalized homosexuality between consenting adults, as late as 1967. Ayer’s activism deserves part of the credit. He worked for its passage not because it would improve his own condition but because justice and reason required it. It must be that the same spirit of reason and fair play has led the U.K. to make gay civil unions legal in its domain. And this brings me to a question already raised in earlier entries of this blog: Given that no legal disabilities attach to homosexuality in Britain, and that its society is largely secular, why is there so little public expression of gay experience here, and specifically in poetry? But this blog is already too long, so I will postpone that question for a day or two and wait to see whether readers want the question explored before writing further.

(On a personal note: I no longer have to use crutches, my foot is nearly well.)


Anonymous said...

All marriages are civil in France -- you're not married if you don't get married at the mairie of your city or town or arrondissement. Religious ceremonies are perfomed according to the beliefs and desire of the couple and their entourage, but not what legally defines a marriage. Gay couples can not marry (civilly) but the PACS, which was designed to give legal status to non-marriage civil unions (inheritance, filiation, tax benefits and so on) has been taken up by heterosexual couples as well, and I believe that two-thirds if not more of all PACS agreements are between mixed-sex couples. Some of this was solidarity, but I believe it is also easier and less expensive a bond to dissolve. Since something like 40% of children born in France are born to unmarried -- and un-PACSed -- mothers or couples, and most of those to couples who are cohabiting but choose not to marry, it's perhaps more moot than elsewhere.

Karen said...

As you correctly point out, the bottom line in marriage is not that it's about romance and orange blossoms - it's a legal contract about property, and, by extension, money. The bottom line in any given political agenda, once you've scraped off the veneer of blather about religious beliefs and moral high ground (that extends rights to me, but not to you? hmmmm . . .)is also that it's about property and money. I myself endorse the Occam's Razor approach - since it's about money, hit 'em where it hurts - in the wallet. I propose a vacation boycott of states that pass anti-gay legislation. If the governors of Florida, California and Arizona were suddenly snowed under by a blizzard of letters, phone calls and emails stating "We don't spend our vacation dollars in your state, and this is why!" maybe it would tip the scales, especially in the case of California, where, as you said, the measure did not pass by a huge margin.

Anonymous said...

Take a look on at the list of individual Mormon donors supporting Prop. 8. Creepy, middle-class, California dentists and the like shelled out thousands of dollars each. Systemic hate.