The US Supreme Court has announced it will finally decide the question of gay marriage for the whole country. This promises to be a landmark case as significant, and as controversial, as the 1973 decision Roe v. Wade. Both liberals and conservatives reportedly cheered the decision, and are readying their best arguments. Some might call me a cynic, but I’d be a whole lot happier if I thought any of the arguments on either side might be anything other than fallacious preaching to the choir, and each of the justices already knows where they sing. (If the justices on the Supreme Court are supposed to be non-partisan, why do they almost always divide the same way along the same partisan issues?) Here I present a couple common arguments on both sides, and why they don’t work.
The most common conservative argument seems to be that “marriage” simply means a joining of one man and one woman. Liberals reply that this definition of “marriage” is not universal among human cultures, and can change. Many cultures have practiced polygamy, for example, in which one husband has multiple wives, and in ancient Bactria they practiced sibling polyandry, where one woman might marry multiple brothers. On the other hand, the polygamous legal cultures I’m most familiar with (ancient Judaism and medieval Islam) regard each of a man’s wives as independently married and independently divorce-able, and thus it’s rather the case that the man has multiple marriages, than that one marriage involves multiple wives. By contrast, the Bactrian marriages were a single simultaneous marriage between one woman and multiple brothers, with a single marriage contract for all involved. Conservatives might argue that no prior culture, even among those who viewed homosexuality as completely acceptable, regarded those unions as equivalent to heterosexual marriage, and thus calling gay marriage “marriage” is a drastic departure from human tradition. Even so, arguing “that’s just what the word means” or “no one has done that before” fails to convince those who argue that the meaning of the word can (and should) change, and that we should do something new here. Thus this argument is unpersuasive to those who are not already convinced.
The most common liberal argument seems to be that this is the civil rights issue of our time, that gay people are innately gay, and should be allowed to pursue romantic relationships with whomever they wish, and to solemnize those relationships in the same way that straight people do, by marriage. There are a couple problems with this “gay marriage is a civil right” argument. First, no one is born gay (or straight, for that matter): sexual attractions develop significantly later than birth in a human’s life. While it is widely reported that people didn’t “choose to be gay,” lack of conscious choice doesn’t mean it is innate, or even pre-programmed from birth. A Swedish twin study attempted to identify how much of sexual orientation was genetic, and concluded genetics were 35% of the cause of homosexuality for men, and 18% for women. If the methodology is sound (a valid question), that would suggest that queerness is largely not genetic, though with perhaps a genetic predisposition. Interestingly, the study concluded that individual experiences (“individual-specific environmental factors”) accounted for 64% of the causation for both men and women. The existence of former homosexuals (such as Michael Glatze, described in this New York Times Magazine article from 2011) further distinguishes gay rights from racial minority rights: there are zero formerly black people, zero formerly Asian people, etc. I’m not arguing that reparative therapy works; the mechanism by which someone becomes “ex-gay” seems to be as mysterious and individual as the causation of queerness itself. But the existence of former homosexuals is such a threat to the argument that homosexuals are just like any racial minority, and therefore gay rights are just civil rights due to all, that many members of the queer community deny a priori the possibility of former homosexuals existing. The argument goes that such people were either lying about being gay, or are now lying about being straight. But doctrinaire denials of other people’s lived experience is generally what “marriage equality” advocates complain about in others; to engage in it themselves is hypocritical. Former homosexuals exist, even if in very small numbers, and must be taken into account. Their existence in any numbers challenges the equation between sexual orientation minorities and racial minorities.
There are other arguments used by both sides, of course, such as conservative religious arguments which carry no weight with people who don’t hold those beliefs, and liberal appeals to recognize that homosexual love is just as pure, selfless, and intense as heterosexual love, which is a meaningless statement since the range of feelings which get labeled “love” vary so widely from one person to another that no comparison is possible.
What we need is to make careful and wise decisions based not upon sound bites or doctrinaire sloganeering but upon careful reasoning and nuanced understandings of the world we live in.