November 4, 2009
Same-sex marriage in Maine and elsewhere
By a narrow margin, Maine voters have rejected the legislature’s decision to allow same-sex couples to marry in that state. I’m heartbroken, I’m frustrated, and to be honest, I’m confused. I have heard the arguments against legalizing same-sex marriage, and while I suppose I understand them on an intellectual level, on a gut-deep, visceral level? They’re truly beyond me. It seems like the arguments I’ve heard can be grouped into three rough categories:
Religion: “My religion says that homosexuality is wrong and that marriage is between one man and one woman (Old Testament heroes notwithstanding), so I don’t think it should be legal.” I can’t argue with that. Your religious beliefs are your religious beliefs, and while I vehemently disagree, odds are pretty good that nothing I can say will change your mind, especially if the plight of families that don’t get to be treated as “real” families has left you unmoved. But why should that make for a legitimate legislative argument? My understanding is that, for an example, hard-line Catholics don’t recognize marriages performed by someone other than a priest in a location other than a church, and you can’t get married in a (hard-line) Catholic church unless you’re Catholic, and second marriages (preceded by divorce) aren’t viewed as legitimate, and so on – but nobody’s out there trying to make the argument that the hard-line Catholic version of marriage should be codified in secular law, and even if someone were, it wouldn’t fly. Why does that change when the approach is more ecumenical? Since a variety of religious faiths endorse some version of tithing (giving a tenth of one’s income to the church or to charity), why isn’t that something we could try to put into law? What is it about gay rights that makes it okay to try to blur the lines between religious rules and secular law?
Discomfort: “I’m just not comfortable with the idea of two people of the same sex getting married.” And so you want to make it illegal? Eating bivalves makes gives me a great deal of intenstinal discomfort, but I’m not about to try to outlaw clam chowder. WTF kind of sense does it make that “gay sex gives me the squickies” is somehow a legitimate reason for denying people rights?
Linguistics: “Gay rights activists are asking for too much. If you just called them civil unions, but those unions had all the same rights as marriage, wouldn’t that be enough? Why do you have to call it marriage?” Honestly? I’d think I’d probably be all for this if it applied to straight people, too, if what the county courthouse issued to two people, regardless of sex or gender, was a civil union license, with all the rights and benefits of what we now call marriage, and then if you want to go get married in a church and call your union a marriage, you’re welcome to, but you don’t have to, and no church is obligated to marry any particular couple. Seems like it could be a reasonable compromise, no?
Two problems, though: a) no one opposing same-sex marriage has made a legislative proposal anything like that, and people who say “but wouldn’t civil unions be enough?” seem not to notice that people from the first two categories tend to vote down civil unions as well. (Though it looks like Washington’s Referendum 71, which allows same-sex couples to register as domestic partners and “expand[s] the rights, responsibilities, and obligations of registered domestic partners and their families to include all rights, responsibilities, and obligations granted by or imposed by state law on married couples and their families,” squeaked by; is the ~4% difference in voters between Washington and Maine entirely attributable to the difference in language?)
And b) call me a cynic, but I would expect a knee-jerk negative response to my above proposal from straight folks, because it calls their privilege into question. Civil marriage in the US has always been called marriage, and apparently “but it’s always been this way” is a compelling argument. (I suppose that’s a fourth category: Tradition: “But it’s always been this way!” I should think that the fact that I self-identify as a progressive would say all that needs to be said about how I feel about that particular argument.) The other option, then, is to have straight couples get married and gay couples get civil-unioned. But really, have we genuinely not yet learned that “separate but equal” is Constitutionally problematic?
Same-sex marriage has been legal in Massachusetts for five years now. The state has not broken off and sunk into the Atlantic. Christianity has not been outlawed. People are not being marched at bayonet-point to the altar to marry someone of the same sex. The institution of marriage has not collapsed in upon itself. So what’s the problem, Mainers? My impression was always that Maine was very much a live-and-let-live state; what happened?