The same-sex marriage debate is a frustrating one for me for a wide variety of reasons. One of the reasons has to do with the people who get highlighted the most on both sides of the debate. On the right, you have a minority of people who view all homosexuals as evil sinners who are doomed to burn in Hell and require “saving”. On the left, you have a bunch of people who think that everyone who disagrees with them is a religious zealot, since there is obviously no intellectual argument to be made against their point of view.
Well, I disagree on both counts. Neither side seems to listen to the other, which is a shame because there’s a perfectly good compromise right there to be seen. Both sides fight, and neither seems to recognize that what each side wants isn’t mutually exclusive with what the other wants.
I’ll start by summing up my viewpoint, then going into further detail. Basically, I am for civil unions and against same-sex marriage, but the real problem is that we need to define the terms “marriage” and “civil union” with a standard and proper definition.
The crux of the matter boils down to how one views marriage. Is marriage…
- …a legal construct?
- …a societal construct?
- …a religious construct?
The truth, of course, is that it is some combination of all three. For the purposes of my explanation, however, I’m going to bypass the religious aspect of this. Two reasons for this: a) Most of what can be said from the religious angle also applies to the societal angle, and b) Very few people view marriage as strictly a religious thing, and those who do aren’t going to be convinced by anything I’m going to say here. There will be one side who says, “The <insert holy book here> says homosexuality is wrong, therefore…,” and the other side who says, “Religious people are morons, therefore…” It’s not useful to argue with that audience. So I’m going to focus on the legal and societal aspects here.
Let’s start from the beginning. Look at the history of marriage and its foundations. What was its original purpose? Quite simply, it was a societal construct designed to set the foundation for two people to start a family. It did have some legal ramifications, but it's purpose was primarily societal. A society does not need to recognize that two people love each other. It does, however, need to recognize where the children are going to come from and who is going to be expected to take care of them.
From this perspective, the notion that marriage is an institution that has discriminated against gays from its inception is simply untrue. The societal construct that is marriage simply has no meaning in the context of a same-sex relationship, because they cannot procreate. That’s not religious homophobes discriminating against them, it’s just biology.
With the advent of adoption and artificial insemination over the years, many in the gay community feel this argument has been blunted somewhat, but I disagree. Neither of these requires marriage, nor do they even require two people. Nor do either of these change the fact that two people of the same gender still cannot get together and create a third person that is part each of them. It’s still a very special thing, and still the way most children come into this world. More importantly, it is the centerpiece of what "marriage" really is. I’m not against adoption of anyone by anyone, but it doesn’t significantly alter the argument. The societal construct of marriage still doesn’t mean anything for a same-sex couple.
But what about the legal aspect?
It cannot be denied that over the years, marriage has developed great legal significance. Tax laws, inheritances, insurance coverage, and many other aspects of life revolve around marriage now in ways that they didn’t even a couple hundred years ago. And from this point of view, there is no difference between how these would affect a same-sex couple versus an opposite-sex one. This is what the pro-gay marriage crowd is primarily fighting for.
So we've got one side that wants certain legal rights while the other wants to preserve the societal meaning of a millennia-old social construct. These are not mutually exclusive goals. There is a way we can give same-sex couples the same legal benefits that opposite-sex couples enjoy while still recognizing the societal difference. That’s where the term “civil union” comes in.
The biggest problem with the term “civil union”, however, is that its definition is extremely nebulous and varies from one person to another and one state to another. Part of the reason that same-sex couples in California are not satisfied with civil unions as opposed to marriage and are fighting it in court is that they are not legally equivalent. They do still have something to gain by getting access to “marriage”, though the voters of California have rejected this.
What we need, therefore, is to define a standard for what a “civil union” should be, and explain why it is different from marriage. Based on the descriptions above, the breakdown is fairly obvious: Make civil unions a full legal equivalent to marriage, but with the recognition that a civil union is not societally equivalent, precisely because it cannot be. Attempting to make a same-sex “marriage” equivalent to an opposite-sex one requires stripping away a very important component of what marriage is – one that is only relevant to an opposite-sex couple -- which is the real reason so many people fight it. This compromise preserves the societal significance of marriage while granting the same legal status to a same-sex couple.
Many of the same-sex community would still oppose this, but at that point, they would really be arguing over semantics. Getting “marriage” over a “civil union” wouldn’t change anything for them other than making them feel better, their quixotic quest for universal acceptance be damned. They would be better off realizing that shoving their views down our throats via activist judges and autocratic mayors hurts their cause much more in the long run than accepting a reasonable compromise such as this.
(As an aside specific to the NY Senate vote: while I do disagree with it, I'm not as bothered by it because this is how it is supposed to be done. I'm very opposed to judges and others with authority circumventing the rules of our society to impose their will, but if the elected representatives of a state pass a law, then they will either meet with the approval of the people or have to face the music at the ballot box, which is how it should be. Much of the reason that the Constitutional Amendment debates are happening right now is not so much in opposition to same-sex couples' rights as much as it is in opposition to judicial activism -- in short, the people are saying, "We'll decide when we want this to happen, thank you.")
Of course, the hardcore anti-homosexual crowd would oppose this, too, but that group is simply going to have to accept that homosexuality isn’t going anywhere, and whether or not they are going to Hell is their problem, not anyone else’s.
So to sum it up, we need to recognize that marriage is both a legal and societal construct, and recognize the significance of both. Same-sex couples should have a means to access the legal aspects of marriage via civil unions, but should also accept the societal irrelevance of marriage to them and leave that part alone.
Of course, your mileage may vary.