I'm James Maxey, the author of numerous novels of fantasy and science fiction. I use this site to discuss a wide range of topics, with a heavy emphasis on cranky, uninformed rants about politics and religion and other topics that polite people attempt to avoid. For anyone just wanting to read about my books, I maintain a second blog, The Prophet and the Dragon, where I keep the focus solely on my fiction. I also have a webpage where both blogs stream, with more information about all my books, at jamesmaxey.net.


Monday, June 21, 2010

Should Gays (and Atheists) Marry?

Few issues unite American's more than the opposition to gay marriage. Even among Democrats, you normally will find few politicians willing to proclaim the union of two homosexuals a marriage, even if they are open minded about allowing civil unions or some other legal partnership.

I admit to having been on the fence. Gay marriage shot to the top of the culture wars after judges in Massachussetts decreed that gays had a constitutional right to marry. I get nervous whenever judges start stretching the meaning of words. Since the founding of our nation, marriage has been commonly accepted as a union between one man and one woman. Even if I agreed that the definition of marriage could and should be expanded to include gays, I would want this changed through actual political debate rather than through judicial fiat. If you allow judges to start altering the meaning of commonly understood words in order to promote some social good, you unintentially grant them the power to do great harm. We live in a land of laws, and we have an open process for changing those laws. Judges shouldn't be able to side step the normal legislative process.

That said, I am 100 percent in favor of gay marriage. I don't want to change the mind of judges, however. I think the first goal should be to change the minds of average Americans. I know that this seems to be an impossible hurdle, and it's an easier, quicker task to change the minds of a handful of judges rather than trying to sway a hundred million voters or more toward your point of view. But, if a thing is worth doing, it's worth doing right.

So what is my best argument that marriage is an institution that should be open to homosexuals as well as heterosexuals?

Not long ago, I was discussing marriage with an atheist couple. They seemed almost apologetic that they had decided to get married, since it was such a traditional, churchy thing to do. I was familiar with such feelings from my own life. I'm a libertarian, so I don't feel like I should have to seek the approval of a state to decide who I spend my life with. And, I'm an atheist, so I don't need to seek the approval of a god or a church. Of course, our society has built up a lot of legal advantages for married people over non-married people. There are tax benefits, you get breaks on insurance and other shared purchases, and there are estate issue that are vastly simplified if you are legally recognized as the spouse of someone who has just passed away. Once some people have these advantages, it's only natural that people excluded from these advantages would want them as well.

I've never really been happy with the whole "legal advantage" line of thinking. To me, it strips a lot of romance out of marriage. Of course, in a lot of cultures historically, marriage had nothing to do with romance. It was much more nakedly an economic tool than a means of professing love.

But, we live in a culture that has intertwined love and marriage. If you love someone, and keep loving them long enough (a very flexible standard, "long enough"), you marry them. And, that's the sweet and simple reason that atheists do frequently decide to get married; it's a declaration of love. You just want the world to know. To deny gays this same declaration of love seems small minded and small hearted.

I can almost hear the protest now among the defenders of traditional marriage. If a homosexual couple, or atheists, or whomever, wants to hold a big party and dress up in fancy clothes and make a public declaration of their love that includes cake, go for it. It's still not marriage, since the primary goal of marriage, they would argue, is procreation, which homosexual couples are biologically incapable of. Of course, this would also exclude the elderly from getting married. Or, people who are sterile for some random physical malady. Or, people who just don't want children. "Do it for the kids" seems to me to exclude too many people who we do already allow to marry.

As far as the big party, the actual wedding, that's just one day. Weddings do not a marriage make. However, in the traditional vows, you do find what I think are the most honest reasons that homosexuals, atheists, and, well, everyone, should desire marriage: "In sickness and in health, till death do us part."

If marriage were just a contract people entered to raise kids, then everyone could just get divorced after those kids grow up. But marriage isn't a contract only to work together to raise kids, or to be best friends laughing together when times are good. There's a bargain you enter in marriage that overrides everything else: You agree to be the person who will never abandon your partner just because he or she gets sick. You are agreeing to be the person who will change your partner's diapers if they get paralyzed in a car wreck. You are agreeing to sit by a bedside and hold their hands when they are withering away from cancer. You take a stand and say, "I will not abandon you in your times of greatest adversity," with the bargain being that your partner will do the same if it's you in the intensive care unit.

We live in a culture that seeks to restrict marriage from some people, while at the same time, heterosexual marriage seems to have lost its sticking power. The vows for many "traditional" couple seem to have been edited to read, "for better or for worse or until we get tired of each other, or until someone hotter comes along." It's not gays who are the biggest threat to traditional marriage. I think instead it's that we've overemphasised the warm and fuzzy romantic feelings that start a marriage and lost sight of the end game.

Marriage isn't just about the wedding. It's also about the dying. And whether you are straight or gay, Christian, Rastafarian, Hindu or atheist, you are going to one day get sick and die. It's the universal human condition, and marriage and families are the best tools we've developed as humans to help us endure our endings. To deny this comfort to anyone seems to me to be the worst sort of inhumanity.


Loren Eaton said...

We live in a land of laws, and we have an open process for changing those laws. Judges shouldn't be able to side step the normal legislative process.

I agree 100%. Judicial activism is scary, no matter what side of the political fence you fall on.

I wonder what you'd think about Robert George's argument for traditional marriage in The Wall Street Journal, James. It defies easy summarization, but here's a provocative quote for the outro: "If marriage is redefined, its connection to organic bodily union—and thus to procreation—will be undermined. It will increasingly be understood as an emotional union for the sake of adult satisfaction that is served by mutually agreeable sexual play. But there is no reason that primarily emotional unions like friendships should be permanent, exclusive, limited to two, or legally regulated at all. Thus, there will remain no principled basis for upholding marital norms like monogamy."

James Maxey said...

I think that the weakness of trying to protect a link between marriage and procreation comes far more from heterosexuals than from homosexuals. If procreation is the overriding social good, then that would seem to encourage promiscuity or polygamy. A man can father far more children than a single woman can bear. In polygamous societies, the women band together to help raise children. Polygamy is often waved around as the horrible place we will all go if gay marriage is legalized, but it seems like the childrearing argument leads to it quicker.

Another problem with child-rearing as the primary reason for marriage: Suppose that you are a heterosexual male and you fall in love with a woman, marry her, and five years later you've produced no children despite your best efforts. The woman is tested and found to be sterile due to some genetic condition. Under the "procreation is the primary reason" model of marriage, it would seem that the man should then be free to dump the barren woman and go forth in search of more fertile mates. To me, this is reprehensible. It makes a mockery of the whole "in sickness and in health" vow.

George writes that "there is no reason that primarily emotional unions like friendships should be permanent, exclusive, limited to two, or legally regulated at all." But, we're not talking about friendships. A friend might come visit you in the hospital, but he's under no moral obligation care for you when you are sick. Marriage isn't just about sex. If you are married and get paralyzed due to an accident, should your marriage be instantly nullified?

It's not polite to talk about, because it seems grim and we don't like talking about dark subjects in the context of supposedly happy institutions like marriage. But, to me, while marriage does include elements of emotional, financial, and sexual partnership, the ultimate bottom line is how you behave in sickness and death. To deny that homosexuals can't or shouldn't care for their dying loved ones in the context of marriage seems to me to be a very difficult moral argument to justifuy.

Loren Eaton said...


Been getting ready for a finance exam (yay, grad school, joy), so haven't been able to check back for a few days.

I don't think George entirely founds his argument on the ability of couples to bear children. Otherwise, we'd end up in some of the sticky situations you mentioned (e.g. polygamy, divorcing the infertile). From my reading of the article, George seems to say that 1) marriage has a distinct character as opposed to other relationships because it is based "bodily unity of the kind that sometimes generates new life"; 2) such unity unites husband an wife in a unique way that other acts don't "thus legally consummate marriage whether or not they are generative in effect, and even when conception is not sought"; 3)"marriage is the form of relationship that is uniquely apt for childrearing"; 4)"as a comprehensive sharing of life -- an emotional and biological union -- marriage has value in itself and not merely as a means to procreation," which explains "why our law has historically permitted annulment of marriage for non-consummation, but not for infertility"; 5) "Only this understanding makes sense of all the [legal] norms -- annulability for non-consummation, the pledge of permanence, monogamy, sexual exclusivity"; and 6) "only this view can explain why the state should regulate marriage ... at all -- to make it more likely that, wherever possible, children are reared in the context of the bond between the parents whose sexual union gave them life."


There's an awful lot to consider in that, from the nature of sex to the role of government. That's why it's important to talk over and good to have people consider the subject carefully. I like it when people move beyond the easy talking points, like you have.

James Maxey said...

Loren, I again think that the focus on even the possibility of procreation as the driving justification for marriage still leads to some morally problematic issues. I know that arguing the extremes isn't always fair, but suppose you were a male virgin soldier who went to war at age 19 and wound up stepping on a landmine and losing pretty much everything from the waist down. You return home with no chance of ever having children, and no chance of ever having sex to the degree it would meet Bill Clinton's definition. But, still, when you return home, you meet a woman who loves you for your courage and spirit and smile and the two of you decided to marry. Under Robert George's reasoning, we would, as a society, need to protect marriage by telling this couple they couldn't wed.

I think a lot of conservatives get really caught up on the sex part of marriage, when marriage is about so much more than sex. It's like they can't get past their own sexual hangups to see that people might want to get married for reasons other than god-approved sexual pleasure. Most homosexuals probably can already get the sexual pleasure. They are now in pursuit of something greater. It's actually a more mature view of marriage than that possessed by some of the religious opposition, I think.

Mr. Cavin said...

"...and 6) "only this view can explain why the state should regulate marriage ... at all"

But Mr. Eaton that's completely begging the question. And while I understand that splitting hairs is judicious, it remains splitting hairs. No matter what anyone thinks, the dry facts are if marriage is to have a civil definition, then it cannot be this. Right know, the system under which we suffer is a secular extension of social perquisites offered to some and denied to others based on churchy criteria. As far as I can tell that's not equitable or American.

James Maxey said...

And, by "churchy" criteria, we can go ahead and say "mainstream protestant christian" criteria, which is built by cherry picking the bible for the passages supporting our current model of marriage while ignoring other passages. Jesus quite directly advocated lifelong celebacy without marriage as the best path to follow to live in obedience to god. He doesn't condemn marriage, but he does regard it as something you should fall back on only if you are unable to control your lust. And, throughout the old testament, polygamy was fairly rampant. Passages from Leviticus are used to show God codemns homosexuality, but the same book also provides laws and advice on dealing with multiple wives. I frequently hear the slippery slope argument that allowing gays to marry will lead to polygamy. But, if avoiding polygamy is your top goal, the Bible seems to provide a better lubricated incline to that multiple partners.

And, of course, in the strict Biblical view, many Christians do take part in polygamy, since divorce and remarriage are absolutely forbidden. People like Rush Limbaugh who've had four wives are, biblically, practicing polygamy in the eyes of God, since nothing but death disolves earlier marriages.

Loren Eaton said...

Hallo Gents!

Just a fast responses because I've got a load of work to get done today. This has been quite an interesting conversation!

Under point number four, George very clearly states that he believes marriage is "a comprehensive sharing of life," not merely bound up in sex. Of course, sex has to enter into the equasion because of the idea of consummation in our legal code. (We'll leave Jim Gibbons out of it for the moment.) Seriously, if you want to interact with this particular position, it's worth reading George's article in full. He puts it much more precisely than I can. It may seem like it splits hairs here and there, but he's a legal scholar and it is a legal matter. (Also, I'm 100% sure that he isn't a Protestant.)

James, seriously, did you say "Rush Limbaugh" and "polygamy" in the same sentence? I almost went blind reading that!

James Maxey said...

Loren, I did read the WSJ article. The only thing I truly agreed with is that I don't want the courts to redefine marriage. Plainly, the idea of two men or two women getting married wasn't on the minds of the people who originally wrote our marriage laws. But, we do have a process for changing old and outdated laws. I want our entire culture to expand the definition to include homosexual marriage, because it's the most fair and honest thing to do. Robert George is clinging to the past and building a rather feeble logical framework to justify his ossified views. Fortunately, his attitudes are held by fewer and fewer people each year. We have adjusted our attitudes toward marriage many times over the years. There was a time when people couldn't marry outside of their race. There was a time when divorce was a horrible stigma and the laws were especially harsh toward women. However, our culture changes. I don't think gay marriage will be made legal by legislation within the next five years. But the next 50? To me, it seems inevitable. Homosexuals have come out of the closet in force and most people have discovered that they are related to gays, or work with them, or interact with them daily in any number of ways. More and more, we see them raising kids and being responsible members of the mainstream. I think it's only a matter of time before fair minded people admit that two people of the same gender in love should recieve the same recognition given to mixed gender marriages.

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