The most unusual wedding I ever performed was of a woman to herself. On the shore of Lake Michigan I pronounced this lovely, creative creature One, adding, “What God hath joined together, let no one rent asunder.” Of course, this was a spiritual ceremony, not a legal contract, though the marriage issue could be stretched to consider calling such a union a marriage. Or should it? Just what is a marriage, who qualifies, and who decides?
Let us consider marriage, gay marriage, and the human family. My purpose is to propose a vision of our society where all sorts of unions are honored, including that of same-sex couples, but does so not by winning an argument and overwhelming the traditional perspective on marriage. A democratic society ideally evolves, not by cutting off sides, but incorporating them, so that all can get what they value.
It is probably a professional detriment that I usually see both sides in arguments. Rather than take a side, I see all sides. A similar drawback pops up when I watch football with the guys. I cheer for any good play by either side, whereas I should be picking a team and cheering only for it. Unlike the side-taking typical in sports, debate, adversarial law, and judgmental religion, I often see the other side’s perspective and sympathize with it even when I don’t entirely agree. Instead of either/or, I tend to see both/and. Instead of win/lose, I would rather we arrive at win/win.
In the religion business it helps to be judgmental. Job security is favored by praising one’s own group while defining out just who is wrong. In some religions, an abhorrence of anything homosexual prevails, and the very notion of same-sex couples marrying is deemed somewhere between absurd and depraved. Gay people learn to avoid such a group, or if caught in it, keep quiet, lie, or cave in to shameful confessions. In other religions, gayness is welcomed as a valid lifestyle option and gay weddings are celebrated. Those uneasy with this, or those cleaving to a traditional definition of marriage, are subtly snubbed as un-hip or blatantly branded as bigoted. Each way has a circle of inclusion and exclusion. I see both ways as unwarranted and unwise. Because I see past the side I’m on to the larger cultural conversation I tend to see reasons for the positions my side tends to dismiss. Friends and colleagues see me askance; I wish to clarify.
I come to this position with lonely trepidation. The liberals I’m usually at home with don’t get my reasons for defending the conservatives. Friends and colleagues who I like and admire don’t know how to take me. In reaching out to the other side I risk alienating my own. I have no authority or position to decide such issues, nor paid time to research it, and speaking out on this controversial topic doesn’t gain me any advantage – other than the long-shot possibility of enhancing human fulfillment in community, which is repeatedly and unnecessarily divided. I can’t just cheer for the home team as if the other team has no inherent dignity as well. So let me stand shakily here to share with you influences on my limited perspective before taking on the touchy issues around homosexuality, gay marriage, and marriage in general. (Some of this I have already written towards. An editorial and a sermon are available at my web site: earthlyreligion.org.)
At eight years old I was molested by a gay man at an armory in Berea, Ohio. I didn’t know what to think of it other than be afraid. Years later I engaged in typical pre-teen learning about sex, mostly with other boys. In my mid and late teens I was occasionally approached by various gay guys who, I’m glad to report, were usually more hopeful than hurtful and more polite than persistent. It was optional behavior I opted not to pursue. In seminary I grew close to a gay guy who was fun, intellectually adventurous, and theologically astute. We shared a lot on many levels, and though we called each other “lovers,” it was more platonic than and not as sexual as he wanted. Forty years later, he remains one of my closest friends. He’d feel right at home in my home town, which I like in part for being gay-friendly.
In liberal religious UU circles, gay welcoming has been an informative and heart-warming experience for me and others. Just as ministers to our movement used to come as outcasts for theological views, so have we welcomed lots of openly gay ministers. I’ve been able to know many gays, from elderly lesbian couples as auntly as my aunts to guys hankering for brief meetings in their sub-culture. But when colleagues in a UUMA meeting attempted to secure a unanimous vote that we ministers would boycott any fellowship or church that was accused of denying its pulpit to someone because he or she was gay, I voted against it. I believe it is a congregation’s prerogative to call to its pulpit and program whoever they most want, not whoever Boston most wants to place. Precluding their decision is just what I don’t like in the UUA. Our congregational polity, like our morality, comes from within and for our reasons. It is not to be dictated from afar because of pressure politics and power plays.
It is as permissible to declare homosexuality moral as it is to say it is immoral. Both are moral positions. Each can be argued with emotion, logic, and scripture, but neither deserves exclusion from the human conversation. Homosexuality falls within the larger category of sexuality, which in general I believe is good for us to admit and celebrate. But I don’t insist that others have my perspective. All humans have a life context in which they believe what they do and do as best they can. Honoring that process is the liberal way. Shaming or overpowering it is the essence of judgmental dogmatism.
Just as conservatives were once so side-lined they mounted a concerted effort to take their stand in the organic wisdom of our collective society, but then went from Goldwater to Reagan to Bush, so have gays come out from the closeted exclusion of the 70’s to parade and demand their place in our community. My concern is that this needed perspective has assumed a domineering stance that ridicules, insults, and alienates those who don’t also hold it, and that this could create an exploitable voting block in reaction.
Following California’s recent vote on Proposition 8 (defining marriage as between a man and woman) the supporters of the measure had their house addresses published, marking their homes for potential retaliation. The assumption is that those cleaving to a definition of traditional marriage are necessarily “against gays.” Absent from this stance is any credence given to the possibility that such persons are more for traditional marriage than against gays. Are they asked about this distinction? Is it feasible that most of those favoring a traditional definition of marriage would also favor a marriage-like category and mechanism allowing for same-sex couples to have a public celebration for a socially sanctioned, legally protected union? If that were so, would gays welcome this approach (which is offered in many places now) or would they demand the standard marriage? Would they continue to demand it even if it resulted in voter reaction electing more conservative war-mongers and theocrats? How far should we push people to make them agree with our thinking without understanding theirs?
I sympathize with the sentiment and legal needs of gays wanting to marry. They pair bond just like heterosexual couples do, and they fuss, and get jealous, and provide parenting, and hold property together, and they separate, etc. It seems two main things are desired: social sanction and legal protection. What I’m not knowledgeable enough about is whether the policies relevant to marriage are intended to favor stable, monogamous heterosexual couples who intend to birth and raise their child or children. Are all such policies suitable for couples who cannot have their own genetic children, and could there be policies crafted explicitly to such couples? I know this also is complicated by many opposite sex couples who never intend to have children, or marry late in life, and other exceptions to the traditional marriage. It seems the definition of marriage is under examination. Just who gets to declare what it is or isn’t?
Some say the state has no business in marriage. I disagree. The state gets called in to adjudicate divorce settlements in terms of property, income and liability sharing, and the welfare of children. In terms of tax policies and laws, the state is very involved. This is why the democratic process of various views being conveyed to representatives is appropriate. Should marriage be wide, including any and all who want or demand it, or narrow, specific to various functions? The answers aren’t so easy.
Gays say they just are gay; they have no choice in their attractions. They note there’s always a minority presence of gays in community, whether that is 3% or 10%. They point out the occasional homosexual contacts in various animals as evidence of its being natural. I speculate that gayness would tend to select itself out, for such sex doesn’t lead to rebirth, but that group survival might welcome gays to limit population while promoting group cohesion. While I hold that non-coupled promiscuous sex is permissible, gays tend to pair bond just like straights do. If they want to marry, shouldn’t it be their civil right to do so, walk the isle, take up cohabitation, and share their assets and liabilities along with their time?
So simple are these points it is hard to see what hesitations others might have. While being gay is a given, leading to the civil rights analogy to those who just happen to be of a certain race, optional behavior isn’t the same thing as skin color. We’re asking those unfamiliar with such urges to approve of them as God-given and beyond moral question. Is it similarly true that bi-sexuals also have no choice? As homosexuality normalizes, so does the chance of being hit on and the choice to respond or initiate. This might be fine, for an erotic community is preferable to a neurotic one, but consider homophobic reactions. As persistent as homosexuality is in the human community, so is homophobia. Would animal studies also demonstrate reaction against same-sex contacts, and if they did, would that justify it as natural? I don’t care what the author of Leviticus had to say on the topic, but I note his strict abhorrence is typical in the human community.
A subtle shaming gets applied to homophobic people. What is homophobia? Those who hate and kill gays are homophobic, but so are those who are merely unfamiliar with gays and uneasy being with them. Should the latter be accused of the former? Does anyone who questions homosexual behaviors and requests in society become a gay-basher merely because of questions and unease? It may feel smug for the liberated to taunt homophobic people with the innuendo that they are secretly gay, but does that respect their place in life, inherent dignity, and further mutual understanding? Are all those who see marriage as a contract between a man and a woman towards having children in a viable, durable unit – bigots?
Some say gay marriage is the “same thing” as traditional marriage. Others feel a need to “defend” traditional marriage from various changes. Gays object that their civil rights are being denied and that “whoever loves” should be able to marry. Each side demonizes the other, dismissing and dissing their motives and reasons, thus thwarting the mutual respect, dialog, and resolve all deserve. Marriage is much more than love. It is a life-long legal contract specifying some core rights and responsibilities for the husband and the wife towards insuring a viable and just future for the children. If we open marriage to “whoever loves” what should we then call the institution we had called marriage? Is there no relationship between it and the expectation of monogamy assuring the father his paternity of the children, the security of the wife after giving her body and life over to the family, the parameters of property and extended family – all evolved to serve the altricial (dependent) infant and maturing child? Should all policies designed to serve this traditional situation apply to any who want it?
The call for gay marriage opens the question as to just what marriage is. The one word marriage, along with lots of social expectations and legal protections, now serves a much wider set of situations than breeding and raising children. If I marry at my age my wife or I would get the other’s Social Security at death, whose ever were larger. Heather McCartney was awarded $48.7 million for her 20 year marriage to Paul beyond the $70,000 a year child support. That’s $47,000 a week earned to be with Paul. Some cultures advocate many wives per man. Others provide a weekend marriage to try it out. Should these be included too?
What about the single woman who I married to herself? If there were spiritual, financial, or legal benefits for her declaring that a marriage, should it be allowed? As soon as same-sex couples can marry it opens the possibility of marriages of three or more, be they all one sex or mixed. Some polyamorous groups want marriages with three or six people in them. If an even larger group wanted to be married should it be allowed? Why must marriage be of two people only? Why not one, or twenty? Why not weekend marriages or five year renewable contracts? I raise all these unlikely scenarios not to argue for them or to ridicule the call for gay marriage but to open the question as to just what is marriage. Perhaps many kinds of marriages are needed. Who gets to decide? For what purposes? What is the state’s role? The church’s?
What I would like is for same-sex couples to have the social sanction and legal protection they desire and deserve. I’m not sure widening the parameters of marriage as-is to accommodate them is advisable, especially considering the many reasons for the traditional marriage and the many people who seek to defend it. If the government ends up deciding to include them, that’s OK. But I suspect the current compromise in the form of “civil unions” or “domestic partnerships” helps create a viable social and legal category that satisfies their needs and desires. What’s needed here is a more poetic and honorable label so that such couples don’t end up feeling like “second-class citizens.” Perhaps “Same Sex Marriage” could fit the unique needs. Full-fledged legal and social protection and sanction should be established that doesn’t forsake the meaning of marriage but protects gay unions. It isn’t for me to decide. I’m not arguing finalities here; I’m contributing to the considerations.
What I want is for my liberal friends and colleagues to be wary of calling people names without understanding their reasons, thus pushing them into an exploitable enemy category inaccurately and unfairly. We need not all think alike to love alike. As gays become more publicly typical and straights who never knew them now could, fears and prejudices will diminish, and comity in community will deepen. What seemed strange or scary can become simply us. Win/win. The whole human family should feel at home in America. America has never suddenly lived up to the promise of its pluralism. Gradually, we come to realize and actualize “the inherent worth and dignity” of all, including those who differ from us, as we progress.
The Reverend Brad Carrier
For the UUF of Grants Pass
© February 1, 2009