knowing when to get out of the way
It’s gratifying to be away from the Internet for a day, and come back to find a couple of thoughtful responses to what you’ve written. (Actually, it’s gratifying, sometimes, to be away from the Internet for a day, full stop.) So I’m happy to read Scott and Erik’s responses to some of my thoughts on gay marriage.
That said, I quote one of Pepe LaPew’s paramours in saying, “Le sigh.”
First of all, yes, I recognize that there are some obvious differences between a marriage featuring two people of the same gender and two people of different genders. The principle one being that one kind has people of the same gender and the other has two people of different genders! What I don’t agree with, and what I don’t see as logically following from that fact, is that I have to endorse a different name for those kinds of marriages. Sure, there are different. Surely it doesn’t follow from the fact that, because there are any differences, we need to use different nomenclature. I know that the comparisons between mixed-race marriages and same-sex marriages are imperfect. But here I think that they are apt– there are some legitimate, though banal, differences between mixed-race and same-race marriages. No one seems compelled to give them different legal names, and thank god. I need more of a logical bridge between the notion that same-sex marriages have certain differences from traditional marriages and the notion that we need to call them different things.
Erik, like John Schwenkler before him, thinks that we should privilege cultural change before we worry about legal change, and thinks I’m backwards for suggesting the opposite. Well, look. Yes, in one sense, I want people who continue to culturally or socially exclude gay people, or who consider gay partnerships unequal to straight partnerships, to change their tunes. I am creeped out by the notion of coercing that kind of change, and my assumption is that the other people involved in this discussion agree. So I don’t think it is unusual for me to focus on the legal question. Whats more, as much as social and psychological realities figure into this discussion, it is the case that this is a struggle for legal rights, and there are very pragmatic and legalistic considerations for which gay people are fighting. Yes, this is a battle for respect and recognition. It is also a battle for actual legal rights, and I think my interlocuters risk underestimating that fact.
To some degree this is a debate in search of a problem because legal and social acceptance will inevitably be deeply linked. I do think, though, that the history of various civil rights struggles suggests that a passionate minority fights for and wins legal rights, and then, over time, social acceptance grows. (I recognize that Erik thinks that cultural battles have to be won in order to win the legal battles, but I think we just assess the situation differently.) The other problem is that I’m not really dedicated to one or the other, but for pragmatic and philosophical reasons I privilege the legal change. To some degree, when we debate politics, we are talking about policy, and policy has little ability to meaningfully make one person respect or value another person or their way of life. And, indeed, we shouldn’t try to make those changes legally in the first place. Not that you can’t articulate how you want people to change… but I’m rambling.
I mean, look, at the end of the day, two men or two women who can get a legal marriage can live their lives independently even if their neighbors hate them. Two men or women who can’t get a legal marriage but who have neighbors who universally respect them are still denied pragmatic structures of shared assets, child-rearing and legal protections. My suspicion is that the worry about how socio-cultural considerations can harm gay couples are of a piece with the fear that gay marriage somehow devalues heterosexual marriages; you can come up with arguments for each, but both ultimately rest on some pretty theoretical concepts.
The bottom line, it seems to me, is that I am fighting for the legal right of gay marriage not only because it is consonant with my values but because gay people have identified it as perhaps the most important aspect of complete integration into the American experience. I trust that they themselves have the best understanding for how to advance their own interests. I know that John Schwenkler and Scott and Erik genuinely want to honor gay partnerships, but at the end of the day, I think it’s strange not to allow them to determine the priorities of their own movement.