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The Institution of Marriage

July 6th, 2013

There are several reasons people may oppose gay marriage. A predominant reason is that people are at least uncomfortable about homosexuality, or they feel threatened by it somehow, or they simply despise it. However, these are highly subjective; one cannot deny others rights simply because one does not like them. Not to mention that hatred does not play well publicly. Since such reasons will not withstand debate, they are very seldom proffered as the reason to oppose the rights of gay people.

Another common reason is religious opposition. The Bible offers up enough basis for those either inclined to follow prescribed moral values over apparent ones, or who are pre-inclined to dislike gay people, to ostracize homosexuals and/or to define what they do as an “abomination.” Many, if not most, religious groups choose to do so. This is more often cited in public debate, especially by those who believe that marriage is primarily a religious function, or else feel there is enough of a connection to make a difference. However, we live under a set of laws that do not allow religious beliefs to strip others of their rights. As a result, they also will not withstand much public debate.

However, let’s not fool ourselves: the above two reasons are the real grounds upon which most people oppose gay marriage. We all know that these are the primary objections, but they are not the primary argument because, from the objective standpoint of public and legal debate, they are weak and increasingly unpopular.

So instead we hear a different argument: gay marriage will weaken the institution of marriage. That’s the primary public argument forwarded by those opposing gay marriage. Thus, the “Defense of Marriage Act.”

It sounds like it could be a solid reason. Institutions are important. They are the foundations of society. We don’t want to weaken them. And, especially if you are inclined to dislike homosexuality, it sounds reasonable that allowing gay marriage would “dilute” or otherwise diminish the institution. As a result, this is a popular argument, even though it is not a reason most who oppose gay marriage ever would have considered had it not been handed to them.

The problem is, this argument is meaningless. Or, more specifically, it is semantically void in any way that could apply to public legal debate.

First of all, when the “institution of marriage” is cited, which institution of marriage is being referred to? I can think of several: historical, societal, religious, personal, legal, or semantic.

Historically, marriage is an evolving institution, so acceptance of gay marriage does not “weaken” or “dilute” it. This is like strict grammarians making similar assertions about new linguistic practices; what it comes down to is that they don’t like things changing. However, language by nature changes and evolves. So does marriage. As has been pointed out many times, the “one man, one woman marriage based on love” is hardly the classic form of wedlock.

The societal institution of marriage can be defined as what society decides it is. Again, this is liquid and changing, based on what a society wants. Well, our society wants this now. The institution cannot be weakened by allowing what society allows; it can only be weakened if society is not allowed to define the institution as it likes. Ironically, this argument was valid (and I believe was often proffered) before, but now it works the other way, supporting gay marriage instead of defying it.

One aspect of the societal institution could be the idea that marriage is intended to encourage and/or maintain population growth. However, no society I know of requires reproduction or even reproductive ability as a prerequisite for marriage. For the “dilution” argument to work, we would need to ban marriage between any couple incapable of having children. In fact, couples who clearly cannot or do not intend to have children are not even frowned upon in the slightest. Furthermore, as noted below, the arguments that gay marriage will somehow discourage childbirth is ludicrous.

The religious institution of marriage is what a lot of people point to; however, there are some problems. First of all, religious texts, even within any specific sect, do not usually have rigidly defined or consistent definitions of marriage. Second, there are lots of different religions with different ideas about marriage. So, the argument that changing this institution would damage it is already somewhat weak.

However, most religions will consolidate at least current theological standings into dogma. It could be argued that defying this dogma could weaken the institution of marriage within a church, especially with a specific type of marriage that the church has never supported.

The problem with this argument: churches are not being asked to accept or sanctify gay marriage. Therefore, gay marriage does not really affect the internal institution. Still, these people will argue that publicly allowing gay marriage infringes on that institution—but this only could be true if one accepts the idea that religious organizations “own” marriage in our society, a premise which is not valid. Just as one religion may not impose its dogma on all of society, no religion may impose their internal institutions on all others through legal means. Religious people may feel threatened by gays marrying outside of their own institutions, or they may feel that what other people do in light of societal approval affects them somehow; however, that is not a rational public argument.

The personal institution of marriage could be defined as the meaning of marriage to the people engaging in the institution. This also has many variations: it could be for love, for reproduction, for appearances, for wealth, for convenience—for a myriad of personal or legal reasons relevant to the people involved. Since the personal institution is, like the societal institution, defined by what people want it to mean, gay marriage cannot detract from or otherwise diminish this. It does, in fact, add to it.

Only if, as with religious institutions, people feel like they have joined a select membership and are offended by people they do not approve of also joining, can they see the “institution” being harmed. This, however, like the religious objections, is exclusive; they deny other people rights based solely on subjective claims to ownership of an institution which is intended for all. It is, in fact, a stronger argument that gay marriage supports the personal institution, as it makes marriage between all people possible, something previously denied.

Then we come to the legal institution of marriage. This one is simple: like societal and personal definitions, this is what we decide it to be. Gay marriage no more weakens the legal institution of marriage than equal pay for women weakens the legal institution of employment. It’s a null argument.

One odd-man-out argument could be called the “semantic” institution of marriage, that marriage simply won’t “mean” the same thing, and some go as far as saying that changing the meaning of marriage will mean that we no longer have the concept of marriage in its “traditional” sense. That even the meaning of terms like “husband” or “mother” will be diluted and will no longer have the same meaning (see page 53 of this tome).

Forgive me, but this is simply utter bullshit. At worst, it will add new definitions (what standard terms for “two mommies” or “two daddies” may have, etc.), but the long-standing definitions will still be there. If there is confusion over the meaning (“Do you mean your traditional ‘mom’ or your gay ‘mom’?”) terms will evolve to fit.

So, what are we left with? The only “institutional” arguments that have any meaning at all are religious and personal, and the damage done is highly subjective and indirect. Any “weakening” done is purely in the eye of the beholder, and, together with the fact that neither religious nor personal biases are allowed to dictate the legal rights of others, is meaningless in terms of objecting to gay marriage becoming legal.

Secondly, beyond the philosophical questions about the meaning of “the institution of marriage,” one has to ask, “What actual, real-world effect will gay marriage have on those wishing to participate in the institution of marriage?”

This is where the opposition to gay marriage falls apart even more rapidly. The answer to the above question tends to be even less well-established than what the “institution of marriage” is supposed to mean in the first place. Most people who oppose gay marriage prefer to remain vague, even when citing what they believe will be the real-world effects of the change. I have tried to find and categorize these claims as best I can.

Public endorsement of gay marriage will legitimize and therefore increase the incidence of homosexuality. There are at least a few aspects to this argument: whether it is possible, whether it would happen, and whether it would be a bad thing.

The first hinges on a controversial point: that people have a choice in their sexual orientation. To refute this, a common question asked to heterosexuals is, “When did you decide to be straight?” Since straight people make no such decision, it is hard to classify sexual orientation as a real choice. It is, in a sense, like right- or left-handedness: one is more common and the other is stigmatized; one can force oneself to act like everyone else, but it goes against one’s nature to do so.

The argument that sexual orientation is a matter of choice is vanishingly relevant. It’s pretty clear that in most cases, it is not possible for an individual to determine that for themselves. Children raised in gay environments, for example, tend not to be any more or less gay than people in straight environments. And just recently, a significant conservative organization selling a “pray the gay away” therapy not only shut down, but publicly apologized for being wrong and harming people.

That said, it is also apparent that human sexuality is not binary; the evidence seems to point to the fact that, as in most all things, we live along a spectrum, or even a landscape of sexual orientations. Few if any people are “100%” straight or gay. Where we are in that landscape is not variable—we do not slide up or down towards one area or the other. However, someone more between defined areas than most may be able to make themselves comfortable in various camps, bisexuals being one example. However, even this “preference” is not necessarily a “choice”; bisexuals usually report that the preference leads them, and not the other way around.

The only way that the legitimization of gay marriage could have an effect on the incidence of homosexuality, as I see it, is if we have a formative stage in which people who are towards the middle of the sexual spectrum form habits that dictate the sexuality they will feel comfortable with.

However, the legitimization of gay marriage would not have a chilling effect on this; rather, it would create a freer environment in which a person could develop more naturally, with fewer external pressures to conform forced upon them unnaturally.

The only way in which this could be seen as a negative would be if one judged that anything but strict heterosexuality were immoral or otherwise wrong. This, however, is a subjective decision. Homosexuality is not innately immoral. Innate immorality stems from an act being non-consensual and/or harmful to others. Since homosexuality is consensual, and only stigmatization leads to physical or mental harm, it does not fit in that category; instead, it is only subjectively immoral, like taking the name of a god in vain, or walking around naked. Only a circular argument could assert that homosexuality harms people, as the putative reason it harms people is because it is immoral.

To sum up, the development of sexual orientation is a natural process and has no innate moral impact. It is highly improbable that legitimization of gay marriage could increase the incidence of homosexuality, nor would such a thing weaken our intrinsic moral basis as a society or people.

The legitimization of gay marriage would discourage straight people from marrying. This one is simply idiotic. First, while I can think of many trends that were enhanced by gay participation, I cannot think of a single one that was made less popular by gay participation. Second, can you even imagine a straight couple saying, “We’re deeply in love and really want to get married, but since gay people can do it, it’s just meaningless to us”? I mean, seriously.

As I argued a decade ago, it is far more likely that people would be deterred by generic aspects of marriage than by any aspect of gay marriage. Indeed, when people argue against marriage, they cite broken marriages in general. That the social and personal pressures of marriage weigh them down and make them unhappy; that promises of fidelity may not be realistic; that wedlock can make people feel as though their options are limited and possible futures are closed off. They cite unhappy couples, spousal abuse, and other pitfalls of the institution. None of these are caused by, nor would be exacerbated by gay marriage. In fact, many straights will, perhaps jokingly, ask gays if they really want to deal with all the baggage that comes with marriage.

Now, if there’s a gay couple living next door, and a person is so disgusted with having to live near that, then it is only that person’s own bigoted hatred would be the problem, and not the happy couple living nearby. If this causes fewer of these people to have children to whom they would hand down this hatred and bigotry, then I see no problem in that result.

Gay marriage will have a chilling effect on population. How this will occur is usually left unsaid; I can only infer two possibilities, these being the two purported effects listed directly above. That gay marriage could increase the unnatural incidence of homosexuality is bunk, and the idea that straights will stop getting married and/or having children because gays are marrying is, not to put it too lightly, one of the most breathtakingly stupid ideas I have ever heard. To the contrary, it might bring new life to the institution.

Gay marriage is unnatural. See the discussion above. This is also often conflated with the argument of a divine mandate. Homosexual behavior occurs naturally in the animal kingdom, and the evidence that we have on human sexuality right now points strongly to it being a natural phenomenon. And since marriage is a human construct in any case, citing “nature” does not really apply anyway.

Gay marriage will lead to polygamy and bestiality. Another chestnut among conservatives, that allowing gay marriage will open the floodgates to any form of marriage, from group marriages to people deciding to marry chickens and goats. In short, the classic slippery slope and false choice fallacies. This is not a package deal, not to mention that the alternate forms cited as “next on the list” are incredibly more rare than homosexuality. While a few people do promote group marriages (ironically, mostly religious people, and mostly citing biblical example!), nobody is pushing for, shall we call it, “animal husbandry.” This is simply yet another dishonest or ignorant attempt to smear homosexuality with the stigma of very different (usually non-consensual) sexual activities; as with the attempts to equate homosexuality with pedophilia, there is simply no relation whatsoever. As much as I am sure that there are conservatives out there secretly harboring their love of barnyard animals, they will simply have to live with their own self-hate and leave the rest of us alone.

Taxpayers would be forced to subsidize gay marriages. Taxpayers are forced to subsidize all marriages, which has no meaning regarding the type of marriage or the moral status of those involved. We are already “forced” to subsidize marriages we do not approve of; we don’t get to pick and choose which ones we like.

What this argument really is, however, is a new conservative tactic borrowed from the reproductive-rights arena, the “religious-rights” appeal. Direct government subsidy of a single religious group violates the establishment clause; one lesser aspect of this is that individuals are forced to subsidize religious groups with their taxpayer dollars. It has always been a side issue next to the greater issue of government endorsement and state religion; however, conservatives glommed onto this and now claim that anything they don’t like is now barred from receiving any government funding whatsoever, even indirectly. As a result, because Planned Parenthood also performs abortions, conservatives want to ban it from getting government funding for any health services whatsoever.

The use of this in regards to gay marriage is just a rebranding of that same twice-borrowed side issue, and is just as irrelevant as the fact that people without children may resent subsidizing education, or that people who are single may resent subsidizing anyone who is married. We already subsidize sham marriages, and marriages with abuse, and marriages of convenience, and so forth and so on. Tax-funded support of married couples does not equal personal taxpayer endorsement of the morality or lack of same within that marriage.

Marriage is about having children. No it’s not. If it were about having children, we would not allow people beyond childbearing age to marry. Nor would we allow younger people who, by condition or choice can no longer conceive, to marry. There is nothing in the legal or even the religious institutions of marriage that tie those institutions solely to childbearing.

Many more stupid arguments. Just too many to list one by one. Here’s a “top ten” list, including some of the arguments above, as well as: “Schools would teach that homosexual relationships are identical to heterosexual ones,” “Freedom of conscience and religious liberty would be threatened,” “Fewer people would remain monogamous and sexually faithful,” “Fewer people would remain married for a lifetime,” “Fewer children would be raised by a married mother and father,” and “More children would grow up fatherless.” Most of these are supported by bogus “research” (note that the source scrupulously avoids citing any specific research).

Here’s a super-idiotic list, one that really pushes the envelope. He claims that gay marriage “can bring huge financial and emotional stress” (gays will be more able to sue religious bigots for discrimination, thus causing the “stress”), “The health risks are enormous to themselves and others” (essentially he cites HIV/AIDS, as though somehow gay marriage will cause increases in such diseases—presumably gays will otherwise remain celibate and healthy), “The morals of the minority forced upon the majority” (ironically, the opposite is now true), and “Gay Marriage affects people spiritually” (religious folk will be mentally harmed by being forced to see married gay couples). He also makes the falling-birth-rate claim, and as is usual, gives no evidence to support the claim, nor any framework under which such an effect could occur.

If you think that’s as stupid as stupid gets, he gets stupider: Gay marriage “forces government to get involved in changing laws which automatically affect everyone in society.”

Really. He wrote that.

What all of this ultimately comes down to is, we have a heteros-only club, and it would just be ruined if those icky gays got in. But like I said, this does not play well, so we get the “institution” argument instead.

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  1. Jon
    July 12th, 2013 at 04:05 | #1

    It is really just a matter of time. The ‘eww’ factor is fading rapidly in the younger generations.

    The notion that it opens the door for polygamy is probably correct in the long run. Can’t say I care, I’m pretty far in the ‘whatever consenting adults do is their own business’ camp myself.

    Not sure how the coming retirement of the baby boomers will affect the timetable. Retired folks seem to vote more, and I suspect they are going to be the last speed bump on the way. Maybe not though; not sure how they break down on support for gay marriage.

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