Sunday, November 9, 2008

Can We Talk About Same Sex Marriage?

The New York Times in their editorial Equality's Winding Path the day after this historic Election Day summed up how bigotry still exists in the US:

Even as the nation shattered one barrier of intolerance, we were disappointed that voters in four states chose to reinforce another. Ballot measures were approved in Arkansas, Arizona, Florida and California that discriminate against couples of the same sex.

As the editorial points out, struggles over civil rights never follow a straight path. While we have obviously come a long way from the days of slavery and then segregation and after many more years finally to the election of a black president, there were many setbacks along the way. So while full equality for gay people may indeed be part of our future, unfortunately they too will have to suffer setbacks like this.

Two big questions at this point are 1. How did a measure like Proposition 8 which bans same sex marriage ever pass in such a liberal Blue State like California? and 2. How much will the election of Barack Obama change the landscape for gay rights?

To answer the first question, there are many liberals who support gay rights in the form of
civil unions but draw the line when it comes to marriage. Even within the Democratic Party, it is hard to think of any presidential candidate other than Dennis Kucinich who has come out in favor of same sex marriage. From a political standpoint, it’s probably a lot safer to support gay rights in the form of civil unions instead of being subject to attack as being ‘too liberal’ for supporting gay marriage.

Then there is the issue of the large black turnout for Barack Obama
that voted heavily in favor of gay marriage bans. How can a group that has fought its own battles with discrimination not be on the same side with another group fighting its battles? The best guess is that many blacks still look at homosexuality as being more of a religious/morality issue than a discrimination issue. Many blacks who attend conservative Christian churches get the message that homosexuality is immoral. While we clearly have no choice over our race, it is still not clear to many whether our sexual orientation is indeed a matter of choice. This in turn affects our attitudes on whether gays should be a protected class of people under the law. I have very strong feelings on this subject. The interested reader can refer to one of my previous postings, Sexual Orientation Is Not a Choice.

So what’s the difference between marriage and civil unions? The short answer is — as much or as little as the prevailing law allows. One of the reason some favor civil unions instead of marriage is to be able to grant some rights of marriage but deny other rights that may be considered too controversial like for example, the right to adopt children.

So where does President-elect Obama stand on this issue? He like most other mainstream politicians does not believe in same sex marriage. But like most Democratic politicians, he believes in civil unions. However, he also spoke out against the aforementioned Proposition 8 in California that would make same sex marriage illegal. One has to wonder if he is trying to politically straddle the fence and
have it both ways.

Interestingly enough, a look at
Obama's website does not show gay rights listed as one of the long list of ‘Issues’. One has to look under ‘People’ to find his positions on LGBT issues which includes the following:

Barack Obama supports full civil unions that give same-sex couples equal legal rights and privileges as married couples.

If we are to take him at his word, then this begs the question. If he wants to really give same sex couples equal legal rights and privileges as married couples, why not just allow them to marry and be done with it?

Perhaps a clue is given by Rev. D. McGee of San Francisco in this excerpt from his comment to the NYT editorial mentioned at the beginning of this article:

As an Evangelical clergyman who is African American, I do not support same sex marriage. Yet, as a lifelong victim and descendent of discrimination, I am not for any substantive discrimination based on sexual orientation. I believe the problem is cultural and semantic. Same sex "partners" should enjoy all the rights of married couples. But, to best avoid confusion, the term "marriage" must be reserved for male and female couples!

While this view may seem strange to some readers, I feel it reflects the views of many people, even liberal politicians who while they don’t want to deny equal rights to same sex partners, find the idea of same sex marriage to be ‘too liberal’ for their voting constituencies.

So if gays are offered what president-elect Obama supports in the way of civil unions that give same sex couples equal rights and privileges as married couples, is this an acceptable compromise? That is for the gay community to answer but it can be argued that half a loaf is better than none.

Having said that, I have some problems with civil unions to address this issue. For one, unlike marriage laws that are much more established and standardized from one area to another, there are a seemingly endless number of different types of civil unions in different localities that vary widely in the privileges they allow. And because civil unions are a new concept, they do not instruct business, the courts or other agencies how to apply the centuries of kinship-related doctrine, custom and law to these arrangements which is one of the primary differences cited between marriage and civil unions. So for those who really want to grant equal privileges to same sex couples, instead of forcing everybody to navigate through all of these legal difficuties, wouldn’t it be a lot easier to just to allow these people to marry?

What is more troubling to me is that much of the resistance to same sex marriage comes from religions who not only spread their disapproval of homosexuality to their congregations but also
publically supported Proposition 8. The Mormons in particular provided significant financial support to help pass Proposition 8, much of it from outside of California.

What is overlooked here is that while marriage ceremonies may or may not be performed by clergymen, it is first and foremost a legal contract entered into between two people signified by a marriage license. While religions certainly have the right to their own views on homosexuality or anything else, imposing their views on whom people can enter into legal contracts with may well be crossing that line that separates church and state here in the US.

All the legal stuff aside, hopefully this historic election of a black president will lead to more tolerance in our country for people who may be different from us. Other countries like Canada have legalized same sex marriage and the world didn’t end. Even for those who may not approve of homosexuality, if allowing them to marry would result in a happier and more complete life for them, can’t we at least have the kindness and tolerance as a society to grant them that wish?

Post Script: Please check out this incredibly moving Special Comment by Keith Olbermann: Gay marriage is a question of love

No comments: