It’s not about marriage, it’s about being gay.
It seems that every day brings news of another state being required to allow gay marriage on constitutional grounds. Unless the Supreme Court unexpectedly puts a stop to it, gay marriage will become the law of the land. This is part of a legal and social process that has gone on for decades and that has seen the growing acceptance of homosexuality in a variety of contexts, including popular media. However, there is still a vocal minority that objects strenuously to “the gay agenda,” which is a derisive term used to describe the tangle of legal and social rights asserted by gay men and women. The conflict has centered most recently on the issue of gay marriage, it being said by some conservatives that allowing homosexuals to marry will debase the institution of marriage itself and cut it off from the religious meanings which surround the marriage ceremony. The legal arguments that have been put forward to advance this point of view hold that gay people marrying in the community will “threaten” the “legitimate” marriages that they, themselves, have entered into. Also, children, they assert, require both a male and female parent to encourage healthy development. For that reason, a couple of the same sex cannot bring up a child properly, and, indeed, for that reason should not be allowed to adopt children, even the child of one of them. And children, they go on to say, are the reason for marriage in the first place.
Nevertheless, the courts at every level are rejecting these arguments. The usual reason they give is that there is no purpose to banning same-sex marriage other than simple bigotry. I think, however, that the reasons that animate the conservatives who object to homosexuals marrying, and who represent a considerable number, are more complicated.
Understanding this dispute is impeded by these legal arguments, which seem on their face to be wrong. Couples marry all the time with no intention of having children. And children, when they do come, are frequently brought up by one parent or by grandparents or, indeed, by relatives of the same sex. These children show no obvious emotional distress and no greater inclination to develop overt emotional disorders than anyone else. Similarly, no one’s marriage or family life is affected adversely by another couple of any sort who live around the corner. Besides, the dispositive issue is the rights of individuals to live the way they want to no matter what others think and feel.
But the argument is not about marriage, it is about homosexuality. Homosexuals want to marry, instead of simply settling for domestic unions which may offer all the legal rights of marriage. They want to be able to say they are “married,” just like everyone else. They want to be seen as living meaningful lives, just like everyone else. They want the way they live to be stamped “authentic,” as valid and moral as that of everyone else. And it is exactly for that reason that these conservative men and women insist that they should not marry. They do not want to acknowledge that the way homosexuals live and act together is moral, or even normal, despite what some professionals may say. They believe that homosexuality is against God’s law, and has been decried throughout history. So, the argument rests on the legitimacy of the way homosexuals live and act.
I think it is not difficult to represent what gay men and lesbians think about themselves. They see themselves as moral, inclined to behave properly to each other and to everyone else. Some of them suspect, as we all do from time to time, that they live better lives than most people. They know that for reasons which are not entirely fathomable, they have been discriminated against throughout history, although not uniformly. There have been certain admired societies such as the ancient Greeks, in which male homosexuality was considered to be a kind of love, and was respected for that reason. They object to being reduced to a stereotype, although the truth is, they themselves tend to think of homosexuals as more sensitive, and possibly more artistic—on the average—than straight people. They recognize that some gay men are extremely promiscuous, but not that many. Maybe there is more emphasis on youth and good lucks by homosexuals—then again, maybe not. In the end, homosexual men and women who try to think of themselves critically as somewhat apart from heterosexuals are likely to throw up their hands and agree that they are more or less like everyone else. And they want to be treated like everyone else.
It is a little harder to paint a picture of the conservative conception of homosexuality because it is not usually articulated dispassionately and because it is part of a larger view of society itself. There is a geographic distribution of conservatives and liberals in this county. Homosexuals, who feel more comfortable for the most part with people who are politically liberal tend to live on the coasts, although, of course, they are everywhere. Conservative men and women also can be found anywhere but, perhaps, more in the heartland of the county. The following is a generalization that is probably more often wrong than right in the life of any particular person, but which expresses some of the ideas that are common among those who consider themselves socially conservative.
The specific ideas associated with the terms “conservative” and “liberal” have changed over the years; but the men, or women, I am thinking of are conservative in the original meaning of the term: they value those social and political ways of being that have always, is seems to them, characterized who we are as Americans. And they are suspicious of change. Change represents possible loss. And, it seems to them, there are changes in our society that are undermining that essential spirit of who we are. They see a Christian nation becoming idolatrous. They feel the ground shifting under their feet.
They are upset by changes in society that they see all around them, not just the growing acceptance of homosexuality, but of improper sexual behavior in general. Pornography is everywhere and much more explicit than it has been in the past. The popular media make these trends worse. They see in their own children a growing lack of respect for religion and for decency. They, themselves, feel ridiculed by some intellectuals and scientists who have been enlisted into liberal causes. Their religious ideas are made out to be ridiculous. They are disrespected.
Although they work hard, they can barely make ends meet. They have the feeling that powerful groups conspire against them, for instance, the financial industry and, perhaps foremost, the government itself. Some elements in government are planning, they believe, to take away their guns, which are not just guns; they are a symbol of their independence and assertiveness. They see government programs designed to help the poor and others as an attempt to take from them and give to these undeserving people, many of whom seem obviously different, in other words, immigrants and people of color.
These self-identified conservatives distrust the news media. They have stopped reading about global warming and other supposedly scientific facts that they do not believe in. They have come to distrust educators and the whole process of education itself.
Most important, they see their children as vulnerable to these influences. There are drugs everywhere and sexual promiscuity—and homosexuality; and they worry about their children being seduced into homosexual behavior by teachers and scoutmasters.
Homosexuals have good reasons to feel discriminated against, in housing, in social situations, and at work. Homosexuals have been murdered for their sexual orientation. But many of the conservatives described above are not bigoted. They have prejudices of a sort, as do liberals. One example of a liberal prejudice is the fear of genetically-modified foods. But it too facile and clumsy to dismiss all these social conservatives as bigoted. Most of them are not. They are surely, to some extent, misinformed. For instance, the United States was never a Christian nation. John Adams, who was the probably the most church-going of the founding fathers wrote to a foreign power saying explicitly, that the United States was “not in any sense founded on the Christian Religion.” Many of the other Founding Fathers were accused during their lifetime of being atheists. Similarly, there is no great conspiracy to disadvantage or eradicate conservatives and their beliefs.
Also, unquestionably, homosexuality cannot be taught. In a permissive society it is surely true that there are some overt homosexuals who would not engage in homosexual behavior if their lives were at stake, as they are in certain countries; but they are not turned into homosexuals by living freely. As far as the growing iniquity of the younger generation, they are really doing only what they have historically always down—define themselves purposely as different from their parents. In such a way, they can get into trouble, but most don’t. They manage to survive a world where drugs and sex are readily available.
I think the growing fear and disrespect that polarizes conservatives and liberals are doing damage to our society and our country. Minorities, including homosexuals, have to fight for their rights; but their opponents are not evil. They are afraid and angry. Although some of the changes in society that conservatives decry are real, I think they can be reassured about the common values we all share. We all believe in the individual freedoms upon which this country was founded, even if we disagree about some of the details. We do not necessarily have to be at odds. (c) Fredric Neuman Author of “Maneuvers.”