jeudi, novembre 04, 2004

What Did We Learn (Part One)? Same Sex Marriage

This post is the first in a series called “What did we learn?” Future installments will cover, Karl Rove and election politics, the war against Iraq, the deficit, and our divided nation, among other subjects.

Today’s topic: same sex marriage. Why? Because it’s an issue that is near and dear to my heart and because I see this issue as an extension of two other issues: (1) the desire of some for moral leadership; and (2) the increasing divide between urban and rural America.

What Did We Learn? We learned that the majority of Americans don’t want same sex marriage. It was 11 for 11 in states that sought to ban it, and the President succeeded in part because he made it an issue. Here’s why Americans who oppose same sex marriage are wrong.

Before you begin, instead of asking whether we should support same sex marriage, I want to ask first whether the sanctity of a specific insitution is compromised by the inclusion of people that the majority would prefer to exclude. Ponder that as you read the note below about Christmas.

Here is an excerpt from a conversation that takes place at my house every year around this time…

Scrooge McDuf: I’d really like to take a year off from Christmas. I don’t need gifts, and the crass commercialism makes me sick.

Mrs. Duf: So what?

SM: So let’s skip Christmas.

MD: No. Don’t let external things ruin the holiday. It is what you make of it. What we make of it.

SM: That sounds very existential, I’d…

MD: Hush for a second.

SM: Yes, dear.

MD: The fact that others miss the point means nothing to the sanctity of the holiday itself.

SM: Still and the same I have all the socks…

MD: I thought I asked you to hush, honey.

SM: Yes, dear.

MD: We will celebrate with church and with singing. We will remember what the holiday means. We will gather with family. It only has to be as commercial as you make it…

…and so it goes.

And that, in a nutshell, is why I support same sex marriage.

Christmas is a holiday during which the majority of people celebrate the birth of Christ by engaging in Christian and pagan rituals. It is symbolized by nativity scenes and Christmas trees and mistletoe and everything in between. For some it is a high holiday rife with religious meaning, for others it is long lines at the mall and finally getting an iPod (or satellite radio or an HDTV or those noise cancelling Bose headphones or all of the above).

How the holiday is observed does not undermine the holiday itself. And so it is with the institution of marriage.

Marriage, by it history and by its execution, is amply flawed. In the past, only land owners could get married. Women were treated like property. There were many other restrictions on the right. In fact, it was only recently that my marriage (between and African-American (your humble narrator) and an American of European Ancestry (Mrs. Duf)) was allowed by law. By the way, when we got engaged, we put an ad in the paper to announce our good news, and my in-laws received hate mail from a racist (and this, in part, is why the issue of same sex marriage is so important to me). I’m thankful my right to marry the person I love is not up for vote. I wish that were true for everyone.

In its execution, marriage is also flawed. You can get married in a church, at city hall (provided you are one man and one woman – this is true even though our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters pay taxes that support the mechanism that makes those weddings possible), and you can get married in Las Vegas (at a drive through). You can get married while you are drunk or high. You can rent witnesses. You can get married to someone you don’t know. You can buy a bride online. You can get married as many times as you want, as long as it’s to one person (of the opposite sex) at a time. Within a marriage, you can be unspeakably cruel to your spouse, and somehow all of these trifles and abuses don’t compromise the sanctity of the institution itself. But if same sex couples joined the debacle, the whole thing would come crashing down. Hmm...somehow I'm not convinced.

Marriage is one of the more important institutions in my life. Let me clarify that, my marriage is one of the more important institutions in my life. When Brittney Spears got married and divorced the next day, even though the whole institution was compromised, somehow Mrs. Duf and I persevered. And I suspect that if the right was extended to same sex couples, we would soldier on somehow. That’s because, just like Christmas, marriage is not undermined by those who do not celebrate it as we would like them to celebrate it.

I'm in the home stretch, hang in there with me.

As I understand it, those who oppose same sex marriage do so for three basic reasons.

First, they oppose it because they see a biblical foundation for disallowing same sex unions. This is a fine argument if you are a church, and a lousy argument if you are a state. In order to disallow same sex marriage, states must act inequitably and violate the civil rights of some of their citizens. Until we are a theocracy (and within that, a Christian theocracy), the bible should not be the basis for our laws, the Constitution should.

Second, marriage is, by definition, between a man and woman. Except that it used to be that marriage was, by definition between a (landowning, white) man and a (landowning, white) woman only. Then the right was extended to those without property. Then minorities were allowed to marry, then anti-miscegenation laws were abolished and minorities were allowed to marry non-minorities. In other words, the definition of marriage has been changing since the word was first coined. And guess what, it’s time to change it again.

Third, I think too many Americans fear gays and lesbians. I believe this is a symptom of a larger urban v. rural divide (more on that later). If you live in an urban setting (as I do) and work with people who are gay or lesbian (as I do) and live next door to the ideal neighbors who just happen to be a lesbian couple who have been together for years and offer a fine example of love and devotion (as I do), it is more difficult to oppose same sex marriage (as I don’t). You start to believe that it’s unfair for you to have rights and privileges that your co-workers and neighbors don’t have. You value the institution enough to want it to be available to as many people as possible.

Near closing, I want to share an image that is foremost in my mind. The gifted photographer Richard Avedon was working on a series of photos for a project he called “Democracy.” He died before he could complete it, but the November 1, issue of New Yorker magazine published the photos he had completed. They were stunning and amazing. One of the photos featured two men from Massachusetts (way to go Massachusetts!) who are married and have a daughter (also in the photo). They were smiling. It’s difficult to look at the photo and not see the love and happiness in their family. I wish everyone in the country could see this photo.

A few closing thoughts (and thanks for reading this far): Is it possible that extending the marriage right to same sex couples might make the institution of marriage stronger? Could embracing these couples teach us something about love or something about our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters? Has repealing anti-miscegenation laws taught us anything about marriage or love or race? I would say yes. I think it has taught us something about all three.

Finally, what would happen if we devoted as much of our energy to expanding love as we do to expanding hate or as much time to eliminating ignorance as we do to perpetuating fear?

Post script: if anyone would like a copy of the Avedon photo described above, please e-mail me your snail mail address at and I will send it to you (yes it is a real e-mail address set up for this purpose, and yes, I'm serious).