First published at 365gay.com on October 24, 2008
I’ve been doing a lot of same-sex marriage debates lately, and thus interacting with opponents—not just my debate partner, but also audience members, some of whom will soon be voting on marriage amendments.
Recently one of them asked, “Where does your standard of marriage come from?”
From her tone, I could tell she meant it more as a challenge—a purely rhetorical question—than as a genuine query. Still, I wanted to give her a good answer.
But what is the answer? My own “standard” of marriage, if you can call it that, comes from my parents and grandparents, whose loving, lifelong commitments I strive to emulate. That doesn’t mean mine would resemble theirs in every detail—certainly not the male/female part—but I can’t help but learn from their example.
That wasn’t the answer she was looking for, so she asked again. This time I tried challenging the question: talking about “THE” standard of marriage suggests that marriage is a static entity, rather than an institution that has evolved over time. Historically, marriage has been more commonly polygamous than monogamous; more commonly hierarchical than egalitarian. It changes.
I pointed these facts out, adding that our standard for marriage—or any other social institution—ought to be human well-being. Since same-sex marriage promotes security for gay and lesbian persons and, consequently, social stability, it meets that standard.
She wasn’t satisfied. “But if we don’t have a single fixed standard,” she continued, “then anything goes.”
There’s something rhetorically satisfying when an opponent’s fallacies can be identified with neat names: in this case, “false dilemma.” Either marriage remains solely heterosexual, she was saying, or else society embraces a sexual free-for-all—as former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum put it, “man on man, man on dog, or whatever the case may be.”
No, no, no. The fact that boundaries change and evolve does not entail that we should have no boundaries at all, or that where they’re drawn is entirely arbitrary. Again, the standard is societal well-being, and everyone agrees that “man on dog” marriage fails to meet that standard. Let’s not change the subject.
Her challenge reminded me of those who cite the dictionary and then object that same-sex marriage is “impossible by definition,” since marriage by definition requires a husband and wife. Dictionaries reflect usage, and as usage evolves, so do dictionaries. (Ever try to read Beowulf in the original Old English?)
More important, the dictionary objection founders on the simple fact that if something were truly “impossible by definition,” there would be no reason to worry about it, since it can’t ever happen. No one bothers amending constitutions to prohibit square circles or married bachelors.
But my rhetorical satisfaction in explaining “false dilemma” and the evolution of language was tempered by the reality I was confronting. My questioner wasn’t simply grandstanding. She was expressing a genuine—and widely shared—fear: if we embrace same-sex marriage, than life as we know it will change dramatically for the worse. Standards will deteriorate. Our children will inherit a confused and morally impoverished world.
Such fear is what’s driving many of the voters who support amendments in California, Florida, and Arizona to prohibit same-sex marriage, and we ignore or belittle it at our peril.
And so I explained again—gently but firmly—how same-sex marriage is good for gay people and good for society. When there’s someone whose job it is to take care of you a vice-versa, everyone benefits—not just you, but those around you as well. That’s true whether you’re gay or straight.
I also explained how giving marriage to gay people doesn’t mean taking it away from straight people, any more than giving the vote to women meant taking it away from men. No one is suggesting that we make same-sex marriage mandatory. Our opponents’ talk of “redefining” marriage—rather than, say, “expanding” it—tends to obscure this fact.
Not all fears bend to rational persuasion, but some do. In any case, I don’t generally answer questions in these forums for the sole benefit of the questioner. Typically, I answer them for benefit of everyone in the room, including the genuine fence-sitters who are unsure about what position to take on marriage equality for gays and lesbians.
To them, we need to make the case that same-sex marriage won’t cause the sky to fall.