First published January 20, 2005, in Between the Lines

Some of the nastiest mail I receive is not from right-wing homophobes, or even bitter ex-boyfriends, but from members of our own community who think I’m not progressive enough. For example, shortly after I argued in Second Thoughts on Civil Unions that we ought to fight for civil unions now and marriage later, I received an e-mail message with the following subject-line:

“Why are you such an Uncle Tom faggot?”

There was no text to the message, and no signature — just the subject-line. With some ambivalence, I wrote back:

“I received a message from you with the subject-line ‘Why are you such an Uncle Tom faggot?’ but no text. Was there supposed to be text, or did the question in the subject-line exhaust what you have to say on the issue?”

I didn’t expect a response: I just wanted to remind the writer that there was a person receiving his e-mail on the other end of cyberspace. Not that it did much good: a few weeks later I received a message with a similar subject-line and a long tirade accusing me, in the most obnoxious terms possible, of selling out our rights.

That kind of attack is unfortunate for a number of reasons, not least of which that it distracts us from the productive dialogue we should be having instead. I’m the first to admit that I could be wrong in the strategy I proposed for securing equal marriage rights. But if you’re going to attack that strategy, please try first to understand it. In brief, I argued that:

1. Properly crafted civil-unions legislation could grant all of the legal incidents of marriage (albeit under a different name). I am not talking about “watered-down” civil unions here; I’m talking about the full legal enchilada.

2. The difference between such unions and marriage, since it is not a difference in legal incidents, appears to be a difference in level of social endorsement carried by the “m-word.”

3. Our best strategy (in most states) for securing the tremendously important legal incidents is to fight for them under the name “civil unions.”

4. Our best strategy for securing the social endorsement (i.e., marriage under the name “marriage”) is first to secure the legal incidents. Then people will look at our civil unions, realize that they are virtually indistinguishable from marriages, start calling them marriages, and gradually forget why they objected to doing so before. That’s what happened in Scandinavia, and it’s happening elsewhere in Europe.

5. Attempts to force the social endorsement too quickly (by demanding the name “marriage” above and beyond the legal incidents) may backfire, resulting in state constitutional bans not only on gay marriage but also on civil unions. The upshot would be to delay both the legal incidents and the social endorsement.

Any of the above points could be debated by reasonable people, but (4) and (5), especially, merit further discussion, including careful analysis of countries where similar strategies have been attempted. But rather than providing such analysis, my critics accuse me of endorsing a “separate but equal” line akin to that espoused by racial segregationists. Why should we settle for the back of the bus?

The segregationist analogy is a poor one. First, while it is certainly objectionable that we should ride on the back of the bus, we are barely even at the bus stop yet, much less on the bus. Let us not forget that in most places in this country, our relationships have no legal recognition whatsoever.

Second, and more important, I have argued that we should fight for identical legal incidents to those of marriage. This is not the back of the bus or a different bus: it’s the same bus with a different name.

Is that name difference silly? Yes, it’s silly — maybe even insulting. But when health benefits are denied to committed same-sex couples, when a person can’t get bereavement leave upon the death of her same-sex partner; when loving couples are split apart because one partner is a foreigner and can’t get citizenship, that’s far worse than silly or insulting — it’s downright cruel. I contend that we have a fighting chance at ending such cruelty, and that once we do so we’ll have an even better chance at ending the silly name-difference (again, see Scandinavia).

I could be wrong, but calling me nasty names doesn’t show why I’m wrong. More to the point, it doesn’t get us any closer to the front of the bus.

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First published in “Between the lines” in December of 2004.

On December 17 my current state of residence (Michigan) will amend its constitution to declare that “the union of one man and one woman in marriage shall be the only agreement recognized as a marriage or similar union for any purpose.”

Same-sex marriage is already against the law in Michigan, so that prohibition is nothing new. What is new is the prohibition of any “similar union for any purpose.”

But what, exactly, does that mean? Our opponents have long argued that our unions aren’t really “similar” to heterosexual marriage at all. Frankly, I’m tempted to agree with them: ours are much better, thank you very much.

Still, when I take an unbiased view, I have to acknowledge SOME similarities.

In themselves, such similarities cannot be “unconstitutional”: the constitution shapes laws and policies, not personal behaviors. Nevertheless, in a spirit of constitutional deference, I have decided to reduce the ways in which my relationship with my partner Mark constitutes a “similar union” to marriage. One can’t be too careful these days, after all.

So Mark will no longer be getting a card on our anniversary, since anniversary cards treat our relationship as a similar union for some purpose. No more anniversary cakes, either — although those are pretty high in carbs, so we’re probably better off.

Mark and I live together. Sharing a household is similar to marriage for some purpose — indeed, for many purposes.

Mark does most of the gardening at our household. When I help him rake leaves, we look a lot like our heterosexual married neighbors (only cuter and better dressed). Similar for some purpose. (I hate raking leaves anyway, so this is probably good.)

I do most of the cooking in our relationship, and when Mark tries to help, I usually shoo him away from the kitchen. Again, similar to marriage. I’d still like him to clean the dishes, though. Maybe there’s a constitutional loophole.

Mark does most of the driving when we’re together. (Now you know why my nickname is “Miss Daisy.” It has nothing — absolutely nothing — to do with those ill-advised cutoff shorts I used to wear as a teenager.) I suppose now we’ll take separate cars. Screw the environment — we’ve got to respect the constitution!

We have health insurance through our respective employers, so that’s not an issue. If one of us were to die, bereavement leave might be a problem, but at thirtysomething I prefer not to think about such things.

But Mark is the first person I call when something bad happens, like when my grandmother died last month. Mark actually flew home to New York with me and put up with my loud Italian family for four days. By talking Mark’s ear off, feeding him constantly, and embracing him as one of their own, my family was treating our union as similar to marriage. In New York we can get away with it, but in Michigan? No more.

No more code-phrases at parties. From now on, when I say to Mark, “My, these cocktail franks are DELICIOUS,” it’s going to mean that the cocktail franks are delicious, not “These people bore me to tears; can we please leave — now!”

(Note to my friends: when we used that phrase at YOUR house, it’s because the cocktail franks were delicious. Really.)

Those cute address labels with both our names on them? Gone. “For any purpose” means for ANY purpose, postal convenience included. So too with those tacky “His & His” hand towels someone gave us for our first anniversary.

No more shared expenses, shared chores, shared party-hosting, shared party-attending. No more inviting my parents to visit us for Thanksgiving. No more sending them — or anyone — a card signed “Love, John & Mark.” I repeat: “similar union for any purpose” means what it says. I take the constitution seriously.

No more renting movies together — or for that matter, renting movies myself, since I can’t work the darn DVD player without Mark. Our “similar union” used to compensate for my technophobia, but no more.

No more blaming Mark for not being able to read my mind. “Yes, I know I didn’t SAY I wanted to stop for lunch, but you KNOW I get cranky when I get hungry.”

No more bickering, followed by the silent treatment, then an apology — then silly, delightful affection. That’s all similar to marriage. No more quiet moments when words are unnecessary because, sometimes, it really does seem like we can read each other’s minds.

No more morning breath, farting under the covers, or asking Mark to help me shave my back hair. WAY too similar to marriage.

However, I’m guessing we’re going to get to have LOTS more sex. There have got to be some perks to this amendment.

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First published November 18, 2004, in Between the Lines.

Given our losses in the last election — all eleven states with same-sex marriage bans passed them, some by a wide margin — is it time to put aside the marriage fight?

You’re probably expecting me to say, “No, of course not!” But I won’t.

Let me be clear: I believe in equal marriage rights for gays and lesbians. I believe that we will eventually achieve them in this country — maybe even in my lifetime. I also believe that we never make progress unless we’re willing to push ourselves and others outside of our “comfort zones.”

But I’m fundamentally a pragmatist, and my pragmatic side is telling me that we need to put aside equal marriage rights for now and instead focus on civil unions.

The concept of civil unions perplexes many people. It differs from “civil marriage”:

marriage performed and recognized by the state.

Civil marriage, in turn, differs from “religious marriage”:

marriage performed and recognized by some religious institution.

(Most people want both, so they get married by a clergyperson who is also licensed by the state.)

“Civil union” is a term invented by the state of Vermont in order to grant all the (statewide) incidents of civil marriage to gays without using the M-word.

Civil unions are not necessarily recognized by other states. But neither are same-sex civil marriages (such as those in Massachusetts). Thus, with respect to state-level legal protections, civil unions and civil marriages seem identical.

What, then, is the difference?

It would be wrong to answer “just the name.” Names are powerful, and the difference in names seems to indicate a difference in reality. Polls suggest that many Americans who strenuously oppose same-sex civil marriage are willing to accept same-sex civil unions.

I used to think that such Americans were simply confused. Doubtless, many are. But I think there’s more to be said.

To understand why, let’s distinguish three things: (1) relationships, (2) legal rights and responsibilities, and (3) social endorsement. (Naturally, these things are related: relationships don’t occur in a vacuum, and legal recognition is often tied to social recognition.)

Now compare Adam and Eve, who have a heterosexual civil marriage, and Adam and Steve, who have a civil union. What’s the fundamental difference between them?

Despite what our opponents may claim, it’s not a difference in their relationships. Adam and Steve may be just as committed to each other as Adam and Eve. Adam and Eve can be married even if they can’t have children or don’t intend to, so it’s not that either. (And don’t even get me started about the “complementarity of the sexes,” as if the only or most important way in which partners complement each other were through gender.)

Nor is there a difference in legal rights and responsibilities-¬at least not at the state level. True, Adam and Steve lack important federal legal benefits-¬but that problem could be fixed with a federal civil union bill.
So we’re left with door number (3): social endorsement. It turns out that the M-word carries a blessing that most Americans are not yet prepared to grant to Adam and Steve.

Now here’s the kicker: you can’t force social endorsement. You can argue for it, fight for it, plead for it — but you can’t force it. Indeed, attempts to do so often backfire (as they arguably have in the last year, as over a dozen states created constitutional bans that they previously lacked).

If I’m correct, then there’s a sense in which marriage is not a fundamental civil right. For there is no civil right to social approval. The government can make and enforce laws: it cannot control minds and hearts.

To say this is not to deny that we have a moral right to such approval. Nor is it to deny that we have a civil right to the legal incidents of marriage — and thus to civil unions. These should be our focus now.

Many of us have long viewed civil unions as a compromise: fight for marriage, settle for civil unions. But the fight for marriage may have made civil unions less likely in some states. In my home state of Michigan, the constitution will now prohibit not only same-sex marriage but also “similar union[s] for any purpose.” And that’s unfortunate, since many people who voted for the amendment reportedly have no objection to civil unions.

So I suggest a different strategy: fight for civil unions now — with all the legal incidents of heterosexual marriage — and let marriage come as it will. We have a decent chance of securing legal protections for our relationships. In the long run, focusing on those protections may be our best strategy for securing the genuine equality that we want and deserve.

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First published September 9, 2004, in Between the Lines.

Gay-rights opponents are fond of noting that the majority of Americans are against same-sex marriage.

This is a reasonable claim for them to make. For one thing, it’s true (although by increasingly narrow margins). Furthermore, it’s rhetorically effective. America is, in spirit if not always in practice, a staunchly democratic society.

So what’s the problem? The problem is that, when it comes to minority rights, the majority has historically been an unreliable moral guide.

Forget the debate about whether gays and lesbians are a “minority” in the same sense that ethnic minorities are. The point is that we’re a relatively small segment of the population (indeed, exceedingly small, if you believe our opponents’ numbers). Small, often invisible, and largely misunderstood.

And so it should come as little surprise that the straight majority often doesn’t “get it.” That’s changing as more of us come out of the closet — hence the improving statistics on gay-marriage support. But we’ve still got a ways to go.

Return, then, to the claim that the majority of Americans oppose gay marriage. President Bush often sounds this theme, complaining about “activist judges” subverting “the will of the American people.” (Notice that the will of the American people appears irrelevant when it comes to abortion, stem cell research, and other issues on which the American majority is more progressive than the president. He doesn’t govern by consulting polls, you know.)

The president’s inconsistencies aside, the fact that the majority of Americans oppose gay marriage isn’t an argument against gay marriage. It’s backdrop.

After all, no one on either side denies that most Americans currently oppose gay marriage. The question is not whether they do, but whether they should. Pointing to the “will of the people” doesn’t answer that question, it begs it.

But doesn’t majority support for an idea lend credence to the idea? Sure it does. As the old saying goes, 50 million Frenchmen can’t be wrong.

Except that the French are a lot more relaxed in their attitudes toward homosexuality than Americans. Bad example.

See the point? Suppose we’re debating whether to adopt X or Y, and we both agree that most people favor X. In arguing whether to adopt Y, it does no good to repeat that most people favor X (or for that matter, that most people somewhere else favor Y). One must put forth reasons for favoring X or Y.

So our opponents should stop grumbling about gay-rights activists “foisting” their “agenda” on an unsuspecting public, and start explaining why people should prefer their moral vision to ours. (Apropos, why is it that when they voice their values, it’s a “moral vision,” whereas when we do it, it’s an “agenda”? Funny, that.)

This November many states will offer ballot initiatives to prohibit recognition of same-sex marriages. In Michigan, for example, voters will be able to decide whether to add the following amendment to the state constitution:

“To secure and preserve the benefits of marriage for our society and for future generations of children, the union of one man and one woman in marriage shall be the only agreement recognized as a marriage or similar union for any purpose.”

Ballot initiatives seem very democratic and fair — until you remember what history teaches us about the majority’s handling of minority rights.

The Michigan amendment is especially worrisome. It precludes not only gay marriage but also “similar union[s] for any purpose.” It would thus strike down existing domestic-partnership benefits.

In talking about the amendment, we should emphasize the latter point. We shouldn’t call it “the amendment to ban gay marriage.” We should call it “the amendment to roll back domestic-partner benefits” — for that will be its primary practical effect. Gay marriage is already illegal in Michigan.

Such subterfuge is part of our opponents’ strategy. They lead with a call to “secure and preserve the benefits of marriage” — and who can argue with that? It isn’t until the end of the amendment that they slip in language that quietly rolls back existing benefits.

Imagine an amendment that banned the use of marijuana — already illegal in Michigan — and then slipped in ambiguous language that also outlawed tobacco without ever mentioning the word. Sneaky, huh? Well, that’s what we’re up against.

Now, fair or not, we’ve got to make our case to the majority. And just as we’d have a better chance at garnering majority opposition the “anti-tobacco amendment” than to the “anti- marijuana amendment,” so too we have a better chance of garnering majority opposition to the “anti-domestic-partner- benefits amendment” than to the “anti-gay-marriage amendment.” (Note to the Coalition for a Fair Michigan: remember this when deciding on slogans for lawn signs.)

The only way to stop the tyranny of the majority is for the minority to make its voice loudly heard.

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First published October 1, 2003, in Between the Lines

In a recent Advocate interview Massachusetts Senator and Democratic presidential hopeful John Kerry told reporter Chris Bull that, despite his otherwise strong support for gay rights, he could not bring himself to support gay marriage.

In a previous Washington Post interview Kerry had stated, “Marriage is an institution between men and women for the purpose of having children and procreating.”

Whoops — wrong answer. If marriage is for procreating, what’s the story with Kerry’s current marriage (his second), which is childless?

Having been confronted on this point, Kerry backtracks in the Advocate interview: “I don’t make a procreation argument. I was explaining the historical background. Someone was asking me where my opposition came from, and I said it’s basically from an old religious belief of what defined marriage. Procreation has nothing to do with my argument.”

Whoops again. Religious belief? While Kerry might be right about why most people oppose gay marriage, the reporter was asking for Kerry’s reason, not most people’s. More precisely, the reporter wanted to know Kerry’s political position on the issue. And as Kerry himself recognizes, religion and politics don’t mix well. In the same Advocate interview he states, “In 1960, President Kennedy [another Roman Catholic] distinguished between those things secular and those things religious. He drew the line between his church and his state. It is a bright line, and I do not take my articles of faith and seek to legislate them against people who don’t share them. The establishment clause regarding religion is clear… ”

Confused yet? So was the reporter, who asked, “Doesn’t church-state separation apply to marriage?” Kerry’s response is a textbook example of arguing in a circle:

“So many people in the country view it as the cultural component of it, the religious component of it. That’s how people view it with the religious component of it.”

So, just to make sure I’m clear on his point: We ought not to legislate people’s religious beliefs except in the case of their religious beliefs.
Got it.

I don’t mean to pick on Kerry here. He’s been a solid supporter of gay rights, even voting against the anti-gay Defense of Marriage Act in an election year. (It passed anyway, and President Clinton signed it into law.)

Moreover, every other Democratic presidential hopeful goes through the same verbal contortions when pressed on the issue of gay marriage. Even Howard Dean, who went to bat for us on civil unions in Vermont, is officially opposed to “gay marriage.”

It’s an issue they’d all much prefer to avoid. They want to support gays, but they also want to win the election. And thus they must face one of the great paradoxes about American life: We are simultaneously one of the most secular and most religious societies in the world.

Do we support freedom of religion? Oh yes, absolutely. Except when it gets weird. Like that Mormon polygamy thing. And gay marriage — ick.

Marriage and religion are intimately tied in most Americans’ minds. Most marriages in this country are performed by clergy — to whom the state gives the power to perform not merely religious but also civil marriage.

Politicians know this. And they have a hard time talking about civil marriage without talking about religion, for two reasons: (1) they want to appeal to a largely religious electorate, and (2) they are themselves largely religious.

And so Kerry, in the same interview, talks about both his religious view of civil marriage and the separation of church and state, without noticing the contradiction.

Similarly, when discussing the (anti-gay) Federal Marriage Amendment, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist calls marriage a “sacrament” and President Bush mentions “sinners.” Meanwhile, here in Michigan, Jackson County has passed a resolution against same-sex marriage in order to protect the “sanctity”of traditional marriage, and Lapeer County has passed a similar resolution citing “God’s intentions for mankind” and “faith in God through Holy Scriptures.”

Kerry had it right when he said that articles of faith ought not to be legislated. By definition, articles of faith go beyond rational evidence (hence “faith”); they are learned through revelation. Law, by contrast, is supposed to be based on reasoned argument.

The problem is that the secular arguments against gay marriage just aren’t very good. And so opponents of gay marriage — including politicians — resort to the one area where they may respectably abandon reasoned argument: religious faith. You can’t really argue with “God says so.”

Writer Michael Woodson asks,

“Suppose the government declared a particular mode of communion, baptism or circumcision to be valid, and required all valid communion, baptism and circumcision to be licensed by the state. Certainly, there would be an uproar — and should be a rebellion. Why is marriage different?”

Damn good question. Don’t hold your breath for an answer.

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First published August 19, 2003, in Between the Lines.

It was the sort of headline that’s become common these days: “When gays advance, America squirms.”

I should be used to such headlines by now. When the U.S. Supreme Court struck down sodomy laws in June, we all knew there would be backlash. But I still find it rather unsettling, and this particular headline triggered my malaise full force. “When gays advance, America squirms.”

Not “their opponents squirm.” Not “some Americans squirm.” AMERICA squirms. Suppressed premise: Gays are not real Americans.

Okay, so headlines need to be pithy. Unfortunately, the ensuing news feature on gay marriage underscored the message: gays are outsiders trying to move in. “Us” against “them.”

But why? Giving marriage to gays doesn’t mean taking it away from straights, any more than giving the vote to women meant taking it away from men, or letting blacks at the front of the bus meant that whites could no longer ride there.

Yet the latter analogy is instructive: when blacks moved to the front of the bus, many whites felt a visceral negative reaction, what some refer to as “the ick factor.” Now gays are triggering the ick factor in their fight for marriage, and the results aren’t pretty.

Some object to the comparison between the “behavioral” characteristic of sexual orientation and the “non-behavioral” characteristic of race.

But this objection misses the point. In both cases, there’s a group whose behavior (moving to the front of the bus in the one case, pushing for marriage rights in the other) prompts hostility. In both cases, the hostility is largely visceral and inarticulate: “I can’t explain it, it just FEELS wrong.” And in both cases, the hostility results from, and contributes to, false beliefs about the group in question: “They’re going to ruin everything for the rest of us!”

But how are gays going to “ruin” marriage? There are several possible interpretations of this charge:

1) “If gay marriage is permitted, people will choose it over heterosexual marriage.”

This claim is, of course, ludicrous. After all, the usual response to a gay person is not, “No fair! How come he gets to be gay and I don’t?!”

2) “Permitting gay marriage will cheapen heterosexual marriage by turning it into ‘just another lifestyle choice.”

Well, yes and no. Yes, it means that gay marriage will take its place alongside heterosexual marriage as an option to which persons might aspire. But again, these are GAY persons. It is not as if they would have, or should have, chosen heterosexual marriage otherwise. Let’s face it: pressuring gays into heterosexual marriage is a bad idea for everyone involved.

Moreover, the fact that gays are fighting so hard for marriage rights should make it abundantly clear that they don’t think of marriage as “just another lifestyle choice.” Choosing to live in a high-rise instead of a ranch house is a “lifestyle choice.” Choosing marriage is a major personal and social commitment. If gays didn’t realize that, they wouldn’t be fighting so hard for legal marriage rights.

3) “Gay marriages will be weak, setting a bad example for everyone else.”

The idea here is that gay marriages will be less stable/monogamous/successful than their non-gay counterparts. Of course, it is difficult to substantiate this claim, since we do not know how gay relationships would fare given the same support that heterosexual marriage currently enjoys. But the more striking point is that on this logic, Hollywood actors ought not to be permitted to marry either.

4) “’Gay marriage’ is an oxymoron.”

The main argument against gay marriage seems to be definitional: the very meaning of marriage requires a man and a woman; thus gay marriage is a contradiction in terms. Gays who want to be called “married” are like steak-eaters who want to be called “vegetarians.”

Thus understood, the argument betrays a fundamental confusion. The main issue is not whether gays should be “called” married. This is not to deny that words are important: they are. But the fight for marriage rights is not primarily about words. It is about legal protection for our relationships. It is about guaranteeing hospital visitation rights when a partner is sick, immigration rights when a partner is foreign, inheritance rights when a partner dies — and a host of other safeguards that married heterosexuals currently take for granted.

Steak-eaters are not vegetarians. But if steak-eaters were denied various legal protections that vegetarians routinely enjoyed, we could not justify such discrimination on the grounds that most vegetarians find steak-eating “icky.” Absent better reasons, we would need to confront the ick-factor and work to make things right.

If the gay-marriage issue makes some Americans squirm, perhaps it’s a sign of growing pains.

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First Published at Between the Lines on May 1, 2003

By now you’ve no doubt heard the flap about Senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, who, in response to a question about whether homosexual persons should remain celibate, stated that “if the Supreme Court says that you have the right to consensual sex within your home, then you have the right to bigamy, you have the right to polygamy, you have the right to incest, you have the right to adultery. You have the right to anything.”

The slippery-slope argument linking homosexuality with polygamy has become a familiar rhetorical move in antigay rhetoric. Unfortunately, its use is not limited to those (like Santorum) whose mouths clearly move faster than their minds: there are a number of smart, thoughtful people who believe that the case for one lends support to the case for the other, and not all of these people are anti-gay.

But Santorum’s version seems to go further than most. And it’s not just because he extends the list from polygamy to incest, adultery, indeed, to “anything.” It’s because the thing that initiates Santorum’s parade of horribles is not “homosexual sex” but simply “consensual sex.” According to Santorum, if the Supreme Court says you have “the right to consensual sex within your home … you have the right to anything.”

Okay, so not everyone speaks in final draft. Maybe the “you” here refers to “you homosexuals.” Or maybe Santorum thinks no one has a Constitutional right to consensual sex, and thus that laws limiting such activity are all Constitutional (which is not the same as saying that they’re wise or justified).

Attention to the full text of the interview, as well as to follow-up interviews, suggests that Santorum didn’t really know quite what he was saying, jumbling together some defensible constitutional concerns with radical views on privacy rights and a clear antipathy toward all things gay.

Santorum went on to argue that polygamy, adultery, sodomy, “all of those things, are antithetical to a healthy, stable, traditional family.” In his view, the state’s failure to regulate people’s sex lives — even when they are consensual and private — “destroys the basic unit of our society.”

Santorum is the third-ranking Republican in the Senate, so you might think the president would be a bit concerned about the image he’s creating for the party. And Bush, finally, has weighed in. The “compassionate conservative,” the man who so ardently defends freedom from oppressive religious regimes (but only where oil is involved), has come out in support of Santorum, calling him “an inclusive man.”

Excuse me?

And then I thought about it for a while, and realized that the president is right.

Recall that Santorum claims that right to consensual sodomy entails not just the right to polygamy but indeed, to anything. Anything. Rape. Tax fraud. Mass murder. You name it. That’s pretty damn inclusive.

Or consider Santorum’s position on gay marriage: “In every society, the definition of marriage has not ever to my knowledge included homosexuality. That’s not to pick on homosexuality. It’s not, you know, man on child, man on dog, or whatever the case may be.”

So, according to Santorum, gays’ interest in securing marriage rights for their consensual adult relationships is not merely akin to polygamists’ doing the same. It’s also akin to “man on child” or “man on dog.” That’s pretty damn inclusive too.

(Although if he were really inclusive, he would have included “dog on man” as well. Why should the man always get to be on top?)

Santorum’s “man on dog” comment was so surprising, it prompted the reporter to interrupt, “I’m sorry, I didn’t think I was going to talk about ‘man on dog’ with a United States senator; it’s sort of freaking me out.” Santorum’s reply scaled new heights of inclusiveness: “And that’s sort of where we are in today’s world, unfortunately. The idea is that the state doesn’t have rights to limit individuals’ wants and passions. I disagree with that. I think we absolutely have rights because there are consequences to letting people live out whatever wants or passions they desire.”

So Santorum thinks that the state needs to limit not just harmful behaviors, but “individuals’ wants and passions.” Lest you think this was a verbal slip, he repeated it again in response to the next question: “I’ve been very clear about that. The right to privacy is a right that was created in a law that set forth a (ban on) rights to limit individual passions. And I don’t agree with that.”

(If this is being clear, I’d hate to see what he’s like when he’s being muddled.) What is clear is that Santorum thinks that your bedroom should be included among the places the state belongs.

If this is inclusiveness, count me out.

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First published at Between the Lines on December 19, 2002

The ancient Roman Emperor Justinian believed that homosexuality was the cause of earthquakes, plagues, famine, and various other maladies. Modern-day critics have been only slightly less creative in their allegations. Homosexuality has been blamed for the breakdown of the family, the AIDS crisis, sexual abuse in the priesthood — even the September 11th attacks. It sometimes seems as if the entire nation’s infrastructure hinges on my sex life. (Well, not just mine, but I’m willing to do my part.)

Let us put aside the ridiculous allegations and focus on the more plausible ones. If homosexuality were indeed harmful to individuals or society, that would seem to provide a significant moral strike against it. But is it really harmful? And do the allegations prove what the critics claim — namely, that homosexuality is morally wrong?

Consider one of the more common charges: that homosexuality causes AIDS. On a straightforward reading, this claim is simply false. The HIV virus causes AIDS, and without the virus present homosexual people can have as much sex as they like without worrying about AIDS. (Fatigue, yes; AIDS, no.)

But the critics doubtless mean something a bit more sophisticated: namely, that (for men) homosexual sex is statistically more likely to transmit the HIV virus than heterosexual sex. This claim is true (given various significant qualifications), but it is unclear what follows. For consider the fact that, for women, heterosexual sex is statistically more likely to transmit the HIV virus than homosexual sex. Yet no one concludes from this that the Surgeon General ought to recommend lesbianism, or that lesbianism is morally superior to female heterosexuality. There are simply too many steps missing in the argument.

The general form of the harm argument seems to be the following:

Premise (1) Homosexual sex is risky.
Premise (2) Risky behavior is immoral.
Conclusion: Therefore, homosexual sex is immoral.

Both premises are false as written. Some homosexual sex is risky, as is some heterosexual sex, not to mention many activities that are not sexual at all. Some risky behavior is immoral, but much is not. To take just one example: people who live in two-story houses are at a demonstrably higher risk for serious accidents than those who live in one-story houses, and yet (thankfully) no one believes that ranch houses are morally mandatory.

But what about risks to non-consenting parties? If I choose to reside in a two-story house, thereby increasing my risk of accidents (especially while donning my Norma Desmond costume and dramatically prancing up and down the staircase), most people would consider that “my business.” But if I willfully impose risks on unsuspecting others, I can rightfully be blamed. Does homosexuality involve such “public” risks?

Here’s where the arguments begin to get creative. My favorite was offered by a priest who was offended by a lecture I gave ten years ago at a Catholic university. “Of course homosexuality is bad for society,” he wrote in an angry letter to the school paper. “If everyone were homosexual, there would be no society.”

Perhaps. But if everyone were a Catholic priest, there would be no society either. As the philosopher Jeremy Bentham quipped over 200 years ago, if homosexuals should be burnt at the stake for the failure to procreate, “monks ought to be roasted alive by a slow fire.” Besides, even if there were an absolute moral obligation to procreate (which there is not), it would not preclude homosexual sex for those who had children through other means. Sorry, Father.

More recently, critics have been fond of blaming homosexuals for their “threat to the family.” This too is perplexing. Homosexual people come from families (contrary to rumor, we are not hatched full grown in a factory in West Hollywood). Many of us are quite devoted to our families, and an increasing number are forming families of our own. Provided that these families embody love, generosity, commitment — in short, family values — where’s the problem?

It is not as if the increased visibility of homosexuality will lead people to flee from heterosexual marriage in droves. After all, the usual response to a gay person is not, “No fair! How come he gets to be gay and I don’t?” Which raises a crucial point: heterosexual marriage is right for some but not for everyone. To pressure homosexual people into such marriages (through so-called “reparative therapy,” for example) is generally bad for them, bad for their spouses, and bad for their children.

If we’re really concerned with preventing harm, we ought to begin by acknowledging this fact. Some people are happier in heterosexual relationships; some are happier in homosexual relationships; some are happier alone. When our fellow human beings are happy, that’s good for them and it’s good for us. Any “morality” that fails to recognize this doesn’t deserve the name.

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First published in “The Harvard Gay and Lesbian Review” on November 30,1999

AN INCREASINGLY COMMON objection to same-sex marriage takes the form of a slippery-slope argument: “If we allow gay marriage, why not polygamy? Or incest? Or bestiality?” This argument is nothing new, having been used against interracial marriage in the 1960’s. But what it lacks in originality it more than makes up for in rhetorical force: given the choice between rejecting homosexuality or accepting a sexual free-for-all, mainstream Americans tend to opt for the former

Unfortunately, sound-bite arguments don’t always lend themselves to sound-bite refutations. Part of the problem is that the polygamy/incest/bestiality argument (PIB argument for short) is not really an argument at all. Instead, it’s a challenge: “Okay, Mr. Sexual Liberal: explain to me why polygamy, incest, and bestiality are wrong.” Most people are not prepared to do that — certainly not in twenty words or less. And many answers that leap to mind (for example, that PIB relationships violate well-established social norms) won’t work for the defender of same-sex relationships (since same-sex relationships, too, violate well-established social norms).

In what follows I respond to the PIB challenge. But first, I wish to set aside two popular responses that I think are inadequate. Call the first the “We really exist” argument. According to this argument, homosexuality is different from polygamy, incest, and bestiality because there are “constitutional” homosexuals, but not constitutional polygamists, incestualists, or bestialists. As Andrew Sullivan writes,

Almost everyone seems to accept, even if they find homosexuality morally troublesome, that it occupies a deeper level of human consciousness than a polygamous impulse. Even the Catholic Church, which believes that homosexuality is an “objective disorder,” concedes that it is a profound element of human identity….[P]olygamy is an activity, whereas both homosexuality and heterosexuality are states.”
Sullivan is probably right in his description of popular consciousness about homosexuality. Yet traditionalists may reject the idea that homosexuality is an immutable given. At a June 1997 conference at Georgetown University, “Homosexuality and American Public Life,” conservative columnist Maggie Gallagher urged her audience to stop thinking of homosexuality as an inevitable, key feature of an individual’s personality. Drawing, ironically, on the work of queer theorists, Gallagher proposed instead that homosexuality is a cultural convention — one that ought to be challenged.

If Gallagher and her social constructionist sources are right, the “We really exist” argument must be abandoned. But whether they’re right or not, there are good pragmatic reasons for abandoning this argument. “We really exist” sounds dangerously like “We just can’t help it.” And to this claim there is an obvious response: “Well, alcoholics really exist, too. They can’t help their impulses. But we don’t encourage them.” Though the alcoholism analogy is generally a bad one, it underscores the rhetorical weakness of claiming “We really exist” in response to the (rhetorically strong) PIB challenge.

A second response to the PIB challenge is to argue that as long as PIB relationships are forbidden for heterosexuals, they should be forbidden for homosexuals as well. Call this the “equal options” argument. To put the argument more positively: we homosexuals are not asking to engage in polygamy, incest, or bestiality. We are simply asking to engage in monogamous, non-incestuous relationships with people we love — just like heterosexuals do. As Jonathan Rauch writes,

The hidden assumption of the argument which brackets gay marriage with polygamous or incestuous marriage is that homosexuals want the right to marry anyone they fall for. But, of course, heterosexuals are currently denied that right. They cannot marry their immediate family or all their sex partners. What homosexuals are asking for is the right to marry, not anybody they love, but somebody they love, which is not at all the same thing.

Once again, this argument is correct as far as it goes, but it doesn’t go far enough — at least not far enough to satisfy proponents of the PIB argument. As they see it, permitting homosexuality — even monogamous, non-incestuous, person-to-person homosexuality — involves relaxing traditional sexual mores. The fact that these mores prohibit constitutional homosexuals from marrying somebody they love is no more troubling to traditionalists than the fact that these mores prohibit constitutional pedophiles from marrying somebody they love, since traditionalists believe that there are good reasons for both prohibitions.

In short, both the “we exist” argument and the “equal options” argument are vulnerable to counterexamples: alcoholics really exist, and pedophiles are denied equal marital options. (Indeed, traditionalists are fond of pointing out that, strictly speaking, homosexuals do have “equal” options: they have the option of marrying persons of the oppostite sex. Such traditionalists usually remain silent on whether this option is a good idea for anyone involved, but so it goes.)

There is, I think, a better response to the PIB argument, one that has been suggested by both Sullivan and Rauch (whose contributions to this debate I gratefully acknowledge). It is to deny that arguments for homosexual relationships offer any real support for PIB relationships. Why would proponents of the PIB argument think otherwise? Perhaps they assume that our main argument for homosexual relationships is that they feel good and we want them. If that were our argument, it would indeed offer support for PIB relationships. But that is not our argument: it is a straw man.

A much better argument for homosexual relationships begins with an analogy: homosexual relationships offer virtually all of the benefits of sterile heterosexual relationships; thus, if we approve of the latter, we should approve of the former as well. For example, both heterosexual relationships and homosexual relationships can unite people in a way that ordinary friendship simply cannot. Both can have substantial practical benefits in terms of the health, economic security, and social productivity of the partners. Both can be important constituents of a flourishing life. Yes, they feel good and we want them, but there’s a lot more to it than that. These similarities create a strong prima facie case for treating homosexual and heterosexual relationships the same — morally, socially, and politically.

“But wait,” say the opponents. “Can’t you make the same argument for PIB relationships?” Not quite. It is true that you can use the same form of argument for PIB relationships: PIB relationships have benefits X, Y, and Z and no relevant drawbacks. But whether PIB relationships do in fact have such benefits and lack such drawbacks is an empirical matter, one that will not be settled by looking to homosexual relationships.

To put my point more concretely: to observe that Tom and Dick (and many others like them) flourish in homosexual relationships is not to prove that Greg and Marcia would flourish in an incestuous relationship, or that Mike, Carol, and Alice would flourish in a polygamous relationship, or that Bobby and Tiger would flourish in a bestial relationship. Whether they would or not is a separate question — one that requires a whole new set of data.

Another way to indicate the logical distance between homosexual relationships and PIB relationships is to point out that PIB relationships can be either homosexual or heterosexual. Proponents of the PIB challenge must therefore explain why they group PIB relationships with homosexual relationships rather than heterosexual ones. There’s only one plausible reason: PIB and homosexuality have traditionally been condemned. But (whoops!) that’s also true of interracial relationships, which traditionalists (typically) no longer condemn. And (whoops again!) they’ve just argued in a circle: the question at hand is why we should group PIB relationships with homosexual relationships rather than heterosexual ones. Saying that “we’ve always grouped them together” doesn’t answer the question, it begs it.

The question remains, of course, whether PIB relationships do, on balance, have benefits sufficient to warrant their approval. Answering that question requires far more data than I can marshal here. It also requires careful attention to various distinctions: distinctions between morality and public policy, distinctions between the morally permissible and the morally ideal, and — perhaps most important — distinctions between polygamy, incest, and bestiality, which are as different from each other as they each are from homosexuality. In what remains I offer some brief (and admittedly inconclusive) observations about each of these phenomena.

Polygamy provides perhaps the best opportunity among the three for obtaining the requisite data: there have been and continue to be polygamous societies. Most of these are in fact polygynous (multiple-wife) societies, and most of them are sexist. Whether egalitarian polygamous societies are possible is an open question. Whether egalitarian polygamous relationships are possible (as opposed to entire societies) is an easier question. Though I find it difficult to imagine maintaining a relationship with several spouses — having had enough trouble maintaining a relationship with one — I have no doubt that at least some people flourish in them.

This conclusion leaves open the question of whether such relationships should be state-supported. As my acquaintance Josh Goldfoot put it, “Marry your toaster if you like, but please don’t try to file a joint tax return with it.” Whatever reasons the state has for being in the marriage business (and this point is a matter of considerable debate), these may or may not be good reasons for the state to recognize multiple spouses.
Polygamy also provides the most troublesome case for the traditionalists, since polygamy has Biblical support. True, the Bible reports troublesome jealousies among the sons of various wives, which perhaps should be taken as a lesson. But polygamy is clearly a case where the religious right can’t point to “God’s eternal law.”

Incest, too, is common and expected in some societies — typically in the form of rites of initiation. In our own society incest typically results in various psychological difficulties, difficulties that should at least give pause to the supporter of incest. But one can easily construct a case that circumvents most (if not all) of these difficulties: imagine two adult lesbian sisters who privately engage in what they report to be a fulfilling sexual relationship. Can I prove that such activity is wrong? No — at least not off the top of my head. On the other hand, I don’t think it’s incumbent upon me to do so. If there are good arguments against such a relationship, they will remain unaffected by the argument in favor of homosexuality. And if the only argument traditionalists can offer against such a relationship is that longstanding tradition prohibits it, so much the worse for traditionalists. Again, that same argument is applicable to interracial relationships, and history has revealed its bankruptcy.

The bestiality analogy is the most irksome of the three, since it reveals that the traditionalists are either woefully dishonest or woefully dense. To compare a homosexual encounter — even a so-called “casual” one — with humping a sheep is to ignore the distinctively human capacities that sexual relationships can (and usually do) engage. As such, it is to reduce sex to its purely physical components — precisely the reduction that traditionalists are fond of accusing us of. That noted, claiming that bestial relationships are qualitatively different from human homosexual relationships does not prove that bestial relationships are immoral. Nor does the lack of mutual consent, since we generally don’t seek consent in our dealings with animals. No cow consented to become my shoes, for example.

To be honest, I feel about bestiality much as I feel about sex with inflatable dolls: I don’t recommend making a habit out of it, and it’s not something I’d care to do myself, but it’s hardly worthy of serious moral attention. I feel much the same way about watching infomercials: there are better ways to spend one’s time, to be sure, but there are also better things for concerned citizens to worry about.

Why, then, are we even discussing bestiality? Perhaps it’s because traditionalists have run out of plausible-sounding arguments against homosexuality, and so now they’re grasping at straws. And then there’s the emotional factor: mentioning homosexuality won’t make people squeamish the way it once did, but mentioning bestiality and incest will at least raise some eyebrows, if not turn some stomachs. In short, the right wing knows that it’s losing its cultural war against homosexuality, and it’s trying to change the subject. We should steadfastly refuse to join them.

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