[Cross-posted to In Medias Res]
The only time I have had the opportunity to actually vote on–as opposed to pontificate about–same-sex marriage was in 2004 when I lived in Arkansas, when an amendment to the state constitution forbidding the legal recognition of anything besides a union of one man and one woman as a marriage was on the ballot. I voted in favor of it. In 2008, though I wasn’t living in California, Proposition 8–the ballot initiative to re-establish what was, at the time, the exclusively heterosexual definition of marriage in that state–was obviously something just about every informed American Mormon, due to our church’s heavy involvement in its passage, had an opinion on. My opinion, which was published as part of a roundtable in Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, was that I would have, if I’d lived in California, reluctantly voted in support of the referendum. I now think both my vote on same-sex marriage in Arkansas, and the arguments I laid out regarding Proposition 8, were wrong.
Big deal is the correct reaction, I suppose. Hasn’t everyone changed their mind about same-sex marriage by now? President Obama has evolved (said yes, then no, then yes, to be specific). David Blankenhorn, one of the most articulate defenders of traditional marriage, has given up the fight. Noah Millman, the blogger whose arguments against same-sex marriage influenced my thinking nearly a decade ago more than any others, has long since changed his mind. When even Wendell Berry, one of the most revered defenders of localism and traditionalism in America today, says he has no real problem with gay marriage, who am I to be a holdout? (Oh, and by the way, to all those conservatives who are perplexed by Berry’s opinion on the matter–hasn’t it always been obvious that Berry embraces tradition and rejects technological progress not because of some affection for the “natural order” of things, but because doing so–and using populist government programs as appropriate to accomplish such–conserves the power of people to build local communities which are healthy and decent…kind of in the way the right sort of marriage can?) But since I’m actually on record about some of this stuff, I figured I needed to say something publicly about my own evolution.
There are many causes for changing my mind, some of which are included in much of the thinking included in the arguments and statements I’ve linked to above. But the bottom-line reason for my change is really a consequence of how I formulated my argument against same-sex marriage in the first place. I’ve never been a crusader on the topic; it was, rather, as I wrote before, something I simply “nodded my head in regards to.” It made sense to me to defend traditional marriage, because it made sense to see the state as an important player in maintaining certain lines in the sand regarding how men and women went about their community-building, sexual-identity-expressing, procreative work. It made sense to me to argue that civilization–our specific moment in the history of Western civilization, if you want to get particular–depends at least in part on certain norms, and the stronger of those norms, however much of a historical or socio-economic construct they may be, draw upon and thus themselves contribute to the preservation of certain naturally grounded tendencies, tendencies which harness potentially harmful and exploitive aspects of human socializing (undisciplined and irresponsible sexuality being one such) and turn them into productive, virtuous contributions (though intact families rearing children, the close civil relationship between religious belief and local lifestyles, and more). Marriage in this tradition-strengthened, locality-building, civil-religion-endorsing, socially productive sense had clearly already been dealt a near-unrecoverable blow in America by the advent of no-fault divorce and the sexual revolution, but that was no reason not to continue to fight to prevent its continued degeneration. And so, the fight in favor against same-sex marriage–same-sex relations being non-procreative, non-religiously-endorsed, non-traditional, and perhaps even arguably non-natural ones–is a fight worth supporting, with my vote.
That’s what I thought then; it’s not what I think now. Now, I think the above reasoning falls apart at a few key points: at the point where homosexual relations were assumed to be non-compatible with building enduring communities, the point where I stipulated the need for America’s civil religion to be able to contribute to said communities through religious ordinances like marriage, etc. But that’s not the real reason for changing my mind. The real reason is that the above abstract, head-nodding, I-have-no-personal-stake-in-this-so-it-remains-just-intellectual-bit-of-communitarian-cultural-theorizing-to-me arguments ran into reality. One of those realities was the It Gets Better campaign (which even made it to BYU, can you believe it?), and my subsequently reconnecting with an old friend of mine. The other realities were my daughters.
I should note that if, perhaps, I had been a crusader, fired up by orthodox Catholic commitments to natural law (or, less admiringly, by a deep homophobic revulsion to the idea that men might be sexually attracted to men, or women to women), then I could have overcome those encounters with reality; after all, many decent, intelligent, moral people continue along with their increasingly marginalized (though still politically viable!) opposition to same-sex marriage. More relevantly to my own religious tradition, if I had a deep conviction that my church’s Proclamation on the Family was a revelation from God, then opposing same-sex marriage would continue to make good politico-theological sense; after all, if God in His goodness makes all His children eternally male or female, with pre-ordained and naturally validated sexual roles, then legitimating same-sex marriages might well be a matter of legitimating a mortal possibility which could only result in deep spiritual confusion and harm. (There has been, to be fair, a fair amount of elaboration on what the Proclamation truly implies for the Mormon faithful, as more has been learned about the whole range of dynamics involved in realizing for oneself and/or purposefully articulating a sexual identity, and no doubt such articulation will continue–even to the point of some acknowledgment that accepting the idea of the eternity of gender doesn’t obviously have to mandate heterosexuality exclusively.) But fortunately for myself in this matter, as I’ve long kind of felt that much–not all, but much–of what some Mormons like to claim regarding divine embodiment, the sociality of eternally gendered beings, and endless procreative expansion, was both scripturally unwarranted and kind of dumb, not taking the (non-canonized!) Proclamation’s theological claims, and all the arguments about them, particularly seriously has been easy for me. So that means there really wasn’t a whole lot besides some persuasive but impersonal ideological convictions to get in way of the reality of what my girls–now aged 15, 12, 8, and 6, and none of them gay so far as I can tell–taught me.
This is what they taught me: that they are my equals insofar as their gender is concerned, and that I simply can’t be part of an argument which assumes otherwise. (Can I be part of a community or polity or organization which assumes otherwise? Of course, because every human grouping is going to be a mix of causes and practices, and you identity with or reject its different parts for various reasons and in historically contextual ways–a church or association usually can’t be, and shouldn’t be, reduced to a single argument or cause. A vote on a referendum on same-sex marriage, however…that’s something else.) What does gender equality have to do with same-sex marriage? There are very likely strong arguments against it which may get around the issue entirely…but they weren’t my arguments, the ones which I read in First Things magazine more than a decade ago and found persuasive. Those arguments had everything to do with gender roles; indeed, everything I wrote up two paragraphs above here did as well, regarding procreation and sexual exploitation and more. Specifically, they have to do with the idea that male-female complementarity has to be understood as the normative basis for a civilized society. Of course, what are the specifics of that complementarity? Whatever they may be, they aren’t characterized by equality. And equality…well, that’s important to me, and not just for the abstract good of it: I want it for my daughters’ sake as well.
This was all crystallized for me by the comments of the very intelligent, very decent same-sex marriage opponent Francis Beckwith, when he denied that opposing same-sex marriage was the same as opposing interracial marriage, because racial identity is, he asserts, obviously irrelevant to the deeper, obviously natural, male-female identity:
The fact that a man and a woman from different races were biologically and metaphysically capable of marrying each other, building families, and living among the general population is precisely why the race purists wanted to forbid such unions by the force of law. And because this view of marriage and its gender-complementary nature was firmly in place and the only understanding found in common law, the Supreme Court in Loving knew that racial identity was not relevant to what marriage requires of its two opposite-gender members. By injecting race into the equation, anti-miscegenation supporters were very much like contemporary same-sex marriage proponents, for in both cases they introduced a criterion other than male-female complementarity in order to promote the goals of a utopian social movement: race purity or sexual egalitarianism.
This struck me hard when I read it: it meant that, for me at least, the full logic of my own head-nodding support of traditional marriage meant accepting sexual inegalitarianism. And how could I sign on to an argument which draws its logical force from an assumption which I could only see as potentially harming my daughters in the long run? I couldn’t.
Yes, I can imagine, and can even find slightly persuasive, arguments which assert that same-sex marriage buys into an individualization of sexual identity, disconnected from larger wholes like families, and thus can only further contribute to a culture which already plays into male sexual independence and irresponsibility, which is almost invariably to the detriment of women. God knows I have see almost nothing good whatsoever in the world of hook-ups, out-of-wedlock births, child-abandonment, and male infantilization which I see around me, even here on my fairly conservative and religious college campus. But then the Marxist in me speaks up: Really? It’s the individualization of sexual identity which has played the primarily role in the breakdown of effective, sexual-responsibility teaching norms? It’s the fault of women entering the workforce and asking for a little sexual parity, and the legal and technological tools they made used of to achieve it, which has given us family breakdown and the feminization of poverty? You don’t think it might also have just a little bit to do with, you know…JOBS?
My oldest daughter will probably have one more year at home, and then she’ll be heading out into the world. She appears to take her religion–our family religion–seriously. She also appears to like boys. And most importantly, she has confidence and ambition and some real intelligence leading her on. When I look at what surrounds her, and the sexual snares and family dysfunction that she already knows plenty about through her friends, I see, for certain, the negative consequences of the Sexual Revolution. But I also see the ravages of globalization and financial capitalism, which have eviscerated the socio-economic basis for the post-Industrial Revolution family unit (a family unit that was, for certain, itself a historical construct, but for good or ill it was a workable one, one which carried us through most of the 19th and 20th centuries in good shape), erected in its place a–in my opinion–deeply condescending and class-reinforcing and service-oriented meritocracy, and then provided plenty of porn and computer games for all the men (and women…but mostly men) who have found themselves unable to climb that ever-shifting and frankly corrupt ladder. (Paging Hanna Rosin–or maybe Ray Bradbury–here.) Opposing same-sex marriage will not only not do anything to address this situation; it will–again, in the case of the arguments I myself at one time found persuasive–rather oblige me to buy into a ideology of marriage and female happiness that would prevent me from preparing my daughters for this unfortunate world as equals. I can’t do that. And with that realization, the realization that I cannot wink at sexual inegalitarianism…my ability to articulate a case against same-sex marriage disappeared. Just like that.
Does this end all the arguments? Of course not. My own church has shifted their arguments; now, the Mormon leadership is talking less and less about orientation and nature (though the old guard remains), and more and more about preserving religious liberty, the ability of religious communities to engage in their own rituals and practices and to teach their own doctrines publicly without facing legal penalties. I care a great deal about the freedom of religious communities to define and handle their own affairs, not just because I take my (and others’) religious faith seriously, but also because I believe that not interfering with what religious organizations can bring to the civic table is the best way to maximize the good those organizations can do. Hence, my frustration with President Obama’s HHS mandate…and if it were the case that similar mandates were at all likely, in the wake of state decisions to legalize same-sex marriage, that would affect the ability of my church to conduct weddings and teach sexual morality as they see fit, then my opposition to it would probably be undiminished. But, despite the paranoid bell-clanging of some, there simply aren’t any such mandates anywhere on the horizon. Might there someday be? Of course. But I’m not willing to personally support a logic that requires I accept an unacceptable premise, simply for the sake of what might be. That’s not a good way to approach my responsibilities as a citizen…responsibilities I have to our civilization, to be sure, but also, and more immediately, to a gay friend who is also an American citizen, and most immediately to my girls, who are American citizens too. Give me an argument against same-sex marriage that has nothing whatsoever to do with presuming the normativity of a kind of sexual inequality, or makes a reasonable and believable case that the self-defined teachings and operations of churches and their sponsoring institutions are going to be imminently threatened by it, and then maybe I’ll change my mind back. But I don’t see that happening. Apparently, I’m with a slowly emerging majority in thinking that way. Better late than never, I guess.