Friday, November 6, 2009

Separate but equal?

The fight over same-sex marriage in America rages on.

With the vote in Maine three days ago, gay marriage has now been forbidden by the people in 31 states - every state in which the issue has come to a popular vote. In other words, no American electoral majority has ever supported gay marriage.

Many liberals would be quick to point out that it's important to keep this in perspective, remembering all the progress that has been made, and keeping in mind that the demographic momentum is in favor of same-sex marriage, since young people mostly think gays should be allowed to marry. Others would point to the vote on the same day in which Washington was added to the list of states whose voters have approved "everything but marriage" - civil unions with all or nearly all of the protections afforded by marriage - as a heartening sign.

Many would even go so far as to say that the fact that civil unions appear to be a more attainable goal makes them a more worthy goal. The pragmatist in me understands this line of thought. The pursuit of marriage equality in America is, even today, an incredibly daunting task. Large percentages of the electorate still view homosexuality as not just immoral but sinful; so they naturally believe that it is their duty as Americans to stop any attempts to normalize it, and that by doing so they are saving America from damnation.

These people are willing to do incredible mental gymnastics to find justifications for their opposition to same-sex marriage that appear logical to the average person. But it's much harder to logically justify opposition to civil unions, since they can't be seen to involve a redefinition of traditional marriage. The effect of this fact is that, in places where a slim majority opposes same sex marriage, a slim majority also supports civil unions. And of course, equality of legal recognition for gay couples seems far more important than the terminology; so it seems reasonable to forget about marriage (at least for a while), and focus on getting civil unions.

But let's think, for a moment, of the implications of legalizing civil unions, rather than marriage, for same-sex couples.

The logic of civil unions rests on the precept that homosexual relationships should only be legally recognized by setting up a separate system, for them to use, where normal people would get married. Civil unions, therefore, accept that a homosexual relationship is fundamentally different from what is normal and acceptable in polite society - and that, to reflect this, we must use a different set of legal protections for their relationships. All this, while proclaiming that we are affirming their equal rights.

But how can we possibly affirm equal rights through separate legal protections? Amendment XIV of the United States Constitution says, in part, "No State shall . . . deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws." For a long time, racial segregation in America was justified by saying that as long as the public services afforded to non-whites were equal, it was alright if they were separate, if society demanded so. In the 1954 supreme court case Brown v. Board of Education, the court unanimously ruled that "separate educational facilities are inherently unequal." Cannot the same be said of separate legal codes to recognize relationships?

This is why I am a supporter of gay marriage, rather than the more pragmatic civil unions. Granted, I generally think there are far more pressing issues facing America, and the world, than the question of who can marry who - that's why this is the first blog post I've written dedicated to the topic - but that doesn't make the current situation regarding marriage in America any less unjust. It is my sincere hope that the American electorate can manage to get its head out of its ass and realize the clear and unequivocal truth - that gays have, and have always had, the right to marry; and must in turn be given the legal ability to do so.


Rainier96 said...

While the citizens of no state have ever voted to approve gay marriage, as such, Washington voters have now become the first to extend the full legal benefits of marriage to registered domestic partners.

While I understand your general policy argument, let's not ignore the importance of extending these legal rights to the actual people who will benefit from them, and who have been denied them until now. Recognizing their relationships as "marriage" may seem logical, and provide psychological benefits, but it's really frosting on the cake to many couples in real life.

The Washington vote shows how difficult it will be in most states to provide even such protection to qualifying couples as "domestic partnerships." The only counties that approved the referendum were ones bordering Puget Sound. Counties in eastern Washington rejected it by percentages as high as 77 percent. Only because King County (Seattle and suburbs) approved the referendum by nearly 68 percent did it gain statewide approval.

Even in a rather reliably "blue" state like Washington, values and opinions are extremely divided.

Zachary Freier said...

My point is that making sure everyone can enjoy the "frosting on the cake" is important, too. If anyone can do it, everyone should be able to.

Rainier96 said...

And I agree. I just wanted to brag about my state's vote last week. :-)