Wednesday, March 27, 2013

The Marie Antoinette Syndrome and Gay Unions As Essentially "Different": Engaging Arguments Against Marriage Equality

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As many of you know, it's not easy for me to keep my thoughts to myself for very long. So try as I might to refrain from blogging a few days, I'm now hooked by the steady stream of good commentary on the gay marriage issue as the U.S. Supreme Court hears cases about proposition 8 and DOMA.

If nothing else, my Facebook feed keeps me hooked. For two days now, it's been full of links provided by FB friends, many of them Catholics who are also straight allies of us who are gay, and who overwhelm me with their shows of strong support for me and my community at a time when some Catholic blog sites are full of toxic nonsense attacking gay folks and gay relationships (see, e.g., the Catholic Memes page on Facebook, or these comments from Tom McBride and Purgatrix Ineptiae at NCR threads).

As I read the commentary of some fellow Catholics and others in the religious right movement the past several days, I'm struck by how the recurring, and ever-weaker, arguments of opponents of marriage equality increasingly fail to engage significant points being discussed by large numbers of American citizens today as marriage equality is under review. The debate among many members of the public has moved light years beyond the intramural debates of Catholics and other religionists resistant to marriage equality on faith-based grounds.

One of the predictable arguments by some Catholics against marriage equality is that permitting same-sex couples to marry will somehow undermine or erode the "natural" institution of "traditional" marriage. That argument was strongly represented in the Supreme Court hearings yesterday. As this Think Progress video in which Scott Keyes and Adam Peck interviewed opponents of marriage equality at D.C. rallies yesterday points out, the argument remains strong among those committed to banning gay folks from marriage--though no one that Keyes and Peck interviewed could actually point to any way in which permitting same-sex couples to marry would undermine their own "natural" and "traditional" marriages.

At the Commonweal blog site, in response to a thread started by Andrew Koppelman discussing Sherif Girgis, Ryan Anderson, and Robert P. George's book What Is Marriage?, a Commonweal subscriber, Larry Weisenthal, who describes himself as a non-homophobic "proud Obama supporter," argues that same-sex marriage does undermine opposite-sex marriage. Weisenthal links to an essay he's written advancing this argument, and he maintains that extending marriage to same-sex couples--male couples, in particular--would somehow erode the concept of fidelity in traditional marriage.

Weisenthal supports civil unions that would extend to same-sex couples all the rights and privileges accorded to opposite-sex ones via marriage, while the word "marriage" would be withheld from the unions of same-sex couples and reserved exclusively to opposite-sex ones. He agrees with San Francisco archbishop Salvatore Cordileone, who helped lead an anti-marriage-equality march in D.C. yesterday, that different things should be treated differently: gay marriage can't be marriage because (the argument strikes me as tautological) it's not marriage.

In the Commonweal thread, Jim McCrea seeks to point out to Weisenthal that he's advancing a separate-but-equal argument, but Weisenthal appears not to hear Jim's point. Or he appears to imagine it's an unimportant critique of his proposal to "give" gay folks the rights and privileges of marriage while withholding the term "marriage" from what's being given to gay folks.

I'm sorry that Weisenthal can't hear Jim's point and the point of the many gay citizens of the U.S. and our allies, who have long since concluded that separate-but-equal arrangements are never equal arrangements, and that our basic human rights aren't goodies and trinkets to be doled out to us by superior beings who own those rights due to their heterosexuality, and who must decide in their own good time when they'll dish out a new trinket or goodie to us.

For that matter, I'd love for Weisenthal to pay attention to what Kenji Yoshima, Chief Justice Earl Warren Professor of Constitutional Law at NYU Law School, told Rachel Maddow two nights ago about this same issue: noting that eight states have everything but marriage for same-sex couples, he observed, 

[T]he argument there is, if you are giving all the rights and benefits and burdens of marriage to individuals but withholding only the word "marriage," that's essentially a branding issue. It's a concern that you'll tarnish the brand if you let gay people into the institution. And that tarnishment claim is really a second-class citizenship claim . . . . 

Letting the gays marry tarnishes the institution of marriage, people resistant to marriage equality want to argue. It cheapens the brand. And so the decision to "give" gay folks something similar to the brand of marriage, but which is essentially different because the gays themselves are different: this is inherently a "second-class citizenship claim."

The puzzle to me is that folks like Larry Weisenthal, who claim to be supporters of the gay community while arguing for the relegation of gay relationships to second-tier status in American society (because, they claim, those relationships undermine heterosexual fidelity!), can't seem to get this point. It strikes me that there's a kind of Marie Antoinette syndrome at work in this way of thinking on the part of some heterosexuals who imagine that marriage belongs "naturally" to them, and they will decide when and how to reach into their grab-bag of goodies and dish out a new smidgen of cake to the poor homosexuals.

Do people who think this way never think about their own unmerited power and privilege, and all the fallacious assumptions that flow from such unmerited power and privilege, any more than Marie Antoinette did, I wonder? Something tells me they don't.

And as I come to that conclusion, I wonder what it is in the Catholic brand itself, in some of its flavors, that leads heterosexual people to such astonishing assumptions about their superior role in the divine scheme of things, and about the inferior role of those God has made gay. I'd have thought that any kind of sound moral formation in any religious tradition worth its salt would challenge and undermine people's assumptions of their "natural" superiority to others, when those assumptions rest on no solid theological or empirical base at all.

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