Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Gay marriage: just do it, and move on
posted 3-26-2013 5:40 p.m.

I said my bit on this subject seven years ago, on this very blog, figuring I'd said all I had to say: just allow gays legal unions with all rights attendant for marriage, promote social stability that way, then move on to bigger issues — like fixing the economy and getting our troops out of the Middle East. I'd be perfectly fine with letting homosexuals and lesbians marry; it doesn't affect me in the least, and I don't see a good reason to deny them that right. Now that the first of the gay marriage cases has reached the Supreme Court, perhaps it's time to revisit the subject. Besides, I'm deeply tired of all the hyperbolic conservative blathering on the subject. Time for a definitive smackdown.

If public opinion polls are to be believed, the balance has shifted ever so slightly towards sanity: more Americans would approve of gay marriage than disapprove, and most would like the subject settled. I'm all for that. The shrill minority keeps insisting that recognizing marriages between consenting adults of the same gender is somehow grossly, intrinsically destructive to all marriages everywhere; that's just stupid. They rant as if their own marriages were somehow damaged by the marriages of others. That's silly. And this conversation has been coming for a long time.

From the moment American women first gained widespread access to reliable birth control, a discussion about gay marriage was inevitable. Don’t see the connection? Let me back up a bit.

The moment American women began to take charge of their reproductive lives, they began to take charge of the rest of their lives as well. A social revolution regarding the role of women in society has been happening ever since. There’s no putting that genie back in the bottle, thank heavens: this is a change that, all in all, very few women regret. In the process, women demonstrated and society came to openly recognize something that married and unmarried heterosexual couples have long known: that there are very good reasons for sex within a relationship that have nothing to do with procreation.

Sex is part of the glue that helps to keep romantic partnerships, including marriages, together. If this wasn’t blindingly obvious before birth control pills appeared about 50 years ago, it is now. Given that, the government would be foolish to argue otherwise.

Meanwhile, there is a corollary: perhaps having children is not the only — or even primary — reason for getting married these days. Sure, creating a family might be a reason for marrying, but that family need not include children. That is, it need not include anyone but the two spouses. After all, there are plenty of women past childbearing age who still find reasons to marry, as do women who can’t have children and women who choose not to have them. Same goes for men: to some, maybe kids aren’t the point. And on a planet with more than seven billion people straining its resources, the choice of marriage without kids has to be given at least some reasonable consideration. That takes away the traditional objection to gay marriage, namely that such a union couldn't produce children. The deep irony here is that many gay couples not only want to marry, but they want kids, too — and now they can have them, through the wonders of artificial insemination, surrogate pregnancies and adoption. Good for them. Many of them will make great parents, just as many (but not all) heterosexuals make great parents. Sexual orientation is no guarantee of parenting skills, just as it is no guarantee of fidelity.

Marriage today is about two people making a public, legally recognized statement about a very personal, loving relationship that is rooted in loyalty and exclusivity: two people saying we’re in this together, folks, and everyone else please butt out. Children may or may not result, but they’re clearly not obligatory. What is this public act and the legal recognition attached to it supposed to give the two people involved? Emotional, psychological, and, sometimes, financial security. Legal protection. One very special person whom the other can lean on, each in his or her turn, when times get tough. A safe haven against the madness and confusion of the world. Someone to grow roots with and grow old with. Most important, a relationship in which both people can thrive, not just survive, if they put their minds and hearts to it. In short: family, and the legal and social recognition of such.

It is in society’s best interest to help preserve such stable relationships. The often harsh realities of modern life assault us from all sides. We change jobs more often than we used to, even careers. Wages have stagnated for three decades in many fields while costs have increased, and our incomes — if we have any these days — are no longer worth what they were. Higher education and literacy are no longer guarantees of employment. We move more often, sometimes cross-country, uprooting ourselves and our immediate families and truncating in the process nearly all other relationships.

There is more to know, more to learn, and a greater amount that is known than ever before, and the rate of change is accelerating everywhere in too many aspects of our lives. We exist in an era of terrorism and have lived for more than two-thirds of a century in the shadow of the nuclear dilemma. All it would take is a few bombs exploded at the right time, in the right place, at the right height in the atmosphere for the fallout to go worldwide and imperil the earth itself. We don’t even need bombs — we could poison the earth for centuries with nuclear waste or chemical threats alone. Frankly, we have one hell of a lot more stress than we used to, less time to cope with it, and no chance that it will go away any time soon.

And what helps human beings survive this monumental stress, this staggering rate of change? What reminds us that there are good reasons for being and staying alive, for maintaining that social glue among us? Our relationships, particularly the most intimate ones. They remind us of what is most redeeming about our humanity: our capacity for love, for wisdom, for justice, for mercy. Our ability to better ourselves and the world in which we live, for our own sakes and for those to come after us. Our adaptiveness and resilience under duress. Our ability to reason, to learn from our mistakes, and to change in response to what we have learned. These are essential to our survival, for the great reality of the universe is change.

Society has another area of interest that involves self-preservation: public health. We have been visited by AIDS and HIV for more than 30 years now, and we are no closer to curing it than we were when it first appeared. AIDS is and always has been a mostly heterosexual phenomenon in Africa, the continent of its origin, and is so now virtually everywhere else. That it affected homosexuals first in North America was a fluke of circumstance. Any society that wants to survive has powerful reasons to try to reduce the spread of AIDS and other perils like it.

Abstinence is a nice idea, but, as with other sexually transmitted diseases before AIDS, not bloody likely on a large scale. Nature has been at her tricks millions of years longer than humans have exercised free will, and the biological imperative toward sex is damnably strong. Consider this: if even one entire generation had been able to keep its collective pants zipped, we would have eradicated syphilis, gonorrhea, and genital herpes a long time ago. No such luck. Thus, the more realistic emphasis on safe sex. That’s not foolproof, however, and so that strategy must be coupled (no pun intended) with another: encouraging stable, monogamous romantic relationships in the hope that these will greatly reduce the rate of infection with AIDS and other potentially lethal microbes.

Of course, one of the human communities most damaged by AIDS is the homosexual population. And here is a very relevant point: if you want to know what the ultimate example of testosterone-driven biological imperative looks like, consider the rampant promiscuity of young gay males during the pre-AIDS era. It was not only been culturally accepted over the years within that subgroup that these young men would have a high number of sexual encounters, many of which will be about sex for its own sake with strangers, it was expected and even celebrated. This attitude stubbornly lingers even now, despite the fact that such practice could easily be a death sentence. Post-AIDS this should have changed, but it hasn't changed enough: there are still people who, remarkably, refuse to practice safe sex. The only cultural counterforce to such indiscriminate, stupidly dangerous promiscuity is the existence, proliferation, and support of monogamous, stable, committed relationships among gays. Society has a public health survival interest in recognizing and encouraging such long-term partnerships.

Add the public health argument to the other reasons, and opposing legally recognized gay unions becomes infantile, absurd, and highly irresponsible. Even unethical. Yet too many people still stubbornly insist on dictating whether or not other people may marry. Apparently, it's not enough that some virus or bacterium may be at the top of the food chain instead of us — we also have to shoot ourselves in the groin, as it were.

The most idiotic part of this are the religious prohibitions against homosexuality. Yes, people should be allowed to live according to their own beliefs — so long as those beliefs apply only to themselves. You rights end where someone else's begin. No government should be expected to decide which faith, if any, has the correct take on marriage or any other issue, nor should government try. More important, no religion nor any set of believers should be allowed to put their religious beliefs into civil law. You cannot and shouldn't be able to force other people to live according to your beliefs. That's wrong and unconstitutional — a First Amendment issue. The Founding Fathers understood the issue all too well, given that the early colonists, too, persecuted each other because of their beliefs. Those who wrote the U.S. Constitution didn't want that persecution to repeat, so they wrote the First Amendment to respect no religion whatsoever and create a purely civil state, without preventing people from practicing their own beliefs privately. We are all better off for it.

Throughout human history and prehistory, religion has been used to preserve the status quo and protect the despotic few at the expense of the many. It seems like only yesterday that religion justified slavery, racism, wars of aggression, caste systems, feudalism, polygamy, imperialism, the selling of child brides into unwilling marriages, bigotry, genocide — the list goes on. Today, a few flavors of religion attempt to justify suicide bombings and other terrorism, all in the name of beliefs that are simply unprovable. Do we really want civil law to bend to such unreasonable beliefs? Of course not: that's for idiots and zealots, who are pretty much the same thing.

If the term gay marriage is too inflammatory for you, too bad — don’t use it. Call them whatever you want in your own conversations; but the law must recognize such marriages and give the participants legal rights equal to those recognized for heterosexual married couples and common-law marriages. Anything less is unfair. Long-term relationships of all kinds have survival value to the human race. It’s time to recognize that and move on to other things, like surviving the nuclear age, globalization, outsourcing, world-wide terrorism, and itty-bitty microbes that just could kill us all. You'd think that would be more than enough for most people to worry about.