First of all, let’s distinguish being pro-gay — a position I consider myself to hold — which for me is championing the sexual liberation that came out of the gay movement and offering support to those struggling with their own sexuality, and being pro-gay marriage, a particular political position. Since it is so often seen as simply and unacceptably homophobic to be against gay marriage, it is impossible to get past this political position to the real issues. Though many people are against gay marriage simply because they are anti-gay, I believe there are valid, liberal arguments against gay marriage that are completely consistent with being pro-gay.
It seems clear from every poll and political observation that universal gay marriage will be a reality in the near future. There are clearly many gay people who want to get married, and there is increasing support in the straight community. What we should really be talking about, though, is whether it is good for gays that they can get married. This argument is not a form of paternalism — I am not saying that I know better than every gay couple what is good for them. Rather, put another way, in our rush to make gay marriage legal across the country, we have not stopped to consider an important question: Will gay marriage liberalize marriage, or will it conservatize gayness?
Take former traditional marriage advocate David Blankenhorn’s recent statement in support of gay marriage. He and other conservatives ground their support of gay marriage in their support of marriage. They reach out to the rest of the country by saying that gay people just want to live their lives in an upstanding, married way and we should not be fighting them but instead bringing them under one roof. Though many of these politicians are simply going where the wind is blowing, they make support of gay marriage seem like a true conservative value, and there’s a reason that this line of argument is not difficult.
Indeed, there has been a recent flurry of op-eds and articles written by gay people who find faults in gay marriage because of their conservative, often religious, backgrounds. But as a liberal person, I want the lessons of gay liberation not to be forgotten but embraced by gays and straights. If the gay movement taught us anything, it’s that what the Greeks call eros, agape and philia (something like erotic love, romantic love and love between friends) don’t always line up so neatly, that we are not sinners or pathological if we don’t experience them all at the same time and for the same person. This beautiful and liberating idea should be celebrated and shared with the straight community, not further squashed by the standardization of gay love. As a gay man, if what feels most natural and works best for me is to live with a straight woman and date men but leave the important medical decisions up to that woman, why can’t this be an option? Why should I give up all of that and do things the “straight” way — having only one meaningful sexual, romantic and platonic relationship at a time?
I am not saying that the conservative view of what marriage should be has no merit — in fact, that’s my point. Personally, I don’t believe that a nuclear family with a white picket fence and 1.8 kids (with straight or gay parents) is the only way to raise our children. Yet claiming that married, straight Americans are merely homophobic for wanting a stake in changes to this institution is not helpful. Society needs to move forward together, and if a proper debate on what marriage is and should be is consistently stifled by claims of homophobia and the paralyzing assumption that minorities are always right, traditional marriage will remain unquestioned as the bedrock of our society, just with slightly more awkward bachelor parties.
Maybe the solution is civil unions (gay and straight) alongside marriage, like they have in France, or maybe that will create some sort of hierarchy of partnerships — I don’t know. The point here is to question the idea that change is always progressive and to understand the gay experience as a constitutive part of our society, as opposed to as a problem that needs to be solved.
This is the part in the conversation where some defenders of gay marriage, if they’re still listening at all, begin to warm to the idea that there is a legitimate liberal argument against gay marriage, whereas others counter by explaining why gay marriage is something we should strive for. But this is good, since we’ve moved past the empty accusations of homophobia and onto the real debate: our visions of how a society can best structure its personal, legal and social relations.
I would like to credit Michael Warner’s brilliant and prescient book “The Trouble with Normal” for helping me organize my thoughts on this issue, as well as Cornel West’s “Race Matters” for an extremely useful theory of minority politics.
Luke Massa is a philosophy major from Ridley Park, Pa. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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