Monday, June 14, 2004

I never thought a book in support of a position that I believe in could make me so angry. But Jonathan Rauch's Gay Marriage: Why It Is Good For Gays, Good For Straights, and Good For America pissed me off far more times than I could count.

Rauch's basic position is that marriage is desirable for everyone, that alternatives to marriage are bad (for gay or straight people), and thus that gay marriage should be made legal and as acceptable as straight marriage. My position is that marriage is fine for people who want it, and anyone who wants it, straight or gay, should be free to enter into a marriage, but that alternatives are the better choice for some people and those alternatives should not be legally frowned upon. Dorian Solot and Marshall Miller of the Alternatives to Marriage Project represent my views very well in their book Unmarried to Each Other: The Essential Guide To Living Together As An Unmarried Couple: that unmarried (gay or straight) couples should not be discriminated against in such matters as:

  • Housing: it is technically illegal in many U.S. states for different-sex couples to cohabit; Florida, where I have lived with my beloved Jon for six years, is one of those states. This isn't enforced, obviously, but it leaves us without legal recourse if we encounter a landlord who wouldn't rent to an unmarried couple. And of course, in places without any laws against discrimination against sexual-orientation, a gay couple could encounter the same problem.
  • Insurance/benefits: Domestic partner benefits are not that common (and when available are often limited to same-sex couples on the theory that they cannot (currently) marry legally, and different-sex couples could)
  • Taxes: Married couples shouldn't be penalized financially on their income taxes, but neither should unmarried couples take a hit in the finances.
  • Children's issues: a married step-parent can adopt their partner's child, becoming a "third parent" -- this has been denied to both unmarried gay and straight couples wanting the person who is raising the child but is not a genetic parent to legally adopt.
  • Hospital/Inheritance issues: Unmarried couples have to jump through all sorts of hoops, filling out many, many legal forms to get the next-of-kin rights that legal marriage automatically confers. Hospital visits, health power of attorney, guardianship of children, inheritance, and many other relics of the legal system's former view of husband as wife as legally only one person still exist.
These are just the immediate legal inequalities of unmarried couples. Rauch acknowledges them when he says that marriage creates kinship; however, he seems to think that everyone should just be able to marry someone they love (and I certainly wouldn't deny him the right to marry the "Michael" mentioned in the book's dedication: "Marry me, when we can.") However, his view of traditional marriage's rights and responsibilities as something preferred for everyone is outdated. As Solot and Miller point out that the "wife" and "husband" roles put pressure on people to be a certain way; people they interviewed experienced this outside pressure: "It might be OK for a girlfriend to wear bright sweaters and crack lots of jokes, people seemed to be saying, but a wife should dress appropriately, speak appropriately, and behave altogether differently," or "a few men say they're uncomfortable with assumptions about what husbands 'ought to' do or be." I've seen it myself, at a friend's wedding shower: the assumption that the bride was going to change her surname, and when she said that she was hyphenating their surname, getting a response along the lines of "We'll see how long the groom lets that last!" (Despite the fact that this groom had seriously considered taking his bride's surname.)

And frankly, I don't think the government should have anything to do with my love life at all. Legal marriage is a contract between two people and one government, and I don't want that. Even if I wanted a contract with Jon (and neither of us see any compelling reason to have one), neither local, state, nor federal government need to have anything to do with it. If people want to marry according to the rites of a religion they believe in, they can do that. (If they are not religious and want to marry, let them figure out what it would take for them to feel married, but not force it on everyone else.) Christianity did not write out any rules for marriage until 770 A.D. (and kept rewriting those rules for at least 500 years), Judaism historically accepted unmarried relationships called "pilagshut," and many other societies of the past did not distinguish between marriage and cohabitation. Essentially, the bulk of the marriages of the past, around the world, were what would be considered "common-law marriages" in modern terms -- there was no ceremony, no paperwork; a couple moved in together and started calling themselves married. It is only in the past few hundred years that governments have involved themselves in marriage by limiting what types were acceptable or recording when a marriage took place.

Rauch, however, talks about the history of marriage as if since the dawn of time, there had always been white wedding gowns and marriage licenses, and so draws a distinct line between cohabitation (which he seems to consider at best a poor substitute for marriage and at worst a threat to the stability of society) and marriage. In the book's introduction, he states first, "True love means, first and foremost, a love which ends in lasting marriage" and later:

'Marriage depends for its success on its uniqueness and its universality. Those in turn, depend on two principles. One is "If you want the benefits of marriage, you have to get married." the other is, "Marriage is for everyone -- no exclusions, no exceptions." Gay marriage reinforces both principles. It makes marriage not just a norm (the one for heterosexuals) but the norm (for everybody). In doing so, it offers the best hope of stopping the proliferation -- aided, perversely, by the anti-gay-marriage movement -- of marriage-like and "marriage lite" alternatives.'
I found those statements to be as excluding of me, and everyone else who is in a long-term loving relationship without any desire for marriage, as the anti-gay-marriage movement is of Rauch and all other gay people who want to get married. Later in the book, he continues in an even more insulting vein: "It certainly would be convenient if your employer and society and the law simply provided recognition and benefits for whatever relationship you happened to be having ... a lot of people, gay and straight, would like a halfway house: or, to be more blunt about it, a free ride. Throughout most of history, society has been smart enough to deny it to them." No, throughout history, nobody got any "benefits" from employers except everyday pay (if that, given the existence of slavery in a fair number of cultures) and, as I said before, society and the law considered you married pretty easily.

Rauch is right in that gay people have almost always been denied any recognition, not even of their existence, much less their relationships, and he is correct in that this needs to be corrected. Many of his rebuttals of arguments against gay marriage, such as the idea that marriage must be between people who can have children, are well-thought-out and serve his cause well. However, his conservative view of what marriage is may drive away his possible supporters who started out with liberal social views, without necessarily winning over anyone whose opposition to gay marriage is essentially "God said marriage has to be male-female." (Though Rauch does point out how many things have been in the past said to be God's will and people have nonetheless changed; I particularly like his reference to 19th-century lawmakers opposing laws allowing married women to control their own property on the grounds that it was "contrary not only to the law of England but to the law of God.") And he may be right in saying that having states individually recognize gay marriage, one at a time, would work better in public acceptance than having it federally imposed on all states at the same time. In his example world where Maryland has legalized gay marriage and Virginia has not, "Even in Virginia, people who saw my ring and learned I was 'Maryland married' would know I had made the Big Commitment in my home state and thus in the eyes of my community and its law." (However, I am not as sure that this would help acceptance in other states -- Americans may recognize that a rich Saudi is legally and societally committed to four wives, but how likely is it to make them think of allowing plural marriage in the U.S.?)

Rauch says that gay marriage in a few states would be better than gay marriage in none and "marriage lite" in many. Some supporters of gay marriage agree with that, and others accept "civil union" or some other not-quite-the-same option. David Moats' book Civil Wars: A Battle For Gay Marriage deals with that issue and many others as it chronicles the attempt to establish legal gay marriage in Vermont and the state legislature's substitution of "civil union" for gay couples as a compromise. This book, being true story rather than hypothetical argument, is far more human than Rauch's book; we hear about the lives of the three couples who brought the gay marriage suit to the state Supreme Court, the lawyers who argued the case, and the legislators who had to deal with the court's decision to say that it was against the state constitution to deny gay couples the benefits given married couples, but that it was the state legislature's job to figure out and enact laws extending those benefits to gay couples. Some of those legislators wanted gay and straight marriage to be the same, some wanted a parallel structure for gays, some didn't want anything remotely like marriages for people they considered to be doing wrong, and some were completely undecided. Even knowing what happened in the end, the reader gets a new, close view into how it happened -- and what the results were.

I found it a more pleasant read (in that the author doesn't say anything that made me want to throw the book across the room, though some of the words of opponents of gay marriage certainly did) than Rauch's book, and even though many of the same points are made, the two books still differ greatly in their approach to marriage in general and gay marriage specifically. For example, Moats draws many parallels to the civil rights and gay rights movements, and the civil union option is even compared to the "separate but equal" setup for black and white Americans that was ruled legal by the Supreme Court in the 1890s and then overturned by the a different Supreme Court in the 1950s. Rauch barely mentions race as a possible comparison to sexual orientation when he talks about the discrimination of excluding gay couples from marriage.

Both books are necessary, because the issue of gay marriage is one that it is simply no longer possible to ignore, and they can both provide information to base one's position on. Many people do not want to think about it and say they'll go with their "gut feeling" on the issue, but political issues should not be decided by "this turns my stomach." Just because the mere smell of asparagus makes me want to vomit doesn't mean I should deny other people the right to eat the stuff, and the same applies to other issues -- think with your brain, not your stomach.