Thursday, June 19, 2008

But Why Do Gays Want to Get Married?

The Supreme Court of California has decided that same-sex marriage (I at least give thanks that it’s not called “same-gender marriage”) is a right guaranteed by the constitution of that state. It is probably not what the people who drafted the relevant provisions had in mind when they drafted them, but let it pass. Here's what the head of one pressure group said about the decision, and the onset of marriages that followed:

“This is the beginning of a vision of what it means to live in a nation and a state that says we value one another as equals,” said Kate Kendell, the executive director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights.

This is a justification for constitutional upheaval worth thinking about. I can understand legalization of gay marriage on grounds of contractual freedom and equality before the law. Federal and state law privileges heterosexual married couples in all sorts of ways, and I have some sympathy for the argument that this represents discrimination. I also have sympathy for the argument that the purpose of marriage is to bind parents to children, and that removing that foundation stone will change society in ways that we will not like. This is why such marriage is so common in time and place. (To the self-styled "progressive" of course, all of history is a prelude of barbarism; centuries of tradition contain no wisdom that we will lose by overturning them.) On balance though, I think that the equality before the law argument is stronger, and I think the best way to resolve this problem is the separation of marriage and state. Let all religious denominations decide the rules under which they will declare people married, and let all (or at least most) people in love stipulate any contractual terms they like, with those terms to be enforced by the state like any other contract. Grant no particular government favors to any particular arrangement.

But I am much more interested in the rationale for the current trend to legalize gay marriages. The most common term that is used by the media and various courts is "recognition" of gay marriage , and this is suggestive. It assumes that gay marriage already exists as a prior moral imperative, and all we are doing now is forcing the law to accept that. The reason to legalize gay marriage, in other words, is to have the state validate the perfectly legitimate romantic desires and commitments of gay men and lesbians. Ms. Kendell's remarks above also strike this theme - legalized gay marriage is an expressive statement about what society "values."

What does it say about our society in 2008 that social movements have formed to try to attain emotional satisfaction from government? This is not a healthy sign for a free society. We long ago passed the moment when it was accepted that the state could annul individual freedom on the ground of some higher public purpose involving income equality, some assertion about the nature of fair treatment, etc. But we have now crossed a bridge where the state and its powers are to be used merely to make statements about what is socially acceptable and what is not -- to do nothing more than to engage in self-expression so that certain individuals and society are not just equal but feel equal. Gay marriage is apparently primarily about allowing gay and lesbian couples to have the sense that society values them as much as it does heterosexual married couples. (To assert that a society rather than an individual can "value" something is to make a category error, but again let us move on.)

I view gays as generally born, not made; I have no particular trouble with people of the same sex falling in love, in getting the same benefits from their employers as heterosexual couples do, provided only that the employers voluntarily agree to provide them. But I view this whole controversy, like most, from the viewpoint of individual freedom. And the news there is bad; no society that uses government for these kinds of purposes will remain free for long.


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