Sunday, November 2, 2008

I'm Not Gay, But My Husband Is

(Don't worry -- the couple in that photo are heterosexual. So it's all perfectly normal.)
The California Supreme Court had just cleared the way for same-sex marriage, and Ms. DeGeneres had announced on her program that she planned to marry her longtime girlfriend. “We are all the same people, all of us — you’re no different than I am,” Ms. DeGeneres told Mr. McCain as they sat next to each other in plush chairs. “Our love is the same.”

Mr. McCain called her comments “very eloquent” and added: “We just have a disagreement. And I, along with many, many others, wish you every happiness.”

Ms. DeGeneres said: “So, you’ll walk me down the aisle? Is that what you’re saying?”

Mr. McCain replied, “Touché.”
I realize the necessity of tact and genteel hypocrisy in addressing those whose opinions differ from ours, but I hope that Ms. Degeneres's love for her girlfriend, and now wife, is not "the same" as John McCain's love for his. McCain dropped his first wife when she was disfigured in an auto accident while he was a prisoner of war in Vietnam, and whether or not one believes the reports that he has beaten his second wife Cindy, it appears that theirs is a chilly marriage of convenience, with separate residences and no love lost. Still, I like the way DeGeneres put McCain on the spot there; it's a pity only entertainers seem to ask questions like that. But once again I'm reminded how much energy people expend trying to get respect from people who don't deserve any respect themselves.

I found the New York Times article I quoted above linked through a post of IOZ'. It's not M. IOZ' best work on matters same-sexual. He blunders by mentioning the candidates' perceived need to "appease the remaining homophobes of rural America and the Midwest," forgetting the cosmopolitan homophobes of the rest of the country (and the world, including Rome, Tehran, and Jerusalem). One of his commenters points this out. A reasonably intelligent man like M'sieu' should have realized by now that bigotry is not, and never has been, limited to any one class or region. Nor, as I've argued before, is it something that springs full-blown from the foreheads of gods or priests. If sex didn't make many people uncomfortable on a very deep level, that discomfort wouldn't be made manifest in religion.

The same Times article discusses Barack Obama's confused position on the issue.
Mr. Obama believes that marriage is a sacred union, a blessing from God, and one that is intended for a man and a woman exclusively, according to these supporters and Obama campaign advisers. While he does not favor laws that ban same-sex marriage, and has said he is “open to the possibility” that his views may be “misguided,” he does not support it and is not inclined to fight for it, his advisers say. ...

Some gay allies of Mr. Obama thought, during a televised Democratic forum in Los Angeles in August 2007, that he might come out in favor of same-sex marriage, after he was asked if his position supporting civil unions but not same-sex marriage was tantamount to “separate but equal.”

“Look, when my parents got married in 1961, it would have been illegal for them to be married in a number of states in the South,” Mr. Obama said. “So, obviously, this is something that I understand intimately. It’s something that I care about.”

At that point, he veered onto legal rights, saying that — both in 1961 and today — it was more important to fight for nondiscrimination laws and employment protections than for marriage.
The best I can say for Obama is that he's no stupider on this point than many other people, including gay ones. (In 2000 I saw an interview with Dave McReynolds, an old gay activist who was running for President on the Socialist ticket. Asked about gay marriage, he said that he wasn't interested in getting married "in a church or synagogue"; the civil side of marriage escaped him altogether, as it did Al Gore, who once spoke of marriage as "a sacrament" for men and women, odd terminology for a Baptist.) As a lawyer, Obama should be aware that marriage in the United States comes in two flavors, the religious and the civil. It is religious marriage that is "a sacred union" if one believes in such things, and religious marriage is within broad limits (barring polygamy, child marriage, etc.) outside the reach of the state. Same-sex couples have often exchanged vows, often with the blessing of clergy, to sanctify their unions, and so far there is no law to prevent them from doing so -- only sectarian restrictions that prevent clergy from officiating. In this respect, same-sex marriage is already a reality in the United States.

But religious marriage by itself brings with it no legal benefits, and it is those benefits, the fruits of civil marriage, that the advocates of same-sex marriage covet: shared work and government benefits, visitation access in hospital, and so on. A heterosexual couple, even if they have had a sectarian wedding, doesn't receive those benefits either unless they register their union with the secular state. Contrariwise, a church is not obligated to recognize a member's civil marriage if he or she has not jumped through its cultic hoops. My brother and sister-in-law, for instance, first married at City Hall, then had to make concessions (such as promising to raise their children in the faith) before her church would grant them a church wedding. If I met an atheist woman I chose to marry (it's a lifestyle choice!), we could get a marriage license and share Social Security benefits without the blessing of any god but Mammon, and I doubt there are more than a few religious nuts who'd feel that the heterosexual marriage of two atheists injured their own marriage in any way.

Obama's veer into "legal rights" at that 2007 forum was a blatant evasion, as though the struggle for civil marriage weren't a question of legal rights. If heterosexual civil marriage were also called a "civil union," which I gather it is in numerous European countries, then civil unions for same-sex couples would not be "separate but equal"; but in a U.S. context, civil unions are marriage lite, cementing the second-class status of same-sex couples. It's frustrating to find myself defending legal same-sex marriage in this way, just as it was frustrating to defend Bill Clinton against his enemies, but I am baffled not only that Obama doesn't grasp these elementary distinctions, but that no one close to Obama has spelled them out to him. As with Bill Clinton in 1992, I have to conclude that his gay supporters and advisors are so ignorant that they don't grasp them either.

One old pet peeve of mine may also be relevant here. As "gender" has replaced "sex" in polite discourse, I noticed the term "same-gender marriage" gaining currency some years ago. I haven't heard it so much recently, maybe because "gay marriage" is the usual buzzword. "Same-gender" marriage isn't illegal in the US either as far as I know: an effeminate man and a feminine woman could marry without impediment, though tongues might privately wag. Yet a masculine man and a feminine man could not legally marry, even though they were of different "genders." When I've pointed this out to people who speak of "same-gender marriage," they usually reacted with blank incomprehension -- evidently they didn't know what "gender" means. It's biological sex that constitutes the legal (and religious) barrier, not gender. I know that "gender" and "sex" are not mutually exclusive domains, nor are "biology" and "culture"; and I know that numerous scholars have chosen to speak in terms of the sex-gender system or other terms that try to express the interconnection of biology and culture. The sex/gender distinction has largely collapsed, though many still unconsciously rely on it, and "gender" (masculine/feminine) has come to mean most of what "sex" (male/female") used to mean, wth "sex" used only to refer to copulation. So most of the old sexist baggage has been kept under the sign of gender rather than sex, and people are pretty much as confused -- or flat-out mistaken -- about these issues as ever.