Friday, October 20, 2006

The “gay marriage” amendment in Virginia – a more personal take


"It just wasn't meant to be." So say some people about gay marriage. Of course, we are human beings with reasoning powers, and we can design what we mean to happen. There is always a fault line when we test the limits of "nature" and see that there are layers of human behavior underneath the surface. But let's move on to the main stuff here.

A local Northern Virginia church, from a mainstream Protestant denomination, plans to do a door-to-door campaign soon to encourage voters to vote “No” on the Marshall-Newman amendment, which in Virginia would not only limit marriage to one biological man and one woman, but prohibit recognizing same-sex relationships as approximating marriage.

I generally do not like to contact people personally about specific political candidates or issues. I generally do not go door-to-door or call or “bother” people. With the web, I prefer to write my thoughts and be found by search engines. That has been a very effective way to be heard, although I cannot be sure that it will always be available.

I can run through some observations that may be old hat now. One of the most obvious is that the focus on “gay marriage” is a diversion from both political camps. It seems to be trying to encapsulate complex and disquieting discussions about personal socialization into words that, viewed through the lens of rationalism, have little practical meaning. It’s easier to talk about a political slogan than it is to face personal obligations to others. It also forces both camps to run treadmills, keeping them from making real progress with more fundamental problems.

The surface practical question is, who will be affected by this? A recent New York Times article indicated that there were less than a million same-sex couples in the country. If gay marriage were legal everywhere, not that many people would use it. Nevertheless, there have been outrageous abuses of people who are in relationships, such as with hospital visitations and particularly during probate battles from jealous blood relatives. (Some of these problems should be resolved outside of the institution of marriage, but the Virginia amendment might even interfere with these in some cases, leaving ill persons unable to receive visitations from partners in hospitals, for example.)

Furthermore, from a legal perspective, there is almost no chance at all that higher courts in this country would uphold challenges to traditional marriage statutes on constitutional grounds, despite the anomaly in Massachusetts. And the homosexuals are certainly not going to interfere with heterosexual marriages on an individual level, right?

It’s ironic, too, that in Virginia the Marshall-Newman amendment is inserted as a provision in the “Virginia Bill of Rights.” That may have been intended to get around the idea that constitutional provisions normally should be about governance, not about regulating individual lives or rewarding various social behaviors. Nevertheless, we are seeing the underbelly of this whole problem: that many old-fashioned heterosexual people see the social approbation for marriage as part of their “rights.” It goes beyond this. Many people see the social supports for marriage as part of the “family bed” experience. The privileged status is what makes it worth staying together for a lifetime, despite the media distractions and reminders that there are more “attractive” or “competitive” and (usually, following the mentality of Oscar Wilde, younger) potential partners out there. The social rewards of marriage are part of a "collective" package that enables people to maintain a deep emotional bond "in sickness and in health" -- that maintains that a partner can remain worthy even though he or she is much less than perfect.

Here it becomes personal. We have to go beyond the areas where conventional rationalism and objectivism take us. My own coming out was a long and complicated process, documented elsewhere on my sites, but the end result is that I spent about thirty years living in urban areas tending mainly to my own needs. That took most of my attention. I was not prepared to support anyone else. My life sat on that moral knife’s edge for three decades.

But as long as I had my own life and could execute my own “private choices,” I did not care that much about abstract notions of equality. In the 1980s, we had to deal with all of the political and personal threats from the AIDS epidemic, and we were fighting to keep our private space.

In the 1990s, as AIDS came to become perceived as socially manageable (largely because of new drugs and more careful behaviors), a new perspective on gay rights developed as Bill Clinton raised the issue of gays in the military, and as the battles over same-sex unions brewed in Hawaii and Vermont, and then other states. There was more attention to the idea of participation in broad social responsibility: being able to help defend freedom by serving the armed forces (or by holding a security clearance or by working in law enforcement, for that matter); being able to participate in raising children, and being there for a lifelong partner, whether of the same or opposite sex. The debates, in the 90s, began, somewhat under the table in various magazines at the newsstands, to recognized social obligations as a real moral requirement, somewhat as they had up to the 60s. A person's "status" as an equal person can be affected by the perception that he/she "pays his dues" and shares the burdens fairly.

Any legal doctrine that interferes with someone's ability to participate in these essential activites then makes someone a "second class citizen," and through circularity drives the person away from sharing responsibilities. One can see how a constitutional amendment like Marshall-Newman can make a single person with no prior intention of personally attempting gay marriage or a domestic partnership into a second-class citizen, interferring with his contributions to others. So the amendment can affect singletons as well as those in relationships.

During the 1990s, there was an odd dichotomy in the workplace. Sometimes single, childless people like me were expected to fill in for a greater share of the on-call responsibilities (without compensation in a salaried environment) when people with families and children had problems at home. People would get very uncomfortable with discussing the “unfairness” of this development openly. At the same time, with the growth of the Internet, I was seeing “complaints” that less economically or socially advantaged families had a hard time staying together and raising their kids in such a media-saturated and expressive culture. Remember, people of that mindset don't want to hear about things that can distract them from their families -- that's part of the bargain.

Just before 2000, there was a serious medical issue in my own family. I don’t want to discuss private matters here beyond what is necessary to make my point, but eldercare and answerability to the needs of others, even when requiring sacrifice from me, became a very real issue. All the sudden, family responsibility wasn’t just something that starts with conceiving children. It’s something that we all can be expected to share. Many people learn that with other (especially younger) siblings; I was an only child so I bypassed that socialization.

After a corporate buyout and “retirement” at the end of 2001, I tried a number of odd jobs, and one feedback that I got a few times, especially when I worked as a substitute teacher, was that I am not “assertive” enough. Particularly in the teacher situation, I was unwilling to present myself as an “authority figure” over non-intact kids.

So here we have a picture. I am supposed to validate myself by “protecting” other people. The way most men do this is by courting women, marrying and having children. It’s easy to make the connection: the preferred status for heterosexual marriage makes it easier to provide for other people—if you get heterosexually married. But if you stay outside the marriage system, you’re fair game to be nabbed to make more sacrifices to help those with families. Your life is not as important as the life of someone raising a family. You must validate yourself by meeting the needs of others in some socially approved way before embarking out on your own expressions.

I have always been very sensitive about this point. When growing up, I noticed that when a man would die in war, his memory would be validated by mention of his wife and kids as if it justified his existence. But if we value human life (enough to oppose abortion), why were we so nonchalant about drafting young men and sending them to battle? Why were men expendable this way, until they married and fathered kids?

I think this takes us back to the observation that biological lineage is the one “achievement” that is supposed to be available to most people, regardless of other talents or political injustices. Even the Gospels try to deal with the “unfairness” of live at economic and political levels by emphasizing the importance of blood relations, which are, however, supposed to lead to community socialization. The privileged position of traditional marriage, even if it made second-class citizens of the unmarried, was always integrated into what the conforming married person experienced, even “in the bedroom.” That is what is threatened by “gay marriage.” It is what some people see as an intrinsic part of heterosexuality. Yet it is essential mainly for people who don’t have expressive talents that they can call their own.

I sometimes get a reaction that protecting one’s parents is as vital a responsibility as raising children (look at the Fifth Commandment!), and one should accept that lot if it comes one’s way. Indeed, the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 did recognize that parental eldercare could be a justification for asking an employer for (unpaid) leave, just as would child care.

This is a very difficult observation for me to take. Even in the 1950s, a lot of adults were not “of the marrying kind” and often accepted the idea of staying home to look after the elders of a family. Non-marrying women were openly welcomed, often preferred, as grade school teachers (even as “old maids”). The Catholic Church developed a whole system for non-procreative men and women to serve the church and teach – and at least for men, the priests, we have found out that Church covered up a huge problem (hence all of the recent antigay seminary bans and pronouncements from the Vatican about “objective disorders”, etc.) We all know that some people are more “appealing” as partners (and as potential ancestors) than others, and a meritocratic society is likely to see attractive people as “better” than others. I am left holding the bag as someone who was not “competitive” enough as a man to procreate (at least the way soap operas like “Days of our Lives” would see things), so I am supposed to be there for others who were. You can see that I envy the life that Truman Capote lived and his output.

Marriage, though, is cast in exactly this biological web. Its privileged status is justified (not with airtight intellectual arguments) as an institution for procreation, for biological creation (or adoption) of children and raising them. But those who do not procreate (or who are not inclined to engage in the physical activities that generally lead to having babies) are almost by definition forced into a socially subordinate position, whose sacrifices can be commanded at the “needs” of families. Or, at least, they are forced to subsidize the tax benefits and privileges of legally married people because of this connection to the "ideal environment to raise children." (Oh, yes, there is the marriage penalty, though, which is supposed to be going away.) Do we deliberately want to make some people subsidize the life choices of others based on social utility? It seems as though a lot of people raising traditional families can't stand even being made to think about this!

Having gone through all of this candor, we come back to facing a social and practical reality. Given the problems that are coming (global warming for openers), we have to face how we will share responsibilities and even sacrifices. Equal access to marriage, whatever one’s choice of an adult significant other, and even to adoption and child rearing, will help move in that direction.

1 comment:

Bill Garnett said...

Thank you for what you have written. It is obvious that this matter has occupied your thoughts – and, I’m sure has colored your life.

And you seem to approach this with grace and contemplation. I, on the other hand, am angry as hell, that now that science and medicine have concluded that homosexuality is not a moral choice but is a state of being, and that enlightened countries all over the western world have extended full civil rights to homosexuals, that here in America, the birthplace of democracy, freedom, and liberty, that there are those who would continue to so callously use bias, prejudice, and discrimination – not unlike it has been so cruelly and ignorantly used throughout history. I conclude that, and appreciate more that, freedoms are seldom bestowed, they are hard won – and it’s our time in history to fight.