Saturday, November 08, 2008

After the Proposition 8 loss: recapping issues on "equality"

Although the LGBT community shows justified outrage at the behavior of the religious right in lobbying for Proposition 8 in California, it’s important to keep the concept of “equality” in a certain perspective. Recently, on the books blog, I reviewed law professor Daniel Solove’s book on privacy, and I think equality is in a sense somewhat like privacy: it is a pragmatic concept that gets expressed in different ways in different cultural circumstances. Even so, HRC (Human Rights Campaign) has practically trademarked its blue and yellow equality symbol.

Two broad observations strike me.

One observation is to consider an unpleasant thought experiment. Imagine a world in which no one (an adult over a certain age) can have a good job, own his or her own home, or speak out on his own publicly on issues (as on the Internet) unless he or she is responsible for supporting others. In some ways, that was the world we had a half century ago, when I was a teenager entering high school. The way a grown-up took responsibility for others was to marry and have children. That reinforced a chain of loyalty and socialization for the extended family which took care of the elderly, who at the time did not live that long past retirement.

In that environment, I was not allowed just to live the life I wanted, and I did not have the freedom that modern liberal ideas of freedom say I should have had. I clawed out to a life of relative freedom in the early and mid 1970s with my “second coming.” I had to put a great deal of attention to my own needs. But I had my own life, and did well enough, I thought, just taking care of myself, working as an individual contributor in computer programming, planning ideas of a future second career as a writer or some kind of novel journalist.

Here I come to my second “big” observation. What I thought I had achieved was individual sovereignty. In a sense, I perceived it as a kind of equality. It was tied to an older notion of “privacy” that Solove discusses in his book. But there were subtle problems. I was interested in my own world, and advancement according to conventional norms was not an objective. The biggest threat to our “way of life” was AIDS, which we had to learn to manage (and fend off the religious right).

The idea of a more modern kind of equality came about in the 1990s. I started first with the debate over gays in the military, and was followed quickly by debates over gay civil unions and marriages. (In fact, the 1993 “don’t ask don’t tell” law mentions the possibility of gay marriage in the service.) That has progressed to the court rulings (on gay marriage) and backlash referendums of today. All of the ideas like military service, marriage and adoption (as in the Arkansas referendum) reflect a belief that equal rights ought to be accompanies by equal responsibilities and equal sharing of common uncertainties and risks. But it is no accident that these ideas came to be debated about the time that the Internet and World Wide Web were becoming accessible and even cheap for members of the general public to use and self-publish on. The meaning equal “personhood” was no longer just a manner of independent life in a relatively covert or separated world (like urban “gay paradise ghettos”). It meant openness and expressiveness, public pride in who one was. In some cultural areas, this became threatening to people who found meaning in the more collective ideas of family and who perceived it (and the structured privilege it could confer) as part of marriage.

With more media coverage and more lively discussions on the Internet, the adaptive problems of traditional families also became more visible. In the civilian workplace, especially salaried positions with on-call duty, tension developed over who should make the personal sacrifices. More public attention came to be focused on other inequities in areas of family responsibility. But one of the biggest problems was that life spans were getting longer, without corresponding extension of vitality and ability to continue working. People who had never married and had children of their own might face heavy eldercare burdens and family responsibility despite not having created it with procreation. The financial crisis could lead states with filial responsibility laws to start enforcing them, and hitting childless and lgbt people particularly hard. (See the “Bill retires blog, July 2007 archives, particularly.)

Hence, we get to a “third observation”: that the open flow of information inherent in the Internet might bring back more of the social mentality of previous generations. Not only is it important to own up to one’s choices, it is also necessary to be accountable to someone, before one’s own expressive life means anything. “Find a need and fill it.” That doesn’t logically follow from the first statement (and the law no longer says that), but pastors say it all the time.

In a practical sense, there are things a single person (gay or not) can do to control the situation, which include planning for it, doing well enough in life competitively, and being able to provide for others in one’s own home. The kind of world we face tomorrow, with longer life spans, reduced government benefits, and decentralization associated with global warming or fuel scarcity could amplify these problems and the need to plan for them. Without planning, the “singleton” who tries to maintain his public life could be chased into dead-ended existential questions. “Equal responsibility” would have fangs, but it would need equal authority and resources.

Many of the common arguments for equality in marriage focus on benefits that are necessary when one partner needs to depend on the other. The straight world is used to this kind of “complementarity” and used to view it as biologically driven. In the gay world it is sometimes driven by psychological polarities. But in many adult gay relationships, both partners are self-sufficient most of the time and don’t perceive a burden from marriage laws. It is when one depends on the other, or when they have other dependents (it could be an eldercare issue as well as adopted or previous children) that the equality issues, as they are usually posed, become more pressing. And the world that is coming may place more emphasis on personal interdependence than the once we have gotten used to now does.

A particularly upsetting situation occurs when gay men are “accommodated” by being asked to “pretend” to be "protective" heterosexual male role models to appease traditional communal norms. That is sometimes offered as a kind of “pseudo-equality.” I expect to say more about this in time.

We often throw around the phrase “second class citizen”. In the past, the concept related to being born into servitude in some way. Now, curiously, with the “meaning” of the nuclear family diluted by individualism, the concept may apply to gays (or many singles) if their individual interests can be sacrificed to the needs of those who do commit themselves to a “gender complemented” intimate relationship, and accept the responsibilities and priorities that such a relationship creates.

In sum, it is true, that legal affirmation of equal marriage rights would “cover” these issues (particularly of how “sacrifice” or unchosen family responsibility is shared), even for people who do not want to get married.

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