Sunday, September 30, 2012

Marriage equality vote (in MD and elsewhere) is the tip of a deep iceberg: remember how things used to be?

The Metro Section of the Washington Post on Sunday, Sept. 30 leads off with a headline story, “Md. To see ad war over same-sex marriage”, by John Wagner, link here.

The Post points out that Maryland is one of three states where voters could actually affirm same-sex marriage on the November election.  It could be the first.  It could happen the same year that Maryland hosts a World Series.

The fact that “conservative” voters may turn out for a referendum on gambling (opposed by lobbying interests representing a competitor casino in Charlestown, W Va, 70 miles from DC) could hurt the gay marriage vote, by accidentally increasing the socially conservative turnout.

I have been recirculating, in my own mind, for the sake of a forthcoming video, the whole question of the “rights and responsibilities” for those who are “different”.   Now, “gay rights” is part of this and overlaps it, and it leaves me asking myself, “What do ‘They’ want?”

It’s interesting to look at the whole debate over “equal rights for gays” from the inside-out, and look at where that takes you into larger debates about individual rights in a world of increasing concerns about sustainability.  And it’s useful to start that examination with a look at the gay marriage debate, upside down.

At a certain level in my own psyche, I generally understand the English language word “marriage” to refer to a legally recognized permanent (by intention) relationship between an adult man and an adult woman (conforming at least to a physiological model of potential procreation and all its risks), with certain rights and responsibilities.  As an element of culture, I, given my age and a lifetime to restrospect over, I do appreciate the word for what it always has meant. 

Could we invent another word (or “compound noun”) that means a permanent adult same-sex relationship with all the rights and responsibilities of marriage? Other languages make nouns by prefixing adjectives.  Look at the examples “la jeune fille” and “le petit dejeuner” in French.  In English, we understand “domestic partnership” as a permanent relationship with genders unspecified and fewer rights and responsibilities than for marriage.  (A few states have tried to define it as having all the same benes, however.)  Could we invent “gay marriage” as a legal term and a compound noun?  Maybe hyphenated?  Maybe spelled as one word (as if in German), where the rights and responsibilities are the same?  I think we could if we wanted to.  Change the spell checker in Microsoft Word and allow it to be spelled without a space.  In that case, gay marriage does become a linguistic problem.

The fact is that the gay marriage debate really hides the fact that opponents don’t want people who don’t experience heterosexual sexual intercourse in marriage to be fully equal citizens.  They do want people who don’t make the commitment to share their entire lives with an opposite sex partner to feel exposed to making sacrifices for those who do.  (In Virginia, Marshall-Newman also opposed recognition of domestic partnerships.)   They really don’t want homosexuality to be a legitimate element in society.  Why – we’ve looked at that before – but it’s clear that a few decades ago (as when I was expelled from William and Mary in 1961 for telling the Dean of Men, under pressure, that I am gay) that many people did want to go out of their way to make life more difficult for male homosexuals, and tended to look at “us” as a not-fully human enemy to be resisted.  Why – again – makes a good discussion, relevant to today’s concerns over hyperindividualism.   The whole idea that “eusociality” is a moral requirement of everyone is complicated by the fact that marriage and family changes the perceived granularity of the individual for some – but not for all – people.  I think one particularly relevant observation is that the “family” is supposed to be a unit of society where everyone (including the childless) learns to “love” others with some degree of complementarity, so that the family can take care of itself in a possibly dangerous world, and so that everyone can have some “value” if not exactly “equality”.

I have written before that, in a quasi-libertarian world, public benefits for relationships should focus mainly or exclusively on relationships where there are genuine financial dependents – raising children, who could have been adopted, and personally taking care of the disabled and elderly – the latter of which is rapidly becoming a bigger challenge because of demographics.  I’ve also written that maybe the benefits of marriage could be rationed to one partner per person per lifetime.

As for the focus on the benefits of marriage, yes, they can be important.  Sometimes one partner in a same-sex couple is dependent, particularly if elderly or disabled – and taking care of gay elderly is becoming a new need (see my review of the film “Gen Next” on the movie’s blog, Sept. 24). Sometimes blood relatives try to disrupt a will.  The list does go on. 

But what worries me the most about the gay marriage debate is the effect that it can have on those who aren’t in relationships.  For a few decades, “we” lived in an “urban exile”, rather like on a virtual separate planet.  What we wanted was our privacy.  We didn’t worry about abstract ideas of equality that much.  In my experience, I started to experience episodes where sometimes people with kids (not necessarily married) sometimes expected the childless to carry more of the weight for the same money in the workplace.  Then the issues went beyond financial and became personal. The Internet has “reconciled” us (to borrow a concept coined by gay British sci-fi and fantasy novelist Clive Barker), and now we have much more of a sense that we can be called upon to become our brother’s (or sister’s or parents’) keepers.  My own experience with eldercare (my own mother, who passed away in 2010) taught me that, as did what happened when I tried substitute teaching.  I found it very difficult to give other people “emotion” when I had not been in a long-term relationship myself.
I did have my own history of heterosexual dating in the early 1970s (before my “Second Coming”).  Had I been more competitive physically with other men, I believe that I might well have married conventionally, and had kids.  Then I would have had to deal with my need for experience with male partners.  Since all of this could have happened in the 1980s, I could conceivably (in this alternative universe) have wound up exposing a wife to HIV, and maybe even unborn children.  It turns out that this did not happen.  Is that a good thing?  Was a tragedy spared?  Or did I just evade the responsibility for providing part of another generation – to learn the bitter emotional consequences when I had to take care of my own mother? No, it is no fun to feel like “the family slave”.

Had “gay rights” been recognized in the early 60s, would I have married another man to whom I was attracted and with whom I was in love (mutually)?  I think I might have.  Could I have raised adopted children in such a world?  Maybe, it I did well enough on my own first.  (You have to be good at “being a wallflower” first.)  Could I have sustained erotic interest and wanted the same person in my bed as we both grew old (and less attractive physically) over many decades?  That’s a very troubling question.  There as a lot of “upward affiliation” and not much complementarity (although there was some polarity) in who I built relationships with adult same-sex contemporaries. 

Later, I’ll explore the question, of why the military gay ban was such a critical issue for me when it surfaced in the early 1990s.  

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