Monday, November 09, 2009

A practical and secular argument for same-sex marriage

After the voters of Maine rejected same-sex marriage, a majority vote that restricted the rights of a minority, and one commentator has even suggested that majority vote determines the truth. It doesn't. And in truth, we have very good arguments, both practical and secular, as well as ethical and religious, that same-sex marriage makes sense for Gay and Lesbian people, and we should support it.

The simplest, and I believe the most compelling, practical and secular argument for supporting same-sex marriage goes like this: the alternatives don't work. We have tried the only alternatives to accepting and celebrating same-sex relationships: special status and repression, and both have failed catastrophically. Repression of Gay and Lesbian relationship through laws restricting acts of love between adults no longer passes constitutional muster in the United States (and nobody has even tried to get such a law past the Canadian Charter of Rights). But legal rights aside, repression has had such disastrous results that no responsible government, tasked with preserving a working economy, would engage in it. Consider the case of Alan Turing, the mathematician who laid the foundation of computer science, and later put his discoveries to work constructing the computers that broke the Nazi enigma codes. In 1952, the British police discovered he had a gay relationship, and hounded him to his death. That single act of misplaced morality cost the British the services of one of the twentieth century's great geniuses, and probably any chance at keeping the lead in computer development. Killing Alan Turing probably cost the British economy a trillion pounds over the last half century. Quite apart from the monstrous cruelty of the treatment Turing suffered, millions of other people lost opportunities because of what the British authorities did to him. Neither government nor industry will take these risks today, which explains why private employers moved ahead of governments in support of committed same-sex relationships; they want to attract and keep skilled and talented workers.

Most opponents of same-sex marriage no longer even try to defend the history of repression; they appear to accept the ugly images of police harassment and humiliation of Gay men and Lesbians belong to the same lamentable past as the routine humiliation of women and racialized people. But they still insist that recognition of the rights of Gay men and Lesbians must stop short of marriage. Regardless of the ethics of insisting that any group of people settle for second-class status, the status of outsiders for Gay men and Lesbians has not worked out well. Equality, after all, carries with it responsibility; if we choose not to accept Gay men and Lesbians as equals, we diminish their responsibility to the rest of us. We can hardly blame those we deny the institutions that foster permanent connections for behaving promiscuously. A line from the heartbreakingly beautiful movie Outrageous! contains a reminder, grim in hindsight, of the days of irresponsible promiscuity, when one character says to two handsome young men: "I'll have to take both of you; I'm too horny to make up my mind." In 1977, it seemed that the Gay community could indulge such behaviour; it seemed that the straight community could keep marriage as "our" institution, and indulge a sense of superiority into the bargain. Today, we know we never had that luxury: if we exclude anyone from the rights and responsibilities of life, everyone faces the consequences.

Today, it seems that the best way of expressing those responsibilities, and the sense of belonging that comes with them, comes with participation in, and affirmation of, marriage. To deny Gay men and Lesbians this choice seems, in the end, a self-defeating choice.

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