Peggy and I disagree about gay marriage. That and capital punishment (she favors it) might be the only two political issues about which we do disagree--not that we talk about politics much. I was ambivalent about gay marriage for years, but when I finally figured out where I stood, it wasn’t on the side of passive acceptance but of enthusiastic support. I have come to regard complete equality for homosexuals to be a Civil Rights issue that is the moral equivalent of racial and gender equality, which means that I consider the denial of marriage to homosexuals to be as unreasonable as the denial of food to black people at a North Carolina lunch counter.
Peggy says that to allow gay marriage would be to change the definition of marriage and thus to take us into unchartered waters. In response, I ask, “Why keep a thing the way it already is simply because it already is that way? Were previous generations somehow better qualified to make judgments in this area than we? I do realize that there’s more involved here than consistency, there is the tradition that goes with that consistency. After all, we’re not talking about five years of doing something a particular way; we’re talking about thousands of years. Yet, it’s not like people spent all those thousands of years purposefully choosing heterosexual marriage. It’s simply that, for whatever reason, marriage started out that way, and people didn’t give serious thought to changing it. They probably didn’t give any thought to changing it unless they were gay, and maybe not then, what with gays having enough to do just to avoid being stoned, beheaded, or burned alive, at least in the Jewish, Christian, and Moslem worlds.
Even today, I would guess that most people in this country who oppose gay marriage do so because they belong to one of these religions. One thing you can say about religion is that its mainstream is never deterred from kicking and screaming its way into doing something new simply because the new way makes sense, gives equal rights to more people, or represents greater sensitivity and compassion. By definition, there is no radical religious mainstream, which means that religion will always and forever be among the last segments of society to change, at least for the good. As to changing for the bad, the mainstream churches in Germany certainly embraced Hitler quickly enough, and, of course, there was the Inquisition, but I stray.
I love tradition too, but tradition can be a bad thing, and either way it often takes decades or centuries to change it. I’ve already seen marriage change over the decades of my life, and no one voted for the change either. When I was a boy, only lowlifes and an occasional actor got divorced. In the small town South where I grew up, divorce was a stigma that could ruin your career and would definitely hurt your social standing (my parents were both divorced, my mother once and my father four times.) It was a blame game with two losers—one of whom just didn’t lose as badly as the other. Despite the fact that my parents were both divorced, I used to hear my mother lower her voice when she said that such-and-such was a divorced man or, worse yet, a divorced woman. Is easy divorce an improvement? I doubt it, but it’s certainly a change in tradition.
Peggy would support a marriage equivalence law under which gay people would have equal rights to married people, but without using the word marriage. My problem with this is that I wouldn’t consider equality under a different designation to be equality. It would simply strike me as an agreement by which nobody got what they wanted. Obviously, gay people wouldn’t, but then the supporters of such a law wouldn’t either because they would have to live with the fact that they had weakened marriage by, in effect, dividing it into two categories, and they would also have to live with the fact that homosexuals would interpret the law to mean that their heterosexual brothers and sisters didn’t consider them good enough to use the same word to describe the same relationship. In other words, marriage equivalence would serve as a purity law. It wouldn’t have worked with interracial relationships, and it won’t work any better with homosexual ones.
Ironically, in my view, Peggy and I were in a group marriage for two years, so I asked her how she could support group marriage but not support homosexual marriage when her reasons for opposing the latter could also be applied to the former. She said that she never took our group marriage as seriously as she took her marriage to me because the one was legal and the other wasn’t. I interpreted this to mean that she would probably oppose group marriage being made legal for the same reasons that she opposes homosexual marriage, but I didn’t ask because there are two subjects that Peggy hates, religion and politics, so when I question her about them, I keep my questions brief. On this occasion, I even promised to not respond to her answer.
As to why she hates these subjects, Peggy has no opinion about most issues because she either doesn’t care enough or feel empowered enough to think about most issues. It is also true for Peggy that her opinions of right and wrong are arrived at intuitively, and she isn’t prone to either examine them or try to win anyone over to them. This means that Peggy will probably be the last person you will see marching for or against anything (although she was instrumental in getting a smoking ban enacted at her hospital). She has only voted two or three times in her life, and the astounding thing about her voting at all was that she only did so because she wanted to see marijuana legalized in the late ‘80s. Peggy had never even used marijuana, but she knew a lot of people who did, and she could see that the penalties were out of proportion to whatever harm the drug did, so she went down and got herself registered to vote. With that little bit of wind behind her, she voted another time or two before she de-registered in order to reduce her odds of being called for jury duty.
Peggy has an unbending sense of fairness, and sometimes, in my view though certainly not in hers, this leads her to be compassionate and sometimes it just makes her seem rigid. As she sees it, sudden change in regard to marriage doesn’t seem fair to what marriage has “always been.” To me, everyday that America denies full equality to gay people is another day that those of us who are alive a few years from now—or, at worst, a few decades—will look back upon as shameful in the same way we look back upon slavery, Jim Crow, child labor, Manifest Destiny, public hangings, WWII detainment camps, denying suffrage to women, and most of our wars, as shameful.
I see equality for gays as not only of importance to the gay community but to the entire country. I see it as an act of caring, an act of saying that, yes, you are our equal; you should be treated just as we are treated; we embrace you; we welcome you, after all these years, to full-fledged citizenship. I want to be a part of a country that wants such inclusiveness because whether we grant—or deny—legal equality to gay people, heterosexual America won’t be saying anything about who gay people are, but a lot about who they are.
I also see equality as important for the entire nation in that, despite nonbelievers like Peggy who oppose gay marriage, I have every thought that most of its opponents base their beliefs about marriage on religious grounds, so it comes down to whether we want our values regarding the rights of modern human beings to come from the Bronze Age texts that were written by Middle Eastern tribesmen who embraced what amounted to a Jewish Sharia law. Their laws often seem so unjust and their punishments so cruel by 21st American standards that even most Christians oppose them. Why then throw out so much of what they believed—including their acceptance of polygamous marriage—yet retain their bigotry toward homosexuals?