Same-Sex Marriage And "Equality"

Perhaps nothing highlights the fundamental misunderstanding and outlook difference at the heart of the same-sex marriage (SSM) debate than the question of whether SSM constitutes “equality.”

On this point, perhaps more than any other, SSM “progressives” and “conservatives” (allowing the very truncated use of these terms for a second) just are not able to understand each other, and find themselves hitting a brick wall.

To the conservative, it’s obvious that describing SSM as “equal rights” and “equality” is nonsensical. Everybody has the same right to marriage. What progressives want is not an equal right to marriage for gay people, it’s to redefine the institution of marriage so as to shed its heteronormativity. Regardless of whether that’s a bad idea or not, it’s got nothing to do with “equal rights.” Progressives don’t want an equal right to get married, they want the creation of a new “right to marry the person I’m attracted to regardless of their gender.” And this new right would redefine marriage as something it’s not.

Progressives just seem unable to even comprehend that this point of view exists. (Here in France, when a Member of Parliament said that gay people already have a right to marry, it was reported as her “calling on” gay people to get married to opposite-sex partners.) When they encounter it, it just seems to them as pure semantics— a distinction without a difference. Without SSM, gay people clearly don’t have the right to get married with the kind of person they’re attracted to—it’s only a technicality that this is actually a new proposed right, not an equal right. For all intents and purposes, gay couples lack a right that hetero couples have. (Pointing out that this merrily conflates individual rights with group rights is, again, beside the point.) Nobody is redefining anything, simply fixing an odious, outdated and inexplicable discrimination.

It’s really striking to watch this. (I’ve been on both sides of the argument.) At some point you’re tearing your hair out.

So, who’s right? Who’s wrong?

It might be worth thinking about which argument carries more weight in the society. The conservative one is increasingly losing steam, and the progressive one is gaining seemingly irrevocable power. It doesn’t mean one is true, but it does suggest a way out (or, rather, above) the dilemma, because it reveals something about the debate.

They’re both right. They’re both wrong.

The conservative is obviously right that SSM represents a redefinition of marriage from how it’s been traditionally understood. But he’s wrong that SSM advocates are the ones who want to enact this redefinition. The redefinition of marriage has occurred in the Western World over the past 40 years. It’s not teh gays, it’s teh straights who have turned marriage into “I like you, you like me, so let’s throw a big party,” and the redefinition is not happening now in state legislatures and courts, but has happened over the past couple generations.

If marriage is defined this way—a contract between two people who fancy each other—, then the progressive is right that opening marriage to same-sex couples is a simple question of equal rights. Of course it’s discrimination to prevent same-sex couples from getting married. The progressive is wrong that his understanding of marriage is the only possible one, or that it is so commonsensical that the contemporary understanding is superior to others that it is not worth even entertaining that there might be other desirable ones, or that “marriage” might have a definition between “what [two] people agree to”.

With this understanding of the “equality” debate within the SSM debate, we can understand how much of a red herring the SSM debate is. The marriage equality movement is not the vanguard of a redefinition of marriage, it is the rearguard, and the redefinition was done by straights, not gays. Easy divorce and late marriage, old phenomena which had good social conservative cheering sections or on which social conservatives are almost completely silent, destroyed the traditional understanding of marriage beyond anything that SSM can do.

Why has this redefinition occurred? I’ve ultimately come to believe that (along with a good dose of myopia), the change has come due to technological and economic trends that are beyond anyone’s control, and that conservatives need to find a way to reinforce marriages within the contemporary framework rather than focus on the illusory task of rolling it back. (Encouraging early marriage—and the social structures that make early marriage worthwhile—seems to me to be the most promising avenue.)