Monday, May 28, 2007

Monday with McKenna: Gay Marriage

The images are from APOD; the music is from the Beatles; the movie is from Apple's iSight. Oh, and the blog today is from Terry McKenna.

June is the month of weddings, so as we head into June, it’s time for this blog to consider Gay Marriage. 

Gay Marriage is one of those issues that keeps bubbling over (similar to the issue of illegal aliens).  One of the guys I know (he’s a member of the church choir where I sing) asked me to sign a petition that demands that our state legislators put the question of gay marriage to an UP or DOWN vote.  I said no.  He was stunned.  Actually nonplussed! (You don’t have many opportunities to use nonplussed, so I thought I’d fit it in). 

For gays the issue is simple: they want to join the rest of us in having the right to express a lifelong commitment of love and devotion, and what else but marriage fits the bill?  Think about it.  Where formerly, gays had been restricted to the shadows of our society, they now want to bring their lives and relationships in from the shadows and make them part of the public record.  Quite a change from the closeted world of gay life before the 1970’s.  Also different from the androgynous late 70’s where public gay life was marked by hedonism and abandon (a period that came crashing down with the AIDS epidemic). 

So gay marriage is a good thing, isn’t it?

Polls are an inaccurate resource, but if you watch the polls, you’ll see that the American people have been both generally for and against gay marriage at different times over the past year.  Apparently now is not a good time for gay marriage.  According to the most recent CBS News poll, only 34% of Americans support gay marriage, and nearly half believe that gay sex should be illegal.  Hmmm…. 

But despite the polls, most Americans don’t devote much time to the topic of gay marriage as they go about their lives.  The issue is really a right wing smokescreen, useful to distract voters from the overall failure of the Bush program.  I don’t accept their arguments, but their fear of change is to be expected.  Conservatives articulate two concerns: first, that marriage as we practice it now is essentially an unchanged and universal institution - so how dare we alter it?  Their second concern is that the restructuring of marriage would somehow threaten all of our marriages. 

Before I discuss marriage (briefly) let me first point out that our civil society should concern itself with one thing only – is the change beneficial or harmful?  And by the way, despite the polls which suggest otherwise, the shift toward gay marriage has ALREADY HAPPENED.  By the time a middle of the road institution like the CBS News Poll is ready to ask the question “should gays be allowed to marry” the societal changes that would allow gay marriage to be accepted have already taken place.  All that's left is to bring up the rear – our very conservative South and the mountain states. 

Change can be a problem.  The 1960’s was a time of vast societal change.  The changes in favor of racial civil rights were good.  But the era also began a questioning of the rest of our society’s norms, and the intensity of the questioning was accompanied by a drift into permissiveness that became outright abandon.  A few middle class kids lost their way in a blizzard of sex, drugs and rock and roll (many more passed safely into and out of their purple haze).  The era was troubling to sincere representatives of society.  Nixon may have been manipulating us by speaking about the silent majority, but I still remember my parent’s confusion about the pot and LSD that at least one of their kids was using.  (He eventually straightened out).

My summary above omits a lot, and sounds like pop sociology, but it serves one purpose: to remind us that when change is occurring, we have a genuine concern – is it ok?  Regarding gay marriage, our question should be: does Gay Marriage represent a throwback to wantonness? Or is it something worthy of support?

Before I answer, let me complete my musings about marriage.

On the surface, my parent’s marriage was identical to mine with my wife.  But the preconditions for marriage were different.  In theUS, from the Federalist era through the early 1960’s, marriage was the only way that women could secure a place in society.  Unmarried, a woman remained on the margins.  My mother wanted in.  She was 32 years old and a practicing RN when she married.  Immediately after marriage, she stopped working, and soon after started raising a family (6 births over 10 years).  By the time my wife and I married, it was different.  She and I had both recently obtained MFA’s and we both expected to work throughout our lives. 

But at least my father didn’t purchase my mother’s virginity, and neither did my mother bring a dowry.  But dowries continued to be paid in Europe, through the Victorian era and were respected by European law.  Before the Victorian era, among property owners, marriages were often brokered and the woman was very much property.  If Biblical marriage is at all similar to ours, then what do we make of this passage from Exodus?  "If a man seduces a virgin who is not pledged to be married and sleeps with her, he must pay the bride-price, and she shall be his wife. If her father absolutely refuses to give her to him, he must still pay the bride-price for virgins." NIV   Here is a reference from Wikipedia: One common penalty for the kidnapping and rape of unmarried women was that the abductor or rapist had to provide the woman's dowry.   (In either case, the unmarried woman compensated only for the loss of her value on the marriage market.)

So marriage HAS changed.  (And I haven’t even mentioned polygamy or concubines).  Along with the change, we now expect a man to remain faithful and sexually exclusive – women have always been expected to be faithful.  This last change is VERY recent.  With marriage being a love match between equals, we expect life long fidelity. 

Despite the moralizing of those on the right who deplore moral relativism, in fact, morals are defined differently by different cultures. As culture evolves, morals evolve as well.  The people who wrote the Bible did not notice the personhood of women (almost no one did, so the Bible is not alone).  In our day, we recognize both woman and gays as persons, so our societal codes and restrictions must change along with our changed perceptions.

So… what of gay marriage? 

Conservative’s qualms should be dismissed as nonsense.  Marriage is a multifarious institution that has evolved to meet the needs of each age and culture.  And as far as impacting straight marriage – it’s hard to imagine how.  For myself, I don’t like to see men kiss, but that’s pretty much my only inhibition.  When gays want to marry, they are moving in a conservative direction.  They want to be part of our social order, and given a place at the table.  As such, gay marriage represents moral renewal, not a retreat into degeneracy.  Yes, gays still frequent their leather bars; but straight men seek their amusements too.  I’m not going to moralize, both sets of amusements are fine as far as they go.  But neither is representative of what either straights or gays want from marriage.  Again.. Gays want In. 

It is time.

--T. McKenna

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