21 October 2009

Always and everywhere?

By John Corvino,
Sept. 4, 2009

Marriage equality opponents frequently claim that marriage has been heterosexual since…well, since FOREVER, and that it is arrogant and foolish to tinker with such a pervasive human institution.

Whatever its logical shortcomings, the “always and everywhere” argument is rhetorically effective. Even gay-rights advocates concede that marriage equality seemed unthinkable just a decade or two ago. Imagine how novel it appears to those who, unlike us, have no direct stake in the issue. It’s tempting to respond that lots of things that seemed unthinkable a few decades ago - iPhones, Facebook, Sarah Palin–are, for better or worse, now familiar. But the reluctance to tinker with marriage is deep-seated. The “always and everywhere” argument demands a response that is not only logically sound but also rhetorically compelling. Several responses are worth pondering. I’ve given them each names for convenience:

(1) False premise: The claim that marriage has always been exclusively heterosexual suffers from what should be a fatal flaw: it is simply not true. Same-sex marriages have been documented in a number of cultures, notably some African and Pacific Island cultures. Marriage-equality opponents retort that these marriages are not quite the same as modern same-sex marriages, since they typically involve a kind of gender transformation of one of the partners. But this response is a red herring. Sure, homosexual marriages in these cultures look different from ours in various respects - but so do their heterosexual marriages.

More important, it is doubtful that opponents would abandon their objection to contemporary samesex marriages as long as one partner agreed to be the “wife” and the other the “husband.” The real problem with the “false premise” response is rhetorical:

The response depends on anthropological data unfamiliar to most people, and it appeals to “exotic” cultures whose practices most Americans find irrelevant.

(2) Heteronormativity: Rhetorical considerations would also weigh against using words like “heteronormativity” when responding to people’s basic fears about marriage. But it’s nonetheless true that the “always and everywhere” argument begs the question against those who argue - quite rightly - that the heterosexual majority tends to oppress the homosexual minority always and everywhere. Because of that oppression, recorded history often ignores or erases our lives and commitments.

Keep in mind that just a few decades ago, gays and lesbians were still considered mentally ill in much of the West; even today, gays are stoned to death in parts of the world. Against that backdrop, it’s not surprising that same-sex marriage seems new fangled. The marriage-equality movement owes as much to an improved understanding of sexuality as it does to changing views about marriage.

(3) Not Mandatory: Even granting the (false) premise that marriage has been heterosexual “always and everywhere,” so what? No one is proposing that same-sex marriage be made mandatory. Heterosexual marriage will continue to exist “always and everywhere” for those who seek it, even while society recognizes that it’s not appropriate for everyone. The opponents’ argument seems to play on the irrational notion that giving marriage to gays somehow means taking it away from straights.

(4) Non-Sequitur: Let’s concede to marriage-equality opponents that history and tradition are important, and that we should be cautious about changes to major social institutions. Yet even if (contrary to fact) marriage were heterosexual “always and everywhere,” it does not follow that marriage cannot expand and evolve. One should never confuse a reasonable caution with a stubborn complacency.

Increasingly, that complacency is more than stubborn–it’s unconscionable. Marriage-equality opponents can no longer ignore the fact that we fall in love, just like they do; that our relationships have positive effects in our lives and the lives of those around us, and that we reasonably seek to protect and nurture these relationships. If not marriage for us, then what? Ultimately, the problem with the “always and everywhere” argument is that each new samesex marriage is a living counterexample to it. Whatever happened in the past, we have marriage equality now–in a small but growing number of places. These same-sex marriages are by and large bearing good fruit.

If ignoring tradition is “arrogant and foolish,” ignoring the evidence unfolding before us is exponentially so.

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