The average Joe may feel ho-hum about a number of things – like parsley as a garnish, or Tuesday versus Wednesday, or the color grey. Ask any person about his or her thoughts on same sex marriage, however, and the engines seem to quickly ignite.
A Little History
Same sex marriage… “It’s complicated.” This modern day, largely-American debate has all the makings of great drama: a challenge to something traditional, a divisive moral debate, and opposing forces stuck in a stalemate. That there is drama over whether or not individuals of the same gender should be allowed to enter into a legal state of matrimony, however, is nothing new. Historically, states haven’t agreed about the level of control state governments should have in domestic affairs. The federal government, by and large, has ducked to avoid such issues altogether. As we can observe from Roe v. Wade, federal intervention in serious domestic issues is proven to set long-lasting legal precedents, and have tremendous power to polarize groups – even amongst friends and families.
If it’s true – the old adage about art imitating life – is it also true that our legal conundrums, and ultimately our final laws, also imitate life? Joanna Grossman of Hofstra University’s School of Law, suggests that the same-sex marriage controversy is a recycling of a long history of morally-based legal fights that spring from hot social and moral topics. According to Grossman, from a historical perspective, the great squabble over whether or not like-gendered individuals should be allowed to legally marry is a classic “sign of American times.” Though British rebels so long ago set out to break “free” from many of the moral limitations imposed by government, Americans may not be able to escape our largely Puritan-driven heritage.
It is this paradox at the center of American society that has historically and persistently caused a lot of glitches in law-making. Our country was founded on the fight for freedoms that should be afforded to all, yet is tempered by religious roots we have trouble shaking when it comes to some of the specifics.
In other countries like: the Netherlands, Belgium, Spain, Canada, South Africa, Norway, Sweden, Portugal, Iceland and Argentina, same-sex unions are readily accepted. This socially unique phenomenon begs a little exploration into the Great American Debate.
Same Sex Marriage: The “For” Side
Supporters of same sex marriage in this hot, history-making debate feel the majority of those who oppose same sex marriage do so – quite simply – because of their personal religious beliefs. They contend that America was founded on the concept of “liberty and justice for all” so it’s not right to make laws based on any one group’s religious preferences and – essentially – “pick and choose” who is really included in the group that should enjoy the “unalienable rights” so fervently discussed in America’s Declaration of Independence. In response to nay-sayers who cite the preservation of the American family as their reason for opposing same-sex unions, supporters call foul, saying this is merely a religious argument in disguise.
Other supporters of same-sex unions (like President Obama, in a recent outing of his own – his strong opinion about same-sex marriage) used his Christian faith as the very basis of his support for same sex marriage. In fact, Obama cited the Golden Rule of “Do Unto Others…” taught by Jesus in the gospels, as his basis for supporting like-gender, legal marriages.
Cathy Speck, a partner in a same-sex union in California where same-sex marriage has been made legal, spoke in front of the senate and offered the following personal anecdote in defense of gay marriage:
When we step out of California, or deal with federal laws, we have none of those rights. This means if Linda and I travel out of state and my ALS requires a trip to the emergency room or a hospital stay, Linda could be denied the right to be with me at a time when I could be breathing my last breath.
When I die, Linda will not get my social security benefits. For heterosexual couples all over the country, when a person dies, their spouse gets their social security benefits. You get a monthly stipend because you’ve been paying into social security all your working life. You then draw off that money after you retire and if you die, it goes to your spouse or your dependent.
However, since the federal government does not recognize our marriage, Linda won’t get that. All the money I would have gotten to help support us if I were to grow older just goes back to the government.
Same Sex Marriage: The “Against” Side
But allowing same-sex marriage, says Eve Tushnet, a celibate, gay, conservative, Catholic writer, can only bring one of three less-than-ideal outcomes:
- A two-tiered marriage culture, where moral standards are different for heterosexual and homosexual couples
- A reshaping of the institution of marriage into an optional, individualized arrangement for every couple
- An institution that encourages all couples to restrict sex to marriage and encourages marriage for life, with the hope that same-sex couples accept norms initially designed to meet heterosexual needs
It’s a learned (and interesting to be sure, coming from a celibate, gay Catholic!) way to say: If gay individuals are allowed to legally marry in the same way that has traditionally been reserved for heterosexuals, then marriage, itself – and what it means – will change.
Is that a bad thing? For those who vehemently oppose same sex marriage, the answer is a resounding “yes.” Those who oppose gay marriage, by default, support straight marriage, and if you ask supporters, never the twain shall meet (heterosexual married people and gay married people). Whether religiously motivated or merely rooted in the comfort of tradition, many in strong opposition of same sex marriage cite the breakdown of the traditional family if homosexuals marry and enjoy the same societal and filial benefits of the traditional married couple.
Who Will Win the Great Debate?
The argument over whether or not it is a bad thing for the modern family to be defined in new ways is rooted in a fundamental clash of ideas about social institutions in general. In this case, the true fight is over the meaning of marriage… what it stands for, what its goals are, and – quite simply – what it looks like.
Whether individuals on opposing sides will agree is ultimately going to have to be up to the individuals engaged in the dialogue. Whether politics and law will land on one, overarching answer to this great debate… unlikely.
Amie Martin is a master-level social worker, freelance writer, and mom/stepmom to five wonderful, quirky, interesting children.
Franck, Matthew. On gay marriage, is Obama ‘imposing his religion’? The Washington Post published May 5, 2012
Grossman, Joanna L., Civil Rites: The Gay Marriage Controversy in Historical Perspective (March 18, 2010). Law, Society and History: Essays on Themes in the Legal History and Legal Sociology of Lawrence M. Friedman, Robert Gordon, ed., Cambridge University Press, 2010; Hofstra Univ. Legal Studies Research Paper No. 10-10.
Oppenheimer, Mark. A Gay Catholic Voice Against Same-Sex Marriage. The New York Times; published: June 4, 2010
Ouellette, Alicia R., Moral Reasoning in Judicial Decisions on Same-Sex Marriage. Philosophy and Sex, p. 168, 4th ed., Prometheus Books, 2009.