The Arc Is Bending

While same-sex marriage is dramatically debated at the Supreme Court this week, it’s worth keeping in mind that just a few days ago, Colorado legalized civil unions for same-sex couples, becoming – to my surprise – the 18th state to have either marriage equality or civil unions. I didn’t realize the cause had come so far, but indeed it has. By my count, the nine states that have full marriage equality are Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire, New York, Washington, Maryland and Maine, plus the District of Columbia – and the nine states with civil unions or domestic partnerships substantially similar to marriage are Illinois, New Jersey, Delaware, Hawaii, Rhode Island, California, Nevada, Oregon, and now Colorado. Wisconsin has domestic partnerships which provide some limited rights.

With this much progress in such a short time, and with a non-negligible chance that we could win a historic victory at the court, it’s hard to believe that it was barely over three years ago that I wrote about how grindingly slow progress was in coming. It took a long time for the ground to start shifting, but now that it has, change is coming on faster and faster. Coloradans deserve commendation for their good sense, especially since Colorado is the headquarters of Focus on the Family (which predictably groused about the bill). Although separate-but-equal civil unions aren’t as good as one definition of marriage for everyone, they still represent a big step forward.

And if you look just a little bit further ahead, there are bigger victories on the horizon: polls consistently show that younger generations support gay rights by huge margins. With this in mind, I present for your reading pleasure this story about the delusionally optimistic young opponents of same-sex marriage, who still think they’ve got a chance to win this thing. What’s more, they intend to do it with the same arguments that are already losing:

“In redefining marriage to include same-sex couples, what you’re doing is you’re excluding the norm of sexual complementarity,” said Mr. Anderson, the Heritage Foundation fellow. “Once you exclude that norm, the three other norms — which are monogamy, sexual exclusivity and permanency — become optional as well.”

It goes without saying that this argument suffers from severe historical myopia. As anyone familiar with the Bible knows, monogamy wasn’t an essential part of marriage for much of human history; for centuries if not millennia, polygamy was perfectly normal and accepted. Similarly, the idea of racial segregation was often part of the definition of marriage until just a few decades ago, and again, widespread sexual anarchy didn’t result when this was struck down.

The definition of marriage has changed in countless ways over human history, evolving along with our conception of human rights and the changing view of relationships between the sexes. Why should we believe that today’s definition of marriage is an indissoluble package deal, except because of plain and simple bigotry?

Opponents of same-sex marriage say they realize they may lose the current fight, but they optimistically take the long view, pointing to Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court case that legalized abortion. At the time, they say, opponents of abortion were told their cause was lost, but the fight continues 40 years later.

“If you take the longer view of history — I’m not talking just 15 years, I’m talking 40 years or even 100 years — I can’t help but think that the uniqueness of man-woman marriage will be adjudicated over time,” said Andrew T. Walker, 27, a policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation.

Now, there’s an obvious problem with this argument that its advocates refuse to grasp. There’s a very good reason why their quest is only going to become more difficult: namely, what they propose would necessarily mean forcibly dissolving existing same-sex marriages. And as more time goes by, as more jurisdictions legalize same-sex marriage, there’ll be even more of those marriages to break up, and the senseless malice of their position will become more and more apparent to everyone. (I suppose you could have a strange grandfather clause where existing marriages are left intact while new ones are forbidden, but that’s even less defensible under the principle of equality before the law.)

What made me smile was their acknowledging that if this issue is framed as a vote for whether or not gay and lesbian couples should be happy, they’ll lose every time. Since that manifestly is what this debate is about, they ought to recognize that their efforts are doomed. They claim that they need to argue “in favor of traditional marriage, not against gay people or gay rights”, which is transparently dishonest to anyone paying the slightest bit of attention. Do they think they’ll fool anyone by slipping a gay-marriage ban into the fine print?

Image: From a candlelight vigil in Union Square in 2009 for marriage equality. Photo by the author.

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • Alejandro

    I alway find it funny how conervatives never consider the full definition of marriage when they use the “liberals are redefining marriage!!!” argument. The full definition of traditional monogamous marriage is “a man and a woman who only have sex with each other and never divorce”. Why is then cheating on your wife or getting a divorce legal? These things dont fall in the definition of marriage either, yet the majority of people do them.

    Off course, as a libertarian I think the easiest thing would be to remove the goverment out of the matter, but nobody wants to do this. Both conservatives and liberals prefer the government having its big nose into people’s private business, ensuring we will keep arguing about “gay marriage” and a bunch of other issues for a very long time.

  • Figs

    The arguments about how the government should just give civil unions to everyone and get out of the marriage business are cute, but ultimately not realistic. Pragmatically, we have to start from where we are, not where we wish we were (at the risk of invoking Donald Rumsfeld). The much easier solution is for religious people to stop panicking because the government uses the same word as them for this one thing.

  • GCT

    Both conservatives and liberals prefer the government having its big nose into people’s private business, ensuring we will keep arguing about “gay marriage” and a bunch of other issues for a very long time.

    Yes. When we can’t figure out how to treat minorities in an equal manner, then it is incumbent upon the government to step in and grant equal rights to those who would be denied. I fail to see how a libertarian system would solve this issue.

  • Shawn

    The grandfather clause you talk about – that existing marriages are recognized but that new ones are not permitted – is exactly the situation in California right now. Those licenses issued between June and November 2008 weren’t invalidated.

    If anything, this situation appears to have increased support for marriage equality in California. Whether that’s a unique factor or just general increasing acceptance applicable everywhere, I can’t say.

  • Lagerbaer

    “Once you exclude that norm, the three other norms — which are monogamy, sexual exclusivity and permanency — become optional as well.”

    So? Somehow, that fails to scare me. These other norms are also things that a couple would have to mutually agree upon. If a married couple wants to live in an open relationship with a third person and all those involved are okay with it, then that’s their business. And permanency of marriage definitely doesn’t seem like it’s a big issue for conservatives…

  • Theodore Seeber

    What I’ve learned- if you are for civil unions, you’re still so far behind the curve that you’re a bigot. Sexual libertines are dictators in disguise.

  • Bdole

    “…existing marriages are left intact while new ones are forbidden,…”

    That’s the current norm in CA. know. In the few months following legalization, “we” passed the Mormon-church-funded Prop 8 which put a halt on SSM licenses being issued. The issue will very soon be decided once and for all by the CA SC as you probably are aware.

  • Bdole

    Gaaah! Not the CA SC, the SCOTUS.
    Damn the lack of an edit button.

  • allein

    “It’s really a broader defense of marriage and a stronger marriage culture,” said Will Haun, 26, a lawyer and member of the Federalist Society. (From the NYTimes article)

    I will never understand how preventing people from getting married weakens marriage. That gay people want to marry is a testament to how important marriage still is to us as a society. That relationship still means something to people. Even though it’s often a big part of the argument, the legal benefits aren’t generally the real reason people want to get married. Ultimately, it comes down to emotional reasons of partnership and building families and all that sort of thing. This made me think of the line from a Roy Zimmerman song: “Defending the institution against people who wanna get married.” I’ll buy their “stronger marriage culture” BS when they start calling to outlaw divorce and cohabitation as well (they’d still be wrong, but at least they’d be more consistent).

  • GCT

    What I’ve learned- if you are for civil unions, you’re still so far behind the curve that you’re a bigot. Sexual libertines are dictators in disguise.

    When has “Separate but equal” ever worked?

  • L.Long

    Most of the comments reflect my feelings as well.

    I’ll gladly stop using the word ‘gay marriage’ the minute the religidiots stop using the words “its just a theory!”

    Also it would be very simple for the gov’mint to publicly state that ‘civil union’ is the legal requirement for marriage because that is what is actually done. Get married in a church and the marriage certificate has to be registered with the state now. So make the definition ‘civil union’ for full legal protection and let the religidiots have their silly word. But to have legal protections the marriage certificate must still be registered. There is no real changes to be done.
    I know my state (NC) are rabid bigots in general as they only just got the ‘no mixed marriages’ law off the record and replaced it with ‘NO GAY CIVIL UNIONS ALLOWED’, well they have to have someone to hate.

  • Figs

    It’s funny that Ted Seeber uses the word “dictator” as an epithet here, when he has shown himself over and over again to be explicitly a fan of dictatorships.

  • allein

    L.Long: So make the definition ‘civil union’ for full legal protection and let the religidiots have their silly word.

    I don’t really like that argument; they don’t own the word. We already have a word for that legal status granted by the government: “marriage.” And people will continue to call it marriage no matter what the government term is. Just because certain religious people can’t grasp the concept of a word having more than one meaning shouldn’t mean everyone else should have to stop using it. Besides, if the government started using the term “civil union” for everyone, they’ll just start screaming about how their marriages are being taken away.

  • Nonnie

    Those norms are really interesting. My gay relationship has monogamy, sexual exclusivity, and permanency, since those norms work well for us. But if I got to pick whatever norms I wanted to inform our society’s ideas on marriage, they might be more like decency, respect, humility, kindness, honesty- stuff like that.

    I actually can sympathize with their concerns about the societal effects of legalizing gay marriage, but I wish they would quit using this weird double-speak. Just SAY it “your relationship needs to be confined to the dark margins of society”, if that’s what you mean. It’s like saying “no I’m not saying nothing should be green, I’m just saying everything should be purple!”

    Figs- I really like how you phrase that “Pragmatically, we have to start from where we are, not where we wish we were.” I’ll be using that for sure.

  • Nes

    For what it’s worth, right on the heels of defeating an anti-gay-marriage constitutional amendment last year, Minnesota now has a house and senate with a Democratic majority and a Democratic governor, and they’re drafting a bill to allow gay-marriage (which is currently illegal) which, of course, the governor has said he will sign.

    Unfortunately, they’re going to put it off until after the budget debate. We’re constitutionally required to have a balanced budget, so Dems and Repubs duke it out every other year. Last time the government ended up shutting down for a few weeks because they couldn’t reach an agreement. That shouldn’t happen this time, since the Dems control everything, but who knows…

    Also unfortunately, state-wide polls show public opposition to legalizing it. Not surprisingly, however, the vast majority of that opposition is in rural areas.

  • http://spaninquis.wordpress.com/ Spanish Inquisitor

    The definition of marriage has changed in countless ways over human history, evolving along with our conception of human rights and the changing view of relationships between the sexes.

    As one of the memes floating around the internet so humorously points out, “The fact that you can’t sell your daughter for three goats and a cow means we’ve already redefined marriage.”

  • http://eternalbookshelf.wordpress.com Ani J. Sharmin

    @Figs:

    The much easier solution is for religious people to stop panicking because the government uses the same word as them for this one thing.

    This! I’m really tired of religions acting like they own marriage. They didn’t invent it and they don’t own it. Plus, just from a language point of view, the word “marriage” is easier. (You can say, for example, “We went to to the marriage ceremony” and “My friends got married yesterday” and “They will be getting married next month” etc. etc. It sounds odd to say “They got civil unioned.” I think people are going to continue using the word “marriage” because it has a certain significance in our society and also because it’s just the word people are used to. Opponents of same-sex marriage want a different word because they want to maintain the illusion that their marriages are special, ordained by God, the foundation of society, etc. while same-sex relationships are selfish and shallow and irresponsible.

    @Theodore Seeber:

    What I’ve learned- if you are for civil unions, you’re still so far behind the curve that you’re a bigot. Sexual libertines are dictators in disguise.

    Yes, actually, if you are for civil unions for same-sex couple and think that marriage should be reserved only for heterosexual couples or only for religion, you’re a bigot. Not granting you special treatment isn’t a dictatorship. That you would even make the comparison shows that you don’t care about how bigotry hurts the people who are actually being discriminated against.

  • 2-D Man

    What I’ve learned- if you are for civil unions, you’re still so far behind the curve that you’re a bigot. Sexual libertines are dictators in disguise.

    You think you’re so-o-o-o much better than us ’cause you don’t wear a disguise.

  • Errant Endeavour

    ‘There’s a very good reason why their quest is only going to become more difficult: namely, what they propose would necessarily mean forcibly dissolving existing same-sex marriages.’

    Let me preface my comment by saying that what I say here is based on an old memory, so it may be not entirely accurate, or entirely inaccurate. (For what it’s worth, a quick Google search and perusal of the history of same-sex unions on Wikipedia back up the following statement.) But, here goes.

    I found this above sentence interesting because, if I remember correctly, ancient Rome did have gay marriages. Of course, their understanding of sexuality and marriage was different to ours, now, but for all intents and purposes, they did have gay marriage, or same-sex unions. This was the case until, I believe, the emperor Justinian outlawed it, decreed that marriage was to be in accordance with the Christian definition, i.e., between a man and a woman for the purpose of procreation – and that all those in such gay marriages were to be killed.

    Christians today don’t kill those in gay marriages. They merely bully them into suicide, and oppose them in the courts, and in the government, denying them equal rights and freedoms.

  • Joffan

    I always have found it bizarre that you could call an organization “pro-marriage” which has the aim of stopping marriages.

    “Eating bananas is great, but it really spoils my enjoyment to know that people with green eyes are allowed to eat bananas too. Let’s start the Banana Enjoyment campaign to stop those green-eyed devils from eating bananas.”

  • Joffan

    From the NYTimes article: “Proponents of same-sex marriage… say, same-sex marriage fits with this country’s long history of extending equal rights to groups once denied them.”

    … made me think of Churchill’s assessment: “You can always count on Americans to do the right thing – after they’ve tried everything else.”

  • smrnda

    I honestly don’t see how a pro-gay marriage stance causes any proponent of ‘traditional marriage’ to lose anything. They are still free to marry in accordance with whatever tradition they choose to believe in. If you don’t believe in sex before marriage, don’t have it. If you don’t believe in divorce, don’t get divorced. If you believe marriage is only for procreation, then don’t use birth control and try to have as many kids as you can. Nobody is stopping anyone from living out their ideal of traditional marriage.

    I think the main issue is jealously. Many proponents of traditional marriage are doing it out of duty, not because they want to, because their marriages are intended to please authoritarian structures and gain status, not to make them happy, and the sight of happy, well adjusted couples who reject their traditions make them feel resentful that other people are having more fun than them.

  • anna

    Would everyone mind calling it same-sex marriage (or marriage equality, etc) instead of gay marriage, so as not to leave out the bisexuals in such marriages? That would be really great. I’m not married but I am bisexual (Greta Christina is a bisexual woman in a same-sex marriage, if you read her blog on Freethought blogs) and it seems like we’re often left out.

    Thanks.

  • Azkyroth

    I think the main issue is jealously. Many proponents of traditional marriage are doing it out of duty, not because they want to, because their marriages are intended to please authoritarian structures and gain status, not to make them happy, and the sight of happy, well adjusted couples who reject their traditions make them feel resentful that other people are having more fun than them.

    There’s also sheer hatred of LGBT people, but I think the biggest thing is the fact that a stable, happy couple which contains two men, or zero men, is tangible proof that the Man Owns Woman philosophy of marriage in particular and relationships in general isn’t The Way Things Must Be. (With egalitarian mixed-gender marriages they can, you know, close their eyes and pretend it’s a patriarchy, but with same-gender, it’s harder to ignore) And they’ve invested SO much in that idea…

  • anonymous atheist

    I think that you are unfortunately succumbing to the same illusion like so many left wing ideologist do, that history is progressive – that it only knows one way.
    It does not.
    The Roman Empire for example had been far more hospital towards gays and lesbians or Atheists than Europe was for most of the 2000 years that followed that period. The Religious are gonna come back and they are going to come back with a vengeance.

  • Adam Lee

    Would everyone mind calling it same-sex marriage (or marriage equality, etc) instead of gay marriage, so as not to leave out the bisexuals in such marriages? That would be really great.

    Yes, I concur. “Same-sex marriage” or “marriage equality” are the preferable terms. Thanks for bringing this to everyone’s attention, anna.

  • Azkyroth

    that history is progressive – that it only knows one way.
    It does not.

    The Religious are gonna come back and they are going to come back with a vengeance.

    Make up your mind.

  • anonymous atheist

    illusion , that history is progressive …

  • GCT

    History is progressive on the whole. That doesn’t mean that every single issue is always on the up-swing, however.

  • Azkyroth

    illusion , that history is progressive …

    Your insistence about what WILL happen is inconsistent with what I am charitably interpreting your post as claiming, that there is no set pattern to history. (I suppose it’s not inconsistent with “NAW BRO IT’S CIRCULAR LOLZ” but I’m giving you more credit than that).

  • Azkyroth

    History is progressive on the whole. That doesn’t mean that every single issue is always on the up-swing, however.

    History is stochastic. There are important factors driving a generally progressive trend for most of the modern era, factors which could conceivably be disrupted but won’t automatically be because DUDE IT HAPPENEDED B4! There are important ways in which our modern situation is unlike that of the Romans.

  • JB

    Interesting that the “traditional marriage” defence doesn’t take notice of the norm that I think most of us would actually agree on: consent.


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