The Politics of Sexuality, Part 3: Homosexual Weddings, and Marriage
In part 2, I suggested that no law be made regarding abortion. The argument I had made there was notably incomplete. It is incomplete because in suggesting that no law be made, it could be interpreted as making permissible all action around abortion. This would seem to be at odds with my also stated belief that abortions should be rare, and only done for the health of the mother. Yet it places the increased responsibility on the surrounding communities of individuals considering abortions are not only their legal requirements but also in their fuller moral senses. In other words, by separating the morality of abortion from its legality, I am suggesting that the communities in which abortions occur are the bearers of the moral horizons which contextualize them.
As a caveat, in the following argument, I talk about homosexual marriage and weddings. By use of the term “homosexual,” I intend to include the full range of sexual diversity that is not included by “heterosexual”. For the purposes and length of this article, I cannot feasibly consider the incredible diversity of both sexual orientation and gender in its intricacies. “Homosexual” is thus used as an umbrella term for “non-heterosexual”. Please forgive and understand this gross over-simplification.
Regarding homosexual marriage and weddings, my argument is that sexual practices of consenting adults ought not to be subjected to the government’s approval or disapproval and that domestic partnerships, in which people who live together and devote their lives to one another, ought to receive spousal rights, protections, and privileges that the government allows to heterosexual couples. This continues the logic of separating the legal and moral implications of abortions: moral issues ought not to be regulated by a centralized authority. Instead, the moral content of any law derives its legitimacy from a grassroots will that it be so. If there is no achieved agreement, either by consensus or clear majority, the moral arbiters of a particular action consist of the surrounding affected community. In the case of abortion, achieving a general statement of will in the United States is unlikely. So those people who surround and identify with a young woman who considers an abortion must speak and act into her situation. In the case of homosexual partnered unions, the ability to wed should be permitted. Yet the moral content of marriage needs to be sustained not merely by the two people in the union, but by the surrounding community in which the union takes place.
I consider homosexual weddings as an issue of law—concerning the contention from both sides that marriage is a right to be granted or withheld by the government. First, this “right to wed” is still birth-wet. It exists only because of its being selectively withheld. Apart from its momentary political expediency, there is no reason for its selectively being withheld. Whatever one may think of all that is presently implied and entailed by the legalization of weddings, surely nobody can claim that marriage is either the government’s invention or that the government has an inherent right to determine who may marry. I am quite sure that most people are married in a biblical sense long before they wed.
Second, this so-called “right” depends upon a curious agreement between liberals and conservatives that human rights originate in government, to be dispensed to the people according to their pleading and at the government’s pleasure, implying inescapably that any right, being so expediently the government’s gift, can just as expediently be withheld or withdrawn. This is an inconsistent understanding of what rights are supposed to be, i.e. inalienable. The recent overturning of the Roe vs. Wade precedent in the Supreme Court of the United States demonstrates this point in fact. This flatly contradicts the founding principle of American democracy that human rights are precedent to the government’s existence, that the government is established to protect them, and that the government must be restrained from violating them.
Third, it cannot be allowable, under the above principles, for the government, on the pleading of some of the people, to establish a right solely to withhold it from some other people. If this were to happen, it would amount to a punishment imposed on a disfavored group for no crime except their existence. I don’t need to point out that this has happened before.
That the liberals, who so often have been rightly anxious about the protection of rights and liberties, should define those rights and liberties as the gifts of a generous and parental government is absurd. The protests over the overturning of Roe vs. Wade and the specter of fear which dominates the seeming tenuous right over homosexual weddings seem to miss the point.
The conservative program on this issue, promoting as it does a constitutional apportionment of rights according to sexual category, an implicit violation of the 15th and 19th Amendments, is more darkly absurd. The theory that accreditation of the sexual practices of individuals is a function proper to a “small” and noninterfering government is comic as well as absurd. Interested and affected parties regarding sexual practices cannot be non-interfering, almost by definition. In other words, the surrounding community has moral input into the practice itself.
That homosexuals have been denied the right to wed, supposing for the moment that such a right can exist, surely violates the 14th Amendment, which forbids the state to “deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; [or] to deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.” There is no need for homosexuals to be granted a right to wed that is at all different from the right of heterosexuals to do so. There is no good reason for the government to treat homosexuals as a special category of persons.
In opposition to homosexual wedlock, Christians of a certain disposition categorize homosexuals as a different kind from themselves, who are in the category of heterosexuals and therefore normal and therefore good. They are convinced that the Bible looks upon homosexual acts as sinful or perverse. But it is not clear to me why perversion should have been specifically assigned to homosexuality. The Bible has a lot more to say against fornication and adultery than against homosexuality. If one accepts Psalms 24 and 104 as scriptural norms, then surface mining and other forms of earth destruction clearly are perversions. If we take the Gospels seriously, how can we not see industrial warfare and its unavoidable massacre of innocents as a most shocking perversion? By the standard of all scripture, neglect of the poor, widows and orphans, the sick, the homeless, and the insane is an abominable perversion. Jesus taught that hating your neighbor is tantamount to hating God, and yet some Christians hate their neighbors as a matter of policy and are busy hunting biblical justifications for doing so. Are they not perverts in the fullest and fairest sense of that term? And yet none of these offenses, not all of them together, has made as much political-religious noise as homosexual wedlock.
Another way to categorize and isolate homosexuals from the general citizenry and the duties of citizenship is to define homosexuality as a disease having a cause that can be discovered and removed or cured by some sort of therapy. Instead, we will discover that, like all the rest of us, homosexuals are made what they are by their mothers, their fathers, their genes, their germs, their upbringing, and their education, by their friends and neighbors, their dwelling places, their time and its culture, by their economic and social status, their personal history, and by history itself.
Yet another such argument is that homosexuality is unnatural. If the nature in question is merely biological, that will prove too roomy and accommodating to be of much help. By the standard of that nature, even monogamy is unnatural, an artifact of some cultures. If it is argued that homosexual marriage cannot be reproductive, is therefore unnatural, and should be forbidden, must we not then argue that any childless marriage is unnatural and should be annulled?
Specifically human nature, by contrast, has always had a definition more complex and demanding than that of biological species membership. William Blake thought we are made human by being made in the image of God: “For mercy, pity, peace, and love / Is God our father dear; / And mercy, pity, peace, and love / Is man, his child and care” (Songs of Innocence, XX). Are homosexuals capable of mercy, pity, peace, and love? Some certainly are, as some heterosexuals certainly are. Reductive moral certainties, which always require hostility and are always potentially violent, isolate us from mercy, grace, peace, and love and leave us isolated and vengeful in our misery. That is why we have needed to think of grace, and of the spirit, as opposed to the letter, of the law. It is not the law that saves us; it is grace.
One may find the sexual practices of homosexuals to be unattractive or displeasing and therefore unnatural. But anything displeasing and unnatural that can be done by homosexuals can and is done by heterosexuals. Do we need a legal remedy for this? Would conservative Christians like a small government bureau to inspect, approve and certify their sexual behavior? Would they like a government-certified colorful tattoo on the buttocks of lawfully copulating persons? We have the technology, after all, to monitor everybody’s sexual behavior, but as far as I can see, so eager an interest in other people’s most private intimacy is either voyeuristic or totalitarian or both.
The most absurd of attempts to condemn and isolate homosexuals is to propose that homosexual marriage is opposed to and a threat to heterosexual marriage; it is as if the marriage market is about to be cornered and monopolized by homosexuals. Following the pattern of capitalist monopolistic competitiveness, according to which one must destroy the competition, those Christians that are to be assured of their salvation due to their intimate relationship with God embody the exact opposite. If somebody else wants what you’ve got—from money to the legal privileges of weddings—you must not hesitate to use the government to keep them from getting it.
But if heterosexual marriage is so satisfying to heterosexual couples, why can they not just reside in their satisfaction? So-called “traditional” marriage is now mostly divested of a traditional household and traditional bonds to a community. Traditional marriage as a social reality is failing, if we believe the statistics, but this is not the result of a homosexual plot. Marriage, heterosexual or otherwise, does not need defending. It only needs to be practiced, which is easier said than done. But the difficulty is rooted mainly in the values and priorities of our system of Mass Society, in which every one of us is complicit.
It is certainly possible for a government to withhold the legal perquisites of a wedding from any group that it may be persuaded to designate in our present civil cold war. That is mainly to say that a government can forbid its officers to license weddings for people in a designated group.
But a wedding is not a marriage. A wedding is traditionally an exchange of vows of fidelity and love in all circumstances until death. Sometimes for some people, a wedding may be a sacrament. But however complicated and costly the preparations, the costumes, the photography, and the reception, a wedding happens in a few minutes.
A marriage, on the other hand, is made by a daily effort to live out the vows until death. In the words of my father, the vows I make to my spouse are not so much like laws that I keep or break; they are commitments that keep or break me. The vows may be taken seriously or not, broken or not, but there is no way of withholding them from homosexuals. You cannot copyright the vows which a homosexual couple is perfectly free to make. The government cannot forbid them to do so, nor can any church.
No authoritative church can make a homosexual marriage since it cannot make any marriage, nor can it withhold any degree of blessedness or sanctity from any pledged couple striving day-by-day to be at one. If I were one of a homosexual couple, the same as I am one of a heterosexual couple, I would place my faith and hope in the mercy and grace of Christ, not in the judgment of Christians. Church, in this sense, derives its legitimacy as “church” not from its authority but rather in its living participation that makes grace a reality.
Importantly, these reflections imply something of the moral contents of both homosexuality and the previous discussion of abortion. Practically, biblical exhortations for marriage and for the preservation of life require the moral responsibility of the surrounding community. Community, in the way I mean it, means a group of people who have a direct relationship at the level of the identity of those considering abortions or marriage. Such communities have to be a place of grace for the individuals in question, and such grace will fortify the interpersonal demands of the sacredness of marriage and of life. If the community cannot fortify marriage and the birthing and raising of a child, it is scarcely possible that an individual could meet the demands on her own. And it is in this sense of strong community bonds that it is futile to think that an individual can be morally responsible in abstraction. An abortion or a broken marriage, if they are to be considered immoral, is not so much in terms of legal culpability, but is an indicator of a graceless and alienated communal reality.