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Persuasive Essay

Sunday’s print column

I’ve been informally debating opponents of legalizing same-sex marriage for nearly 20 years and have a pretty good handle on their most frequently employed arguments. Today I helpfully list them and explain why none passes the test to which we would ordinarily put a prohibition.

Gay marriage violates tradition.

Yes, most cultures have defined marriage as the union of one man and one woman for hundreds if not thousands of years. But tradition is a mixed bag. It includes slavery and grotesque exploitation of workers, or course, the denial of rights to women and the execution of those who committed thought and property crimes.

Traditionally, we treated illnesses with ineffective or dangerous mumbo jumbo, cast aside the disabled and righteously persecuted those with differing religious views.

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Integrating a society and expanding human rights has always shattered tradition, and we have consistently been better off for it.

Gay couples can’t produce children.

Marriage is a reflection of the biological necessity of a one-to-one heterosexual union for procreation, true enough, and it provides a legal framework that strengthens that union for the benefit of all.

But that’s not all marriage is, by any means, which is why the law generally allows prisoners to marry even when they’re likely never to be released, has no bar against elderly couples getting married , imposes no fertility requirements on prospective marriage partners and considers long-term childless marriages equal to others.

Further, lesbian couples often get pregnant (with outside help, admittedly, but many heterosexual couples get outside help as well) and their families could benefit as well from the legal framework of marriage.

Having a mom and a dad is better for children than having two moms or two dads.

I had an impassioned email argument on just this point last week with an old friend who otherwise supports full equal rights for gays and lesbians.

 “My intuitive sense and common sense tells me there are benefits to heterosexual two-parent situations,” he wrote. “Legions of people with years of parenting wisdom think there is a difference between two dads or moms, and one of each. The burden of proof is on those who want to set aside the widely accepted norm.”

First, no, when it comes to denying a basic right to a class of people, the burden of proof falls on those who rely on intuition and common sense – which, I’m just sayin’, happen to be the support pillars of all forms of bigotry – rather than evidence.

Benefits? Harms? Quantify them or stand down.

Making that case won’t be easy. Studies show little developmental or social difference between children raised by heterosexual parents and children raised by homosexual parents. In fact on 2010 study in the journal Pediatrics found that children of lesbians scored better in such areas as self esteem, behavior and academic peformance than children of straight parents.

Second, even if we concede for the sake of discussion that a stable, loving male-female couple is the gold standard for parenting, it’s otherwise offensive to deny those who fall short of the gold standard the right to marry.

For instance, even if data-mining researchers could demonstrate a strong probability that cetain pairings would produce suboptimal parents — couples without high school diplomas, say, or couples with a 30-year gap in their ages or couples with three or more divorces between them — we would never think of denying such couples marriage licenses.

Legalizing same-sex marriage will put us on the slippery slope toward legalizing polygamy.

The practical and philosophical arguments pro and con for multiple-partner marriages (hey, you want to talk about tradition!) are largely distinct from the arguments pro and con about marriage equality. Historians find, for instance, that it destabilizes a society when some men take many wives and leave large numbers of other men without the opportunity to mate.

Same-sex marriage does not fundamentally alter the basic idea of two people agreeing to unite for life and taking on the responsibilities and privileges of that agreement.

Proposals to legalize multiple-partner marriages, should they ever seriously arise in the legislatures and the courts, would be considered separately from laws regarding single-partner marriages, just as the law now considers alcohol separately from crack cocaine, and hasn’t slid helplessly down the slope to legalize them both.

Same-sex marriage trivializes and therefore weakens the institution of heterosexual marriage.

I almost didn’t include this argument on the list because it’s faded so dramatically in recent years as country after country, state after state has allowed gays and lesbians to marry with no measurable detriment to straight marriage or conventional families.

If anything, philosophically, the fervor with which same-sex couples demand to be granted the dignity and respect of legal marriage underscores the value of marriage and ought to remind us straight couples not to take it lightly or for granted.

Homosexual behavior is immoral and ought not be encouraged.

I will not debate the morality of various forms of private sexual conduct between consenting adults and neither should our lawmakers.

To me, immoral conduct is that which harms others, period. To you or your religious tradition, it may encompass much more, and that’s fine. Advocates aren’t asking you or your officiants to bless gay marriage, celebrate it or even, in your heart, to like it. They’re asking you to recognize the line America tries to maintain between personal morality and the judgment of the law; between what’s your business and what’s none of your business.

Homosexual conduct itself has been legal since the U.S. Supreme Court struck down anti-sodomy laws in 2003. And if anything, encouraging same-sex couples to commit to one another for life will decrease promiscuous behavior among gay people, should that be of particular concern.

The correspondence between me and my old friend to which I alluded above ended genially, but it generated yet another lengthy and heated debate in the comment thread that didn’t end so well. Toward the bottom, one of my long-time sparring partners on the blog said he was hurt and angry by how warmly I’d objected to his views (I called them churlish and tedious).

“People like me have to accept an extraordinarily redefinition of marriage,” he wrote, “and must accept that we are not only tedious and churlish but quite possibly there lurks within us some sort of unspeakable bigotry or indeed evil if we do not submit to this agenda in its entirety?”

He went on, “The gay rights movement has done an outstanding job of propaganda in comparing itself to the civil rights movement. That comparison is a deep insult to the fight for black civil rights in this country, unless you can point out a heterosexual segregated lunch counter or school, which you can’t.”

My answer was not much of an olive branch:

Gay people have been treated horribly in our society and most other societies for, well, forever. They have been marginalized, ostracized and abused, and unlike others who have suffered such fates, many of them have not even been able to seek solace and take comfort with members of their own families.

Heterosexuals-only lunch counters? Are you joking? For most of history, every place gay people went was presumptively heterosexuals only. Every school, every arena, every workplace…. and to “integrate” them was to risk not just banishment, but assault.

I consider this a deep, deep moral wrong — a stain on our culture, a shameful and very long chapter in our history. And I truly think it’s the least — the very least — we can do now to grant gay people equal rights and opportunities; legal respect. Even those who find their private consenting sexual behavior repellent to contemplate, offensive to the natural order and scripturally forbidden must, I believe, find the common decency within to afford them these minimum rights. Particularly given that such a concession comes at no cost to themselves

And I confess to but don’t apologize for expressing this view with great vehemence and for exhibiting so little patience with the idea that due to inchoate and unproven fears, religious dictates and aesthetic concerns we ought to continue for one more day to treat gay people and gay couples as second-class under the law.

I’m impatient only with those I respect and from whom I truly do expect better.

Posted at 10:23:59 AM



You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

Thanks for putting out this article, these are some really effective and thorough counterarguments and reflect my own past thoughts and arguments on the issue. My only point of contention regards multiple-partner marriage – although polygamy may lead to a depletion of female partners, there would be no such effect in symmetric multiple-partner marriage where both males and females have the option to marry multiple people, which is what the polyamory movement has sought. However I recognize that at the moment it’s more important to focus on the civil rights that are short-term attainable and enjoy wide public support.

Posted by: Derrick Coetzee | Saturday, May 19, 2012 at 11:36 AM

That feeling your sparring partner is bemoaning is called cognitive dissonance.

I know it well. I support equalizing the rights of hetero- and homosexuals to form unions recognized by government and supported by law. (In other words, call it marriage and extend it to all or get the government out of the “marriage” business and make something called a “civil union” the legal accompaniment to a religious marriage, I don’t care, just apply it equally to all.)

And yet, when a scene flashed on TV the other night of two men kissing passionately, I turned away instinctively.

How can I reconcile these two things? It gets worse.

Worse, in the sense that it’s not a simple matter of rational vs. emotional response. Because I also have an emotional response — a positive one — toward my gay friends and colleagues who are lucky enough to find loving partners. And, yes, to have children and form families.

That’s cognitive dissonance. On the one hand, my brain sends negative signals about clear public displays of homosexuality; on the other, it sends positive signals about the love I see between two gay men or gay women. (For that matter, it sends negative signals about many of those who argue against gay marriage.)

When confronted with cognitive dissonance, that thing in our minds which we call consciousness automatically seeks a way to eliminate it. In a metaphorical sense, it seeks a compromise that allows it to reconcile the conflicting signals.

Thus, weird phenomena like stroke patients who, no longer getting signals from their left side, insist that the arm lying alongside them belongs to someone else.

And thus, people like your friend who support equal rights for homosexuals but make a final shy at adoption, and justify it because they “know” heterosexuals make better parents. Or your sparring partner in the comments, who cannot contemplate changing his opinion because to do so would force him to acknowledge that he harbored prejudice.

Me? Maybe I’m a bit more comfortable with dissonance. Maybe it’s because I saw my father overcome his prejudice against African-Americans on an individual basis, but somehow still retain it as a general principle, and that makes it easier for me to see and reject the symptoms in myself. Maybe it’s because I recognize the direction of change within myself — my mind and body used to have a much lower threshhold for displays of homosexual affection.

But it sounds as if you, Eric, are not troubled by cognitive dissonance on this issue. In which case, it may be harder for you to understand what your more thoughtful opponents are going through. You argue, for instance, that this form of discrimination against homosexual couples is a deep moral wrong — and this, you say, is reason enough for everyone to oppose it even if they find homosexuality itself “repellent to contemplate, offensive to the natural order and scripturally forbidden.”

The only way that statement makes sense is if one thinks that the sum of “repellent … offensive … and forbidden” doesn’t come close to equaling “morally wrong.”

I’m pretty sure that for a lot of your thoughtful opponents, their sense of morality is based in large part precisely on what feels repellent and offensive, and what is scripturally forbidden. We know you don’t work on scriptures, and maybe you’ve worked out a moral sense that ignores your gut feelings and works solely on equations of logic. But more likely, I think, you simply don’t have those feelings of repulsion and offensiveness about homosexual actions, or do so to a far lower extent than your opponents.

And thus, to you, there is little or no cognitive dissonance. Your moral sense is triggered only by the act of discrimination; it’s a slam dunk.

ZORN REPLY — A lot of things may gross me out or cause me to turn away, but that doesn’t mean I should impose that on everyone or strive to make or keep them illegal. And the line between moral judgment and legal judgment is a key one to preserve.

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