By Rebekah M. Hendershot
Having spent the last two days binging on X-Men comics in a vague attempt to avoid finishing this piece on gay marriage, I have come to two mostly unrelated conclusions. First, despite my longstanding distaste for all of Marvel Comics’ merry mutant misfits, I think current writer Mark Millar and creator Stan Lee might be onto something with the new Ultimate X-Men series. Second, for all of its delights, being a committed and reasonably traditional Christian sometimes, well, sucks. A lot.
I am going somewhere with this, I promise.
Ever since it finally started selling well in the late seventies, X-Men has been a popular subject of debate where’er fanboys gather. Disregarding arguments regarding which alternate timeline is current this week, or whether Wolverine could take Colossus, an awful lot of the controversies center on metaphor. Who are the X-Men – really? After all, an oppressed minority with a phenomenal degree of untapped potential, a group selflessly serving a world that hates and fears it, could symbolize just about anybody. Anyone who felt or feels rejected can identify with the X-Men – black kids, poor kids, disabled kids, funny-looking kids, kids who just don’t think the world likes ’em. Same goes for their adult equivalents. The X-Men comic has at one time or another served as a metaphor for the liberation of half the oppressed peoples of the planet, self-declared or otherwise. And recently, with the 2003 film X2: X-Men United (which contains lines like, “Have you ever tried not being a mutant?”), it’s been popular to interpret the struggle for mutant rights as parallel to the struggle for gay rights.
But it’s worth noting – mutants, unlike gays, can get married.
In fact, one of them married an android, but that’s neither here nor there. This article is supposed to be about the search for rational discourse in the gay marriage debate, and I’ve got a disclaimer to make before I find myself dangling from a lamppost.
I was raised in a nondenominational Protestant church – think Billy Graham. I remain both a committed Christian and (I hope) a rational and compassionate human being – think “Jerry Falwell’s an idiot.” As I am a Bible-believing Christian, I cannot recognize homosexuality as a valid lifestyle on a par with heterosexuality. But with all the screaming on the idiot box about gay marriage and civil rights and cruel and inhumane legal systems, I felt it was time I turned to a less well-known side of my mother faith. We are required, as much as is moral, to be good citizens of our societies. To that end, my spiritual and literal forebears have built hospitals and schools, fed starving people, freed slaves, cared for orphans, and made benevolent nuisances of themselves when circumstances called for it. It was time for me to unclench a little and display some Christian honesty of the intellectual variety, for my society’s sake if nothing else. I decided to perform a simple database search for the strongest arguments for and against gay marriage. Then, like the good Aristotelians who have influenced so much of Christian thought, I would make the most rational determination possible. And, again like a good Aristotelian, I would start with my definitions and one uncomfortable premise.
America, taglines on the currency notwithstanding, is not a Christian nation. It hasn’t been for a while. Some of its people are still Christians, but let’s face facts – arguing from anybody’s holy book won’t get me anywhere on Capitol Hill. This is the land where removing a cross from the LA County seal – reissuing, reprinting, and reconstructing millions of documents and pieces of official property – is cheaper and easier than fighting a lawsuit. So any successful argument I might find against gay marriage – or for it, for that matter – must stand without benefit of Scriptural premises. With that in mind, I went a-hunting.
For the purposes of this article, “gay marriage” means a legally binding and legally recognized union, not necessarily blessed by any church, with most or all of the legal benefits attendant on heterosexual marriage – a union which happens to consist of two persons of the same sex. “Gay” refers to an individual actively engaged in homosexual behaviors or lifestyles to the exclusion of heterosexual behaviors or lifestyles. “Gay man” refers to a human male so engaged, “lesbian” to a human female. I’m staying away from bisexuals, transgenders, and from any examples drawn from the behavior of nonhuman species.
I began my hunt on what was, for me, the other side of the fence – arguments in favor of gay marriage. It’s reasonable to say that gay and lesbian Americans suffer certain disadvantages and deprivations, however small, because of their sexual orientation. The strongest arguments for gay marriage are predicated on the idea that denial of marriage rights significantly harms gays, and that instituting gay marriage is the best way to rectify the situation. That’s at least partly true; there are over a thousand benefits conferred on married couples by federal law for which gay couples are ineligible, some of them significant. Charlene Gomes, writing for The Humanist, brought up most of the significant ones: survivors’ benefits from federal institutions like Social Security; power of attorney; easier access to adoptions in general and second-parent adoptions in particular; access to leave in order to care for an ill spouse (unmarried partners are not included); hospital visitation; presumption of joint ownership of property; workers’ compensation rights; legal protection of the privacy of marital communications; and health care coverage (Gomes 15). In a commentary for the journal Pediatrics, Joseph F. Hagen, Jr. brought up yet another problem for the gay community, writing that children being raised by homosexual couples are shortchanged when their guardians’ unmarried status excludes them from health coverage and other benefits (Hagan 408).
Then there’s the problem of limited access to social services. Linda Peterman and Charlotte G. Dixon in the Journal of Counseling and Development found that domestic violence is at least as likely to occur between homosexuals as heterosexuals (if not more so), but that gays and lesbians often go without assistance for a wide range of reasons (Peterman 40). These range from poorly prepared intervening police to a lack of shelters willing to admit gay men to short odds of prosecution to lighter sentences in homosexual domestic violence cases. In addition, many abused homosexuals will not seek help at all, either because a partner threatens to reveal the victim’s sexual orientation, or because lesbian abusers will often check themselves into battered women’s shelters looking for an escaped victim, or because a gay or lesbian abuser may use all the same tactics of intimidation common to heterosexual abusers. While instituting gay marriage would hardly solve the problem of domestic violence, it might force police and court systems to deal with it more effectively where gays are concerned.
Then there are more emotional appeals, like Andrew Sullivan’s moving plea in The New Republic, insisting that gays value marriage and fidelity as heterosexuals do, and that, “These family values are not options for a happy and stable life. They are necessities” (Sullivan 104). It’s hard for a Christian to come out and say that people should be denied legal rights, or access to public services, or health care for their children, or relief from suffering, on the basis of bed demographics. But none of these arguments convinced me that gay marriage was the best or only solution. I was still open to other suggestions.
I next looked at the arguments against gay marriage. Discarding a large pile of Scripture-based appeals presented to me by well-meaning friends and relations, I found a few worthwhile counterpoints to the primarily sunny picture of gay monogamy painted in pro-marriage sources. Mary Eberstadt, writing in First Things: A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life, questioned the validity of the very idea of gay marriage and compared it to trumpeting of single-parent households and commune living in the 1960s as viable alternative methods of raising children, perfectly equal with the traditional nuclear and extended families. She calls such arrangements the “antitraditional household (Eberstadt 10). Opposed specifically to gay adoption, Eberstadt points to dysfunctional elements of the homosexual parenting model, including disproportionate levels of alcoholism and high suicide rates among homosexuals. She also observes that gay men are significantly more likely than heterosexual men to have been sexually abused or exploited in childhood or adolescence, and abused adolescents are up to seven times more likely to self-identify as gay or bisexual than their non-abused peers. She then wonders aloud why, if society is becoming increasingly tolerant of homosexual lifestyles (i.e., is discussing gay marriage), these numbers continue to be so high. She suggests that homosexual couples adopting children will someday be viewed with the same trepidation that now greets the idea of a child being raised without a father figure or in an unstable environment.
Eberstadt successfully challenges the idea that gay marriage is equivalent to heterosexual union (and therefore worthy of the same consideration), but the idea that gays are more likely than straights to have serious problems doesn’t seem like enough reason to ban gay marriage. After all, I haven’t heard many people argue that heterosexuals who have problems with alcoholism, suicidal behavior, or childhood sexual abuse shouldn’t be allowed to marry. Such a marriage may not be a good idea, but America doesn’t always outlaw things just because they’re not good ideas.
Dennis O’Brien, too, sounded skeptical of the idea of gay marriage in a lengthy and complex article he wrote for The Christian Century. Among the strongest points of his argument against full-blown gay marriage was an exposure of the lack of evidence supporting gay rights activists’ claims that homosexuality is a natural behavior and therefore worthy of legal recognition.
I haven’t heard many people argue that heterosexuals who have problems with alcoholism, suicidal behavior, or childhood sexual abuse shouldn’t be allowed to marry. Such a marriage may not be a good idea, but America doesn’t always outlaw things just because they’re not good ideas.
He favored civil unions, in part because a classic function of law is education, and the institution of gay marriage would equate homosexuality with heterosexuality, a leap he was not prepared to make (O’Brien 27).
I read until my eyes crossed, then slept and got up and read some more, and I was not much closer to a conclusion (though a nervous breakdown was looking more and more likely). O’Brien sounded most reasonable of the sources I’d read, neither hysterical nor overly political and most at home with the fine distinctions that were coming to characterize the most reasoned parts of the debate. Even so, I needed a good reason to distinguish between homosexuality and heterosexuality, or a conclusive lack thereof, before I could come out for or against either gay marriage or civil unions. It seemed clear that something had to be done about problems like the unavailability of social services for gays or the denial of health care to children in their custody, but that didn’t mean marriage was the perfect solution. Gay monogamy was sounding less and less analogous to heterosexual monogamy, but not enough to justify leaving matters as they stood. I needed something for lawmakers to do and a reason for them to do it.
I sat down to hash all this out for the umpteenth time, and there was my stack of X-Men books. Still stymied, my brain meandered off at random onto all the reasons I don’t like the X-Men. Near the top of the list was, “Because these benevolent peacenik mutant superheroes, who want to peacefully coexist with humanity, prance around calling themselves Homo superior”. Stupid idea. Stupid, stupid term. It makes no sense –
Except, maybe, that it does. In the warped X-Men universe, mutants are different from humans in a significant way, a way so significant that it merits the coining of a new term. The fact that the term in question was coined by comic book writers, probably at 3 a.m., is irrelevant.
Wheels started turning. Men and women, too, I postulated, are different in some meaningful ways. If you don’t believe me, you’ve never shared a bathroom with a member of the opposite sex. Some of those differences are relevant to marriage – not superiorities, not disparities, just differences. If you don’t believe that, go find yourself a couple who’ve been married a while and take a long, hard look. Therefore, traditional heterosexual marriage is to some extent a union of two unlike things. A homosexual marriage, on the other hand, would be to that same extent a union of like things. And a union of unlike things is not the same thing as a union of like things.
So why do they have to be called the same thing?
We have different terms for men and women because the distinction is sometimes significant. We have different terms for homosexuals and heterosexuals for the same reason. If what the gay marriage lobby wants is marital rights, well, we can pass laws for those. If what it wants is social acceptance, it can hire a PR firm like everybody else. And both jobs might be easier, it seems to me, if we could do something about the pack of people out there quibbling over a definition. We can call it gay bonding or same-sex union or the institution formerly known as Prince for all I care (though I’d obviously recommend not calling it Homo superior). But if we can do something about police service and health care for gays, we’ll probably be able to avoid a lot of unnecessary unpleasantness.
All that considered, however, I must make one final, desperate plea to all parties involved –
For the love of Pete, don’t show up for the debates in Spandex.
About the Author:
Rebekah Hendershot is a junior majoring in print journalism with a minor in classics. Born in Los Angeles, she now lives in Fullerton, California. Her future plans include writing for a major news outlet, learning Japanese, and getting a large, slobbery dog. She writes a monthly science fiction series, available free here.
Eberstadt, Mary. “The family: discovering the obvious.” First Things: A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life. Feb 2004 i140 p10. Article retrieved via the Expanded Academic ASAP database, Leavey Library Information Commons, USC, in Los Angeles, CA on 22 March 2004. Webtrac URL
Gomes, Charlene. “The need for full recognition of same-sex marriage.” The Humanist, Sept-Oct 2003 v63 i5 p15. Article retrieved via the Expanded Academic ASAP database, Leavey Library Information Commons, USC, in Los Angeles, CA on 22 March 2004. Webtrac URL
Hagan, Joseph F. Jr. “It’s About Their Children” (Commentary). Pediatrics vol 110 (2002): p 408. Article retrieved via the Expanded Academic ASAP database, Leavey Library Information Commons, USC, in Los Angeles, CA on 22 March 2004. Webtrac URL
O’Brien, Dennis. “A more perfect union: reservations about gay marriage.” The Christian Century. January 27, 2004: v 121 i2 p27. Article retrieved via the Expanded Academic ASAP database, Leavey Library Information Commons, USC, in Los Angeles, CA on 22 March 2004. Webtrac URL
Peterman, Linda and Dixon, Charlotte G. “Domestic violence between same-sex partners: implications for counseling (Practice & Theory).” Journal of Counseling and Development, Winter 2003 v81 i1 p40. Article retrieved via the Expanded Academic ASAP database, Leavey Library Information Commons, USC, in Los Angeles, CA on 22 March 2004. Webtrac URL
Sullivan, Andrew. “Why The M Word Matters to Me: Only marriage can bring a gay person home.” Time, Feb 16 2004 v163 i7 p104. Article retrieved via the Expanded Academic ASAP database, Leavey Library Information Commons, USC, in Los Angeles, CA on 22 March 2004. Webtrac URL