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The Stakes in the Gay-Marriage Wars
by Richard D. Mohr
© 1996, Richard D. Mohr

Two questions: “Why have gays suddenly come to view access to marriage as the paramount issue in achieving justice?” And “why is society’s opposition to the legal recognition of gays’ love so intense?”

To answer these questions I want to draw a distinction between marriage viewed as a way of experiencing the world — of interacting with others and conducting one’s affairs — and marriage viewed as a cultural ideal, one tethered to people’s identities. Marriage viewed as a way of experiencing the world explains gays’ sudden interest in the issue, while marriage viewed as a cultural ideal explains the strength of the backlash against gay marriage. The unfortunate result is that in this battle of the cultural wars the combatants are not even fighting on the same field.

Gays are gradually coming to an awareness that gayness matters in the way we lead our lives; that it is not some insignificant factor in life like a preference for grapes over strawberries. Nor is gayness a property, like having an eye color or wearing an earring, that a person could have in splendid isolation from all others. Being gay situates a person in the world in an on-going day-to-day way. It’s not something one does just on Saturday night or in the sack.

All this was denied by traditional civil rights approaches to justice. Such approaches analogized gayness to skin-color and viewed gayness as a property that is fundamentally irrelevant to people’s lives. If it is fundamentally irrelevant, then presumptively it is irrelevant to teaching a class, flying a plane, or being a cop. On this account, job discrimination is unjust since it is based on something that isn’t the basis of anything. This alluring, if limited, model dominated the gay movement from its inception through at least the first decade of the AIDS crisis.

But now consider marriage. Marriage can acknowledge the importance of gayness by affording a way to incorporate gayness into a person’s everyday affairs. Viewed as a way of experiencing the world, marriage is the development of love and intimacy through the medium of everyday living. Marriage develops the sanctity of love through the very means by which people meet the day-to-day necessities of life. Marriage converts houses into homes, the consumption of food into customs of nurturance, and sex into filiation. This intersection of gayness and the everyday at marriage explains why gays have rightly shot marriage to the top of the gay rights agenda.

The bad news, though, is that marriage plays an important role not simply in people’s experience of living but also in our culture’s received ideals.

At the end of May as part of a House subcommittee hearing on the so-called Defense of Marriage Act, Barney Frank grilled DoMA co-sponsor Henry Hyde to revelatory result. Frank got Hyde to admit that if gay got married, they would take absolutely nothing away from Hyde’s own marriage nor, by extension, from any other current American marriage. No heterosexual couple would lose any legal right or material benefit if gays were allowed to get legally married. But what then, Frank queried, was Hyde trying to protect through the Defense of Marriage Act? Hyde’s answer: "It demeans the institution. The institution of marriage is trivialized by same-sex marriage." But note that the institution of marriage here has become completely detached from any actual marriage. It is only the concept or ideal of marriage — marriage wholly in the abstract — that concerns Hyde. Here we have left the realm of traditional social policy and entered the realm of cultural symbols. But symbols matter: it is chiefly in terms of symbols that people define their lives and have identities.

To put it bluntly: marriage, viewed now as a symbolic event, enacts, institutionalizes, and ritualizes the social meaning of heterosexuality. Marriage is the chief means by which culture maintains heterosexuality as a social identity. Marriage is the social essence of heterosexuality. In consequence, on the plane of symbols and identities, if one did not marry, one would not be fully heterosexual. And here’s the kicker: if others were allowed to get married, one wouldn’t be fully heterosexual either. This analysis explains why the courts, the President, and Congress can claim that marriage by definition is the union of one man and one woman as husband and wife, even though this definition is circular, lacks any content, and explains nothing. Its function is not to clarify or explain; its function is to assure heterosexual supremacy as a central cultural form.

What political strategy does this analysis suggest? Standard civil rights strategies that appeal to fairness and equality will do no good. Since the problem is chiefly cultural rather than political, we must adopt a cultural strategy. We need to be able to assure straights that they can be as heterosexual as they want to be — even if gay marriage is legalized. Once we get them to realize, as Frank seems nearly to have done for Hyde, that the issue is a symbolic, if still important, one for them, one wrapped up with their self-conception rather than their well-being, then we can begin to mobilize religious analogies rather than racial analogies as our chief strategy.

Consider: Catholics, but not Protestants, believe that the bread and wine which a priest holds up are literally the body and blood of Christ and this belief is central to their identities as Catholics. In light of the carnage of the Thirty Years War between Protestant and Catholic governments, the world decided that the state is not the proper vehicle for enforcing through law the symbols by which individuals establish themselves as having identities. And Catholics now believe that they can be as Catholic as they want to be, hold as articles of faith the beliefs that define them as Catholics, even if Protestants do not hold or live by these same tenets. Similarly our aim should be to convince straights that they may have an abiding religious- like faith in the rightness of heterosexuality for their lives, but that it is not a proper function of government to enforce that faith on everyone, anymore than it is right for the government to impose a belief in transubstantiation on all citizens.

© 1996, Richard D. Mohr
Richard D. Mohr is Professor of Philosophy at the
University of Illinois - Urbana, and the author of
A More Perfect Union: Why straight America must stand up for gay rights.

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