By Lex, On February 12, 2007
`When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, `it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’`The question is,’ said Alice, `whether you can make words mean so many different things.’`The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, `which is to be master – – that’s all.’
On the issue of gay marriage, I must admit to a certain degree of ambivalence. I don’t believe that anyone decides for themselves what they find beautiful in another person – they find beauty where they can, they find it where they must. They are, in other words, as their God has made them. Far be it from me to question God.
I also believe that the more love there is in the world, surely the better off we all shall be. That said, there is an echoing preference in the laws of the land for the heretofore conventional arrangement of men marrying women (and vice-versa). This is understandable: The state is concerned most of all with ensuring its own survival, or put another way, its own propagation. Those things we tax, we generally intend to suppress or discourage, while those we subsidize we are generally perceived as approving: In the interest of self-preservation, tax laws are crafted to subsidize the next generation of tax payers, raised under the generally accepted best practice of a two-parent family. Ozzie and Harriet, e.g. Ward and June.
Gay unions may be many wonderful things, but they are not, barring extraordinary efforts, notoriously fecund. Hence: No subsidies for you.
But there are “eaches,” aren’t there? Seniors marry with no intent (or capability) to have children, and some who marry in their childbearing years prove either unable or undesirous of contributing to the river of tears that is the endlessly flowing human tale. We do not peer into peoples’ bedrooms when we offer them their tax break, nor demand that they reproduce or else forfeit their privileges. That would be unseemly and unkind, not to mention a dreadful invasion of privacy.
And on the other hand, there are gay couples who manage to adopt, or find other ways to have children of their own. And if that family environment is unfamiliar to those of us who came from the classic nuclear family, it cannot be more poisonous than some of the more tragic stories of “conventional” relationships which thrust themselves into our horrified awareness. Suboptimal for the child involved? Perhaps, but there are many worse stories in the straight world, alas.
To recognize this is only to recognize the way the world actually is. But it is emphatically not to call for public policy changes, not in itself. One must first ask oneself it is socially wise to craft public policy around the “eaches.” Life can be challenging and sometimes those challenges come in multiple vectors – must there be a unique federal law for each color-blind amputee? How about each near-sighted diabetic? How about for that vanishingly small percentage of an already small minority who want to 1) marry, and 2) raise children?
The number of same-sex couples who would marry if they had the opportunity is unknown, but the 2000 census offers some insights. The census does not ask about sexual orientation, but it allows people living with a nonrelative (sic) to identify themselves as “partners” instead of “housemates/roommates.” Almost 600,000 households (or 1.2 million people) identified themselves as same-sex partners in 2000, roughly half in male couples and half in female couples. They represented about 0.6 percent of the total adult population and almost 1 percent of people between the ages of 30 and 50.
And of that 0.6%, an estimated 39% (link goes to a UCLA pdf) are currently raising children – a number that admittedly might increase in a more favorable regulatory environment.
“Marriage” used to have a commonly understood meaning, it had a – for the most part – religious context and it didn’t need any “gay” or “straight” modifier in front of it to make it universally comprehensible. But our culture is growingly secular and some of our religious traditions are increasingly elastic. From a “defender of the culture” point of view – after all, Bill Buckley did define a conservative as one who “stands athwart history shouting stop!” – my concern is that elasticizing the definition of “marriage” from the meaning it has had for the last, oh: 4000 years or so, is that marriage, as a fundamental underpinning of society, is a term whose meaning we alter at our peril. Might be nothing adverse happens when we meddle with a foundation stone. Might be.
It has always been a silly discussion, after all – there are not so very many people seeking these privileges, we have spent far more time speaking on the subject than it deserves and recognizing civil unions would be little more than seeing the world as it is – you don’t create new gay couples by recognizing their existence. And perhaps society has moved away to a degree from the concept of marriage – if so, let them move on with our blessings and at least leave the institution itself unmolested.
But a worthwhile post over at Jeff Goldstein’s today set me to thinking: If states created a provision for “civil unions” which conferred all of the same privileges as “marriage” did to civil unions without also deeding over the word “marriage” itself, would those calling this a civil rights issue cease their lobbying? Or would those who currently have no loaf insist upon all of it, all at once?