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Gay Rights, Individual Rights

Ken Nesmith

I hope, for your sake, that you’re not gay. Life for homosexuals is tougher than it is for straight people. At the broadest level, that reality probably won’t change too much. In the same way that blacks testify that they still face discrimination both subtle and overt in daily life, gays cannot help but continue to carry the burden of differentness from a society heterosexual in majority. Certainly, however, contemporary social standards are much more tolerant of homosexuality than they have been in times past. In fact, homosexuality is now widely considered downright stylish. Gay rights advocates now seek for homosexuals to be granted government marriage licenses. That simple goal has induced a wide variety of very interesting responses. Let’s consider a few of them.

The Catholic Church is not receptive to the idea of gay marriage. Pope John Paul II noted that Catholic lawmakers have a responsibility to resist the creation of gay marriage rights. This earned the Catholic Church some undue criticism. The Pope’s request was ultimately nothing more than a reminder for lawmakers to make their beliefs manifest in their work. It is quite reasonable to remind those who profess adherence to a creed to stick to it. Ultimately, though, his appeal will not likely have a significant impact on the outcome of the debate.

The widest opposition has come from conservatives. They see this movement as a devastating maneuver in an ongoing assault on traditional values, as the evisceration of the fundamental building block of moral society, the family. Quite simply, they fear change. While it’s tempting to lay their concerns parallel to those who fought racial integration, it’s not quite appropriate, as there are grains of truth in their argument that legitimate their fears. We must, after all, recognize that homosexuality does not really represent an alternative state of normalcy -- quite simply, if everyone was gay, we humans would have some continuity problems. However, given conservative criticism of the breakdown of community values, the irony is that homosexuals often do a far better job of building the strength of community, family, and neighborhood than do straight individuals. In many cities, the most vibrant, welcoming, active, and community-oriented neighborhoods are those populated primarily by homosexuals.

Fundamentalist Christian arguments against gay marriage weaken under mild scrutiny. If we first suspend skepticism about making social arguments based on obscure, incontextual biblical verses, we then find that biblical references condemning homosexuality are not plentiful. Leviticus does refer to homosexuality as an abomination, however, the divinely inspired authors declare that eating ham sandwiches and wearing polyester are equally abominable. The catchy sound bite “God created Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve” rhymes nicely, but probably isn’t such a firm basis for crafting social policy, no more than are the rest of the tales in the Book of Genesis.

The Christian right also stands by a bland objection to homosexuality’s perversion of sexual faculties, noting that gays turn the body away from its natural purpose solely for the sake of pleasure. Of course, eating a Hostess cupcake does precisely the same thing. Few things could be less natural than the chemical Hostess cupcake, but no one objects to upsetting the natural order upon every consumption thereof. In fact, the diets of most Americans, overweight and Christian in no small proportions, make a mockery of the idea of food as a source of nutritious sustenance, and instead turn it into an unnatural tool for pleasure. Any who chooses to live by the arbitrary credo of the Natural Order of things would do well not to consume dessert ever again, carry even a pound of weight more than needed, or for that matter, go to bed too late, upsetting the natural sleep cycle.

Politicians have been rather uninspiring throughout this debate. The Democratic response has been tragically muddled. Democratic leaders and the various candidates for president have waffled terribly; they speak of the sanctity of marriage, ostensibly indicating their opposition to gay marriage, but then profess support for civil unions, which lack clear definition. At this point, however, the democratic leadership is a bit irrelevant, so their wavering doesn’t hurt the cause of gay rights too much. Republicans are predictably opposed. Fox Newsman Bill O’Reilly also fails the consistency test, but he does so more brazenly, speaking first of his libertarian position that in his view, gays should more or less be able to do what they wish, but then insisting that gays should not be granted the right to marry because that “that’s not what’s best for society.” That’s both a falsehood relative to gay rights, and more generally, a baseless political foundation that repudiates O’Reilly’s ostensible respect for individual rights; but then, such moral inconsistency relative to individual rights isn’t foreign to the otherwise reasonable O’Reilly.

Government management of marriage ultimately makes this debate as complicated as it is. Nothing stops gays from freely choosing to live together as if they were a married couple; the government, fortunately, doesn’t have to grant them the right to live in the same house, share a car, and so forth, living a de facto married life. The troubles start when they seek to gain the rights and benefits that marriage confers upon straight couples, as these are benefits that the government does indeed indirectly control. These include spousal benefits issued by employers, hospital visitation rights, and taxation issues. A government-issued marriage license would grant gay couples the same status as straights relative to those issues. That is the only consequence of formally allowing gay marriage; no one is seeking to force any religious institution to compromise its traditions and doctrines.

Really, it’s hard to find a legitimate reason for the government to forcefully deny gay couples those rights afforded to straight couples. The official marital statues of a gay couple has absolutely no effect on me or any other citizen. For what earthly purpose would we deny a happily entwined couple the ability to visit each other on their hospital deathbed when the law limits such visits to spouses, or employer health benefits for the same reason? For those who oppose gay marriage on religious grounds (sadly, many of our political leaders among them), it may be time for a little WWJD: how would Jesus treat this maligned quarter of society? It’s pretty clear that the hatred and oppression offered up by the religious right isn’t God’s style. Gays aren’t looking for endorsement, exception, or special rights. They’re looking to be afforded the same individual rights this country affords all its citizens.

Many seek to make this a states’ rights issue. Questions of morality as governed via states’ rights are an interesting beast, based upon an odd inconsistency. In the case of gay rights, just as in that of abortion, many say that states should each be able to craft their own policies concerning a morally sensitive topic, so that the federal government doesn’t unnecessarily impose its will on defiant constituents. However, state policies on this issue take on the same form as federal regulation, with the same effect: a majority gets to impose its will upon a minority. If it’s wrong for the federal government to do this, why is it okay if it happens at the state level? If the government is to rule on a moral issue, imposing the tyranny of the majority state by state after losing the battle on the federal level is a slimy alternate route to limiting individual rights and freedoms.

It would be helpful, in the course of this debate and others concerning homosexuality in society, if we knew a bit more about the physiological mechanisms of homosexuality. Some continue to insist quite forcefully that sexuality is simply a matter of choice; others suggest that it is no more a matter of choice than brain cancer. The evidence simply isn’t conclusive.

That information is important for crafting policies concerning teachers, priests, and other highly visible community leaders. Relative to the narrower question of gay marriage, the roots of homosexuality don’t matter so much -- this is a question of individual rights. While it’s a bit entertaining to watch bumbling neoconservative leaders and pundits fulminate about the evils of homosexuality and the need to defend the American family, we need suffer their red-faced hatefests for only so long. Though it’s not certain, gay rights advocates do seem to have a rather strong chance of success, and it’s a good thing. We can’t morally continue to deny gays the right conferred by a marriage license.