To understand the decline in quality of the debate on gay marriage from its early potential to its current name-calling, you can start by reading two pieces by Andrew Sullivan 19 years apart. In the first, “Here Comes the Groom,” he outlines a solid argument on the merits of extending the institution of marriage to same-sex couples. In the second, “My Big Fat Straight (sic) Wedding,” he rhapsodizes about how wonderful state recognition of gay marriage makes him feel. With said recognition, his “wedding”* “shifted a sense of our own identity within our psyches and even our souls.”
That later form of “argument” is currently on display in a San Francisco court room where lawyers are making a 1970s case for gay marriage, it’s all about feelings, nothing more than feelings. These lawyers have, in the words of my friend Charles Winecoff, turned gay marriage advocates’ “fetish for state-sanctioned self-esteem into a federal case.”
In the trial, Perry v. v. Schwarzenegger, a lesbian couple from Berkeley and a gay couple from Burbank, seek to overturn California’s Proposition 8. And in so doing, Charles reports, they’re trying to make federal law out of a saccharine ’70s song:
[Attorney Ted Olson] Olson opened the show by declaring that “domestic partnership has nothing to do with love” – essentially admitting that the two couples are seeking legal recognition of their feelings. Then the complainants took to the stand to deliver a string of what even theLos Angeles Times called “emotional accounts,” proving beyond a shadow of a doubt that non-celebrities no longer need Oprah (or Jerry Springer) to validate their existence.
First, Jeffrey Zarrillo testified that ”the word marriage” would give him the ability “to partake in family gatherings, friends and work functions as a married individual standing beside my parents and my brother and his wife. The pride that one feels when that happens.” Does he mean that, like Michelle Obama and her country, he never before felt pride being with his partner? In their nine years as a couple, did they never attend any of those events together?
If “the word” means so much, why not just call yourself married?
Similarly, when Olson asked Berkeley lesbian Kristen Perry why she was a plaintiff in the case, she replied, ”Because I want to marry Sandy [her partner, also of nine years]… I want the discrimination to end and a more joyful part of our life to begin… The state isn’t letting me feel happy. The state isn’t allowing me to feel my whole potential.” Yet “the state” never prevented Perry and Stier from making a home together, or from raising four boys in that home.
And on the show goes, with testimony continuing about how bad some gay people feel because the government won’t give them a cookie, er, call them married. Yet, they fail to mention that the state does nothing to prevent them from calling themselves married or from asking a priest, rabbi, shaman or other holy man person to sanctify their union in the eyes of whatever faith they follow.
Now, there are very solid arguments to make for state recognition of gay marriage. You can find many of them in Andrew Sullivan’s writings in the last decade of the previous century and in Jonathan Rauch‘s in the first decade of this one.
But, repeatedly we’ve seen a failure of other gay marriage advocates to advance such arguments. It seems sometimes they turn to the courts because there they’re spared of making the case of gay marriage based on the merits of the ancient institution. And here in court, where rational argument is supposed to define the proceedings, the judge is allowing a bipartisan team of lawyers to reduce their case to an emotional case.
The popular press notwithstanding, marriage is about much more than feelings. It is an institution central to the civilization of our society and to taming the males of our species. If it were just about feelings, then, well, we’d be countenancing the man who has feelings for his buxom secretary to take her on regular weekend trysts while his wife takes of the kids. We men need restraining. We men need marriage (most of us at least) need marriage to help us realize our potential as human beings.
This argument, however, doesn’t belong in a court of law, but in one of public opinion. Elected legislators across the land have long seen fit to sanction different-sex unions as marriage, but only in five states (in one state, the Governor vetoed their bill, in another, the people did), have they seen fit to accord the same recognition to same-sex unions.
There is a strong case to be made for the state to so recognize gay marriage. Andrew Sullivan once made it. It is not an argument about feelings, but one about men’s nature and our responsibilities. It would be nice if those so dedicated to marriage could articulate its origins, its purpose and its benefits. Now, don’t get me wrong, it’s wonderful to celebrate our feelings. Let’s remember though that this institution seeks to restrain them and channel them to a socially — and personally — more fulfilling end.
Said same-sex marriage advocates would do well to familiarize themselves with Jonathan Rauch’s arguments. But, I’ve said this before. On numerous occasions.
*Please note these quotation marks are due to Sullivan’s more recent writings on gay marriage.
NB: I tweaked the title.
UPDATE: Gabriel Malor of Ace of Spades begs to differ:
I could not disagree more about the trial strategy taken by plaintiffs in the Prop 8 case. They’re doing much, much more than making the case about “feelings, nothing more than feelings,” as anyone who has been keeping track of the extensive trial coverage would know.
Plaintiffs did testify that marriage brought them stability and validation and, more importantly, how and why that stability and validation is good for them, children, and society at large. They also put on witnesses and evidence related to the history of discrimination against gays and lesbians, their relative political powerlessness, and that the discrimination is based on an immutible trait. The purpose of this evidence is to demonstrate that laws which target gays and lesbians should receive what is called “heightened scrutiny” from the courts. Heightened scrutiny is reserved for certain historically disadvantaged groups, for example, racial minorities and women. This is the first prong of the plaintiff’s strategy. It’s a long shot, sure, but not foreclosed by any existing cases.
Last Tuesday I was in the Prop 8 courtroom livetweeting testimony related to these issues and also the question of what motivated Prop 8 supporters. That latter issue is important for the second prong of the plaintiff’s strategy. Assuming they cannot get heightened scrutiny, they’re seeking to show that even under the much more permissive “rational basis review” Prop 8 was motivated by animus toward gay and lesbian people. This strategy has a somewhat better pedigree as it arose in a notable Supreme Court case a few years ago.
In any case, the trial strategy described by Charles on Big Hollywood is nothing like what is actually going on in the courtroom. For your readers interested in following along, they can look at any of the many twitter lists devoted to the trial. I’ve been following (and briefly provided live tweets for) this one.