[Note from Lowell: The following is a post from a brand-new blog, True North, where I'll be posting about subjects outside the scope of this blog. This particular post, however, seems like a cross-over to typical Hedgehog subjects.]
The crux of the debate, huh? I know, that's a fairly grandiose title for this post; the gay marriage debate is about many things. For one thing, gays want acceptance, and that basic human desire looms large in the discussion. So does the desire of traditional marriage proponents to uphold the ideal of a family that includes both a father and a mother.
All those important elements aside, I think the crux of the public debate in the coming years will be this question: In the context of marriage, is sexual preference the same as race? In other words, is opposition to gay marriage the same as opposition to interracial marriage?
Understanding the two principal competing answers to that question is crucial to understanding the nature of the national conversation that is under way right now.
Yes: Gay marriage proponents think the answer is clearly and unequivocally yes, and that anyone opposing same-sex marriage occupies the same moral ground as those who opposed interracial marriage decades ago. In this view, reserving marriage for a man and a woman, on the one hand; and civil unions for gay couples, on the other, is no different from the "separate but equal" doctrine that once applied to public education.
As much as I disagree with it, this position is a principled one. I am not attacking it; I am trying to describe it.
No: Traditional marriage supporters like me think the answer to the question is no, because we are talking about the definition of an institution - marriage - as between a man and a woman. Interracial marriages are still between a man and a woman. Such marriages do not test the fundamental definition of the institution. In this view, reserving traditional marriage for male-female unions, and domestic partnerships for same-sex unions is not a "separate but equal" arrangement, it is "different but equal."
The two views can collide in ugly ways, depending on who is making the argument. Those in the "separate but equal" camp too often want to cast their opponents as little better than Ku Klux Klan members, circa 1950. That is not an exaggeration. Consider Sean Penn's comments on receiving the Academy Award as Best Actor for his portrayal of gay activist Harvey Milk:
I think that it is a good time for those who voted for the ban against gay marriage [Proposition 8] to sit and reflect and anticipate their great shame and the shame in their grandchildren's eyes if they continue that way of support.
In other words, those who voted for Prop 8 will, in time, be seen much like those who opposed civil rights for African- Americans: their grandchildren will be ashamed of them.
That is pretty strong stuff. It also grossly distorts the debate by seeking to marginalize those who take the "no" position on the "separate but equal" question. Suddenly their position is not principled, but simply bigoted and shameful.
What will happen over the next 5-10 years? I think we as a society (through our political-legal system) will eventually decide which view is correct. Make no mistake: That will be the battle, and the entire country the battleground.
This is an emotional and heart-breaking issue. Anyone who knows and cares about any gay people knows this. That's why I really have no patience for the people on either side who can only see their opponents as moral poison. Maybe amid all the usual messy screaming and yelling that occurs when Americans tackle an issue like this, we can actually have a national conversation about what marriage means, and whether we should adhere to the traditional definition or change it.
Then maybe we can start talking about what it might actually mean to make such a change in definition, and whether it is really a good idea. More about that in future posts.