It is a huge moment for gay rights -- for and against. While Barack Obama just became the first president to endorse gay marriage, his announcement came on the heels of North Carolina passing an amendment that defines marriage as a union between a man and a woman.
Either way, Obama's open approval of same sex marriage represents a huge change in popular attitudes towards the issue. It is clearly seen as less of a political liability to take the President's position. But does this mean greater social stigma will be directed towards those who are against changing the definition of traditional marriage?
In our popular series, "Change My Mind," Huffpost asked two of the most prominent gay marriage activists -- pro and con -- to debate the statement: Same-sex marriage opponents are unfairly marginalized as bigots.
Arguing for the "agree" side is Maggie Gallagher, a nationally syndicated columnist and the co-founder of the National Organization for Marriage. The National Journal has named her to its list of the "most influential" people in the same-sex marriage debate.
Arguing for the "disagree" side is John Corvino, an associate professor and chair of philosophy at Wayne State University in Detroit, and a frequent campus speaker on LGBT issues. The two are co-authors of the newly published Debating Same-Sex Marriage, from which this debate is adapted (with permission from Oxford University Press USA Copyright © 2012 by John Corvino and Maggie Gallagher).
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The heart of the gay marriage idea is this: when it comes to marriage there is no publicly relevant or morally acceptable distinction to be made between same-sex and opposite sex unions. If you see a difference between these two kinds of unions, there is something wrong with you.
In the strong and increasingly common form of this claim, people who see marriage as the union of husband and wife are like bigots who oppose interracial marriage. The emerging conflicts between religion and gay equality have been raised in other venues. Here I want to raise church-state conflicts created by same-sex marriage not to defend religious liberty, but to point to the ways in which new legal pressures will interfere with the private transmission of our marriage culture after same-sex marriage.
Gay marriage will not only create a new public definition of marriage, it will lead to the stigmatization of traditional views of marriage. The resulting negative effects on traditional faith communities will make it harder for private actors to sustain the core marriage norms once government and "civil marriage" have stigmatized these ideas as "anti-equality."
The best way to see this is to take gay marriage advocates seriously: If opposition to gay marriage is the moral equivalent of opposition to interracial marriage, then we need to ask, How does the law treat people who oppose interracial marriage?
Here's the good news: You can be a racist in American society without being thrown in jail. The First Amendment applies to racists too.
That's the end of the good news. Because the law powerfully intervenes (properly in the case of racism) to marginalize, stigmatize and repress racist people and especially racist institutions.
Consider for example professional licenses: Can you be a teacher, a social worker, an attorney, a psychiatrist, marriage counselor or obstetrician if you are openly racist? Probably not, and certainly not if you attempt to import your racist views into your professional practice.
Or consider employment generally. In America, if you voice racist views, you will almost certainly face consequences from your employer, and if they become publicly known you will likely be fired. Americans are typically employed "at will" and can be fired any time an employer wants to for any reasons, except certain prohibited categories like race, religion, gender and in some states sexual orientation.
The biggest weapon, other than the criminal law, in the government's arsenal is the decision to withhold tax-exempt status to racist charities and educational institutions. This is true even if the racist institutions are religious organizations citing a religious liberty right to their beliefs, as the Supreme Court held when it took away Bob Jones University's tax-exempt status by an eight to one vote.
Equality is the state's religion in America. Ideas and people who are perceived as "anti-equality" do not get to play on a level playing field, but one decidedly tilted against their views by government, law and society. Equality arguments do not lead to pluralism but to the use of government and social power to suppress dissent, dissenters and dissenting institutions.
Could the government really use weapons meant to fight racism against traditional, religious organizations and institutions that promote the idea marriage is intrinsically a union of male and female, or that kids need moms and dads? Yes. The marginalization, stigmatization and repression of traditional understandings of marriage is what the phrase "marriage equality" means.
If affirming traditional marriage is an act of bigotry, then the government can require you to offer marital benefits to gay couples, even within your religious schools, summer camps, and charitable agencies. The government may require you to hire or retain as teachers or other professionals people who publicly flout your group's religious views on marriage, making it difficult for these institutions to transmit the idea of marriage as a union of husband and wife of within their own private communities.
Adoption and foster agencies may be refused licenses, or shut out of public funding streams, if they refuse to personally endorse adoption by gay couples (and the public status of gay couples as united by civil marriage makes the older "don't ask, don't tell" kluges used by these agencies untenable).
These things are now happening, in this country or in our close sister democracies, By and large the organized, institutionalized same-sex marriage movement applauds these steps, because this is what marriage equality means.
When people are unwilling to grant same-sex couples inclusion, affirmation and respect, does that make them bigots? The analogy to interracial marriage can be illuminating here, although perhaps in different ways than you think.
Let me illustrate from my own experience. My grandparents -- like many other whites of their generation -- opposed interracial marriage. I loved, admired and respected my grandparents. (Still do: one is still living.) Their racism was not the sneering, epithet-wielding, block-the-schoolhouse-door variety. Their stated reasons against interracial marriage seemed noble enough: it was bad for the children, they'd say, or it's not what God wants, or sometimes: "It's just not right." They didn't make a fuss about it, and they didn't organize around it politically, but they deeply believed it.
Were my grandparents bigots? I can understand why many would say so. As someone who loves them, I prefer to think of it this way: my grandparents -- like all of us, me included -- had their moral blind spots, and racism was among them.
Some people balk at any comparison between same-sex-marriage and interracial-marriage: "Race and sexual orientation are not the same thing!" Of course they're not. I've never said otherwise. When we make an analogy, we're not saying that two things are the same. We're saying that they're similar in some relevant respects. They may be quite dissimilar in others, and both the similarities and the differences can be instructive.
What can we learn from looking at the history of racial discrimination and interracial marriage? Several relevant things. That couples experience the denial of marriage as a powerful deprivation. That human beings often hide behind religion to absolve their views from rational assessment ("It's not me who says this; it's God!"). That people sometimes invoke what's "natural," or what's bad for the children, to justify their biases. That fear sometimes eclipses reason. That even good people can have serious moral blind spots.
Most relevant to my point here, we can learn how bigotry can have a gracious, even noble-looking face. It's not always about yelling epithets, or throwing food at people, or physically blocking doors. Sometimes it involves kindly grandparents who can't quite wrap their minds around social change. Sometimes it's about metaphorically blocking doors. . . .
Whichever side prevails in this debate, the other's views will be marginalized. There's no getting around that. (That's what prevailing in the debate means.) It needn't be ugly, although it sometimes is. Let's not pretend, however, that either side has a monopoly on nasty rhetoric. When Focus on the Family founder Dr. James Dobson accuses gays of seeking "the utter destruction of the family," or when former U.S. Senator Rick Santorum compares same-sex relationships to "man on dog" sex, or when Congresswoman Michele Bachmann says that homosexuality is "part of Satan," they marginalize and dehumanize their opponents.
Traditionalists should think twice before playing the victim card: It is legal in more than half of U.S. states to fire someone from a job simply for being gay. Until recently, gay citizens had to lie about their close relationships in order to serve in our nation's military. And as recently as 2003, I could be charged with a felony for having private intimate relations with my partner.
Many of Maggie Gallagher's allies openly supported such laws. Some still do.
The view that same-sex couples are unworthy of marriage is a wrongheaded one, which should, and will, be marginalized. But what about the view that children need mothers and fathers? If Gallagher is trying to connect the dots between that premise and her opposition to same-sex marriage, we should focus more specifically on this question: Will people be stigmatized, and even branded as bigots, simply because they believe that children do best with their own (biological) mother and father?
Honest answer: it depends.
Specifically, it depends on how they frame their point. If they make their focus child welfare, they should be fine. Indeed, on certain points, they may find surprising allies. I too lament the fact that many men don't take their responsibilities as fathers seriously. I'd like to see the divorce rate reduced, especially when children are involved. I recognize teen pregnancy as a real social problem, particularly in poor minority communities. If the focus is on getting everyone to take more responsibility when it comes to sex and procreation and childrearing, then sign me up.
But that, sadly, has seldom been the focus. Instead, "the traditional view of marriage" has become code for "no gays allowed." Consider the National Organization for Marriage, which Gallagher co-founded. What do they do to protect children and strengthen marriage? Not a single thing. Their sole mission is to keep gays out. Worse yet, their scapegoating diverts resources away from measures that might actually help children.
If you don't want your child-welfare convictions to get branded as discrimination, then you shouldn't cloak them in a discriminatory message: No gays allowed. Regrettably, that's the path that Gallagher and her allies have consistently chosen.
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