Same-Sex Marriage

First off, I need to issue a few disclaimers: I don't feel that I have any particular agenda in the conflict over same-sex marriage, above and beyond the normal agenda of any philosopher. That is to say, I'm concerned with reason and truth, but I don't stand to lose or benefit personally from how the issue is resolved - except in the sense that I may end up living in a society that is more or less fair after its resolution. In other words, I consider myself relatively impartial, though I am going to make these comments from (in a few cases) a deeply personal frame of reference.

Secularism and Homophobia

The first thing we have to do is parse apart some of the components of homophobia. First I want to tackle the question of homophobia "in the large" and (at the end of this article) I'll make a few personal observations about an experience that helped me come to grips with my own personal attitudes toward some same-sex 'issues'.

In most of the civilized world, we live in secular societies; i.e.: societies that are based (in principle) on reason, the rule of law, and due process rather than by religious fiat. as you read the preceeding sentence I hope you caught my implication that a society based on religion is not civilized. That is correct, and here is why: since religion relies on humans voicing claims about how they believe a supernatural god (or gods) wants us to behave, those claims cannot by definition be verified adequately. If god were to somehow show up and explain patiently to us, his/her/their views on same-sex marriage, then it would be reasonable for us to factor those views into our politics, but since the various god/gods of our ancestors haven't participated in the same-sex marriage debate, all that we have is various "holy books" which purport to explain the views of the gods. We cannot have a civilized discussion about those "holy books" because treating them as evidence is hearsay at best and nonsensical at worst. One proponent could claim "my diety says same-sex marriage is evil" to which I can rejoin "I just invented 25 dieties that say same-sex marriage is awesome." Unless you're a barbarian, you cannot take seriously the idea of establishing a society around whatever some guy makes up and asserts is the will of the allmighty. Besides, if the allmighty/allmighties had something to say about this matter, they could easily enough notify us, by placing 100 mile-high letters carved in solid diamond, into orbit around the Earth.

In the civilized world, we seek to establish civil societies, founded on reason and law, and consequently we establish a barrier attempting to keep religious opinion - but not the opinions of the religious - out of the public square. You'll note that I acknowledge that the opinions of the religious can and should carry as much weight as any other opinions; that is the only way to make a civil society work. We acknowledge that if you believe the allmighty/allmighties don't like same-sex marriage then, by all means, you shouldn't engage in the practice. But, if your interpretation of the will of the allmighty/allmighties is all you bring to the table as a basis for discussion, then it carries as much weight as my interpretation of the will of The Rolling Stones. Now, I don't actually know what The Rolling Stones' opinion about same-sex marriage is (which makes this example easy) but my interpretation is that since they've collectively been married a whole lot, they're probably in favor of marriage, so, obviously, they must also be in favor of same-sex marriage. Does that make sense to you? It makes about as much sense as my having to listen to someone tell me their interpretation of what some 2,000+ year-old tribal diety's opinion is on the topic. More importantly, it's actually possible to ask The Rolling Stones their opinion and if somehow they decide to share it with me, and I get an authenticateble e-mail from Mick Jagger, I'll pass it along. Meanwhile, if Yaweh, or Odin, or Ra, or Brahma decides to arrange those 100-mile-tall diamond letters, we can deal with that unlikely event when it happens.

In the United States Of America there is a law that says that "Congress shall pass no law establishing a state religion" (in so many words) So we're faced with a simple choice between realities:
1) The country's existing laws against same-sex marriage are established based on religious principles (i.e.: the state is attempting to comply with the will of Yahweh and all homophobic dieties) The laws are based on divine fiat, in other words.
2) The country's existing laws represent a consensus among the governed at the time when those laws are passed. The laws are based on social consensus, and nothing else.

Obviously, in the first case, such laws would be unconstitutional, since they amount to an implicit acceptance into law of someone's interpretation of the will of Yahweh and other homophobic dieties. If I may make an aside-comment, those who adopt homophobia because of Leviticus' interpretation of Yahweh's will are generally acting inconsistently because they tend to cherry-pick Leviticus. The US has no laws against tattooing (Lev 19:28) or wearing cotton/polyester blend shirts (Lev 19:19) or Justin Beiber's music (Marcus: 1.314)

What the faithful often ignore regarding the constitution and their interpretation of their faith, is that that stuff is generally in there for their own protection against their fellow believers who believe in different gods. Every christian (for example) who is opposed to the idea of having the koran taught to their school-kids ought to support wholeheartedly the laws that prevent their bible from being taught to someone else's school-kids. The history of the US is filled (achingly and painfully) with underdog stories in which the catholics are scared that the protestants are going to teach the evils of papacy in school, and embrace secularism - until they have the chance to teach only their version of reality by creating their own name-brand school system, etc. We atheists would just ignore the entire issue and teach science and the philosophy of ancient Greece and leave religion completely out of the picture; it's the faithful who need laws to keep eachother from pissing eachother off.

So, consider - if you're a fan of the current laws against same-sex marriage and you want them to stay in place, you're actually asking to live in a world in which if the wheel of religious belief turns, same-sex marriage might be required by whatever religion is the top dog and shouts the loudest, etc. We rationalists and civilized people are trying to protect everyone from that kind of nonsense; it only leads to hair-pulling and tears.

The Social Consensus

So, if we let the allmighty/allmighties voice their own opinions when/if they will, all we're left with is the social consensus. Social consensus and the law has interesting problems of its own. There is really only one primary doctrine that justifies the passage of laws in civil society: harm. If you have a democratic society in which any arbitrary law can be passed by a majority, then you wind up with a majoritarian tyranny. Suppose I can get 51% of the vote to ban Justin Beiber and to only allow radio stations to play music by The Rolling Stones: well, that's that. We've seen in the history of the US that majoritarian tyranny is not a great thing; the Volstead Act prohibiting alcohol amounted to a tyranny of the majority who didn't want their friends and neighbors to drink. In the case of alcohol, the argument was made that it causes harm. That's how that law even got passed at all; my law against Justin Beiber would be an illegal law because I'd have to show (in principle) that Justin Beiber's music was damaging to society.

There have been several laws passed by majorities against same-sex marriage. Those laws represent a huge waste of the money that was spent lobbying for them, and influencing their passage, because - well, it's hard to show how same-sex marriage harms anyone who's not involved in it. A same-sex couple can embark on a harmful marriage just like a different-sex couple. I ought to know, I've done it twice myself! But my poor choices of brides has not noticeably hurt anyone else's marriage regardless of their sexual orientation. When someone says that "same-sex marriage harms the sanctity of marriage" they need to make an argument for how it harms it. What they're really saying is "I don't like it!" Well, you're welcome not to like it. You're also welcome not to like The Rolling Stones. Your opinion is worth exactly as much as mine, sorry.

In the US we saw similar massive social conflict over a topic that today we recognize as a no-brainer: giving females the right to vote. Until shockingly recently it was the opinion of a controlling interest in society that females shouldn't be allowed to vote. Nowadays, like most civilized societies, we recognize the obvious fact that females are just as capable of having political views and expressing them as males are, and that their opinions should weigh as much as males'. The conflict surrounding this issue was intense and a great deal of important and heavy thinking was wasted over it (I say "wasted" because the outcome should have been obvious) including a wonderful bit of reasoning by the consequentialist philosopher John Stuart Mill. Mill wrote a lengthy argument entitled "The Subjection of Women" which you can get from Project Gutenberg if you wish to further your education. Many of Mills' arguments are specific to the question of gender equality in social representation and the natural abilities of the female. What do women's abilities have to do with anything?

There were three primary arguments presented against women's right to vote. The first was the religious (which I hope I have already dispatched by being dismissive of the allmighty) the second was that women lacked the ability, and the third was that women's participation in the political process was not normal. Mill dispatched the second argument, from ability, by pointing out that females can be observed to be sometimes more competent than men, sometimes less so - therefore we can only conclude that it's the case that women are just as disparately capable as men. For the ability argument to hold water, one would have to show that all females, all the time, were incapable of exercising judgement and that allowing any of them to vote, would cause harm. You can re-cast Mill's argument to today's same-sex marriage discussion and it's just as relevant. If the argument was made that same-sex couples cannot raise children (for example) then we simply observe that there are plenty of different-sex coples that cannot raise children very well, either. And there are same-sex couples that seem to do just fine. In other words, they seem to be all over the landscape of competence, just like any other human beings - which is a profound and simple observation arguing against enforcing any specific preference.


The last of the three arguments against acknowledging females' right to vote was that the "woman's normal place is in the home, not politics" (remember, Margaret Thatcher hadn't been born, yet!) Mill could have shortened his treatise considerably by simply writing "Queen Elizabeth I" and stopping there. Instead, he made a sublimely elegant argument, namely:

If something is "normal" then there's no need to make a law favoring or preventing it, since that's what people are going to tend to do, anyway.

In other words, if same-sex couples desiring marriage was an aberration, we wouldn't even be having this discussion. Because there wouldn't be any same-sex couples wanting to get married. But, in fact, that there appear to be plenty of same-sex couples that want to get married indicates that normal includes same-sex marriage. Actually, normal marriage includes multi-way marriage (what, don't a couple billion muslims have a say in what is 'normal'?) of various genders. Indeed, in ancient Ireland there were several references to ceremonial marriages between kings and warriors and horses. "Traditional marriage" is a much broader phenomenon than the followers of Yahweh think it is, apparently. There are references to same-sex marriage in Zhou and Ming period China, as well as in Rome. Emperor Constantius II passed his equivalent of a "Defense of Marriage Act"(DOMA) making same-sex marriage a capital offense. John Stuart Mill would point out that if it was such an abnormal thing to begin with, there's no need to pass a law threatening to kill someone for doing something they wouldn't want to do, anyway.

Putting it all together, then, we can see that the reality of the situation: there's a tyranny of the majority enforcing its opinion, which is based on interpretations of the will of the allmighty/allmighties against a minority that want to do something that is quite normal.

The OMG Factor

Now, I'd like to shift gears and talk about some extremely subjective stuff. This is purely my opinion, and some analysis of my own mental states and reactions at various times. As opinion, I won't try to defend it one way or another, but I'd like to share it because perhaps it'll be useful, somehow, in your process of sorting out your own feelings about same-sex sex.

I'd probably describe myself as a "libertine" except that, among libertines, I'd be pretty conservative. I've got my share of kinks and have enjoyed my fair share of moments in which I've woken up on the bathroom floor wondering if I enjoyed myself last night, or not. There was one memorable incident in which I - uh - well, you don't need to know that. But it involved very detailed dreams of having sex with a woman I know and (briefly and embarrassingly) being unsure whether we were lovers or friends or what.. Anyhow. I consider myself to be fairly open-minded. But for a long time, I worried that I might be at least slightly homophobic.

Like everyone on the internet - including you, since you're reading this - I've seen my fair share of "porn" (whatever that is!) including various combinations of various things. I've certainly enjoyed the guy-on-gal stuff I've seen, and the girl-on-girl stuff is OK in spite of its generally cheesy falsity. I tend to avoid the guy-on-guy content and I finally had to admit to myself that it made me a bit uncomfortable. It doesn't make me "let's have a stoning!" uncomfortable, to be sure, but my eye does not linger. Why? Am I a homophobe? I used to think that if I were an open-minded person, guy-on-guy stuff would just be neutral to me; it would have as much effect as a picture of a pile of cinder-blocks or something like that. But instead, it made me uncomfortable.

I've spent a lot longer than I want to say, dissecting my reaction to erotic materials that I do not like, and I think I have a conceptual framework that now allows me to understand why. Let's say I accidentally click on some thumbnail and it brings up a picture of some guy bent over the back of a couch getting anally jackhammered by another guy. My first reaction (sexually, I am more than slightly dominant) is to try to cast myself in the role of the guy on top (Mr Jack Hammer, if you will) and it doesn't work because I'm really not that into anal sex and uuuuh - at that point my brain hits a switch and tries to cast me into the other role in the scene. And my next thought as Mr Couch Cushion is "ow! no way! ow!" because I don't like that role, either. I've forced myself to experience this and sometimes the sensation of my mind switching back and forth as it tries to find "me" in the scene is pretty acute. Because there's nothing in the scene that I immediately relate to, my overall impression is not excitement but rather a sort of second-hand imagined pain and discomfort. The total experience of the picture is negative. Not highly negative, but it doesn't make me want to see more and it doesn't turn me on - because there's no "me" in that picture. When I see something fairly outre, I find I go through the same process, which is why I'm actually pretty comfortable with a lot of fairly crazy stuff. But whenever I run up against imagery in which there's simply noplace I can fit "myself" as an actor, my reaction is to back away from it fairly quickly. For a while I experimented with trying to teach myself to fit myself into every scene as the photographer and I noticed that I was suddenly emotionally open to a much wider range of activity than I otherwise would be interested in. That was kind of cool, and it fit well with my theory, until I started thinking about some of the "damsel in distress" images, particularly the low-quality ones that look like they were trophies shot by a serial killer, and I decided that I am not the camera.

It's fashionable in some circles to imply that those who are virulently anti-gay are "projecting" or "displacing" their own issues and are probably demonstrating self-hatred more than anything else. Anti-gay crusaders such as Ted Haggard and pope Ratzinger certainly do make for schadenfreuede a'plenty, but that may also fit with my theory. Their discomfort is acute because of who they immediately identify with in the erotic situation. If I'm looking at an image which combines sex and violence, it makes me uncomfortable for the exact same reason. Perhaps this is all trivially obvious to you who are wiser than myself.

If we understand that our visceral reactions to other people's sexuality are rooted in our own opinions and not the will of the allmighty/allmighties, then I think it gets a lot easier to deal with the discomfort that our reactions cause us. David Hume famously pointed out that when someone is offended, the "offense" and the experience of being offended is entirely in them; the other party can even be completely oblivious to it. Indeed, Hume points out that outside of the person being offended or insulted, there is nothing happening. In modern terms, there are no offensive "porn" pictures - "2 girls, 1 cup" is only offensive if an offended person is there to watch it. In this part of our lives, a tree can fall soundlessly in the forest.

I'm glad to be living in a time when females' participation in the political process is an accepted norm in civilized societies. I'm happier still that slavery is more-or-less universally acknowledged to be an injustice and those who practice it do it only under threat of punishment or in safe fantasy worlds. I feel happy and slightly proud to see that the tremendous injustice which has resulted from the societal dominance of several homophobic religions is finally being rolled back a little bit, and I hope that these few words I cast out will serve as my own little flag-waving "rah! rah!" gesture of support.

Gate A34 Detroit International Airport
Thanks, Delta Airlines!