by David Orland

If you've ever tried to discuss gay unions with someone who supports them, you know how difficult this can be. One is instantly branded a homophobe, a Christian reactionary, a right wing yokel and there the conversation ends, at least as far as your interlocutor is concerned. Unfortunately, such conversations perfectly mirror the national conversation about same-sex unions; they are one-sided and deaf. My first run-in with the emerging orthodoxy regarding gay unions — often referred to by its euphemism, "domestic partnership" — occurred about two years ago. Reading the papers over a pot of coffee one Sunday afternoon with my then girlfriend, I came across an editorial on the subject. At this time, the "gay community" had just begun in earnest its efforts to force state legislatures to confer a legal status on homosexual unions and the editorial, which came out in support of these efforts, was overheated and impassioned in the way such editorials nearly always are. I guess I chuckled to myself because my girlfriend asked what it was. "Oh nothing," I remember replying with a smile and heavy irony, "just another article about why the cause of gay "marriage" is so moral and important."

Her smile disappeared. I suspected — indeed, I knew, somewhere in my belly — that I had made a serious mistake. "And what's so funny about that," she asked, her voice lowering in a sinister and unprecedented way. "Oh, nothing much," I answered, trying to avert disaster, "it's not so funny but it is kind of funny, you must admit." But she persisted: "why is it kind of funny?" Something told me I had been here before, which is probably why, rather than dropping the issue, I decided to defend myself. At first, I tried in a more or less incoherent way to point out what I considered the inherent silliness of the editorial's moral posturing. But with each attempt to sidestep a truly nasty argument, my girlfriend's indignation grew. Before very long (as is the way with such discussions), I had been resolutely labeled a "homophobe", an epithet which — with the help of its pseudo-scientific Latin suffix — conveniently renders pathological all deviations from the orthodox. "I know what you're going to say," she concluded triumphantly, smirking like a champion of dorm room contention, "you're going to say that homosexuality is immoral!"

In fact, that wasn’t what I was going to say. I knew that the argument that same-sex unions are sexually immoral would be the last thing to convince my agnostic girlfriend. Besides, a much different kind of argument had occurred to me. What, I asked, did the supporters of domestic partnership hope to gain? Legal recognition on par with heterosexual marriage, she answered. And what did such recognition entail, aside from some more or less vague sense of legitimacy? A series of legal privileges and economic subsidies. You mean, I asked, that couples involved in homosexual unions are seeking to secure for themselves a variety of benefits which would distinguish them, like married couples, from all other individuals in society? Exactly.

Perhaps she thought she had won the issue by these answers. At any rate, when I asked my next question — that is, why she thought homosexuals should get the same benefits as married couples — she gave me the odd look reserved for slow learners. "Fairness," she decisively answered. It was at this point that I laid my cards on the table. But fairness isn't the issue at all, I said. Of course married heterosexual couples do benefit from the legal status of marriage but to point this out — which, as far as I could tell, was as far as the argument in favor of domestic partnership went — merely begged the question. The point was, why should homosexual partners enjoy these benefits, too?

Or, to put it another way, what is it about married heterosexual couples that make their benefits legitimate? For until supporters of domestic partnership could show that homosexual couples met the same conditions, they could not claim to have been treated unfairly.

And this, of course, is precisely what has not been shown — either by my girlfriend or, more distantly, the policy wonks of the homosexual lobby. To justify giving privileges or exemptions or subsidies to some particular group in society, the benefit of doing so for society at large must first be shown. With heterosexual marriage, the case is clear enough. Heterosexual marriage is a matter of genuine social interest because the family is essential to society's reproduction. The crux of my argument, in other words, was that married couples receive the benefits they do not because the state is interested in promoting romantic love or because the Bible says so or because of the influence of special interest groups but rather because the next generation is something that is and should be of interest to all of us. And, by definition, this is not a case that can be made for homosexual unions. To that degree, the attempt to turn the question of domestic partnership into a debate about fairness falls flat.

The more persistent supporters of domestic partnership will of course respond to this argument by pointing to the case in which homosexual partners adopt children or, in the case of lesbians, undergo artificial insemination. The intention here is to show that the nuclear family is found even among homosexual couples and that, to that extent, homosexual unions do indeed meet the same criterion of social interest as heterosexual ones and thus should be granted legal status. It is a weak argument and one that ultimately back-fires on those who employ it. This is for two reasons. First, adoption by homosexual couples is still exceedingly rare and the law — though many are surprised to learn this — is aimed at the general case. To confer legal benefits on the entire class of would-be homosexual spouses just because some very small minority of this class approximates the pattern of the nuclear family would be a bit like admitting all applicants to a select university on the grounds that a few of them had been shown to meet the entrance requirements.

Second, the right of this small minority to the benefits of marriage is dubious in the extreme. Homosexual "families" of whatever type are always and necessarily parasitic on heterosexual ones. In both of these respects, then, the counter-argument from adoption falls well short of its intended mark. Indeed, supporters of domestic partnership who employ this argument inadvertently diminish their case. By accepting that benefits can only be accorded for reasons of social interest, they exclude the overwhelming majority of their constituency — all of those homosexual unions which do not sponsor children — while reaffirming as legitimate the whole range of benefits accorded to heterosexual marriages.

Two years have passed since that Sunday afternoon with my girlfriend and, in those years, the homosexual lobby has gained considerable ground, securing favorable domestic partnership legislation in Hawaii and Vermont and pushing the question of homosexual unions to the forefront of the legislative agenda in a score of other states. Domestic partnership has also gained ground in the private sector. According to the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, "in 1990, there were less than two dozen companies offering [domestic partnership benefits] today, there are more than 2,500." On June 8th, the nation's three largest auto makers — Chrysler Corp., Ford Motor Company and General Motors Corp. — joined this trend, announcing that from now on employees with same-sex partners would receive the same benefits as married couples.

Observing these developments from the sidelines — perhaps remembering that not very pleasant Sunday two years ago — I seem to find myself defending the unpopular side of the issue more and more frequently. Though the argument of my opponents has remained the same, the tenor of their denials becomes ever more fierce and sanctimonious. Indeed, the perceived justness of domestic partnership legislation seems to have become so well-established that people have intuitions about it. "Though I can't refute you," I've been told more than once, "I know you're wrong." All of which leads me to suspect that the inroads made by the homosexual lobby have not just been in state legislatures and corporate America but in the public conscience as well, which is bad news for those of us on the other side of the issue.

Given the feebleness of the argument in favor of domestic partnership, this is a remarkable development and yet further proof of the cultural left's best-tested strategy: moral exclusion. As the gay lobby would have it, the cause of domestic partnership is firmly within the tradition of the civil rights struggles of the 1960's and '70's. Gay unions, supporters claim, are simply a matter of fairness, of applying the laws of the land equally to everyone. This self-characterization — thoroughly bogus though it is — has two important consequences when allowed to stand unchallenged. In the first place, it allows the homosexual lobby to abrogate to itself all of the pious sentiments so many feel for the civil rights movement. In the second place, it conveniently demonizes their opponents, who — again by virtue of the civil rights analogy — find themselves placed on moral par with George Wallace and the Ku Klux Klan. Not the best platform from which to gain public support.

Friends of the traditional family do themselves a great disservice by allowing their opponents to set the terms of the debate in this manner. By engaging the homosexual lobby on grounds of sexual morality, not only do they appear politically backwards but, what's worse, they actually assist the left in its effort to cast the pro-family voice in American politics as intolerant and retrograde while representing itself as the virtuous guardian of civil liberties. If the cause of the family is to meet with success in the future, its strategies need to be rethought. In particular, strategists will have to learn a lesson from the left: that the best way to advance the interests of the family is to identify them with the public interest as such.

In the case of the domestic partnership debate, this means that pro-family forces must reject the terms in which the debate has so far been conducted and place the anti-domestic partnership cause on a new footing. To argue that homosexual marriage is sexually immoral will only convince those who already are convinced and alienate the rest, who see such opposition as an attempt to return to the bad old days when fairness wasn't recognized as a political value. Instead, a genuinely public case — one which celebrates the benefits of marriage to society while clearly distinguishing between marriage and other types of relationship — should be made. In this way, traditional family advocates may succeed in shifting the burden of justification to where it should have been all along, squarely on the shoulders of the left. If homosexual marriage becomes a legally recognized fact in the next decade — and it is entirely possible that it will — this will only be because no one has talked about it.

Copyright Family Guardian Fellowship

Last revision: April 03, 2009 08:32 AM
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