On Semantics & Gay Marriage

What follows is a long form piece I wrote last week; I was inspired to post here when I saw Jon Stewart’s interview with Mike Huckabee.  The video is well worth a look — it seems the great debate is on.

For opponents of gay marriage it appears to have become uncouth of late to describe their opposition in the outmoded terms of cultural warfare. Far from having a problem with gay people – because they will tell you they have some very dear, lifelong gay friends – they instead take issue with redefining traditional marriage. Marriage, after all, is an institution as old as Western Civilization; who are we to change such a long standing societal convention? As Mike Huckabee put it to Lauren Collins of The New Yorker in December 2008: “Even in the most decadent days of the Greek and Roman Empire, when same-sex relationships were pretty much considered O.K., the definition of marriage didn’t change.”

This, it seems, is a considerable turnabout on the part of the “traditional values” cohort. Apparently losing the argument that being gay was out of sync with human nature, when put in the context of those “decadent days” Huckabee and others of his ideological bent have changed their tune. Those Godless pagans may have had gay relationships, but they still weren’t allowed to get married to each other. That would have been a shade too progressive, even for our heathen precursors. Except that, in holding up this argument as the primary reason gay marriage should not be made legal today, the preservationists, as we’ll call them, are cherry picking the historical precedents they approve of, while completely ignoring those that fall short of their moral high ground.

Sure, two men couldn’t get married in Ancient Rome. But old men could have sex, and carry on relationships, with young men without making a stir. Prostitution was legal and indeed virtually indistinguishable from the shady, frowned upon industry that exists in our country today. Women were married off at a pitifully young age, not to mention that most of them didn’t have real names, just numbers to connate where they stood in the lineage of the pater familias. And, not unlike more recent history, the men and women who were desperately unhappy in their legal heterosexual pairings found comfort and fulfillment in extramarital, gay affairs. Surely the preservationists can’t retroactively approve of infidelity? Wouldn’t doing so would just be trading one sin for another?

The problem with looking to historical precedent in defense of any current ideological position is that one era is vastly inequitable with another. Social norms shift dramatically, sometimes over only a few decades. To say that twenty-first century America should not do something because first century Romans also did not is as bad as arguing that a black man can not become president because two hundred years ago in this country he would have been a slave. A far more salient point is that gay attraction and gay relationships have persisted throughout human history, a fact it seems even the most ardent preservationists have acknowledged. To bar gay people from the institution of marriage is to deny their equal standing in our society, a sentiment in line with the progress of our era and the social norms of the twenty-first century.


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