My name is danah boyd and I'm a Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research and the founder/president of Data & Society. Buzzwords in my world include: privacy, context, youth culture, social media, big data. I use this blog to express random thoughts about whatever I'm thinking.

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post-Prop 8: seek an education-based reversal, not a legal challenge

I am proud to be an American, but utterly ashamed to be a Californian. Although I knew that Proposition 8 would be close, I still can’t accept that Californians voted to cement discrimination into the state constitution. We have a long history of discrimination in this country. As Anil points out, it wasn’t that long ago when people from different racial backgrounds were forbidden to marry. I realize that in a decade or two, we will look back with horror at the time when Americans thought it was right to treat people differently based on who they loved. I have to smile when I think of Jon Stewart’s coverage of “traditional marriage” in the middle ages. What is the idyllic model that people have in their heads wrt marriage? The Hollywood produced romantic comedy? Are all relationships that don’t live up to that dream invalid?

At this point, I’m struggling with what to do about Prop 8. Anyone who has seen my claustrophobia in crowds understands why protesting isn’t functional for me. I signed (and encourage you to sign) the petition to re-open Prop 8. But that’s not that satisfying.

I’m also struggling because I don’t believe that legal action is the best recourse. When I was in college studying Roe v. Wade, I reached the conclusion that the Supreme Court did a huge disservice to women. Let me explain. At that time, each state was slowly working to legalize abortion. People were coming around to the idea, one at a time. The liberal states went first, but it was gaining momentum. And then the Supreme Court stepped in and declared it legal. The result was hugely divisive. Those who hadn’t come around to it began to reject the Court. Others decided that they should build up anti-choice lawyers to invade the court. Rather than happening naturally and with the support of the masses, the Court’s involvement created a dangerous socio-political divide that we live with today.

There’s no doubt in my mind that Prop 8 is pure discrimination and should be declared unconstitutional. That said, I worry that a legal fight stemming from California will create another Roe v. Wade situation. I was hoping that California would be a leader in this, just like Massachusetts. But it’s going to be ground zero for the fight. I just think that we need to fight it on cultural grounds, not on legal grounds.

I think that we need to spend the next year convincing those around us that this is discrimination. I think that everyone – gay and straight – needs to start conversations about what it means to be in a same-sex loving relationship. I’m not interested in trying to convince people that their churches should accept same-sex marriage. I’m interested in helping people understand that church marriages are not the same as state marriages. And that when it comes to the state, it’s of utmost importance that there’s no discrimination. The Catholic Church is more than welcome to discriminate wrt marriage. They already do. You can’t get married in a Catholic church if you’re not Catholic. But the state should not be discriminatory, especially when so many rights and freedoms and economic benefits are afforded to married couples.

I still loathe marriage as an institution. I’m still resentful over the baked-in, state-supported misogyny that I witnessed as a child. That said, I recognize (and benefit from) the privileges it affords and I strongly believe that it should be available to everyone everywhere who is in a loving relationship and wants to make that lifelong commitment.

So what’s the right move? How do we create an education movement and not a protest or legal movement? How do we turn hearts and minds? I have to admit… I *loved* the anti-discrimination ads that came out of the No on 8 campaign. How do we continue to fund information-based advertisements and get them in front of those who are in favor of denying freedoms to some? In other words, no more ads on Comedy Central, but a lot more on Fox and the channels that those who favored 8 are most likely to watch. How do you create a movement to change the hearts and minds of Californians? Let’s reintroduce the ballot measure next year, but in the meantime, work to convince people that this was the wrong decision. If we take this route – and not the legal route – I think that we will be able to do far more good in the long run.

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33 comments to post-Prop 8: seek an education-based reversal, not a legal challenge

  • Ignoring people’s present circumstances, of course it would be better to take a gradual approach. Challenging Prop. 8 under the law will undoubtedly be viewed as a usurpation of popular will, causing a backlash.

    Unfortunately, people are suffering immediate harm when they are deprived of their rights, including the right to marry which the State of California provides to its citizens. When someone is deprived of their rights, it is certainly wrong to not fight that with all means permitted under the law. Prop. 8 is also a serious threat to the principle of equal rights in general, and as such should be resisted with all available force.

  • I agree 110%, danah. While I’m not directly affected by this (I don’t live in California, and I’m straight and happily married), I agree that this is an issue that (like abortion rights) it is critical to stand up and fight for. I REALLY like your point re: church marriages vs. state marriages; I was actually thinking in the car just a few hours ago that I’ve let myself get suckered by the “civil unions” vs. “marriage” distinction.

    I’ve always been an outspoken opponent of discrimination wrt gays and gay marriage, but I’ve been soft on those who are against “gay marriage”, but ok with “civil unions”. It’s not that I agreed with them; I just was willing to consider that an acceptable position.

    I see my mistake now…for the state to outlaw one type of “marriage” and not another is completely and utterly wrong. It’s stealth discrimination. Either the state needs to get out of the business of marriage completely, or it needs to have no discrimination between the types of unions it condones.

    I would have no problem with my loving relationship with my wife being redefined legally as a “civil union”…we in fact were not married by a religious figure, and I had a vasectomy a month before the wedding, so the two classic excuses (“sacred” ceremony and “for the purpose of having children”) don’t apply to us. Arguably, since my vasectomy was by choice, and done specifically to avoid having children, my marriage is even less proper than that of a same-sex couple who have no choice is their inability to make a child together.

    If I can be married, I honestly don’t see how a loving same-sex couple can be denied the same privilege, except through blatant homophobic discrimination. And that’s just wrong. I’m going to start pointing this out to people…first to people like me, who had inadvertently left the door cracked open for this to occur. Then we’ll move on, to people who are more of a challenge, but I believe this is something we have to do.

    I join you in hoping that it’s only a decade or two (at most) before we look back on this with horror. I’ll do anything I can to lessen that duration.

  • L33tminion – and if the courts reinforce it? If the legal efforts fail? Remember: when a state constitution is involved, it has to go to the federal level. Are you ready for that fight? Can you accept mass failure? I can’t.

    Unfortunately, people are denied rights in this country in all sorts of ways. It sucks and I think that we have a responsibility to fight it. But in doing so, I think that we have to be strategic and systematic in our approach. I think that being rash will do more damage on many levels than being patient and winning the hearts and minds of citizens.

  • @zephoria: Note that the challenges currently underway challenge the procedure by which Prop. 8 was passed under the California Constitution (not the content of the proposition, which, if valid, is part of the constitution which the court will have to uphold). I don’t see any way how that particular line of argument could end up at the SCOTUS if it fails in the CA SC.

    One could also challenge gay marriage bans under the federal constitution, arguing that they violate the equal protections provided by the fourteenth amendment, for example. That hasn’t been done yet, and that could have been done from a variety of places, not just California. I am to some extent hoping that argument won’t arrive at the SCOTUS yet. At the very least, not until Obama has the chance to replace some of those conservative justices.

    However, it’s worth noting that people made the same sort of arguments regarding Brown v. Board of Education and Loving v. Virginia. Again, the fear of backlash is not sufficient to justify inaction in face of immediate harms.

  • Thanks for this impressive text, and I am feeling a great affinity to your angle.

    I am not sure if I agree with you on Roe v Wade however, but am very happy to admit my incompetence in foreign constitutional matters (or any, really). However, it is not necessarily like this. The way the story of the abolition of the death penalty in France is told, and I believe numbers back this up, is that when it was outlawed in 1981, 60% of the population were antiabolitionists. However, the general mood came around within a few years and by 2000, being pro-death penalty would put you squarely into the lunatic right-wing fringe.

    (One point of minor correction though, which does not invalidate any part of your argument, including the one about the Catholic church discriminating: “You can’t get married in a Catholic church if you’re not Catholic.” That would be total news to me. I’ve certainly been present at weddings in a Catholic church where one partner wasn’t Catholic. AFAIK the priest has authority to allow it.)

  • faz

    I feel that all “marriages” should become civil unions and then if somebody chooses to have a religious ceremony on top of that, that is their prerogative. I am a straight, married female, and my husband and I have actually discussed getting divorced because we can’t stand the thought of being a part of what now feels like such a disgusting, limiting institution/tradition — if this is marriage, I don’t really want to be married.

    I don’t know if the civil union approach though is more helpful or hurtful. It just seems to me that the only thing that the state needs to know is that you are partnered (for legal reasons and all the benefits you allude to) — religion should not be a part of it. I truly don’t understand how religious institutions have so inserted themselves into this process.

    That being said, I do agree that there needs to be a massive education effort on this issue — to read in the Chronicle yesterday (http://is.gd/6x4U) that many Obama supporters also backed Prop 8 is maddening. Reading that 70% of African Americans supported Prop 8 seems to me a prime example that this issue is not being portrayed strongly enough as an issue of discrimination.

  • alg49

    but, apophenia, don’t you think the quickest, most impactful way to educate people, to start a public dilogue, is to challenge the law. It seems to me as a gay person that there are many many people in the country that are talking about this loss of civil rights for the gay community NOW when it was hardly on there radar a few days ago, (unless of course they lived in CA for the past 6 mo). Furthermore, the post by Ken is evidence that not only does a legal challenge create excitement around a social issue, it *does* educate people. fast.

    I can’t say I 100% disagree with you. I just think that, aside from the insult to a marginalized community, refusing to challenge equality in the courts holds a fine line between tactical restraint and a simple failure to act. I’m not sure any civil rights issue was “won over” by the public first. I def don’t think you could classify race relations that way. And, using Roe V. Wade seems somewhat a poor example since multiple ballot measures on Tuesday upheld it at some level or another.

  • alg49

    oops. pardon the typos.

  • @faz

    Agreed. My partner and I were married several years ago. But three years back in New Zealand civil unions were introduced for couples of “all configurations” to unite under (marriages are still only for heterosexual couples under our laws…). We decided to switch out our marriage for a civil union as it both better reflects what we believe couplehood is about and heterosexual privilege frankly sucks. This can be done simply via a form here. (more info on that if you click on my name in this comment)

  • Gary W

    You made a valuable point about the divisiveness of continuing the legal wrangling over same-sex marriage. It was spoiled by the rest of what you had to say.
    It seems that your loathing of the institution of marriage should have kept you quiet on this issue. Why would you want to give something you do not value to the homosexual community?
    And you are ashamed to be a Californian. I suppose that means you think that we who voted for 8 are a bunch of bigots out to crush the hopes of the homosexual community. To the extent there are bigots among us I too am ashamed to be associated with them. But, I am not ashamed for voting yes. I am not a bigot. I wish peace, health, jobs, and a chance to hear the truth for all people including homosexuals. I am pretty sure that most of those who joined me in voting yes feel about the same. But, you just lump us all together as descriminators. Maybe you should examine your own attitudes before pointing out discrimination.
    Marriage has been around for a long time. By my understanding of history it was a religious institution before the state got involved. Now it is kind of a mix in this country. The state imposes standards regarding who can marry. It is a privilege, not a universal right. Twelve-year olds can’t marry. Not even a grown-up brother and sister marry. These controls are not discrimination or denial of equality. They are acknowledgment of the seriousness of marriage and the harm that can come from misapplying it. Traditional marriage supports traditional family life – it needs all the help it can get.

  • I completely agree that we should devote our efforts to changing the way those who voted in favor of Prop 8 perceive this issue of basic human rights and dignity.

    Gary W, I think that you’re response is a perfect example of the fundamental lack of empathy and ignorance that is standing in the way of loving couples, regardless of their loved one’s gender, participating in stable loving families in our country.

    I wonder, though, danah, how this issue could possibly be resolved on a federal level without the involvement of the Supreme Court? I’ve always assumed that such a clearly unconstitutional interpretation of law would have to be resolved by the Supreme Court. And I’d rather it happen sooner than later, for the sake of all those whose lives and families are affected by it.

  • Claude DeMoss

    Let gays get married so they can be miserable like over 50% of the rest of married couples!

  • Gary W

    Mike, you say I am ignorant and lack empathy because I refuse to allow the homosexual community and friends try to set up a state machine to indoctrinate children in accepting the lie that God doesn’t care what we do with our sexuality. It is one of the core beliefs of my religion that He does. The last I heard, we still have a first ammendment that garantees freedom from government interference in religion. When a teacher paid by the state takes her first graders to witness her same-sex marriage it makes it pretty clear that she never imagined or didn’t care that many people consider traditional marriage to be sacred and would feel gravely offended. Clear too, we will get more of that sort of thing by legitimizing same-sex marriage.
    I respect love between people regardless of genders, but my beliefs teach me not to confuse love with sex the way too many people do now. Marriage between a man and woman is where love and sex should come together. It is your choice if you want to go another way. Just don’t teach it to the kids, and don’t ask me and my fellow morally enlightened citizens of California to give approval of behavior that mocks our religious beliefs.
    If you and your friends could learn to listen to those of us who oppose changing marriage rather than dismissing us as ignoramuses, maybe we could reach a solution we can all live with. If you want more respect you should start by giving some.

  • mz.w

    if it doesn’t go to the courts, it ain’t gonna happen for years. and it needs to go to the courts, b/c essentially,it is a legal issue. it wouldn’t be a legal issue, except that under the law, certain things apply if you are married. it could be as simple as changing the terminology for recognition by the state and recognition by the church into two different things. winning hearts and minds isn’t going to happen when people believe homosexuality is a sin. look at slavery–there were both economic and religious justifications for keeping slavery and it took a war, a president and the courts to get rid of slavery and institute civil rights for all.
    i also disagree that roe v wade could have waited. i understand your point, esp. when it comes to states deciding for themselves, but how many more back alley abortions and the infertility/deaths that came with them were you willing to put on the line to win hearts and minds? do you know anyone who got an illegal abortion and what the consequences were? do you know anyone who has gotten a legal abortion and how that changed her life? Constitutions are not moral documents. They are legal documents that provide a framework for government. Our federal constitution protects the rights of both states and individuals through the use of the legislative and judicial branches.
    Attention Gary W.
    –Gay marriage is not now and would not be part of education in CA schools if Prop 8 had passed. One teacher took her kids on a field trip, which she would have to have parental permission to do, so clearly, those parents did not object and they have the right, just as you do, to raise their own children. CA also has strong opt-out laws. If you object to the curriculum, you can have your child opt out of that particular part of the curriculum and have the teacher provide an alternative assignment. You can also send your child to a school that shares your religious beliefs or home school your child. More importantly, you can be a parent and share your values and
    beliefs with your child, no matter what your child experiences in the world. As a parent, you exert more influence on your child than just about anyone else your child will come in contact with.
    I think you do not understand the separation of church and state, how it is applied legally and what the framers of the constitution intended when that was put in. Please do some research on the topic.
    God does definitely care what we do with our sexuality, but we are also not called to judge. The belief that homosexuality is a sin is not a core belief of Christianity! That sin is death is a core belief. What type of sin does not matter. Sin is sin. Core beliefs are things like: Jesus is the Son of God, that He was human here on earth with us, that He died for our sins, was resurrected and will come again. He did not come here to condemn the world but to deliver us. Don’t forget, the greatest of these is love. Understand that God gave you free will to choose Him, so please let others choose. If you want more people to choose Him, spread the true message of the gospel by living a life of love in action. Making sweeping moral judgments for other people is not something I can find a Bible verse to support. If I am wrong, please let me know.

  • Anonymous

    One point of minor correction though, which does not invalidate any part of your argument, including the one about the Catholic church discriminating: “You can’t get married in a Catholic church if you’re not Catholic.” That would be total news to me. I’ve certainly been present at weddings in a Catholic church where one partner wasn’t Catholic. AFAIK the priest has authority to allow it.

    It’s tricky. My understanding (my brother is a Protestant who married a Catholic) is that to get married in a Catholic church, at least one spouse must be Catholic, the Catholic spouse must agree to raise any children as Catholics, and the other spouse must not visibly disagree. How strictly this is enforced may depend on the priest – a liberal priest may just briefly mention that the children must be raised Catholic, while a conservative priest may really dig into the issue until convinced that the non-Catholic spouse truly supports this. And that’s the tricky issue: it can be hard to convince the priest you really support raising your children as Catholics if you don’t want to convert to Catholicism yourself.

  • I agree with a lot of what you say, but like another responder here: it has to go to the courts. Ideally, I believe educating others is the best way to go (I am a librarian and educator). However, after seeing a lot of this nation’s history, I have serious doubts about “people just coming around and doing the right thing.” If it had not been for Brown v. Board for instance, how many more decades would we have to put up with segregation and the suffering what went with it? Had we left it to the states to gradually come around, would we still be looking at separate drinking fountains, sitting in the back of the bus, so on, in places like Alabama? Would we have been able to elect a black man to be president? If nothing else has been learned from the failure of Prop 8 to be put out of business is that you can’t really trust the majority “to do the right thing.” Sometimes you do need to the court to step in and say, “hey, this is wrong. It’s oppression, pure and simple, and it needs to stop now.” I am not the most outgoing person either, but sometimes, you do need the aggressive approach.

    Best, and keep on blogging.

  • danah, I agree with you 100%. Education: all unions are civil unions; state marriage (civil unions) are separate from religious marriage. Education: churches are free to define marriage eligibility any way they want. Education: nothing about same-sex marriages threatens traditional marriage.

    I’ve been politicized, for better or worse, and will continue to be engaged in advancing the right of same-sex couples to marry.

    This issue doesn’t affect me personally — I’m straight — but it is the most pressing civil rights issue facing the nation.

    I’d also like to see a precinct-by-precinct breakdown of the Presidental results compared to Prop. 8 results. I have a hunch that people were stepping out of their comfort zone in voting for Obama, and sort of restored equilibrium by voting for Prop. 8.

  • More human stories about how sexual preference is anything but a choice.

    Many Blacks who came out to vote for Obama have the idea that homosexuality is simply a wicked choice of behavior. Present the alternative, some will be appreciative and be receptive.

    More human stories about committed homosexual relationships.

    The ads against Prop 8 were too clever by half. There is nothing shameful about homosexuals in committed relationships. Show them. If they are going to be hated for it, at least allow them to be hated as whole human beings. There is honor in presenting yourself as you truly are, and standing up to hate.

    Will mainstream homosexuals come out against what everyone agrees is a choice? – anonymous intercourse in public places. I have mixed feelings about this. For many it is part of their sexual identity, and I have mixed feelings about casting aspersions on them, to try to gain benefit to homosexuals who are interested in committed relationships. If I said I knew what to do about this issue, I would be a liar.

  • As a Canadian and non-Christian, I empathize with your frustration over the passing of Prop 8, and marvel at the illogic and hair-splitting rhetoric put forward by many of those who support Prop 8.

    I’ve heard the argument that Prop 8 seeks to “redefine marriage for the rest of us,” as if permitting homosexual marriage somehow invalidates the institution of marriage for heterosexuals.

    I’ve heard the argument that heterosexual-only marriage is essential to preserve so-called family values and enable the best child rearing (which, “studies show”) is best done in a family with both a male father and female mother. This, of course, ignores the state-sanctioned facts of allowing divorce and single-parent families, not to mention that the best child-rearing is done in an environment of love, tolerance and understanding, an environment that is neutral with respect to sexual orientation. (And sadly, heterosexuality is not a prerequisite, nor a determinant, of harmonious home life.)

    I’ve heard the argument that allowing same-sex marriage will somehow force religious institutions to perform same-sex marriage, contrary to their religious principles, ignoring the fact that the state allowing interfaith marriages imposes no similar requirement.

    I have heard the argument that the freedom of religion part of the Constitution means that some Christians believe they have the right to impose their interpretation on others, ignoring that no one is asking them to violate their own practices; by the same logic, I would insist that it be illegal to eat pork products. (And I still don’t know why Old Testament quoting fundamentalists eat pork.)

    And, I’ve heard the argument that same-sex marriage violates God’s law, an argument that is, in itself arrogant blasphemy, because it presumes that we humans can know the mind and intent of God.

    What I have NOT heard is honesty from those who have opposed Prop 8, namely the explicit statement that they favour discrimination and denial of equal rights. Period. End of sentence. Few will stand up and admit this, especially those who have been discriminated against for centuries. If these people are sufficiently brave, they could admit that they favour discrimination and denial of rights because their religion told them so (which inconveniently violates the one, fundamental, Judeo-Christian principle of do unto others as you would have them do unto you.)

    Yes, Gary W, even though you are ashamed to admit it, you are indeed a person who is discriminatory, and against equal rights for all. You may deny, justify, excuse, and allude to rhetorical moral equivalence all you like. But Jim Crow lives on in you, and those like you.

  • With regards to tactics on achieving full equality, maybe you’re right, perhaps a more gradual approach is required.

    However, I think we all can agree that the blatant intervention of a legally constituted church, the LDS, in our secular laws, is a travesty. In some ways it’s even more urgent than the original issue. Californians could probably live without gay marriage for a few more years, but erosion in the wall between church and state is an emergency for everyone.

    Some people are organizing protests to the IRS that the LDS should lose their tax-exempt status. This could be an effective way to channel the rage that people feel about Prop 8, with the added bonus that it’s fair and just by any measure.

  • Just to pick a nit, I don’t think there’s any danger of Prop 8 being declared “unconstitutional” since the result of 8 will be to amend the Constitution. As has been observed before, if we change the Constitution, then we can make all sorts of crazy laws!

    I do have another, more substantive complaint about your deeply-felt piece, though. You draw a dichotomy between a legal challenge and education. I’m certain we will need both, in the end, to convince our neighbors who voted for 8 to vote for its just successor, or for representatives who will. A legal challenge will be necessary to un-pervert the Constitution, changing it back into a document that protects the rights of citizens. It is sad that years of injustice will pass until Californians will be ready to right this wrong, but I am confident that the increasing visibility of our homosexual neighbors, coworkers, and friends will drive home the inhumanity of discriminatory treatment before the law. As you point out, the history of marriage law is littered with the corpses of old prejudices, worn away by education and exposure. My own marriage – my wife and I are not of the same race – is a testament to how far we’ve come.

    Of course, there’s an alternative, which is to simply deny the state even one glimpse into our bedrooms. As long as the mechanisms of child guardianship can be kept open to families of any kind, a combination of adoption and wills can serve all the state functions of marriage, and we can, in private, marry whomever we choose. It will be more critical than ever to continue the fight over adoption until we can undo the damage of 8.

  • A relevant post from someone at the nexus of the hurtful consequences of this terrible development:

    “The N-bomb is dropped on black passersby at Prop 8 protests”

    http://www.pamshouseblend.com/showDiary.do?diaryId=8077

    I am sad and ashamed to admit that I jumped too quickly to the conclusion that Blacks were responsible for the passage of California Proposition 8.

    I still think it is important for Gays to demonstrate through expressions of love with their partners that sexual preference is not a choice, and anything but wicked and perverse. Some in the “Pro 8” community will appreciate the message. I really believe this.

    God bless activists like Pam Spaulding to show us the way to our better selves.

    On difficult climbs, 2 steps forward can lead to 1 step back. It is predictable. Progress is being made, and society is becoming more humane, for everyone.

  • One of the things that’s bothered me in the comments above and in the California news lately: why is it that a church can’t legally take a political position? That position is wholly incompatible with the entire First Amendment, all the way from “establishment” to “assemble and petition”. Religious organizations accumulate homophobes, God bless ’em. It’s reasonable to protest outside the churches, reach out to the people inside, sure. But why this hurry to stick one more knife in the wounded Bill of Rights? Why fight one bad government intrusion with one that’s worse?

  • jon

    First of all I completely agree that it’s education and changing people’s opinion that wins in the long-term; without that, any legal victory is at best tenuous and at worst leads to a backlash.

    That said I think there are important reasons to pursue legal avenues as well, starting with the principle of fighting for the civil rights of the hundreds of thousands of people who have just had them stripped away, probably unconstitutionally. (Colin, there are certainly possible grounds for challenging at the federal level; not sure about the state level.) Following your Roe v. Wade analogy, I would argue that the problem wasn’t the original decision, it was the inability to sustain the follow-up in the court of public/legislative opinion and organizing.

    One encouraging thing is the swiftness and intensity of the response to the loss. Join the Impact’s wiki has information about protests for this Saturday across the country; there’s also a national Facebook event and individual city FB groups or events, e.g. Seattle. Dominic Holden’s got a nice article in the Stranger, about the Saturday rally here and Kyle, the local organizer. He’s 21 years old (kids today!) and a Mormon. Worth reading!

    Stop8.org has a good overview of a lot of other stuff that’s going on ….

  • How does Prop 8 discriminate?

    Are bigamists allowed same-sex partners while homosexuals are not?

  • Steve

    danah,

    I hesitate to join this topic, as it is contentious, and fraught with emotion verging on irrationalism on all sides. And, I suspect my views will be in the minority in this venue. Nonetheless, I thought I should speak up. Unlike my usual practice, I’m going to attempt to be less provocative rather than more. The topic itself is provocative, and I expewct that even a restrained airing of my viewpoint will be more than enough aggravation for some. Hopefully you, danah, will recognize and accept my abiding respect for your personhood, even though we differ on a question which touches your heart deeply.

    I think the useful topic on which to begin conversation is not that of committed gay relationships, but on the nature and purpose of marriage.

    First, let’s consider a question which is only a slight digression from my main line of argument, and may cast an interesting light on the subject.

    Why is there sex?

    Now the captivating irony of this question, to me, is that a conservative bible-believing Christian and a staunch evolutionist will in general give much the same answer. For the conservative Christian, this is a no brainer. “Be fruitful and multiply, and replenish the Earth”. Sex, in this view, is an integral part of God’s plan for the continuation of the species.

    An evolutionist might want to hedge a bit and pick nits about my use of the teleological “why” in my formulation. But evolutionists, while formally denying any whiff of teleology in their system, have always been only too ready to let it in the back door in various guises. Traits develop and flourish in a population because they contribute to the survival imperative of the individual, the species population, or the larger ecosystem – depending on the flavor of evolutionary theory. The details of how sex fulfills this condition would no doubt be fascinating. For our purposes we need only observe that any such hypothesis as to the particular survival value of sex must be intimately bound up with its role in reproduction.

    So, the consensus viewpoint must logically be that sex exists to facilitate reproduction. I would hold that the other popular (and boy, are they popular! 🙂 aspects of sex are at best ancillary to the centrality of the reproductive function. Surely sex is pleasurable. Surely sex is capable of forging bonds between (and among? 🙂 individuals – bonds which may compliment otherwise existing bonds based on shared experiences in the realms of intellect, emotion, esthetics, etc. But, were it not for the central role of sex in creating new individuals, these other features would be nearly irrelevant. Emotional, pleasurable, artistic, etc. functions of sex may be important – but they are not central.

    Now I’m certainly aware that not everyone considers the continuation of the human species a positive value. If any in the audience are of that persuasion, then I guess you are not who I’m talking to. I’m glad to be here on the planet, and I’m happy for any opportunity to constructively assist others in being here. Your mileage may vary – but you’re not likely to convince me. I will take as given for this discussion that the continuation of the species is a good, and one in which society has a legitimate interest.

    So on to the nature and purpose of marriage. I’ll be stating my views of this with little attempt at proof. You will either find them plausible on their face, or not.

    Marriage appears to me to have been designed for the purpose of creating a structure within which the sexual bond, the reproductive bond, the economic bond, and the bonds of peer expectations are all mutually reinforcing – with the primary goal of keeping the next generations coming. (No bad puns, please 🙂 Now reasonable people can argue about how well marriage serves this purpose, but I don’t think there’s too much wiggle room to deny that this is/was the original purpose.

    But, “the street finds its own uses for things”. And no less than the various artifacts of cyber-technology, marriage has been massively repurposed. So, by the 21st century, it can actually be argued persuasively, among the educated classes, that models of marriage which are not optimized for reproduction should be given society’s support.

    In my view, a marriage custom which is not optimized to support reproduction constitutes a “hack” (in the classical sense). And I’m not going to take the position of opposing hacks. Nor am I going to offer an opinion at this time and place as to the positive or negative value of particular hacks on marriage customs.

    I will merely observe that the developers are not obliged to provide support for any particular hack, merely because it is popular.

    I think it’s a good thing to have a socially recognized relationship model optimized for assisting our species perpetuation. And I don’t think it is wise or workable from a design viewpoint to try to make that same model carry various other sorts of baggage. That’s entirely too much like the “kitchen sink” model of software development.

    The model of “civil unions” or other similar names provides a good alternative. It splits off the non-reproductive functions and provides a model optimized to support committed loving partnerships more generically. Indeed, a heterosexual couple who wished to form a partnership based on celibate companionship (or a childless hedonistic companionship 🙂 could appropriately use such a model. The one possible objection I see to this from a design viewpoint, is a certain lack of romance. “Civil union” does not have the same power to set a young man or maid’s heart a flutter like “will you marry me”. But, I think this is perhaps somewhat inevitable. There is no other adventure quite like that of collaborating in the creation of a new human. That being said, there *are* other reasons why a heart might flutter, and maybe some romance could find its way into what is presently conceived as somewhat of a dry and legalistic model. The term “committed partnership” as a socially recognized model occurs as a possible alternative.

    Anyway, I think framing these issues as questions of “rights” muddies the water and sheds more heat than light. The appropriate discussion is what do we as a society want our relationship models to accomplish, and what design features are appropriate to those goals.

    The openly gay entertainer Sir Elton John has been recently quoted in the news as advocating civil unions or the like for committed gay couples and letting marriage be reserved for heterosexuals. Now, admittedly, being a well-known gay celebrity doesn’t make him particularly wiser or more credible than the rest of us. But I really think he’s right on this.

    Just a thought,
    -Steve

  • At least, the very concept is open to debate in the USA and hopefully, someday, this matter will be settled (in court or off it). In my country, India, there is nothing even closely resembling LGBT rights as they are viewed by law as a criminal offence and “unnatural and against the rightful order of humanity” as mentioned in the Indian Penal Code. You can be thrown into prison for anything resembling “homosexual tendencies”.

    Having said that, the enforcement of this law is lax. However, no changes will be made (in the near or even the distant future) as most political parties obtain vote banks on the basis of religion, caste and creed (almost all of which are against the very concept)and will hesitate to change it.

  • Joanna

    I don’t think we have the luxury of an either/or approach: this issue will be decided in the courts and it must also be accompanied by changing minds through education. Let’s start with teaching Steve how to Google “history of marriage” so that he can talk about how various ancient cultures that are the roots of the European institution of marriage, which we inherited in this country, regulated marriage primarily as an issue of the transfer of property: women, and then through their legally recognized children, the rest of the property accumulated by the man. If Google seems too untrustworthy, there are many books in our excellent public libraries. I recommend Nancy Cott as an actual real live historian of marriage in the U.S. Kathleen Hull is another historian whose work is illuminating. But spinning out this kind of fake history of marriage as a justification for taking away someone else’s legal right to marry is as obnoxious as saying “God told me to do it.” Just a thought.

  • Kevin Cantu

    I wasn’t convinced this was a civil rights issue until I started hearing conservatives talk about it. Back home in Nebraska, we passed a law like this one almost a decade ago…

    Anyways, I find it hard to be surprised that a ban like this would pass in yet another state where people are still being murdered for being gay.
    http://www.nytimes.com/2008/02/23/us/23oxnard.html?partner=permalink&exprod=permalink >

  • Steve

    Joanna,

    Not having time to study the question in depth, I’m willing to stipulate sight unseen that marriage customs have existed and may still exist with the intent you suggest. However, I fail to see how any such customs can make sense except in a context where the default assumption is that a marriage will produce offspring. Indeed, providing regulation for the transfer of property to the next generation is entirely consistent with the intent of marriage that I suggested.

    Marriage customs can accomplish more than one thing. In fact, one of my central points is that trying to make them accomplish too much can take the institution “off topic”, so to speak.

    It’s like in usenet, when alt.conspiracy began to be dominated (to negative effect) by discussions of the Kennedy assassination, the newsgroup alt.conspiracy.jfk was set up for that purpose.

    I really think that partnerships which are not about creating the next generation have a different relationship to society and different design needs than those which are reproductively oriented.

    -Steve

  • Kevin Cantu

    I agree, Steve. The hacks who insist that marriage is only for reproduction should be given a separate kind of marriage.bigoted classification so that the rest of society can continue with the business of love and commitment undisturbed…

  • I think people worry to much about discrimination, so much that they forget about the human nature and the principles of healthy style of life. Don’t get me wrong – I don’t want to say that we should fight against those who are not like us (talking about homosexual relationships) but I don’t think we should support them either.