Friday, March 29, 2013

Guest spot: The Sacred Bond

The first political blog I read regularly was by Tom Tomorrow, starting because I love his cartoons, but continuing for his delicious sensitivity to political irony. This just came in on his weekly mailout to subscribers, and I think it really deserves a (slightly) wider audience. It references his cartoon coming out on Monday, but you don't need to see it to get the point.

by Dan Perkins (aka Tom Tomorrow), author of This Modern World

I grew up in the midwest and the south, and often traveled between those regions as we'd go to visit relatives here and there. I have a very clear memory of stopping at a gas station in rural Alabama, which had three restrooms: MEN, WOMEN and LADIES. I was maybe 11 or 12, and found this both indecipherable and hilarious: what was the difference between WOMEN and LADIES, I asked loudly. I remember my dad looking around uncomfortably, and only after we were back in the car explaining that the redundant restroom was a leftover from the days of segregation, at which point it would have been labeled COLOREDS.

When I lived in Iowa City, in the early 1980s, I had a friend who had to hide from his landlord the fact that he lived with his same-sex partner. They kept an extra bedroom made up to look as if someone were living in it, so they could maintain the pretense that they were just roommates. He had stories of narrow escapes on weekend mornings when the landlord would drop by unexpectedly, that sort of thing.

My friend's Potemkin spare bedroom seems like an artifact of a distant age now, as much as the extra restroom in that Alabama gas station. For several years now, when someone has asked me, more or less -- what's the point? what can we change? -- I've been using the turnaround on gay marriage as Example A for the argument that people's minds CAN be changed, and politicians can be pushed to do the right thing. It's also evidence that Obama, specifically, should not be given the blank check his more ardent supporters would prefer. He "evolved" on gay marriage because he was criticized and pushed and prodded. That's how change happens, not through blind faith that a politician will choose to do the right thing without external pressure.

When you boil it down, the main argument against gay marriage is essentially that "gays are icky," which is basically more about people's own discomfort with sex in general than anything else. The thing is, "gays are icky" just isn't a very compelling legal argument. And so gay marriage opponents have reverted to the fallback argument, that the purpose of marriage is for child-raising. This, however, puts them in the same bind that abortion opponents have with rape, i.e. that the exceptions undermine your entire argument. If you concede that abortion is necessary in the case of rape, then you have lost the moral high ground that all abortions are murder -- which is why there's this odd strain of thought on the anti-abortion extreme, that women who are raped don't get pregnant. It's the deus ex machina, the magic plot device that resolves your narrative dilemma.

Opponents of marriage equality have a similar problem: if straight marriage is superior due to the inherent possibility of procreation, what about the infertile? or the aged? or those who remain childless by choice? A Princeton professor named Robert George rides to the rescue with the theory of "dynamism toward reproduction" -- that penis-in-vagina sex is necessary to "real" marriage because at the very least it simulates the act which COULD result in pregnancy, even when it does not.

I am not making this up.

So, as Proposition 8 and DOMA wound their way through the courts, gay marriage opponents lit upon a more durable argument, seemingly grounded in science rather than animus or religion. Their case, presented most comprehensively by Princeton professor Robert P. George, is that only sex acts with a “dynamism toward reproduction”—that is, penile to vaginal intercourse—create true marriages and lead to legitimate child-rearing. Same-sex marriages, by this theory, are not “real” marriages, because they do not involve “organic bodily union.”

This argument puts gay marriage opponents in an awkward position. For years, they said gays were too libidinous and licentious to create stable marriages. Now, as proponents of gay marriage emphasize love, fidelity, and commitment, the right is fetishizing coitus.

The debate between marriage-as-love and marriage-as-coital-vehicle permeates the amici briefs that have flooded the court. George’s amicus — an abridged version of his book — pits the hallowed “conjugal” view of marriage against the destructive “revisionist” view. According to George, the revisionist view sees marriage as “essentially an emotional union, accompanied by consensual sexual activity.” The conjugal view, on the other hand, sees marriage as “begun by commitment and sealed by sexual intercourse" ....

Ostensibly, copulation is crucial because it leads to procreation. But that pretense collapses when George gets to the problem of straight couples who can’t procreate. He writes that “an infertile man and woman can together still form a true marriage” because “an act of sexual intercourse is organic bodily union whether or not it causes conception.” The couple’s “bodies are still united in coitus,” he reasons, and “the behavioral part” of their coupling “remains ordered to reproduction even when nonbehavioral factors ... prevent conception.” In other words, you should copulate with your opposite-sex spouse not to make a baby, but to behave in a way that would make a baby if you were fertile. Coitus is sacred not as a means, but as a performance.

As the article notes, the irony of it all is that the allegedly sex-obsessed gay community is now the standard-bearer of love and commitment, while traditionalists argue that marriage is primarily about the fucking.

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