By Matthew Winslow
We are at a historic crossroads in Kentucky. The people of this commonwealth will be faced with the choice of amending the state constitution to define marriage as only between one man and one woman, thus not allowing gay men and lesbians the opportunity to marry. I would like to make four points about this debate. First, I would propose that this is a matter of civil rights despite what many have said. Civil rights are rights afforded to citizens by the government.
Our federal constitution makes it clear that fundamental civil rights cannot and should not be given to some groups of people but not others. Women were given the right to vote because it was a violation of this principle to deny them that right. Blacks were given the right to equal access to busses and lunch counters and the ballot box because it was a violation of this principle to deny them that right.
It’s the same with marriage, denying a gay person the right to legally marry is a violation of the principle of equality under the law. It’s true that the plight of blacks has not been the same as for gays and lesbians in this country although Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. were both brutally tortured and killed because they belonged to certain groups. But the experience of blacks and women were not the same, or Japanese Americans, or Hispanics, or Jews, but discrimination against these people because of their membership in some group is a civil rights issue. This is not about who has been treated worse. Marriage equality may not be a civil rights issue, but it certainly is a matter of civil rights.
Second, like it or not, for many people marriage is a combination of religion and government. But this doesn’t mean that allowing two men or two women to marry will force any religion to sanctify or even recognize that marriage. Right now, religions have the ability to place more restrictions on marriage than does the law; Catholics cannot divorce or remarry, many orthodox religions only allow marriages of two believers. But a judge without any religious sanction can also marry a man and a woman.
Religions have the right to place restrictions on marriage as they see fit, but our constitution does not allow us to do that where the law is concerned. We need to recognize that legal marriage and religious marriage is not the same thing although they often occur together.
Third, some people make a slippery slope argument. They say if we allow two men or two women to marry, then we will have to allow a man to marry his dog, his cousin or two or three people. I don’t buy this argument. We have restrictions on marriage that prohibit bestiality, incest and polygamy. We don’t allow a man to marry his female dog. Allowing marriage equality will only allow a person to marry one (not more than one) other person (not from another species) to whom they are not closely related. Marriage equality is not a threat to these existing restrictions. I also believe that this argument is offensive to gay people by attempting to equate same sex relationships with bestiality and incest. Gay people have no more interest in these types of relationships than straight people do. Really.
Finally, some people claim that allowing marriage equality would weaken marriage as a cultural institution. I will leave aside the easy criticisms of heterosexual marriage (like the high divorce rate and Brittany Spears or J. Lo.)
Let’s look at the positive aspects of a strong conception of marriage: commitment, love, stability and health benefits. Marriage can have all these effects, for society and the individuals involved, even when the individuals are the same gender. The first gay couple married in San Francisco had been together for 51 years. If you watched the footage on television of gay couples getting married in San Francisco and Massachusetts and Oregon, you saw people who wanted to come together and make a public commitment to another person. These were acts of love and devotion between people who had been together, living as a married couple would except without the legal rights and responsibilities afforded to straight married couples.
Surely as a society we want to reward and encourage relationships of this quality. If you consider yourself pro-family values, then look at these couples and recognize that gay couples can have the same worthy desires and aspirations as straight couples.
In sum, I believe that marriage equality is a civil rights issue, and a matter of values. As we look back with disdain and some disbelief on laws that prohibited women from voting, or blacks from living in the same neighborhood with whites, or blacks and whites from marrying each other, I hope that we will some day look back on this debate and wonder how we could have considered writing discrimination into our constitution.
*Matthew Winslow is an associate professor of psychology.