Ireland fine with gay marriage

I have had relatively little to say as America has, in 15 years, gone from “don’t ask don’t tell” to legal gay weddings in however many states it is at the moment. That’s hardly a credit to me; the best I can say for myself is that

  1. I’ve never had real opposition to marriage equality
  2. I recognized my lack of close investment in the issue, and generally stood aside trusting advocates to present their case best; and
  3. I have consistently voted for candidates either supportive or at least acquiescent, rather than those peddling repression and bigotry.

I am prompted to post now by the recent referendum in Ireland recognizing gay marriage (as marriage, i.e., not just civil partnerships). This is notable in itself, for a solidly Catholic country in which the church strongly opposed this result. In detail, it also underscores something that I recently concluded about why segregating marriage from same-sex relationships was probably not just wrongheaded but impossible, at least in any society where equality is taken seriously.

This took me way too long to realize, and it can hardly be regarded a great insight given the advantages of hindsight. Still, for what it’s worth…

The whole notion of “defining ‘marriage’ exclusively as union between a man and a woman” just is not a tenable position in a society that has formally accepted equality of the sexes. In addition to all the other reasons one can criticize it, there is just no acceptable means of enforcing it.

As it stands, marriage has long been a legally recognized status in, I think, most of the world. Certainly in America. In this environment, there is a fundamental difference between saying “marriage must be between people,” or “marriage must be between two and only two individuals,” versus saying “a marriage shall be recognized, or denied, based on the sex of those individuals.” One of these things is not like the other; one of these things is clearly legal discrimination on the basis of sex. That’s not supposed to happen. (The language of the Irish referendum is quite instructive, here.)

Obviously, adjustment to this standard is still in progress, but gay marriage is actually a relatively simple and direct test. Small wonder that, when pressed, many judges began striking down “defense of traditional marriage” laws.

That being the case, there are two alternate positions to consider, neither of which actually proves any stronger. First, there is the attempted compromise of civil unions. This has proved unstable in America, now in Ireland, and perhaps elsewhere, probably I suspect because it just ends up highlighting the problem. Civil unions effectively amount to “separate but equal,” which doctrine America has by now learned from experience is an inherent contradiction and, simply, a lie.

To my regret, I nonetheless thought for a long time that this should be an acceptable outcome, and that demanding the word “marriage” was mostly obsession over semantics. The only defense I can offer, here, is that I also recognized the implications of “marriage” being a formal legal status, even if I was slow to think all the way through the offensiveness of separate-but-equal.

I thought instead that a hypothetical resolution might be found in, as a few others have proposed over the years, “getting government out of the marriage business.” This is the third alternative, which it recently occurred to me does not work any better, even in theory. Here’s the problem:

Say that you “get government out of the marriage business.” Every instance of “marriage” in every law, code and statute is replaced by “civil union” or some such, civil unions are entirely a legal proceeding distinct from religious ceremonies in a church; equality before the law for everyone and no obligation for government to recognize gay marriages. Okay. What, then, is to prevent people from applying the wholly informal word “marriage” to same-sex civil unions?

Yeah, “traditionalists” could refuse to acknowledge same-sex unions as marriages, and church officials who were so minded could (maybe?) refuse to conduct unofficial religious ceremonies for them. But they couldn’t stop anyone else from doing so, talking about this as “marriage” and therefore redefining the word. This result, as best I can tell, would not satisfy opponents of gay marriage…

…but the only option to impose, on society, some meaningful restriction on what counts as “marriage” would be through the law. It’s way too late for the church to file for a trademark, so you’re back to making “marriage” a legally recognized status… and, oh right, it isn’t 1891 any more, women are people now rather than some sub-class; legal discrimination on the basis of sex does not stand up under sustained scrutiny, and we’re back where we came in.

Again, I regret having been so dense as not to recognize this sooner, but it does seem pretty inescapable. The only reason I can think of for failing to recognize this is that one is not fully considering the implications of equality. As noted, I had basically sensed the problems with options 1 and 2 even if I didn’t fully understand them. I suppose that I didn’t close the circle with option 3 because, as it happens, that has never really entered the mainstream debate, and I just didn’t give it a lot of thought. If any gay-marriage opponents have done so, I will guess that they believed theirs was the overwhelming majority’s preference and that pressure of numbers could have cowed the minority into ceding an informally defined “marriage” to the majority. If you believe that, though, it’s also plausible to believe that your majority can also win a fight over legal status, by choosing not to recognize the full implications of a commitment to equality. Obviously this has worked many times.

Happily it seems next to impossible to sustain permanently.

Here’s to good intentions and the honesty to think critically about their practical application.

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