“I’m a woman and a Jew and so I know about discrimination, said Senator Liz Krueger of Manhattan.”  Krueger was one of 24 New York State legislators that voted yesterday in favor of a bill that would have allowed same-sex marriage in New York had it not been defeated in a 38-24 vote. Since the year 2003, seven of the 50 states have passed laws that allow same-sex couples the right to wed; however, two of those states, California and Maine, have passed referendums that have taken this right away.
I would like to draw on some of J.S. Mill’s theories in The Subjection of Women and relate them to the issue of same-sex marriage and its place in modern-day society. Marriage has long been a traditional coupling of two individuals founded in religion and social culture. The way society perceives marriage differs greatly among various cultures. In some cultures it is common for one man to have multiple wives. In others, it is acceptable (and even customary) for men to beat their wives. In western society, marriage has evolved to become something viewed as a symbol of love and eternal commitment between two individuals. The part that sucks is that these two individuals must be a man and a woman. Why, because it’s custom. As the executive director of the New York State Catholic Conference, Richard E. Barnes, said, “it has become clear that Americans continue to understand marriage the way it has always been understood, and New York is not different in that regard. This is a victory for the basic building block of our society.”  I think Mr. Mill and I would agree that Richard E. Barnes is in many regards….wrong.
The argument that because something has always been one way it must stay that way is completely unsound and ignorant. Mill presents an argument of social epistemology where he states that customs can be justified if you can offer another reason as to why something has become a custom. Just saying that A is B simply because A has always been B is not logical. How do we know A has always been B? Furthermore, how do we even know that A is B? The fact is, things change over time. Would you agree that slavery is wrong? Would you agree that women should have the right to vote? These may be things you can answer with ease, but not too long ago, these things were as contentious a topic as same-sex marriage is today. As Mill states, “little do people remember or consider how institutions and customs which never had any ground but the law of force, last on into ages and states of general opinion which never would have permitted their first establishment.” [2, 656]
Mill argues that contingent facts of birth such as physical differences do not justify certain social and political advantages. His argument is largely focused on addressing the issue of women and the justification of their insubordinate position in society by their physical distinction from men. I would like to borrow his argument and apply it to same-sex marriage, which is something very near and dear to my heart. First off, many people do not agree, but being gay is a contingent fact of birth. By definition, contingent facts of birth are aspects of a person that aren’t contingent on anything the person could have done. I am gay and I love who I am, but I did not choose to be gay. I did not wake up one morning and decide that I was going to start liking guys. Due to the lack of scientific evidence, many people question how homosexuals know they are gay for purely genetic reasons. I typically respond by saying that humans don’t start having sexual feelings until around a certain age, usually between 8 and 14 when puberty starts. Before this stage, homosexuality may be evident in other ways, but it is not something that the person is aware of yet. Ask any 5-year-old, I guarantee they will tell you both boys and girls are gross. I can remember starting to become attracted to guys around the third grade, about the same time my guy friends started to become attracted to girls. I had trouble understanding the feelings for a while until sometime in middle school where I personally accepted and understood the fact that I was gay. I didn’t officially “come out” to friends and family until my senior year of high school when my maturity level was high enough to tolerate the social stigma that surrounded my sexual identity. That aside, the point I am trying to make is that things that are uncontrollable by birth such as gender and sexual orientation should not determine social and cultural attributes, and above all, should not be politically salient.
Natural differences should not justify any form of social hierarchy or political inequality. Similar to how claiming that women are not as capable as men when it comes to sports has been shown false, it is also false that men cannot intimately love another man. Just as Mill makes the claim against the general principle of social and economical science by saying, “But if the principle is true, we ought to act as if we believed it, and not ordain that to be born a girl instead of a boy, any more than to be born black instead of white, or a commoner instead of a nobleman, shall decide the person’s position through all life-shall interdict people from all the more elevated social positions, and from all, except a few, respectable occupations,” [2, 661] I am making a claim against the principle that same-sex couples should not be allowed to marry each other simply because they are physically different.
Just as the civil rights movement and the women’s rights movement took a while to take hold, the gay rights movement will not resolve itself overnight. Society does not accept change with much grace, but it is a historical fact that change eventually does occur. I don’t want to make the claim that change is inevitable because this in itself is not a good argument. I would instead like to make the claim that change is necessary. Most people will agree that the world today is better than the world 300 years ago. Historical records date homosexuality back to the time of the ancient Greeks. It is a real part of our society, and it is becoming more and more open in everyday life. Marriage equality may seem like a futile thing to some people. Some argue that homosexuals are allowed domestic partner benefits and shouldn’t destroy the sanctity of heterosexual marriage. Some people, although crazy, also argue that same-sex marriage has the potential to be a slippery slope that could lead to people wanting to marry their pets. My response to both of these arguments is based on the idea that marriage involves the societal recognition of mutual love between two human beings. It’s not only about the shared health insurance, and it is not only between a woman and a man, and certainly not between a man and a beast. As a gay male I want to be able to marry my future boyfriend. I want the same rights as my parents and grandparents. I want the right to love, and I know with time I will. And not because it’s inevitable, but because it’s just.
- Peters, Jeremy W. New York State Senate Votes Down Gay Marriage Bill. 2 Dec 2009. http://www.nytimes.com/2009/12/03/nyregion/03marriage.html?_r=1&hp
- Mill, J.S. The Subjection of Women. From Modern Political Thought: Readings from Machiavelli to Nietzsche, edited by David Wooten. 652-705.
If you are interested in learning more about LGBT rights visit, www.hrc.org.
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