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Marriage amendment – a lose-lose-lose situation?

The Top Story by Chris Graham


It’s politics to some people – the debate over a proposed amendment to the Virginia Constitution that would prohibit gays and lesbians from being able to enter into a state-recognized marriage or civil union.

For those whose lives would be impacted directly by the much-talked-about change to the oldest Bill of Rights in the world, though, it’s about more than vote totals on Election Day – a lot more.

“These bans are not just gay-marriage bans – they’re bans on gay marriage and civil unions. And that’s a very big problem for gay couples. We don’t have gay marriage now – except in Massachusetts. And I really don’t think we have much of a prospect of gay marriage anywhere except Massachusetts and maybe New Jersey. But a majority of the public – 60 percent of the public – supports either gay marriage or civil unions. What these amendments are doing, under the guise of banning gay marriage, they are in fact banning the most popular compromise proposal. It’s not gay people’s first choice – but civil unions do a lot of what we need, most of what we need, and in a second-choice world, that solves a lot of our problems,” said Jonathan Rauch, a Brookings Institution scholar and author of Gay Marriage: Why It Is Good for Gays, Good for Straights, and Good for America.

Rauch in his book suggests that it is not just gays and lesbians who lose out when marriage and civil-union bans like the kind on the ballot in Virginia are passed.

“You’ve got these gay couples out there, many of them have children, and you want these people to have stable, productive lives – particularly if they’ve got children. And marriage is the single most important stabilizing, well-being-enhancing institution that we know of. So unless your plan is to make gay people magically go away, or expect us to go back into the closet, marriage is actually a conservative proposition for gay people. That’s one of the great ironies of the gay-marriage movement – that this is, instead of flouting the rules and sexual liberation and anything goes, this is a movement very much back in the direction of family and traditional structures. Gay people want to be part of all that,” Rauch told The Augusta Free Press.

“These relationships are not going to go away,” said Stephanie Coontz, a professor at Evergreen State College, the director of research at the Chicago-based Council on Contemporary Families and the author of The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap.

“Whatever you think of them, alternatives to traditional marriage are out of the closet – and they’re going to stay that way,” Coontz told the AFP.

“You have 20 percent of gay and lesbian couples raising kids today – either kids that they’ve brought from previous relationships or have had themselves or have adopted. You have people incurring long-term obligations to each other. It’s in the interest of the state to make sure that a person who wants to keep an obligation to somebody else is able to do so – is able to take care of them, to take them home from the hospital, that sort of thing,” Coontz said.

“It is also the interest of the state that if people do make long-term obligations that they can’t just walk away from them without an orderly set of rules. I would say that one of the best arguments for same-sex marriage is that they don’t do relationships any better than heterosexuals. So they need to be held accountable – if they have been raising a kid together, or have pooled their resources, just as heterosexual couples are, to get through the day-to-day grind,” Coontz said.

It is a compelling argument, at least at first glance – that society would actually be better served by allowing gays and lesbians to marry or enter into a civil union than by going in the other direction and prohibiting them from doing so.

“What they’re doing is taking away the safety valve of these amendments by claiming to be banning gay marriage, but in fact doing much more than that. And Virginia is the perfect example of that – because its amendment goes far beyond gay marriage and could affect domestic-violence laws that could impact heterosexuals as well,” Rauch said.

This could very well be at the heart of the movement that seems to be afoot that has seen support for the passage of the amendment in Virginia dwindling in recent weeks – to 53 percent in a Washington Post survey released two weeks ago and 52 percent in a Mason-Dixon survey released last week.

“It is surprising that the polling numbers show that it is so close – particularly given the wide margins by which marriage amendments passed in 2004. There were 13 different states in which there were such referenda, and the margins were huge in those cases,” said Mark Rozell, a political-science professor at George Mason University.

The lowest pro-amendment vote percentage of the 13 measures on the ballot in 2004 was the 58.6 percent margin in Michigan.

Ten of the 13 passed with at least 65 percent of the vote.

“It may be a function of the wording of the amendment – and that the opposition has done a good job of communicating that there are difficulties in the wording of the amendment in that it will be much more broadly sweeping than the proponents are suggesting,” Rozell told the AFP.

It might just be the case, then, that conservatives who have been pushing for these amendments will be among the biggest losers on Election Day – even if they get a majority of the voters to cast their lots in favor of the passage of the amendment.

“I think it’s a moral defeat for amendment supporters if it doesn’t pass by a wide margin,” said Quentin Kidd, a political-science professor at Christopher Newport University.

“There are going to be stories that compare Virginia with other states that aren’t considered as conservative socially as Virginia – and those stories are going to say, Look, it passed in Virginia by such a small margin. And at this point, I think that there’s a chance that it won’t pass. But it’s a moral defeat if it doesn’t pass by a large margin,” Kidd told the AFP.

Amendment proponents like Dean Welty, the executive director of the Harrisonburg-based Valley Family Forum, aren’t focused on the politics scoreboard – and Welty, for one, makes it clear that he sees that nothing but trouble would come from legalizing gay marriage.

“How on earth can you claim to be strengthening the institution of marriage when you redefine it into meaninglessness? It’s impossible. To include other relationships renders marriage itself without meaning,” Welty told the AFP.

“We have a very clear standard – we, the people who support defining marriage as being between one man and one woman. We have two foundations for that standard. One is sheer common sense. You look at the physiology of a man and a woman, and you understand that that is what marriage is all about – one man and one woman for the safety and protection of our children. The second argument for those of us who believe that God is the creator, and that is that God designed marriage from the beginning to be between male and female to multiply and replenish the earth. That’s what marriage is all about – for the safety and protection and welfare of our children,” Welty said.

“We don’t think you can help the institution of marriage by essentially ending it,” said Ed Vitagliano, a spokesman for the Tupelo, Miss.,-based American Family Association.

“Our belief is that the underlying argument for the legalization of same-sex marriage is the same argument that basically would eventually or could eventually end the institution of marriage as we know it – because it changes the focus of marriage from something that is rooted in biology to something that is simply rooted in the preference of those who participate in it,” Vitagliano told the AFP.

“When you say that marriage is all about love, and so two people who love each other should be able to marry, no matter what their sexual orientation, you open the door to polygamy, for example. I know that’s been maybe an overused argument, but I think it is really to the point – that it’s arbitrary to limit marriage to two people if you simply base it on the emotions and the love of the people participating in it,” Vitagliano said.

“Once you do that, you’ve basically said that marriage can’t be limited in any way according to number – and so you’ve essentially ended the institution of marriage,” Vitagliano said.

“We can’t see how same-sex marriage can stabilize that institution if we believe in the end that it would end it,” Vitagliano said.

Coontz counters that the concept of marriage that conservatives seem to want to preserve has long since passed from the realm of being.

“For thousands of years, marriage was not an idyllic relationship between two individuals – a man and a woman. The most common marriage through history was one man, many women. For thousands of years, marriage was about property, political power, economic power, and it was also about men’s authority over women,” Coontz said.

“It was only 200 years ago that we decided that marriage should be about love – that two individuals should have the right to choose who they marry on the basis of who they love. It was only 100 years ago that we said that men shouldn’t control women’s property or have the right to beat them or imprison them. And incidentally, when the first married women’s property act was passed, people predicted that that would be the death of marriage.
“There were two major changes in the nature of marriage in the last 50 years that really opened this whole question up,” Coontz said. “First of all, there were advances in birth control so that people can be married and choose not to have kids – and second was assisted reproduction, so that even if you’re sterile, biologically incapable of having kids, you can have kids. These sorts of things led gays and lesbians to say, Well, if marriage isn’t about procreation, but is about love, why doesn’t that apply to us? If you can have childless marriages, if people who can’t have children together can still marry and get kids anyway, and if marriage doesn’t involve strict gender roles between a man who does one thing and a woman who does another thing, well, then, we ought to have the right to it,” Coontz said.

“It’s important to disabuse people of the notion that somehow if you roll back gay marriage, then heterosexual marriage would go back to some largely mythical past,” Coontz said.

“There’s a certain magical thinking that if you pass these laws you can make everything go back to some ‘Ozzie and Harriet’ version of family life that really wasn’t very accurate in the first place,” Coontz said.

“Marriage is already in trouble because of the high divorce rate and the growing acceptance of cohabitation,” Welty responds. “We have a sick man here – and opening that sick man up to all kinds of new arrangements would deal it, I think, a devastating blow. And when I say new arrangements, we’re not just talking about same-sex marriage. Somebody has to have a standard for marriage. There has to be a standard. Is it one man, one woman? Can it be expanded to include people of the same gender? If so, can’t it also be expanded to include people who are already married to allow them to enter into bigamous and polygamous relationships? And if it can be expanded that far, can’t it include adult-child relationships?”

“It’s important to remember this – it’s unhealthy for a culture to have cohabitation, whether it’s homosexual or heterosexual,” Vitagliano said. “We believe that God has ordained marriage to be between one man and one woman because of the fact that only one man and one woman can have a child. And so marriage becomes related to family and children – and I think that the social science is pretty clear that cohabitating couples are more likely to divorce, that cohabiting couples provide a less stable environment for children, because they’re more prone to breakup.

“And so the fact that cohabiting couples may exist outside the institution of marriage is a concern to us – as well as the legalization of same-sex marriage. We think it is deleterious for children. The culture ought to be encouraging people to marry – and of course, homosexuals will say, Well, we can’t. But our view is that that homosexuality is a lifestyle that people ought to be trying to leave – notwithstanding the fact that some people can’t or won’t,” Vitagliano said.

“That doesn’t change the fact that marriage is intended, has been intended, and across history has always been between a man and a woman, with few exceptions. And to tinker with that is to run the risk of huge, albeit at this point unforeseen, consequences. And that’s a risk we don’t think the culture should take,” Vitagliano said.

More and more gays and lesbians are chafing at the idea that they are risks not worth taking – and are beginning to take more risks of their own. According to a study by the Williams Institute for Sexual Orientation Law and Public Policy at the University of California-Los Angeles, the number of gay and lesbian couples in the United States increased 30 percent between 2000 and 2005 – with Virginia’s growth rate of 43 percent beating that by nearly half.

Study author Gary Gates said the numbers could suggest that gays and lesbians across Virginia and across the country are inclining themselves to be more open and up front about who they are.

“The data suggests that in this climate where you have all this political activity, that this in some ways has caused many gay people to be more open about their lives,” said Gates, a senior research fellow at the Williams Institute.

“Our findings suggest that in the time period between 2000 and 2005, which was arguably a hostile political climate for gay people, the result was that more people were willing to disclose the nature of their relationships at least on a government form. I can’t prove that that means that they’re going to be more likely to vote or vote differently or any of that – but to the extent that you think that that signals other kinds of behaviors, I think that’s a reasonable assertion that we’re making,” Gates told the AFP.

So maybe the idea that everybody will come out worse for the wear from the marriage-amendment debate is something that is not entirely accurate.

“What’s happening in Virginia now – with ballot measures being put out there that would ban marriage for same-sex couples, and obviously there have been intense debates about the lives of gay and lesbian people, and particularly gay and lesbian couples – is that many people are seeing their lives portrayed now for the first time on television and in the newspaper and on the radio. And they’re saying to themselves, Hey, this time they’re talking about me – and they’re thinking, Look, now is the time for me to be more open about who I am, and it’s time for me to participate in this debate,” Gates said.

“This could be the silver lining in this,” Gates said.


(Published 10-30-06)


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