Rethinking rights

Gay rights movement should reconsider state’s role in bringing equality

By Matt Barnum

The debate on gay marriage is oftentimes truly incoherent. One side says shrilly, “Destruction of the family!” To those of us who support gay rights, this makes no sense; same-sex marriage would lead to the construction of families.

But to someone who opposes gay marriage, the other side must seem just as nonsensical. “Equality!” we shout, to which our opponents blink dumbly and think, Well, gay people aren’t equal.

And how can we argue against that, really? If someone says being gay is wrong because the Bible says so, there’s no way to respond. The rote reply might go something like this: Fine, you can have your religious beliefs, but don’t try to impose them on the rest of us.

This is where things get sticky. Same-sex marriage supporters like to think that their cause is one that simply asks government to get out of people’s personal lives. Take David Hoffman, an Illinois senatorial candidate (he lost in the primary this Tuesday), who writes on his web site, “The government should not intrude on our personal decisions of who to love. That is why I support gay marriage.”

If only it were that simple.

When the government awards a marriage license to a straight couple, it necessarily denies marriage to others. In this case, two guys who want to marry are denied such a license. But even if we were to include gay marriage in the approved marriage category, government would continue to deny licenses to polygamous people or to underage couples, among others. There is a great social intrusion: Government is defining the institution of marriage. Most same-sex marriage advocates would say that we should draw the line at “two consenting adults.” Yet, like it or not, even this demarcation is inherently a moral judgment.

As long as the state is handing out the licenses, it cannot stay neutral. Allowing same-sex marriage won’t solve this problem. Government would then be telling certain religious groups that their conception of marriage is wrong. (Just as now government, in most states, tells everyone that gay marriage is wrong.) The question then is whether or not this is the role of the state. To a gay-rights supporter, I would ask whether or not it is government’s role to enforce the value of tolerance for gay people.

One can certainly answer “yes” to that question. Government should take the lead, one might argue, in supporting tolerance of our fellow citizens. Fair enough. But if you’re making that argument, then you’re supporting more governmental intrusion into our private lives—more specifically, our private beliefs—not less.

Imagine, instead, a government that does not take sides, that it does not even issue marriage licenses. The sky would not fall. If gay-rights supporters really believe that government should not impose morality, it’s this path that they should support. How can we say no, government shouldn’t implement morality—except if it’s our morality.

Unfortunately, this view—that the implementation of the “right” morality by government is fine—is what the gay-marriage movement is all about. Supporters subscribe to the conservative belief that government is the arbiter of what a real marriage is. Thus, they’re trying to change the governmental definition of marriage. And they will win: There’s almost no doubt in my mind that, say, 20 years from now same-sex marriage will be recognized in most states, if not the whole country. The truth is that, to a large extent, I will be happy about this.

But achieving this goal will mean having to cede a moral battle that is perhaps even larger than the tremendously important fight for gay equality. It is the fight against the government as the arbiter of morality. And, unfortunately, it is a fight that, at least on many issues, seems lost.

— Matt Barnum is a fourth-year in the College majoring in psychology.