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So What If It Is?

Despite the Democrats' smashing victory in the 2006 midterm elections, there is still distressing evidence that America as a nation has much moral progress left to make. I am speaking of gay marriage bans, which were approved by voters in seven states (Arizona being the exception, and the first state in the nation to reject such a ban), bringing the total number of states with such a ban to 27. Several of these states have even more oppressive laws that prohibit not only gay marriage but any arrangement, such as civil unions, that would confer similar rights and privileges.

In a nation that was founded on promises of liberty, these laws send a terrible message of exclusion and discrimination. Although I am not gay, I can readily imagine the sorrow, shame and outrage I would feel if the people of my country told me that I was not allowed to marry the person I love, and that the benefits readily offered to millions of others would be forbidden to me. (No religious fundamentalists have yet proposed that atheists should be prohibited from marrying - as far as I know, anyway.)

One would think that America's shameful history of slavery, enforced segregation and laws banning interracial marriage, all of which are now thankfully in the past, would have taught us the manifest folly and injustice of trying to legally divide human beings into favored and disfavored classes. Sadly, there are still millions of voters who in their zeal are blind to this history, and blind to the fact that their decision to pull that lever on Election Day, though it may give them a warm glow of self-righteous satisfaction, causes very real and tangible harm to millions of ordinary people - our neighbors, our relatives, our friends - who want nothing more than to live together in peace with the same rights that others enjoy. When these terrible and unjust laws are finally undone, we will look back on the time of their enactment as one of the low points of our civilization.

One of the most frequent arguments given by opponents of gay equality is that homosexuality is not an innate characteristic but a choice, and as such, does not deserve the same protections given to race or ethnicity. On the face of it, this claim is almost certainly false. Although scientists have not discovered a single "gay gene" (for the simple reason that there probably is no such thing, because most complex characteristics are controlled by entire suites of interacting genes), the evidence is nevertheless clear. Consider: men with older brothers are more likely to be gay, and the more older brothers a man has, the higher the chance. This effect does not occur with older sisters or older stepbrothers, but it does occur even when a man's older brothers were raised in a different home than him. Apparently, there is something about developing in the same womb where other men have previously been that makes a man more likely to be gay, and this means a biological factor of some sort must be involved.

But even these arguments are beside the point. The more relevant question is this: Why does it matter if being gay is a choice? Why should that make any difference whatsoever when it comes to how society treats gay people or what rights it permits them to exercise?

After all, there are many aspects of identity that are indisputably chosen and not innate, but which we still consider worthy of protecting against bigotry and discrimination. Just take the most obvious example: religion. Which religion a person belongs to is inarguably a matter of choice and is not genetic, yet this choice is as fully and rightfully protected by law as any intrinsic characteristic. We as a society do not consider it acceptable to deny marriage licenses to people of certain faiths, or to prohibit people of different faiths from marrying. The fundamentalists would scream at the top of their lungs about persecution if it was decided that because religious membership is a choice, it is therefore acceptable to discriminate against people based on their religious beliefs. But those same fundamentalists, despite perceiving the unfairness of this reasoning clearly enough when they are the targets of it, consistently fail to recognize the injustice when they are the ones using it against a group they dislike.

Or consider sexuality itself. By the fundamentalists' logic, if homosexuality is a choice, then the opposite - that is, heterosexuality - must be a choice as well. But none, to my knowledge, have ever proposed denying marriage rights to heterosexuals on the basis that their sexual orientation was chosen. Clearly, the question of whether sexuality is a choice is a red herring in this debate. The real issue is that the religious right, for whatever reason, hates and despises homosexuals, and will grasp for any opportunity it can to write that prejudice into law so that it can keep homosexuals discriminated against and oppressed. (Personally, I believe religious prejudice against homosexuals exists for no other reason than that they are conveniently different, thus affording religious-right leaders an opportunity to whip up fear and hatred against them and define them as the enemies their movement thrives by creating. But that is a topic for another post.)

The alleged harm to children of being brought up in a single-gender household is another perennial reason cited by anti-gay fundamentalists, but here too their arguments fail both the facts and the test of rationality. Regardless of whether being brought up in gay families harms children in some vague and nebulous way (and no one has yet offered any convincing evidence that it does), being brought up in poor families definitely harms children in very real, tangible and measurable ways. Study after study shows that children brought up in poverty have diminished life expectancy, diminished lifetime earning potential, greater risk of health problems, and are at greater risk for a wide variety of other ills and bad outcomes; and there are far more poor families than there are gay families. If the opponents of gay marriage were truly motivated by the idea of preventing harm to children, it would be rational for them to first focus their efforts on ending poverty. Clearly, they have not done this.

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