Gay marriage has been one of the most controversial subjects in the American 21st Century. Different opinions about whether it’s immoral, wrong, and illogical by religious leaders and those who oppose it have cast a black shadow on homosexuals and their supporters. Arguments such as gay marriage will undermine the institution of marriage, marriage is for having children, and gay couples are simply unnatural are some of the most common arguments against the marriage of gay couples. But is the hate towards the institution of gay marriage really because of God or fear of the untraditional? Or is it more of a deeper seated means for people to hate those who are different than themselves?
A common argument against legalizing same-sex marriages is that doing so would undermine the institution of marriage. For some reason, a marriage between members of the same sex is a self-contradiction and, if their unions are legalized, then marriage itself across the country will be harmed. But upon what basis is such an argument made? It certainly seems like an ridiculous claim – how are we to make any sense out of the idea that a legal marriage between Joe and Jim could have any negative impact upon a legal marriage between John and Mary, much less undermine the marriage between John and Mary? What we must remember is that opponents of same-sex marriage are generally thinking less of legal marriage in the secular sense and more of holy wedloc” in the religious sense.
If marriage is a holy sacrament of a sacred religious institution, then it becomes easier to understand how a union that is regarded as an immoral abomination would cause problems. It would, after all, represent a form of desecration and that would be viewed as undermining a holy institution. Although these religious reasons allow us to make sense out of the claim, that doesn’t mean that the argument is valid – the religious arguments against gay marriage are unacceptable in a society “supposedly” based upon secular laws.
Are there secular reasons for thinking that gay marriages might undermine the institution of marriage? If there are, they should be taken seriously. If society’s goal is to support and encourage marriage, then naturally it shouldn’t do anything that would only serve to harm marriage overall. Unfortunately for opponents of same-sex marriages, there don’t appear to be valid secular reasons for thinking that allowing gay couples to marry will have any damaging effects on marriage generally. Some claim that it will undermine the idea that marriage exists for having and raising children. Others argue that gay people are less committed to monogamy than straight people, but if the government validates them legally, then others in society will be sent the message that gay unions are just as valid as one where the commitment is strong. This claim undermines marriage because it undermines a central and essential facet of marriage: two people entering into a strong, committed relationship with one another. Society is therefore justified in not granting legal recognition to a class of relationships that will predictably be less faithful, less committed, and more fragile. Gays don’t make up more than 10% of all people in society. This doesn’t seem like a large enough number to conclude that marriage would be harmed. If it were, and if that were a good enough reason to ban gay marriages, then we have a much better reason to ban divorce – some 50% of all marriages end in divorce, after all, and it seems like an even stronger claim to say that allowing people to easily dissolve a marriage is ultimately bad for marriage as an institution. Funny, ironically enough, that the most vocal opponents of gay unions aren’t campaigning in defense of marriage by trying to ban divorces.
Another common argument is the idea that gay couples can’t marry because of the disconnect between homosexuality and procreation. Gay marriage would be “unnatural” because it can’t produce children, the natural end of marriage. Gay marriage would undermine marriage because it is a legal and moral institution designed to promote and protect procreation and raising of children. Gay marriage would desecrate God’s mandate that heterosexual couples have to mate and procreate. Is any of this true, and if so, does it matter? Consider the assumption that the “natural” end of marriage (or sex in general) is procreation, and that therefore non-procreative gay couples cannot reasonably be allowed to marry. There are two ways this can be refuted: by showing what its logical conclusions would be if actively employed, and by taking apart its philosophical basis.
Case and point, infertile couples. First, if we were to take this argument seriously, we would have to radically change marriage laws. No infertile couples would be allowed to marry – this would include both younger people who are infertile due to health issues as well as older people who are infertile due to age. Who would agree to that?
It is curious that the opprobrium heaped upon gays who want to marry is not also directed upon elderly people who want to marry, indicating that the problem cannot possibly stem from people’s disapproval of a couple that won’t be having children. Consider people’s reactions when someone gets married for reasons other than love, like: citizenship, money, or social status. This indicates that society regards love as the basis for marrying, not producing children.
If we were to enforce the idea that marriage exists for the sake of having and raising children, wouldn’t we prohibit couples from remaining childless voluntarily? Even if we didn’t outlaw both contraception and abortion, we would have to take steps to ensure that all married couples not be childless: if they won’t produce their own kids, they will have to adopt some of the many orphaned and abandoned children currently without stable homes and families. Since we don’t see anyone arguing for such outrageous measures, we must conclude that opponents of same-sex marriage don’t take that principle as seriously as they seem; and because such measures are so outrageous, we have good reason not to take it seriously either.
A second flaw is that it makes a fetish out of biological functions. Since when do people tailor their activities based solely or even primarily upon what they imagine the biological ends to be? Who gets married solely to have children and not to pursue a meaningful and intimate relationship with someone they love? Who eats food solely in order to ingest nutrition and not to enjoy the social and psychological experiences that accompany a good meal?
One third argument made against gay marriage is the idea that gay marriage is wrong because gay couples are somehow unnatural. It is not often stated openly, but it influences other arguments and lies behind many people’s negative opinions about homosexuality. For most people, heterosexual relationships are the norm, both in society and in nature. Homosexual relationships are thus abnormal and unnatural; therefore, they shouldn’t be validated by the state nor recognized as a form of marriage.
Such arguments are superficially effective because they try to harness the power of apparently neutral and objective categories like “nature” and “natural” in support of one’s position. In this manner a person can try to slough off accusations of bigotry and intolerance because, after all, it’s just a matter of factual observation as to what is and is not a proper part of the natural order and/or what is mandated by natural law. It’s no more bigoted or intolerant than observing that dropped objects fall down rather than up, or that bears mate with other bears rather than with deer.
In reality, however, claims about the natural order or natural law only end up being masks for religious, political, or social prejudices – including those that rise to level of bigotry. The philosophical veneer might at times be impressive, but we must not fail to look beneath the surface in order to understand what the real ideas and arguments are. One means for doing that is to ask the not-so-easy question of just what is meant by “natural” and “unnatural.”
A common and simplistic meaning is that heterosexual relationships are “natural” because that is what we find in nature, whereas we don’t find homosexual relationships. The latter are therefore unnatural and should not be validated by society. There are many possible objections to this. First, humans are obviously a part of nature, so if humans have homosexual relationships, is that not therefore a part of nature? Second, we don’t find animals entering into legal marriage contracts with one another – does that mean that legal marriage as an institution is “unnatural” and should be eliminated?
Sometimes the argument that homosexual relationships and homosexuality are “unnatural” might be meant in the sense that it doesn’t really flow from “human nature” in its raw state, untainted by civilization. Presumably this is supposed to mean that if it weren’t for the society around us, no one would be gay – we’d only ever want to mate with or have intimate relationships with members of the opposite sex.
There is no evidence offered to back this up – not even false evidence. Yet even if we accept that it is true, so what? The mere fact that humans wouldn’t do something when in a “state of nature” outside the confines of civilization is absolutely no reason to conclude that they also shouldn’t do it when living within civilization. We wouldn’t drive cars or use computers outside of the structures of civilizations, so should we stop doing them while a part of society?
Very often the argument that homosexual relationships are “unnatural” is meant to describe the fact that they do not and cannot lead to the creation of children, which is supposed to be the “natural” consequence of such intimate relationships, especially marriage. This argument also isn’t effective, but the relationship between marriage and raising children was addressed in more detail before.
Ultimately, the “homosexuality is unnatural” argument fails to support the case against same-sex marriage because there is no clear and convincing content to the concept of “unnatural” in the first place. Everything that is claimed to be “unnatural’ is either arguably very natural, arguably irrelevant to what the laws should be, or is simply immaterial to what should be treated as moral and immoral. It’s no coincidence that what is “unnatural” also happens to be condemned by speakers’ religious or cultural traditions. Just because some trait or activity isn’t the norm among humans doesn’t make it “unnatural” and therefore wrong.