Wednesday, March 27, 2013

From this side of the ocean - gay marriage

Yesterday the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) started hearing arguments on gay marriage. From my scan of the news I take it the two laws in question are the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) and California's Proposition 8 banning gay marriage.

The French also can't seem to avoid this issue, with protests organized against a new law proposed by le Parti Socialiste (PS) which would make gay marriage into a legal contract. It's interesting to compare the nature of the debate on the two sides of the ocean. The first thing that strikes me is how clear the opposition's main argument is in France: changing marriage would change the legal recognition of parents. Having two fathers or two mothers is obviously not biologically possible, and can only be done through adoption. The core argument against gay marriage, then, is that this kind of family unit is not what children need. This is then drenched in nuance until it no longer seems to mean anything (that is, of course gay couples can still adopt, they just shouldn't be really considered parents, hence they shouldn't marry).

In America, the argument doesn't seem to be so clear as this. Mostly it seems to focus on the fact that marriage has for a really long time been between a man and a woman, and often God is invoked in favor of this tradition. This makes for an even weaker argument against gay marriage.

On the other hand, the argument for gay marriage isn't especially strong, either. Words like "equality" are thrown around a lot, with a lot of people saying things like "no-brainer" with regards to the application of the concept of equal rights to gay marriage. But one has the impression, on both sides of the ocean, that we're not exactly sure why marriage even exists in the first place. It's not just homosexuals who can be parents. Single women can also be parents. And if that's so, what was all that about family units? And since in neither culture is divorce so much a legal or moral problem as a financial one, one has the feeling that creating gay marriage is simply another arbitrary extension of a now rather arbitrary institution, an exercise in our right to democratically create definitions out of thin air.

What exactly do I think about all this? As the French say, je m'en fous. 

I suppose I would come out more resolutely pro gay marriage if I thought the fundamental issue here was homophobia, but I actually don't. I think the fundamental problem is much more strictly political than that.

In France the problem is even more abundantly clear to me than in the US. The state has pretty much absolute control over the institution of marriage: you're not actually married in a church but in a courthouse, at least in the eyes of the state. So everything related to the cultural definition of marriage must pass through the arbitration of the state. In the US the issue is different in structure, but not in substance. As long as we accept that democracy is a way to universalize cultural standards and absolutize the relative, not only will we lose the meaning of words like marriage, but more importantly words like liberty and, yes, equality.