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Straight Talk About Gay Marriage: 4 Points for Undecided Voters to Consider

Today's post is from Jay Michaelson, author of God vs. Gay? The Religious Case for Equality. Michaelson is a writer, scholar, and activist whose work addresses the intersections of religion, sexuality, spirituality, and law. 

This post originally appeared at Huffington Post

7992928939_388ff82622Recently I visited Minnesota to meet folks involved in the same-sex marriage debate. I was inspired by the amount of energy that people were devoting to the cause, and to emphasizing dialogue and conversation instead of shouting and slogans.

One thing we’ve learned is that a lot of Minnesotans (and Marylanders, Washingtonians and Mainers) are sincere in supporting equal rights for gays and lesbians and simultaneously sincere in their misgivings about same-sex marriage. Yes, there are absolutely-sure people on both sides, but there are also a lot of people sincerely in the middle. If you’re one of those people, I’d like to share some of what I’ve learned as someone involved in this issue for several years now—and as someone who married my same-sex partner in New York a year ago.

First, I want to say that I get it. I know many people in the gay community who say that if you don’t support marriage equality, then you must be a bigot or a homophobe, but I know that that isn’t true. I know plenty of people who are sincerely concerned about the consequences of same-sex marriage for their communities and their values—and some of them are my friends. So this is not about bashing people who disagree. (Of course, it’s also true that there are some bigots and homophobes out there, too. But I’m not really speaking to them, because they’re not interested in what I have to say anyway!)

0147To those sincerely wrestling with this issue, I offer four points to consider.

1. Your church will never have to hold any kind of wedding it doesn’t want to.

Polls have told us that the number-one concern of “undecideds” is that their church, pastor, minister or rabbi would have to officiate a gay wedding if marriage equality passed. Let me be clear as a lawyer and a religious leader: This is absolutely 100-percent false. In every state with same-sex marriage, there are “ministerial exemptions” and other protections that ensure that this will never, ever happen.

There’s also the U.S. Constitution. The exact boundaries of the First Amendment have been debated since it was passed 223 years ago, but every justice on the Supreme Court, and every judge on every federal court, agrees that no church can be compelled to solemnize a wedding (or baptism, or funeral) that it finds religiously objectionable. It’s way, way beyond the pale of the law.

Unfortunately, anti-gay zealots have deliberately distorted this issue. They have taken a small handful of borderline cases and twisted them beyond their meaning, or warned of a “coming storm” that will happen in the future. This is misleading, and it’s led to confusion. But it is a fact that no church will ever have to perform a same-sex wedding if it doesn’t want to. Period.

2. You’re right to be stuck on the word “marriage.”

Another thing we’ve learned in Minnesota is that a lot of folks support civil unions for gay couples but not marriage. Why? Because the truth is that “marriage” is a religious term. The state has taken it over, but the word, the concept, is religious. It’s true that this debate is about civil marriage, not religious marriage, but it’s also true that the word “marriage” itself is derived from religious concepts.

The real problem here isn’t same-sex marriage; it’s the state deciding what marriage is in the first place. Many people, religious and secular, liberal and conservative, have argued that the state has no business deciding what “marriage” is. The state should just issue a civil union license to everyone and leave it to churches and other institutions to solemnize marriages.

In my opinion this is a good point. The trouble is that “marriage” is the word we use right now. It’s how the state, and our communities, recognizes families. It’s how we decide who gets to visit their lifelong partners in the hospital or leave their property to their loved ones. More importantly, this is the word we use to decide which families count and which don’t.

If we as a society want to change that, fine. But in the meantime, there’s a group of people—around 5 percent of people—who are excluded from being counted as families because of this definition. Unless we’re going to change the whole system, that isn’t fair.

So if you’re stuck on the word “marriage,” you’re right. It is a word that comes from religious traditions. But words take on new meanings all the time, and this is one of them. That’s what we’re voting on now: not the original, religious meaning but this new, secular one. It really is a different question.

3. Marriage has always evolved.

I know that two men getting married may seem like a huge, radical break from a tradition as old as the Bible, but it isn’t. In fact, the tradition has always changed.

For a start, let’s look at the Bible itself. Biblical marriage wasn’t monogamy; it was polygamy. Abraham had two wives; King Solomon had a whole harem. And that’s just the beginning. In biblical societies, when you conquered another group, the victorious men would “win” their defeated foes’ wives as part of the spoils. Is this “traditional marriage”?

But let’s not stop there. Right up until the 20th century women were considered the property of their husbands—something the Bible explicitly states. Until the 19th century girls were married off at the age of 12. Is that “traditional marriage”?

Of course, let’s also remember that in some places, interracial marriage was seen as a “crime against nature” up until the 1960s. In the 19th century African Americans weren’t even considered fully human. As revolting as it is to even remember this fact today, some people at that time would have considered interracial marriage a marriage between a human and an animal. Is that the “tradition” we’re protecting here?

Thank God we have come a long way. Our society doesn’t treat women as property. All people are seen as fully human, equal in the eyes of God and the state alike. But getting from point A to point B was a radical change—no less, I submit, than including gay couples in the institution of marriage today.

Gays and lesbians aren’t trying to change marriage. We’re trying to join it. And marriage itself has grown and changed as long as the institution has been around. Yes, this can seem like a big step, but look where we’d be if we hadn’t taken such steps in the past.

4. It really is about “separate but equal.”

Finally (and I think this point will probably be the one that carries the day in Minnesota), this really is about “separate but equal.” Slice it, dice it, see it from every perspective, but at the end of the day this question is about whether your gay uncle or the lesbian in your church is a real person, to be treated fairly or not.

Let me speak from my own experience. When our families and friends gathered to celebrate our wedding a year ago, and when the state recognized it, they were affirming us as human beings. We are people, and our love is real. The joy in my mother’s face revealed the pride any mother would feel at her son’s wedding. And yes, it mattered that it was legal.

Civil unions fulfill the legal technicalities of marriage, but we all know that separate can never be equal. Anything less than marriage tells gay people that they’re second-class citizens.

I really do understand the complicated religious questions that same-sex marriage brings up, but make no mistake: A vote for so-called “traditional marriage” is a vote against the dignity of gay and lesbian people. It is deeply hurtful and deeply unfair. And unfortunately, there’s just no getting around that.

A person’s sexuality isn’t some kind of choice, a vice or a psychological defect. It’s a part of who they are, and the diversity of sexualities is part of the incredible diversity of nature. The question now is whether we can open our hearts to those who are different from us, and whether we can see them not only as God’s children but as God’s adults: fully human, deserving of respect and thankfully blessed with love.

Photo by Tony Webster on Flickr. Used under Creative Commons.