A Secular Case Against Gay Marriage?

New York Governor Dave Paterson made some curious remarks on the gay marriage issue yesterday. The gist of them, so far as I can understand it, was that (a) opponents of gay marriage are motivated by their religion, and (b) the present opposition is vitiated by failure to speak out against the hell on earth (“beaten and often brutalized”) that homosexual college students endured before … well, before some unspecified event that enlightened everyone and made it all stop. Gov. Paterson’s accession, perhaps.

It’s all pretty incoherent, but that’s our Gov. for you. It did get me thinking, though, in the secular-right context, of the non-religious conservative case against gay marriage. There certainly is one, composed of some the following elements, mixed in proportions according to personal taste.

(1) Anti-Minoritarianism. The majority has rights, too.

(2) The social recognition of committed heterosexual bonding has been a constant for thousands of years. No-one of a conservative inclination wants to mess lightly with that. Counter-arguments like “so was slavery” are unconvincing, as the occasional slights suffered by homosexual couples are microscopic by comparison with the injustice of human beings buying and selling other human beings. Gay marriage proponents make much of the cruelty and injustices of the past. I must say, though, being old enough to remember some of that past, I am unimpressed.  I was in college in the early 1960s. There were homosexual students, and nobody minded them. They seemed perfectly happy. Certainly they were not “beaten and brutalized”; and if they had been, I assume the ordinary laws of assault and battery would have come into play. I can recall even further back, known homosexual couples keeping house together in my provincial English home town in the 1950s. People made jokes about it, but nobody bothered them — though sodomy was illegal in England at the time! I don’t think private consensual acts should be illegal; but that aside, I don’t see much wrong with the mid-20th-century dispensation, based as it was on the great and splendid Anglo-Saxon principle of minding your own business.

(3) There really is a slippery slope here. Once marriage has been redefined to include homosexual pairings, what grounds will there be to oppose futher redefinition — to encompass people who want to marry their ponies, their sisters, or their soccer team? Are all private contractual relations for cohabitation to be rendered equal, or are some to be privileged over others, as has been customary in all times and places? If the latter, what is wrong with heterosexual pairing as the privileged status, sanctified as it is by custom and popular feeling?

(4) If you have a cognitively-challenged underclass, as every large nation has, you need some anchoring institutions for them to aspire to; and those institutions should have some continuity and stability. Heterosexual marriage is a key such institution. In a society in which nobody had an IQ below 120, homosexual marriage might be plausible. In the actual societies we have, other considerations kick in.

(5) Human nature exists, and has fixed characteristics. We are not infinitely malleable. Human society and human institutions need to “fit” human nature, or at least not go too brazenly against the grain of it. Homophobia seems to be a rooted condition in us. It has been present always and everywhere, if only minimally (and unfairly — there has always been a double standard here) in disdain for “the man who plays the part of a woman.” There has never, anywhere, at any level of civilization, been a society that approved egalitarian (i.e. same age, same status) homosexual bonding. This tells us something about human nature — something it might be wisest (and would certainly be conservative-est) to leave alone.

(6) There is a thinness in the arguments for gay marriage that leaves one thinking the proponents are not so much for something as against something. How many times have you heard that gay marriage is necessary so that gay people will not be hindered in visiting a hospitalized partner? But if hospitals have such rules — a thing I find hard to believe in this PC-whipped age — the rules can be changed, by legislation if necessary. What need to overturn a millennial institution for such trivial ends?

No thoughtful, humane person wishes any harm to homosexuals; and if harm is done, it can and should be punished under long-standing laws. Let people live and love as they want. Human nature is what it is, though, and no-one of a conservative outlook can take lightly an attempt to carry out a radical overhaul of a key human institution, in a direction pointed directly at widespread (though I think normally mild) human emotions of disdain and disgust.

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