For Humanists, a Victory for Marriage Equality is Just the Beginning
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The U.S. Supreme Court recently heard oral arguments concerning the legitimacy of a California voter initiative that reversed marriage equality in the state. They also heard the case of a grieving older woman who endured a hundreds of thousands of dollars in estate tax penalties based solely on her late wife’s anatomy. Though the court has previously declared same-sex romantic intimacy as a constitutional right, this is the first time the justices are officially entertaining arguments on the legality of marriage equality. In the world of invidious discrimination amelioration that we call civil rights activism, we often cite Saint Augustine’s “Lex unjusta, non est lex” (an unjust law is not law). Regardless if (or how) the law changes, homophobia-inducing social antipathy toward LGBT people still remains. In short, even if the Supreme Court offers an agreeable decision by overturning these unjust laws, our job is far from over.
Even if the majority alters the legal architecture to remove the systemic stumbling blocks to state-recognized gender-neutral marriage, any positive change only serves as a legal token. We will still have self-proclaimed moral vanguards promoting the idea that the non-wholly-heterosexuals are at minimum defective, and at best, reparable by the expensive treatments that they themselves can provide. Even if the Supreme Court eventually releases its ruling enabling us to toast all interested gay and lesbian couples at their first dance, there will still be school bullying and employment discrimination. Even if the Supreme Court grants equal protection to the sons of Stonewall and daughters of Bilitis, mothers will still cry and fathers will still cruelly disown their suspected and outed children. This is where we, as humanists, come in.
In Unveiling Christianity (1757), Paul-Henri Thiry, the Baron D’Holbach, mentioned two types of morality: religious and political. Religious morality will turn you into a saint; political morality will engage you as a citizen. In strictly narrative terms, saints may be shining examples of commitment and sacrifice, yet they are thoroughly useless in civil society. A saint places his aspirations beyond this world. A saint considers this world an inconvenience, a weigh station. A citizen sees her responsibility to and for other people. Humanism may not offer sainthood, but we certainly cultivate and encourage human citizenship. Humanism endorses democracy and dignity over divine disposition. The cornerstone of democracy is the protection of the minority against the tyranny of the majority. The driving force behind dignity is the recognition of the worth of the individual against neglect and dismissive treatment by capricious and repressive social systems.
The problem with appealing to divine disposition is that it is almost always a tool of political expediency, wielded by an exclusive few over a veto-less many. Immutable and invariable when comfortable, compromising when convenient, morality by revelation and decree protect the profiting prophet while harming the helpless. Religious morality requires simple and soothing ideas to shade the arbitrary and disparate experience of those under its guise. These zero sum absolutist systems require a certain number of exemplary moral transgressors in order to subsidize their shallow facsimiles of virtue. They never ask you to play the heel; you are abhorrent because they say so.
The “mark of Cain” social stain imposed on people of color by the sacrosanct has yet to be fully remedied. LGBT people are next in line to claim their dignity from undeserved hardship, even while women still work to escape the outrageous indictment prescribed by their accusers for purportedly perpetrating of the fall of man. Abrahamic chauvinism aside, we know that our emergence from a common ancestor with our fellow mammals has shattered the idea of a separate and ready-made man. There is no original sin, therefore no need for external salvation. Now we can put aside these silly notions and concentrate on moral agreements based upon biology and reason.
Ours is a morality based upon the social interests of a group-living species whose members are geared to compassion by their neuropeptides and neural circuitry. Ours is a morality with an expectation of critical thought and reason. This not only gives us something more realistic to work with, but it imbues us with the potential to aspire much higher than and individual eternity in a non-existent heaven. Ours is a balanced communitarian morality of community cultivating individuality and sentiments of social responsibility in its members. Rather than that of being perpetually punished for being created broken, ours is a morality that was in development long before we ventured to rationalize it. In our moral system there is neither room for homophobia nor moral oxygen for racism or misogyny. Our moral system is humanism.
Morality by revealed religion fails in the real world. The prevalence of doubt bares its impotence. The conspicuous peddling of its fabricated forgiveness for its self-contrived sins is yet another symptom of the twilight of its social importance. And we should be energized by the dissipation of this dangerous delusion, but let’s not take it for granted. It is still there, no matter how much science we teach, how much political progress or social advancement we achieve, its presence still contaminates the DNA of our public expectations. Regardless if scriptural commands like stoning ill-mannered children is alien to our culture, we still have Bible-centered, heated debate over contraceptive techniques in an arena where women are still burdened in a manner that their male counterparts would evade at all costs. Regardless if we find poly- and mono-theism equally untenable, we humanists still claim to be good without a single titular God. The question over the rights of sexual minorities is at its core a moral question. The morality in question is over impugning the dignity of gay and lesbian people, not an appraisal of the gender combinations of the consensual connections between said couples. As humanists our job is to provide the correct moral answer to this unnecessary debate.
I call this debate unnecessary because the imposed moral quandary upsets expectations particular to Abrahamic monotheism. There doesn’t exist a real and dangerous threat to the purity of heterosexuality, nor for that matter is there an innate moral-purity of heterosexuality. There doesn’t exist a torturous and eternal hellfire to avoid by not violating that non-existent heterosexual purity. There doesn’t exist an innate superiority of male sexual prowess that is violated when a man takes a passive sexual role (“to lie with another man as a man lies with a woman”). None of these supposed moral dangers actually exist, thereby making this debate unnecessary. We can of course engage in unnecessary debate as a matter of recreation, but this by no means is a legitimate source for informing public policy. Keeping a moral debate surrounding the defilement of heterosexual purity resuscitates the very notions of the disparate worth of individuals that we so nobly strive against. But since others still do, our job is not yet done.
So what should we do? A resounding civil rights victory was school integration following Brown vs. the Board of Education. The SCOTUS’s decision did not instantly unveil fraternity from a cloud of antagonism. Though laws upholding school segregation were found unconstitutional, there were a bevy of enforcement issues and a mountain of social attitude that needed to change. Disagreeing people naturally tried to evade the law, and the school vouchers that white folks implemented to keep their precious children away from African-American children eventually morphed into that channel for public tax dollars to go to the religious schools that concern us today. With a court victory, we still needed various iterations of the Civil Rights Act to bring us as a country into greater legal and social enlightenment.
For marriage equality, increasingly, we may be winning at the ballot, on the legislative floor, and hopefully again in the judicature, but we won’t truly be victorious until love and respect replaces gender combination as the way that we measure the social value of a relationship. We also need to advance beyond the mentality that breeds the tired self-preservation rhetoric of heterosexual relationships threatened by the expansion of couples eligible for federally recognized marriage licenses. As Humanists and allies, I implore you now as I did in a The Humanist article: “Stop Saying Same-Sex Marriage” (September/October 2011).
Firstly, there is no such thing as “same-sex” marriage. There are arranged marriages, there are marriages of love and respect, and there are even marriages of convenience. But the only consequential and distinguishing factors of a marital union of a same-sex couple are the gender of the dolls atop the cake, and the fact bullies try to infringe on the happiness of said couple by using the machinery of the state to delegitimize their equal membership in society. Secondly, if we call it was it is (marriage), though we may need to take a moment to explain our reasons for rejecting the “same-sex” prefix; and though this may irritate those whose expectations we have violated, it opens an opportunity of defending the dignity of our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters by dialogue. Their solipsism leaves little room for annoyance at the corner of prolixity that they have backed themselves into.
The American Humanist Association (AHA) filed friend of the court (amicus) briefs in both marriage equality cases before SCOTUS to help the court understand our perspective on the matter. The AHA has long advocated for LGBT rights including providing a service of secular clergy available to help perform marriage and union ceremonies. We also have the LGBT Humanist Council. Though marriage equality is often discussed, it is far from the LGBT Humanist Council’s raison d’être. The ultimate goal of the council is a unifying point of departure to help our Humanist chapters and affiliated members and friends. We just finished a major overhaul of our website and will soon be engaging in some conference calls to facilitate more grass-roots activism and advocacy. In order to expand on these efforts, your support is greatly appreciated. The more funds that we have to work with, the more that we can do; and though SCOTUSmay provide an energizing victory, the fight for full social and civil equality is not yet over.
We are excited now, and should the court go our way when it issues its ruling on these important cases, we must remember that our job is not done. Legal stricture can command quite a broad range of things, but it is our American social attitude that must change–and we aren't quite there yet. We humanists are here, as we always have been, to bolster the moral foundation for equality.
Jason Frye is coordinator of the LGBT Humanist Council and president of the Humanist Association of San Diego.