Could We Please Quit Pretending It’s About Marriage Equality?

By Tom Gilson Published on December 4, 2016

Betsy DeVos, Donald Trump’s nominee for Secretary of Education is opposed to marriage equality. Representative Tom Price, Trump’s nominee for Secretary of HHS, is also opposed to marriage equality. Three other Trump Cabinet selections are against marriage equality, according to the strongly pro-gay Human Rights Campaign. Vice-President-elect Mike Pence has been working against it for years.

Brian Soucek, an acting professor of law at UC Davis, views all this with alarm. He wants to ward off “the threat to marriage equality in California” by repealing Proposition 8 — in case a future U.S. Supreme Court repeals its recent pro-gay marriage ruling.

I hate to tell him, but whether or not Proposition 8 is repealed, there’s going to be marriage inequality either way. There’s marriage inequality even now, under Obergefell v. Hodges. The case was always billed as a battle for marriage equality, but that was never what it was about.

It’s time we quit pretending. It isn’t just Donald Trump’s Cabinet that disbelieves in marriage equality. It isn’t just Jimmy Seibert, controversial pastor to HGTV’s Chip and Joanna Gaines. It’s Brian Soucek, too. It’s the Human Rights Campaign, along with virtually every other gay activist. It’s all of us.

No one believes in marriage equality.

No one, that is, except members of the hyper-radical fringe who want to do away with marriage altogether. They’re the only ones who really believe in marriage equality. Otherwise “marriage equality” has never been anything but a slogan.

Rhetoric in Action

It’s a good one, as slogans go; I’ll grant it that. Borrowed straight from America’s most magnificent noble ideals, it’s got the all right stuff to pack a a powerful rhetorical punch. Why shouldn’t marriage equality be self-evidently a human right, just as much as life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness! Who could possibly oppose such a positive vision?

Consider what would happen if we took equality seriously as a primary principle for deciding what should count as marriage.

But it gets better. The phrase also trades in the guilt we’ve felt over falling short of our country’s founding ideals. No sensitive human being would be caught dead being against it — not after all the ethical and social failures we’ve been guilty of for so long. We’re not making those mistakes again!

There’s a problem, though. For all its rhetorical usefulness, “marriage equality” can’t be a self-evident human right if it’s self-evidently self-contradictory and impossible — which is exactly what it is.

What “Marriage Equality” Would Mean, if Anyone Really Meant It

Consider what would happen if we took equality seriously as a primary principle for deciding what should count as marriage. It would mean calling an end to all of our exclusionary biases, like our prejudice against father-daughter marriages, multiple-partner marriages, sibling marriages, indeed, any relationship that anyone wants to label “marriage.” If you want marriage equality, that’s the only way you’ll really get it.

Of course LGBT activists are always quuick to tell us “No! That’s not what we meant!” They’re not at all interested in setting the stage for polygamy or incestuous marriages, they say; and I believe them. I just have trouble believing the part where they tell me at the same time they’re for marriage equality, because clearly they believe in marriage inequality, too, beyond their chosen line of marriage demarcation.

We All Draw Our Lines of Equality and Inequality

We all have lines of marriage demarcation. Marriage conservatives place our boundary in the space between opposite-sex relationships and same-sex relationships. Couples on one side of that line may be candidates for marriage; couples on the other side cannot. Couples on one side all deserve fully equal access to marriage (certain other reasonable conditions being in place, of course). In other words, we believe in marriage equality, but only up to a certain line; beyond that there is inequality, as we freely admit.

LGBT activists believe in marriage equality, but only up to a certain line; beyond that there is inequality, as they freely admit.

Marriage revisionists draw a line that looks almost exactly like our line, other than including same-sex couples. They, like we, are quick to exclude underage persons, incestuous relationships, polygamy and so on. As one pro-gay commentator wrote on the day the Supreme Court ruled in favor of gay marriage, “Justice Kennedy today wrote the opinion in Obergefell v. Hodges, finding state bans on same-sex marriage unconstitutional, and securing full marriage equality for gays and lesbians across America.” Marriage equality extends to gays and lesbians, now, but no further. In other words, LGBT activists believe in marriage equality, but only up to a certain line; beyond that there is inequality, as they freely admit.

Now I’m sure you’ve caught it already, but it bears repeating: we all believe in marriage equality up to a certain line, and inequality beyond that line. We all agree on marriage equality, and we all believe in marriage inequality. Our only disagreement is over the location of the line.

Some Lines are More Principled Than Others

So how do we all decide where to place our lines of marriage exclusion? Marriage conservatives can make a strong, principled case for the location of our line. It has to do with history, with family and community stability, with the social and physical health of individuals (especially women), and much more.

Those who stand for gay marriage can make no such principled case. Virtually all the arguments they make for gay marriage work just as well for any sort of couple, threesome, foursome, etc. that wants to call their relationship “marriage.” So why don’t these others get “marriage equality,” too? LGBT activists have been quick to say, “We don’t intend that for a moment! We’ve only asked to have marriage equality for gays and lesbians.” But why? From here it looks perfectly arbitrary.

Or maybe it’s not so arbitrary. Their line is in exactly the right place to gain the social approval they’ve needed for their cause. Activist leaders have long cautioned LGBT people against asking for too much too soon, knowing that they would surely suffer a backlash if they pushed too hard. This marriage-equality line of theirs looks suspiciously as if it’s landed where it is because it suits gay activists’ political purposes.

Enough Pretending Already

At any rate it should be clear enough: we all agree on marriage equality up to a certain line, and inequality beyond it. Our only disagreement is over the placement of the line. So let’s call this “marriage equality” slogan what it is: it’s a sham. Marriage equality isn’t real. The slogan exists only to arouse patriotism and guilt, and to make the conservative view on marriage appear morally inferior. Given that we all believe in marriage equality up to a certain boundary, however, it is no moral fault to prefer a principled boundary over an arbitrary one.

But LGBT activists will undoubtedly continue the sham. They don’t dare quit it. They can’t afford to give it up; it’s too much of a rhetorical powerhouse for them. They have to keep on pretending it’s about marriage equality. But we don’t have to keep letting them get away with the pretense.

 

Tom Gilson is a senior editor for The Stream and the author of the Kregel Publications book Critical Conversations: A Christian Parents’ Guide to Discussing Homosexuality With Teens.

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