Thursday, March 15, 2012

Part Two: Gay Rights in Our Time and Place

This is part two of yesterday's discussion on gay marriage. Comments will be closed on this post and the next and open on part four this Saturday.

I believe in a God who takes the bonding power of sexuality very seriously and teaches that it should only be used in male-female marriage relationships. So I do worry when the language of gay rights begins to suggest that any opposition to LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender) lifestyles is grounded in prejudice and hate. I mean, I don’t believe that people simply choose who to be attracted to, but I also believe there should be many, many steps in a person’s decision-making process between initial attraction and sex. After all, from my perspective a sexual relationship has lifelong consequences—and life never really ends.

It’s difficult to bridge my belief in sex as part of an eternal relationship with the perspectives of those who advocate trying out various types of sexual relationships as a way of discovering and asserting a political identity. And to hear that I should value heterosexual and bisexual lifestyles equally doesn’t fit well into my existing frame of reference: I can understand that some people (probably more than we admit) are attracted to people of both genders, but what am I supposed to make of the notion of valuing bisexual lifestyles when I believe an ideal life involves only one sexual relationship?

I agree with gay rights advocates that no one should get beaten up physically or verbally for being different, but I can’t agree that it’s a moral imperative to think all types of sexual choices are equal.

But is being personally respectful to people who choose different lifestyles enough? I’m not sure it is. If I understand right, talk about gay marriage started during the AIDS epidemic, when many gay men were making great sacrifices to care for dying partners and suddenly found themselves wishing for legal rights about things like insurance and hospital visitation. The right to visit a sick loved one is something many of us take for granted. But it’s also a right, sadly, that many family members of gay AIDS patients in the 1980s didn’t exercise. So our country was left with situations where gay men had to fight against standing rules for the right to visit dying men no one else was going in to visit.

It breaks my heart to think about that.

Don't those men, whose acts of service in the face of adversity our God surely saw and respected, deserve some help making appropriate legal changes?

I think it’s a good thing that so many people, especially young people, believe the answer is yes. But it’s notoriously difficult to transfer a kind and wise spirit successfully into binding letters, so good intentions won’t necessarily translate into good laws.

Early attempts to grant same-sex couples insurance and hospital visitation rights, plus everyday things like the ability to easily open joint bank accounts, were built around words like “civil union” and “domestic partnership.” California, for example, created a registry in 1999 for legally-recognized “domestic partnerships” designed primarily for adult same-sex couples who, to use the law’s phrasing, “have chosen to share one another's lives in an intimate and committed relationship of mutual caring.”

But creating a new legal category can be tricky. What rights and obligations should domestic partners have? Rather than starting from scratch, California and many other states decided to simply borrow pre-existing marriage laws: domestic partners, the California law said, had all the same legal rights and obligations as spouses. Which sort of raised the question: why not just call them spouses? Why not just legally recognize a committed same-sex relationship as a marriage, and thus protect the rights of same-sex couples by tying them to rights of everyone else?

And once the word marriage became a rallying point for gay rights activists, many lawyers and judges started to wonder: should anyone have a right to tell two people who build a life together that they can’t get married?

Which is the question that dominates the gay rights debate today.

Continued in Part Three: What is Marriage?


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