There’s No Such Thing as Gay Marriage

There was a lot of name-calling in the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals yesterday when Proposition 8 came up for review. Much of the discussion revolved around names–specifically which unions get to be called “marriage” and which are deemed undeserving of that privileged term.

When Theodore Olson took the stand to oppose the marriage ban, Judge Stephen Reinhardt asked a blunt question: “Are you suggesting then that gay marriage is required by the constitution of the United States?” Olson replied, “What is required by the constitution of the United States is the fundamental right of its citizens to marry.” When pressed again by the Judge, who asked if there is “a constitutional right to gay marriage,” Olson took a strong stand on the issue of naming:

I would not call it, Judge Reinhardt, ‘gay marriage,’ or I wouldn’t call it single-sex marriage any more than the Supreme Court of the United States called it interracial marriage.

Olson’s point here is identical to one made by Judge Walker in his landmark decision overturning Proposition 8 as unconstitutional “under any standard of review.”

[The lesbian and gay couples in this case] do not seek recognition of a new right. To characterize plaintiffs’ objective as ‘the right to same-sex marriage’ would suggest that plaintiffs seek something different from what opposite-sex couples across the state enjoy–namely, marriage. Rather, plaintiffs ask California to recognize their relationships for what they are: marriages.

These issues go beyond mere wordplay. Charles Cooper, in defense of Proposition 8, stated emphatically, regarding the term marriage, that “The word is the institution. If you redefine the word, you change the institution.” Given that California permits same-sex couples to form domestic partnerships, to raise and adopt children and to enjoy most of the other benefits that accompany the institution of marriage, the question of names and definitions goes to the heart of the case.

Judge Michael Hawkins pointedly asked attorney Therese Stewart, speaking against Proposition 8, “Are we talking about a label here?” Stewart replied,

We are talking about a label, your honor, but it’s a very important label, it does have great meaning.

Both Olson and Stewart contended that withholding the name of marriage from same-sex couples strongly implies that lesbians and gay men will taint the institution, that’s there’s something wrong with them, and that they are undeserving of a right that has 14 times been deemed by the Supreme Court, according to Olson, as “fundamental.”

Cooper argued that  marriage must be restricted to opposite-sex couples because of the state’s interest in regulating procreation. Central to the definition itself, he contends, is the potential of heterosexual couples to bear children and to ensure the survival of the human race. Never mind that straight couples need not be fertile or even express an interest in having children in order to obtain a marriage license. Cooper dismissed the idea that the state might issue fertility tests before sanctioning marriages as “Orwellian,” but didn’t indicate what protections are in place to keep us from sliding down this slippery slope. If procreation is so essential to the institution, then what’s to keep the government from requiring straight couples to produce children in order to legitimize their marriages? Then again, what’s to keep it from taking away the right to procreate?

The right to marry, Olson asserted, is “an aspect of the right to liberty, privacy, association and identity.” In the Plaintiffs’ Response Brief for the 9th Circuit, he concluded:

What can the Supreme Court mean when it says that our Constitution “neither knows nor tolerates classes among citizens” if a majority can so stigmatize a small, visible and vulnerable minority and in the process cause such wrenching anguish? The American promise—and dream—of equality surely means at a minimum that the government, before ‘drawing a line around’ some segment of its citizenry and designating them unworthy of something as important and socially meaningful as the institution of marriage, must have a legitimate and factually tenable rationale for doing so.

In the appeal hearing, the defenders of Proposition 8 made arguments that were either tautological (marriage is defined as one man and one woman, period, that’s the definition, so same-sex couples don’t get to claim it) or irrational (marriage is always and only about the state’s interest in regulating procreation). They made no mention of the moral disapproval of lesbian and gay couples that was central to the campaign to pass the marriage ban. As the trial and appeal conclusively establish, however, Proposition 8 makes no sense unless you believe that lesbians and gay men are inferior to heterosexuals. Separate and unequal.

Marriage, as the Supreme Court defined it in a case cited by Olson, Griswold v. Connecticut, “is a coming together for better or for worse, hopefully enduring, and intimate to the degree of being sacred.”

It’s time to move beyond talking about gay (or straight) marriage; Proposition 8 is about a sacred notion called equality.

You can thank the Prop 8 plaintiffs for challenging the discriminatory law:

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Photo from Flickr user ProComKelly under license from Creative Commons 2.0


Audrey Bilger is the current president of Reed College, and previously served as vice president and dean of Pomona College. She is also a former professor of literature at Claremont McKenna College and faculty director of the Center for Writing and Public Discourse. She also teaches gender studies, and occasionally yoga. Her latest book, which she co-edited with Michele Kort, is Here Come the Brides! Reflections on Lesbian Love and Marriage (Seal Press, 2012). She is also the author of Laughing Feminism, editor of an edition of Jane Collier’s 1753 satire "An Essay on the Art of Ingeniously Tormenting," and a frequent contributor to Bitch magazine. Her work has been featured in The Paris Review, Rockrgrl, the Huffington Post and the Women's Media Center.