Sunday, June 11, 2006

Why I'm Turning Down Michael Lerner's Marriage Proposal

Rabbi Michael Lerner, the head of the Jewish progressive group Tikkun and chairman of the new Network for Spiritual Progressives, weighed in on the gay marriage debate in this Thursday's New York Daily News. Lerner interestingly co-opts an argument made for years by radical queer theorists such Michael Warner, saying that marriage bears no real relation to any of the governmental rights and benefits that are attached to it and should therefore be removed (except for commitments concerning the welfare of children) from government oversight. His reasoning, however, has more to do with the feasibility of achieving gay marriage than a theoretical critique that sees the role of government in intimate personal affairs and arbitrary budling of privilege around a specific social institution as highly problematic. Lerner writes:

The second objection to gay unions comes from those who argue that marriage is a holy sacrament whose dimensions have for most of human history been set by religious communities.

This concern is also legitimate, but it should be met with a different answer than banning same-sex marriage. Instead, marriage ought to be taken out of the state's hands entirely. Let people be wed in the private realm with no official legal sanction. Then, religious communities that oppose gay marriage will not sanction them, and those like mine that sanction the practice will conduct it. Rather than issuing marriage certificates or divorces, the state would simply enforce civil unions as contracts between consenting adults and enforce laws imposing obligations on people who bring children into the world.

This approach is far more likely to be a winning strategy for those who wish to beat back the assault on gay rights.

Lerner's acceptance of this objection about marriage he cites as "legitimate" is troubling. The argument about marriage as being "holy" and "historic" traditions that shouldn't be changed are little more than a cover for hate and exclusion. I don't mean to suggest that everybody who objects to gay marriage on these grounds actively and passionately detests gay people, but there is nonetheless a discomfort and latent homophobia that prevents people from accepting the presence of visible gay people in their daily lives. The fear of and anger towards gay marriage is really about being afraid of and angry at gay people. The anti-gay zealots have figured out, however, that an argument centered around history and religious tradition plays far better in the media and public eye than an outright assault on the fundamental humanity of queer people - even though that is exactly what they believe and promote within their organizations, their churches, their schools and their communities. Lerner's unwillingness to be critical of this "objection" is both disingenuous and also, in the long run, politically ruinous.

It's impossible to contain the kind of hate these people traffic in. What right-wing zealots really want is not freedom from gays for themselves, but rather to restrict the freedom of gays, to silence and marginalize them. What they really want is not to protect their families, but rather to destroy our families and our society with their bigotry and hate. They want to reclaim America for themselves, and impose their values on the rest of us. The assumption that they will somehow be content to be insular and protected against a wider onslaught of gayness that could seep into their communities and corrupt their children is contrary to all known experience. In accepting their claims to “self-determination,” we would effectively be conceding the point that gay marriage is a threat to “traditional culture.” If we do that, the marriage push and the queer movement will be rendered utterly toothless.

Lerner’s sympathy for the “holy & historic institution” argument is not surprising. As a rabbi who has done terrific interfaith work and as a progressive (and especially as an anti-war activist) acutely aware of the need to respect the beliefs and traditions of others, Lerner is bound to emphasize the need for dialogue and understanding. Given the current state of affairs, however, to say that queers need to understand and accept the bigotry of the Christian right is absurd. Rather than constantly trying to prove that we care about people of faith and trying to teach our supporters (many of whom are, in fact, religious themselves and have struggled with religiously-motivated hate) that they just need to learn how to talk to religious people and respect them, why don’t we instead emphasize the need for the religious right to develop some respect for us?

I agree with Lerner that the language of civil rights alone is not enough to win the marriage battle, and that the civil rights conferred by gay marriage will not be enough to build true cultural equality for queers in the long run. But civil rights are nonetheless an important component of any long-term campaign for equality. The gay marriage debate of the moment has been and continues to be a pivotal moment in defining the future of gay people in this country. Aside from being unwise, it is also impractical to suggest to most Americans that the state should not be involved in marriage – that is simply not a winning position for the queer movement. We need to learn to deal in the terms of the debate. If people try to use the “holy & historic institution” excuse, let’s counter it – state recognition of marriage will never impact what churches do, and that’s a fact. We don’t need to take marriage out of the public realm for this to be the case.

Marriage is with us, like it or not, and the current positions different groups take aren’t going to change until we actively work to combat hate and get people to realize that visible gay people are not a threat or a sickness. That’s the best way to fight for marriage equality – to fight for dignity, respect and cultural acceptance. To follow Lerner’s advice would be to abandon that fight now and allow hate to remain unchecked in the communities where it most needs to be rooted out. The hard and fast truth of the current LGBT political environment has not changed much over the past 35 years: like other social movements that demand fundamental changes to societal attitudes and behaviors, we’re in it for the long haul.


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