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Boy, oh boy. There sure has  been a lot of cheering and moaning about U.S. District Chief Judge Vaughn R. Walker's decision to declare unconstitutional a voter-approved ban on same-sex marriage.

Haven't been following the story? You can find broad coverage of the issue & trial in the SF Chronicle; the NY Times or FoxNews report on Wednesday's decision; read Walker's 138-page decision yourself; or check out an analysis thereof.

All that coverage, not to mention endless chatter in the blogosphere, absolves me of the obligation to cherry-pick quotations from the decision. Of course, as many have pointed out, the game's not over: appeals to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeal are on the horizon, and the U.S. Supreme Court may have a thing or two to say about Judge Walker's 138 pages of prose as well.

Naturally, the disinformationistas were waiting to pounce on the district court decision. So what's the argument against same-sex marriage that makes my head spin fastest?

Nope, not the "activist judges" argument, which is so very laughable when advanced by conservatives who support (or are blind to) the activism of judges with whose ideology they agree -- say, U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John G. Roberts, to give just one itty-bitty example.

Nope, not the populist argument that people voting for some fly-by-night ballot proposition trumps essential law, e.g., the constitution under which the U.S. government operates, and to which each U.S. state is existentially bound. Not even when said populists hold both that a fleeting majority's vote supersedes all other law & precedent and that responsible judges hold strictly to the constitution in light of intentions "the founders" had when they drafted it.

Here it is, the true head-spinner in this writer's book: the "marriage is a heterosexual word" argument. As articulated by William Moore of Red Bluff, California, and published in the SF Chronicle's Letters to the Editor section of 5 August 2010, the argument goes something like this:

[T]he purpose of Proposition 8 for many of us was to uphold the long-standing tradition that marriage is a heterosexual word. Pick you [sic] own word. For thousands of years, this word has had significant meaning to the husbands and wives who have made a sacred pledge to each other. You now have a population that is accepting alternate lifestyles as a part of that fabric. Just pick your own word to define your commitments to each other, and honor the one that represents our commitments to each other, and we can live in harmony.

Now it wouldn't be fair to blame only Mr. Moore for this argument. And yet, it would be tedious to review the nearly eight million hits I get when I type marriage heterosexual institution into the Google search interface. Or even the 2.5 million results yielded by Bing. It would be worse than tedious to try to link to a dozen or three arguments similar to Mr. Moore's, because doing so would elevate their relevance in search engines, if not in actual fact or law. Not going there. So I'm going to use Mr. Moore's argument, fresh off the press as it is, as a stand-in for all those people who oppose marriage equality. Instead of using Mr. Moore's name -- to avoid making Mr. Moore into a martyr or a whipping-boy -- I'll just call all those people who oppose marriage equality by an acronym: ATPWOME. Got it? Who cares if it's hard to pronounce? It's pretty darn hard to make rational sense of the arguments, why should the people who advance them be anything but unpronounceable?

So let's clear up some facts in the argument Mr. Moore has advanced on behalf of ATPWOME.

First, to the "for thousands of years..." assertion. I happen to have beside me a compact edition of Oxford English Dictionary (Oxford University Press 1971), the one in two volumes with very small print; it came with a magnifying glass. The OED has a lot of terrific stuff in it, and among the most terrific are its etymologies -- complete with citations from the written record in which any given word appears. The earliest citation for the word "marriage" in English comes from Robert of Gloucester in the year 1297, same date and author as the word "marry" from which it is derived. 1297 was 713 years ago. The arithmetic sciences hold that 713 is less than one thousand, and much less than multiple "thousands." Oh! But the English word comes from Old French! And what do we know about Old French? Let's consult our old friend, Wikipedia: "Old French was the Romance dialect continuum spoken in territories that span roughly the northern half of modern France and parts of modern Belgium and Switzerland from the 9th century to the 14th century." There you have it. 9th to 21st century: 1,200 years in round numbers, which is still less than "thousands." My condolences to ATPWOME, whether they live in Red Bluff, California or elsewhere.

Second, sticking to our solid reference volume, the word "heterosexual" is defined in OED as ... wait! The word "heterosexual" is not in my 1971 Compact edition! Have no fear, the intertubes are our friends (though my access to the electronic OED is restricted by subscription, so I can't share the link; if you feel an urge to check my transcription, head to any reasonably well-provisioned public library). Heterosexual, the adjective, says the OED, is:

  1. a. Characterized by a sexual interest in members of the opposite sex. b. Pertaining to sexual relations between people of opposite sex. 2. Pertaining to, characteristic of both sexes.

Once again, ATPWOME lose. There is no such thing as a "heterosexual word." Heterosexual is a term that pertains to things that have sex. Words, which may have grammatical gender, do not have sexual interest, sexual relations, or, well, sex.

Third, can ATPWOME please get over the strategic ignorance that relentlessly debases discourse on this topic?

Here's an excerpt from the Publisher's Weekly summary of Stephanie Coontz's 2005 volume, Marriage, a History: From Obedience to Intimacy, or How Love Conquered Marriage:

When considered in the light of history, "traditional marriage"—the purportedly time-honored institution some argue is in crisis thanks to rising rates of divorce and out-of-wedlock births, not to mention gay marriage—is not so traditional at all. Indeed, Coontz (The Way We Never Were) argues, marriage has always been in flux, and "almost every marital and sexual arrangement we have seen in recent years, however startling it may appear, has been tried somewhere before." Based on extensive research (hers and others'), Coontz's fascinating study places current concepts of marriage in broad historical context, revealing that there is much more to "I do" than meets the eye. [...]

As it happens, Coontz contributed an op-ed piece titled The Heterosexual Revolution to the New York Times on 5 July 2005, and that op-ed came up second when I typed marriage heterosexual institution into my handy Google search interface (#21 on Bing). Ms. Coontz concluded her op-ed piece as follows:

Marriage has been in a constant state of evolution since the dawn of the Stone Age. In the process it has become more flexible, but also more optional. Many people may not like the direction these changes have taken in recent years. But it is simply magical thinking to believe that by banning gay and lesbian marriage, we will turn back the clock.

Magical thinking. There you have it.

ATPWOME should know that Ms. Coontz' book is available for less than ten bucks from Amazon, but all those people who oppose marriage equality but support America's small businesspeople should check their local independent bookstores first.

So. In any event. Here's my modest proposal.

Let us consider the word "freedom." From the OED again, the first of fifteen definitions, each with its own tidy little set of usage citations: "I.1a. The state or fact of being free from servitude, constraint, inhibition, etc.; liberty." If you're interested in the other definitions, through, including, and beyond "I.1.c. Exemption or release from the obligations of a contractual agreement; spec. release from a marriage, divorce," I again recommend any reasonably well-provisioned public library.

In light of the quoted definition of the word "freedom," I propose the following. To wit. Ipso facto.

So long as ATPWOME wish to constrain and inhibit homosexuals from marrying (each other), ATPWOME shall cease and desist from application of the word "freedom" to any description of their politics or values, whether spoken, in print, on-line, or even wildly fantasized.

That seems reasonable, right? Because, clearly, ATPWOME have a program, and it ain't about "freedom."

In fact, now that freedom to marry a same-sex partner in California is looking like it may be reinstated, it could soon become accurate to say of ATPWOME that they hate our freedoms! (To think that I'm quoting George W. Bush right here on the intertubes. Wonders will surely never cease...)

All you people who oppose marriage equality? The comment box is free for all.

Originally posted to Steve Masover on Fri Aug 06, 2010 at 08:44 AM PDT.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Redefinitions (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Spoc42, Boudicia Dark

    As others including Coontz have pointed out, marriage being defined as being between only one man and one woman is a pretty recent and local definition (since plenty of parts of the world still allow marriage between one man and multiple women). You don't hear them complaining that polygamous marriages should be called something other than marriage.

    However, we might consider looking upon this argument as truly the last dying gasp of the past. If all they've got left is an attempt to corral the use of one particular word, that's not saying much for the strength of their position.

  •  What does this have to do with eating babies? (0+ / 0-)

    Since the classic "Modest Proposal" was by Swift:

    A Modest Proposal For Preventing the Children of Poor People in Ireland from Being a Burden to Their Parents or Country, and for Making Them Beneficial to the Publick, commonly referred to as A Modest Proposal, is a Juvenalian satirical essay written and published anonymously by Jonathan Swift in 1729. Swift appears to suggest in his essay that the impoverished Irish might ease their economic troubles by selling children as food for rich gentlemen and ladies. By doing this he mocks the authority of the British officials.

    But by now, we know how the Obama administration deals with those who would destroy it: it goes straight for the capillaries. --Krugman

    by mbayrob on Fri Aug 06, 2010 at 08:53:30 AM PDT

  •  That's a new one. (5+ / 0-)

    "Marriage is a heterosexual word."

    I saw the way marriage was lookin' at me. It's not foolin' anyone.

    'Normal' has always been collaborating with injustice. - Tim Wise

    by indiemcemopants on Fri Aug 06, 2010 at 08:56:50 AM PDT

  •  Marriage is a sacrament, (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Gooserock, Spoc42, Steve Masover

    at least in the Christian tradition.  The constitution is pretty damned clear that the State is not in the sacrament business.  Can you imagine the stink if your state decided to legislate who can take communion and who can be baptized?  

    The state should be in the civil union business, registering legal partnering arrangements.  

    Churches should be allowed the sacrament franchise.  If your church doesn't think gays should marry, they won't get married at your church.  They can come to mine.  

    •  Three thumbs up (0+ / 0-)

      On the mark, WXRock...

    •  Christian Tradition Does Not Bind Our Government. (6+ / 0-)

      Marriage is a civil union legal term.

      It's the correct one. The religious people can fuck off.

      We are called to speak for the weak, for the voiceless, for victims of our nation and for those it calls enemy.... --ML King "Beyond Vietnam"

      by Gooserock on Fri Aug 06, 2010 at 09:32:51 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  Hear! Hear! (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        AUBoy2007

        Absolutely!

        Peace thru hemp / hemp for life!

        by Boudicia Dark on Fri Aug 06, 2010 at 09:48:37 AM PDT

        [ Parent ]

      •  The other three thumbs up (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        sfbob

        Gooserock, you're right. My partner grew up in China, where Mao used to say "religion is poison" ... and plenty of people got married you can be sure. He is outraged by those in religious communities who exclusively claim "marriage" as a term they own and arbitrate. He's right to be outraged. What, he asks, is my parents' relationship if not "marriage"? And religion had nothing to do with it, nor any of hundreds of millions (yes) of unions to which women and men remain committed in China.

        Not that China's about to open the gates to same-sex marriage.

        But Mexico City did, with the nation's Supreme Court's 8-of-10 blessing!

      •  Speaking as a person of faith, (0+ / 0-)

        I actually agree with this 100%.  Including the "fuck off".

      •  The problem is that there are a lot of people (0+ / 0-)

        who can't fit two definitions for a word in their little heads.  It would be easy to untangle things if we could cut the two concepts apart.  Everybody goes to city hall or whatever and gets their civil union registered, then, if they feel like it, go to whatever religious organization they want an get sacamentized.

        There still would be people who thinks gays or people of different races or people of different religions or whatever should not marry.  They can come to my church and try to change our minds, good luck with that.  But there's no point to them messing with laws and constitutions because the government isn't doing Christian Marriages.

        But you can bet that any couple in a civil union will be called a married couple.  They will be married.  They will live in wedded bliss or blitz.  That word is ingrained enough that there won't be a distinction between a civil union and a civil union and religiously sanctioned union.

        Words can be powerful tools.  If we can use them with more subtlety than the other side, we can get the job done.

        •  On the contrary (2+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          dskoe, WXRock

          You can't bet that any couple in a civil union will be called a married couple. Because they won't be. They'll be "civilly united." And gays will be blamed for destroying the institution of marriage.

          I happened upon a letter to the editor in today's NYT...three paragraphs, so I can cite quote the whole thing.

          I am not legally married, but I have been together with my partner for 14 years. Whenever we travel out of the country, we are reminded of the importance of marriage upon our return to the United States.

          On a recent visit, we approached the immigration counter together and presented our passports. But we were scolded by an immigration agent, who explained that only married couples or family members could stand together. The agent sternly told my "friend" to go back in line with everyone else.

          Our lives as gay individuals include many jarring reminders that no matter the label ("partner," "friend"), we are strangers in the eyes of our government and communities. That’s why Judge Vaughn R. Walker’s decision is so momentous. It is an acknowledgment by our government that our relationships have meaning, and we are equal under the law.

          Words have meanings, and vocabulary cannot be changed by fiat. That is why the fight for marriage equality is an important one.

          •  We disagree on tactics. (0+ / 0-)

            If the letter writer had a civil union with his spouse, they would have been able to stand together.

            My point was that it wouldn't change the language, only the title on the state-mandated form.

            I agree with you completely on the goal.

            •  As it stands now, "civil union" (0+ / 0-)

              is a term that has zero applicability in the United States. Vermont had civil unions, but now has full marriage equality. Several states, including California and Washington, have "domestic partnerships." Domestic partnership is a status with no validity outside of the state where it was entered into, though I believe that California would recognize a domestic partnership entered into in the state of Washington.

              First of all, one of the findings of fact in Walker's decision is the notion, not disputed by the defendants, that "marriage" as a word has a symbolic meaning not conferred by any other term. You aren't going to change culture by fiat.

              In addition, it is the word "marriage" which confers legal status for the purpose of dispensing federal benefits. For better or worse the word is deeply embedded into federal statutes. Other than the exception carved out by DOMA, the federal government relies on the states' definition of marriage in deciding who will receive those benefits (both tangible and, as in the case of the above couple, intangible). Judge Tauro's finding in Massachusetts decisions is that this aspect of DOMA is itself unconstitutional.

              Clearly, DOMA will continue to prevent same-sex marriages from being recognized by federal statute for some time, until the Tauro rulings are dealt with by the Supreme Court. Or until the Obama Justice Department decides not to appeal Tauro's ruling. However, to expect huge swatches of federal statute to be revised to remove the word "marriage" and substitute some other word or words in order to make a political point (however worthy) is completely ludicrous.

    •  The problem is (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      AUBoy2007, Boudicia Dark, dskoe

      "marriage" has a variety of meanings. It might be a sacrament, it might be a legal status. The fact that it is a legal status doesn't mean that it is an impermissible importation of a religious ceremony into civil law.

      Suppose you obtain a marriage license and are wedded by the county clerk? No sacrament there but you are definitely married.

      Legally speaking, churches conduct weddings, the state solemnizes marriages. It is only by virtue of the state permitting a member of the clergy to act in a civil capacity that weddings become marriages.

      Others have noted over and over that if you try to do away with civil marriage and replace it with civil unions, it enforces the right-wing myth that gays will have "ruined" marriage.

  •  Marriage Licences (0+ / 0-)

    should have to be be renewed every few years, just like a Driver's License.

    Democrats are dogs, and Power is the car we chase: we don't know what to do with it once we catch it.
    --@jameskass

    by ThatsNotFunny on Fri Aug 06, 2010 at 09:50:59 AM PDT

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