Gay Marriage: An Idea Whose Time Has Come
By Rev. Chris Schriner
Mission Peak Unitarian Universalist Congregation
December 7, 2003
Times are changing and minds are changing. Just since the beginning of this young century marriage has become a legal option for gay and lesbian partners in Europe and North America. Belgium and also the Canadian provinces of Ontario and British Columbia have followed the example of the Netherlands, which legalized such marriages in 1998. Vermont has passed a civil union law that moves closer to same-sex marriage.
And now there is Massachusetts. On April 11, 2001, seven gay and lesbian couples brought suit in Massachusetts, maintaining “that same-sex couples … have an equal right to civil marriage.” Seven of the plaintiffs were Unitarian Universalists. Recently the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court decided that barring such couples “from the protections, benefits, and obligations of marriage … violates the Massachusetts Constitution.” The decision came about twenty-five years after the death of Harvey Milk, one of the pioneers in coming out of the closet, and Harvey would have been thrilled with this breakthrough.
Massachusetts Governor Romney is pushing a constitutional amendment to nullify this court ruling. “I agree with 3,000 years of recorded history,” he said. “Marriage is an institution between a man and a woman.” Have you noticed that people appeal to tradition when they don’t have any good arguments? And so often, they don’t even understand the traditions to which they are appealing. If Romney got in a time machine and went back 3,000 years he would find all sorts of marital arrangements, depending on what society he was visiting. Suppose he went back to ancient Hebrew civilization. He would find that marriage was basically a property exchange, not a commitment of love, not a relationship based on shared interests and values. And it was not even “an institution between a man and a woman,” but rather between one man and one or more women. Solomon had 700 wives, which leads me to question how wise he really was. Less than a hundred years ago marriage lost much of its economic significance when women began to work outside the home. People no longer need to stay in miserable and abusive unions in order to survive. And in recent decades, we have re-evaluated traditional roles for husbands and wives. This institution has changed in enormous ways through the passage of time, and it may be on the verge of another big change, as same-sex couples begin to tie the knot.
Even though I’m delighted with the Massachusetts decision, I realize that some UUs may think differently than I do about it. I’m just sharing my opinions as grist for the mill, and I’d like to tell you why I have come to believe as I do. Some of you have heard this story, but I’ll add some things that I haven’t mentioned before. You may recall that I grew up feeling negative about homosexuality because that was what broke my parents up when I was only three. Dad had realized he was gay long before he met my mother, but he and Mom figured that marriage would change him. And after he returned from fighting in World War II, he went back to the man he had been involved with before he and my mother ever met. So I grew up fearing and distrusting homosexuals, even though I didn’t know anybody where we lived whom I could identify as being gay.
In college and graduate school I learned that more and more mental health professionals doubted that homosexuality was a disease, and in 1973 the American Psychiatric Association removed it from their list of mental illnesses. I also re-examined what the Bible says about being gay. Someone who thinks every verse of the Bible is the clear and literal word of God might very well reject gayness. But the idea that God essentially wrote every word of the Bible is absurd. In other sermons I’ve mentioned Bible teachings that virtually no one agrees with today, such as Deuteronomy 22:28-29 which says that a man who sexually assaults a virgin should marry her. No loving deity would command such a thing. And I found that the key anti-gay verses were located in parts of the Bible that contain many peculiar and outmoded ideas. Remember the passage saying, “You … shall not sow your field with two kinds of seed; nor shall there come upon you a garment of cloth made of two kinds of stuff.” (Leviticus 19:19) Evidently Dacron-Polyester leisure suits really were a sin! If we take the Bible as a whole, there is no consistent case against homosexuality, whereas you do find a consistent case for promoting love, respect, and loyalty between persons. True love is a rare gem, and it should be treasured regardless of the gender of the lovers.
After these explorations, I realized that my father was not necessarily a bad person, just someone who did what society told him to do—get married and “stop being gay,” even though that could never work. When I was in my 30s, Dale Schriner and I began to correspond for the first time. Then in 1981 my mother was diagnosed with terminal cancer. When I told Dale, he immediately said that he wanted to visit. I appreciated his dropping everything to come to California for a week, and for his patience and sensitivity in helping care for my mother. A few months after she died, Dale invited me to visit him, and I accepted.
I was nervous on that plane trip to Houston because I would be meeting Dad’s partner, Don — the same man he had known before he met my mother. Both of them taught piano, and when I walked into their living room I saw two grand pianos nestled together like a giant Yang and Yin symbol.
For nearly 15 years I visited them at least annually, and it was enlightening to sit there with Dale and Don observing my own prejudices. I would catch myself being surprised at how typical they were, as if I expected them to be like men from Mars. Prejudice often grows out of the false belief that one difference implies many other differences. Yes, it makes a difference to be gay, especially in a homophobic society. But in most respects, people who love each other are just people who love each other. And as a family counselor, I could see that Dale and Don interacted just like a typical old married couple, except that they didn’t have gender issues to deal with. In fact, if you had simply read a printout of what they were saying to each other, 99% of the time there would have been no clue that these were two gay men. Like straight spouses, there was the same ability to almost read each other’s minds, the same longstanding petty irritations, the same daily routines and seasonal rituals, the jokes that only they fully understood, the deep mutual dependency, the comfort in each other’s silent presence, the same loyalty and abiding love.
When Don died, he and Dad had been mates for over 50 years, except for Dale’s brief marriage to my mother. A year later Dad died, and at his memorial service Don was mentioned as his lifelong companion. Most people at the service knew what that meant. I only wish that their true marriage of heart and mind had been officially recognized before they died.
And so my mind changed. It changed because of new data: to be gay is not to be mentally ill. It changed because I re-evaluated the sources of anti-gay attitudes in the Jewish and Christian scriptures. And mostly it changed because of knowing people that I realized were homosexual, including my father.
But there’s another issue here. Even if one supports gay rights, one might favor using Vermont’s approach, granting a civil equivalent of matrimony. How important is it to actually use the word “marriage?” Vermont sets up two different categories of union. Perhaps these categories could co-exist as “separate, but equal,” but I don’t think so. Obviously one important reason that many people do not want to grant gays the word “marriage” is that they think such relationships are sinful or abnormal. The word “marriage” is withheld to express disapproval. When the main reason for setting up two separate categories is that people disapprove of those in one of those categories, there is no way the two categories can be equal. In fact, in a way the very title of my sermon is misleading, because it sounds like I am supporting a new kind of marriage, gay marriage. But marriage is marriage, and I believe that a state of marriage already exists between many same-sex partners.
But now here’s an argument on the other side. Since most religions say that marriage involves a man and a woman, isn’t it a slap in the face of those religions for the state to say that we have to recognize marriage between people of the same gender? This argument moves me to some extent but it does not persuade me. Even if the state recognizes marriages between same-sex couples, religious institutions will never be forced to bless relationships of which they do not approve. Roman Catholics frown on marriage between people who have been divorced, and yet the state will marry them.
I recently ran across a fascinating argument on this subject by a politically conservative commentator named David Brooks (from the web; published November 22, 2003). John Porter sent me this one. Brooks says that we live in a “culture of contingency,” in which what we do is contingent on our individual choices. He writes that marriage
“Relies on a culture of fidelity, . . . but the culture of contingency means that the marriage bond . . . is now more likely to be seen as an easily canceled contract . . .
Still, [he continues] every human being in the United States has the chance to move from the path of contingency to the path of marital fidelity, except homosexuals. Gays and lesbians are banned from marriage and forbidden to enter into this powerful and ennobling institution.
You would think that faced with this marriage crisis, we conservatives would do everything in our power to move as many people as possible from the path of contingency to the path of fidelity. . . .
We shouldn’t just allow gay marriage. We should insist on gay marriage. We should regard it as scandalous that two people could claim to love each other and not want to sanctify their love with marriage and fidelity.
[And he concludes,] It’s going to be up to conservatives to make the . . . moral case for marriage, including gay marriage.”
Victor Hugo said, “There is nothing so powerful as an idea whose time has come.” Admittedly, marriage for gays is still an unpopular notion, but for many of us it is a powerful idea that ought to become reality. Amazingly, because of decisions by courts and governments just in the past few years, it is now a reality both in North America and Europe. But there will be a huge backlash. Today over half of Americans think gay sex is sinful, and nearly half think gays can change their sexual orientation. People will push for state and federal constitutional amendments to prevent same-sex couples from receiving this basic human recognition.
Regardless of whether you agree with me about this matter, I hope you will speak up about it. Our Senators and Representative are in their home districts during December, and they will hear from a lot of voters about the Federal Marriage Amendment. I hope they will hear from you.
But don’t just communicate with our leaders. Talk with your family and friends as well. This is an issue where our own human stories can be much more persuasive than abstract moral arguments.
I’ll wrap up with words from Fred Small’s song, “Everything Possible:” “You can be anybody you want to be, you can love whomever you will, ... You can live by yourself, you can gather friends around, you can choose one special one. And the only measure of your words and your deeds will be the love you leave behind when you’re done.” I thank my father for the love he left behind, and for the way he helped me change my mind.
© 2003 Chris Schriner