same sex marriage

Slavery, Boundaries and Marriage

I have been reading Jennifer Glancy’s book Slavery in Early Christianity.  In one passage, Glancy discusses writing by St. Augustine.  Something was happening in North Africa that concerned him. It was not that there was slavery, Augustine acknowledged the scriptural tradition that slaves should honor their masters, it was that there was a growing trend of enslavement of free persons.  Glancy wrote:

…the instability of the slave body attracted attention throughout antiquity.  How to account for the fact that under some circumstances– say, in the aftermath of war– free persons could be enslaved, or that in other circumstances a formerly enslaved body could walk free?  Particular circumstances, such as the sale of slaves, the flight of slaves and the freeing of slaves, forced attention to these borderline cases, instances where the demarcation was blurred between the well-defined bodies of free persons and the defenseless bodies of slaves.  If the boundaries of the slave body were unstable, not only could enslaved bodies metamorphose into free persons, but free persons could be thrust into a nightmare condition of servitude.  On this view– the view of Augustine and perhaps the universal view of the Roman World– the horror was not slavery.  This was not the expression of abolitionist nor antislavery sentiment.  The horror was that free persons would not be able to protect the boundaries of their own bodies and that they would be treated as surrogate bodies for others to use as they chose, with no legal or culturally sanctioned means of self-protection.

If the boundaries of slave and non-slave were unstable, what was to stop the free person from having to endure what the slave did?

This ancient question of boundaries also drives the opposition to same sex marriage.  Why do people who are against gay marriage speak with such a sense of threat and danger?

This, I believe, is the mindset: If the boundary of social respectability that separates me (as a straight person) from you (a gay person) becomes cloudy or disappears, how can I be sure that I will not fall into a disgraced state?  How can I be sure that I will continue to be in the good graces of society?  If heterosexual/homosexual is not the dividing line, what might it be, and which side will I find myself on?

The horror, in this way of thinking, is not that there are people being treated as less than full members of society– the horror is that we won’t be able to tell which people those should be.  The horror is that the people who were once deemed beyond reproach might not be.  If you are not the outcast, maybe I could be.  I don’t like to think about that.  So let’s keep things as they are.

Congress Shall Make No Law…

A news item gleaned from Joe. My. God this morning:

“New York law protects my right to hold both my job and my beliefs. I’m not supposed to have to leave my beliefs at the door at my government job. For me to participate in the same-sex marriage application process I don’t feel is right. God doesn’t want me to do this, so I can’t do what God doesn’t want me to do, just like I can’t steal, or any of the other things that God doesn’t want me to do.” – Rose Belforti, town clerk in Ledyard, New York.

Belforti is being defended by the anti-gay Alliance Defense Fund in a case brought by People For The American Way, who are representing a lesbian couple whom Belforti refused to serve.

Here is my take on this.  The first Amendment to the Constitution says that Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…

Notice that government not establishing a religion comes before prohibiting the free exercise thereof.  This is because the whole point is to avoid creating a state sponsored religion or to have the authorities take sides in religion— choosing one over another.  You are as free to worship chickens as I am to worship God with no state interference or preferential treatment to the God worshiper over the chicken worshiper.  And if you want to go out and dance in a chicken costume as part of your sacramental ritual, even if it confuses your god-worshiping neighbors, the government is not going to swoop in and stop you.

The most important thing here is that the government and its representatives are not imposing a faith on you for participation in society.

In this case Belforti is acting as a representative of the government.  There is no law requiring Blforti to work for the government.  This was a matter of choice.  If you do work for the state, however, you are acting as its representative and that comes with a certain responsibility.

What are the religious beliefs of the lesbian couple who came in to be married?  I belong to a church that believes that gays and lesbians should be celebrated in their commitments to each other.  This is as much a matter of deep conviction as Belforti’s.  Does Belforti’s religion trump my religious conviction?  

Under the U.S. constitution it does not.  Not for Americans.  

The government should not prevent Belforti from believing the Bible commands her to believe homosexuality is an abomination or from speaking as much as she likes about it when she is not acting as a government representative.  For her to be entitled to that right, she must extend that right to those whose beliefs are in conflict with her own— not only those who agree.  

Whenever the concept of “religion” gets narrowed down to a form of conservative protestantism, and given preference over other deeply held convictions— religious or otherwise— in government policy it is an affront to the spirit of what it means to be a U.S. citizen.   

Bert and Ernie I’m Awfully Fond of You (Woo Woo Be Do)

I have to admit that the whole “Should Ernie and Bert marry?” nonsense has managed to capture my imagination.  In case you have more serious reading habits than I, here is the story: an online petition asking the Sesame Street Workshop to “allow” the muppet roomies to come out of the closet and get married got so much attention that the Sesame Workshop was forced to issue a statement about it.

I like their response, which does a good job walking the tightrope of saying Ernie and Bert are not gay without implying that there would be anything wrong with it if they were:

Bert and Ernie are best friends. They were created to teach preschoolers that people can be good friends with those who are very different from themselves. Even though they are identified as male characters and possess many human traits and characteristics (as most Sesame Street Muppets™ do), they remain puppets, and do not have a sexual orientation.

I am not among those advocating for a Bert and Ernie wedding.  The whole thing, however, got me reflecting on how differently we discuss and think about same sex and opposite sex unions. 

It is, of course, not true that puppets (or fictional children’s characters in general) do not have sexual orientation. 

Miss Piggy, not a Sesame Street character but still a puppet and a muppet, was a huge flirt who made no bones about her attraction to Kermit the Frog.  The puppet couple even had a wedding in The Muppets Take Manhattan.

Miss Piggy is, in fact, one of the few female muppets and just about the only well-known female muppet.  I can only think of that hippie chick from the Dr. Tooth band and a fairly unmemorable blonde haired puppet from Sesame Street episodes when I was a child.  (Was her name Prarie Dawn?)

Giving my hero Jim Henson the benefit of the doubt, I will assume the lack of female puppets was due largely to the fact that the puppeteers were men and found it more convincing to voice “male” monsters and frogs and dogs and… whatever Gonzo is.  (By the way, didn’t Gonzo have a romantic relationship with a chicken?)

The fact remains that the main character trait of the only famous female muppet is a romantic one.  As with a great deal of children’s entertainment there are people (males) and then there are love interests (females).

(In 1992 Sesame Street added Zoe to increase the number of female muppets and again in 2006 Sesame Street added a female fairy to its mix for the same reason.)

Some of the comments on the many Ernie and Bert stories were from people who argued that the whole topic of sexual orientation was inappropriate for pre-schoolers.  One commenter noted that the original petition mentioned the prevention LGBT teen suicides as a reason that the puppets should come out of the closet.  She wanted to know, and I am paraphrasing from memory, what teen suicides had to do with a pre-school program.

Teenagers who take their lives because they believe they will have to exist as social outcasts do so because of messages they assimilated throughout childhood about what is normal and accepted in our culture.

Far from steering away from sexual orientation, children’s entertainment thrives on it— when it is heterosexual.  There are all those princes seeking their beautiful princesses.  The stories end in lavish dream weddings.  Romantic attraction and attainment of marriage is the primary story we tell to little girls.  That is the great drama and what life is about.

Sesame Street has, to a large extent, steered away from that.  Yet it does have, among its human population, a number of married characters. 

We do not see opposite sex married characters in children’s entertainment as being examples of “heterosexual orientation.”  They are examples of family. 

We are perfectly able to recognize the beauty of innocent romance and to offer it up to kids in the form of Micky and Minnie Mouse, or Pepe Le Pew mistakenly chasing after a cat, or Miss Piggy and her mostly unrequited love for Kermit. 

When the subject is a marriage between two male children’s characters, however,  we stop imagining innocent romance and family.  “Marriage” becomes a question of sex.

One commenter (whose post I agreed with overall) said that Ernie and Bert were an example of friendship and a world where people who are different from each other love and respect one another.  She went on to say that making them a married gay couple would “demean their friendship.”

Have you ever heard anyone say that it would demean the friendship of a man and a woman if they were to marry?  Probably not. Instead, we see marriage as the highest expression of a relationship.  It is a sexual union.  We understand that, but that is not our focus.

I hope that some time in the not too distant future that all of this will change.  We will be able to see same sex marriages with the same kind of innocent romance as the opposite sex kind.  Committed couples, gay or straight, will represent not “sex” but “family.”  It may well begin with the stories we tell our children.

So why don’t I think Ernie and Bert should get married? 

Maybe a child growing up in a home with two daddies would interpret them as a couple, and that is fine. There is nothing to say they cannot be understood that way.  The married human couples on Sesame Street don’t go around all the time saying, “Hey, we’re married” and kissing and holding hands.  Their relationship is inferred and understood.

Yet Ernie and Bert represent something more important.  They are roomies and best friends.  Soon enough boys start to get the message that there is something “unmanly” about being too close to another male.  They will pick up that they can play sports and punch each other, but that sharing warm affection with each other is a bit weird.  Society will start to tell them that they can have a roommate in college but their closest emotional bonds better be with women by the time they’re, say, 25.  Girls can talk about their “girlfriends” and cry on each other’s shoulders and take vacation trips together as friends.  Boys have to be careful. 

Wouldn’t it be a much better place if guys could be more like Ernie and Bert?  I hope that the Sesame Street Workshop will not be tempted to downplay Ernie and Bert’s love for each other in an attempt to quell gay rumors.  There are few things in life more beautiful than true friendship.

The Vocabulary of Love: What are “Lovers?”

CoupleWhile looking up something else I came across a blog by Kate Trgovac which featured an article on “The Subtext of Stock Photography.”

In it Kate describes how images of a loving same-sex couple (pictured here) appeared in her search for images to illustrate an article on furnaces.  Gay couples apparently show up when you search for the term “heat.”

“Seriously?” she wrote, “Maybe two scantily clothed men making out in front of the fireplace.  But two gay stockbrokers with their chihuahua?  Hardly… why is it that ‘gay’ in all of its forms implies a licentiousness or luridness?”

I was reminded of a quote by Yale professor John Boswell who described some of the pitfalls of translating terms for emotionally charged vocabulary related to love, relationships and marriage.

“Modern English has no standard term for same-sex partners in a permanent, committed relationship, so it is virtually impossible to translate ancient terms for this (of which there were many) accurately into contemporary English,” he wrote.  “Probably the most common word in contemporary English is ‘lover,’ but it is quite misleading… A heterosexual ‘lover’ is generally not the equivalent of a spouse: it is either someone to whom a heterosexual is not married (or not yet married) or a love interest in addition to a spouse, seen on the side and usually clandestine… these associations are not apposite to ‘lover’ as applied to same-sex couples, for whom the world almost always designates the primary and exclusive focus of erotic life, usually intended to remain so permanently.  Using ‘lover’ for same-sex partners implicitly suggests that all same-sex unions are illicit relationships, comparable to what passes between a heterosexually married male and his mistress rather than to the man’s union with his wife.”

In the Bible Marriage Was Between Two Men

Yes, I chose that headline for its shock value.  But there is some truth to it.  Read on.
I just finished reading God and Sex by Michael Coogan.  Coogan is director of publications for the Harvard Semitic Museum and professor of Religious Studies at Stonehill College.  His book explores what the Bible really has to say about sexuality and gender relations within the context of its culture and time.
It provides an interesting counterpoint to those who claim Biblical authority for the concept that marriage is between “a man and a woman.”   
These claims are often made with a reference to Adam and Eve, the first couple.  (“Not Adam and Steve.”)  But the Bible never reports a marriage ceremony took place for Adam and Eve.  Adam and Eve are therefore not a good example of how the Bible defines “marriage.”
“I am sometimes asked by relatives and students to suggest biblical passages for use at their weddings, Coogan wrote, “but few are appropriate.  The Song of Solomon is too erotic—not to mention that the lovers are not married.  Most text concerning married couples are permeated with patriarchalism.  Many major biblical characters had more than one wife.  Because biblical views on marriage originated in societies whose mores were in many ways different from ours, biblical models do not necessarily inform either our practice or our theory of marriage.”
Marriage, as we understand it today, as a romantic union between two partners, was not what Biblical authors would understand marriage to be.
Marriage was a property arrangement— and the property was the woman.  The marriage contract was between two men—the father of the bride-to-be and the groom.  (Hence my headline.) The father sold the daughter for a bride-price to a man, who might have been a close relative.  (Jacob married his cousins Leah and Rachel, and one of Esau’s wives was his cousin.)
The husband might go on to marry another wife or two.  Abraham had three wives, Jacob had four, his brother Esau had five, Gideon had many.  Marriages were arranged and were often between one rather old man and a “woman” who was just past puberty, such as Joseph, aged 92, and Mary, aged 14.
Not even the most conservative Biblical literalist is out there arguing that we should, in keeping with Biblical tradition, sell our 14-year-old daughters to be one of the multiple wives of her first cousin, a senior citizen.  (When we hear stories about religious sects that engage in such behavior we consider it to be shocking and abusive.)

Opponents of same-sex marriage can make their case that a more inclusive definition of marriage flies in the face of their cultural traditions, and that those cultural traditions are important and worth upholding.  One argument that they can not make legitimately, however, is that the “one man one woman” model of romantic marriage is mandated by— or the cultural norm in— the Bible.