Is Increasing Acceptance of Same-Sex Marriage Really Linked to Moral Decline?

I remember quite a few years ago having a conversation with a gay man about marriage. I believe this must have been shortly after same-sex marriage became legal for the first time in Massachusetts. I spoke about Göran’s and my own yearning to be legally married, and I think I said something to the effect of, “I don’t understand why any gay couple, if they had a choice, wouldn’t prefer to be married.”

I was a bit surprised by the vehemence of the response, by the moral outrage my comment provoked. I thought I was making a commonsense statement. But this individual replied, bristling, “Why should we mimic corrupt heterosexist norms?”

I continue to see occasional murmurings in the gay community about where all this marriage stuff is leading. Isn’t it more honest, some folks continue to insist, to acknowledge that human beings are not by nature monogamists? Isn’t it unhealthy to start to uphold a marital standard that holds up unreasonable expectations? (That argument is fascinating to me, if only because it was an argument embraced by 19th century Mormons in defense of polygamy.)

But at the moment, there seems to be a convergence between radical sex liberationists and conservative opponents of same-sex marriage. In 2012, when I was staffing phone banks and talking to people about marriage, one of the most vociferous opponents of same-sex marriage I encountered as a gay man who insisted he was voting for Minnesota Amendment 1 (to ban same-sex marriage) because he believed nobody should be allowed to marry.

But let’s look at the primary reasons why supporters of same-sex marriage support it:

*We should have the same standard of morality for everyone in our society. It is unfair to hold gay individuals to a standard of celibacy while heterosexual couples are permitted the socially acceptable context of marriage for the expression of sexuality. It undermines marital monogamy as a moral norm when large numbers of couples are forced to cohabitate without the full rights and responsibilities of marriage.

*Individuals thrive best in a context of committed love. The framework of commitment that marriage reinforces benefits not only the partners in a marriage themselves, but everybody associated with the married couple: children raised by the couple, family, in-laws, friends and neighbors of the married couple. Everybody benefits from the increased stability and happiness that marriage is designed to ensure. Society benefits when individuals care for each other, instead of being forced to fend alone for themselves.

*We should treat others as we ourselves would like to be treated.

I have perceived a dramatic, culturally seismic shift within the gay and lesbian community in the last 30 years since I have been publicly out of the closet as a gay man. I have seen stability in relationships lead to personal stability, increased emotional and mental health and overall happiness. I have seen it empower gay and lesbian individuals to make increasingly significant contributions to the neighborhoods and communities in which they live.

I have also perceived a dramatic, culturally seismic shift in the broader society. Straight people in American society, instead of pitying gay people, instead of patronizing us or repeating falsehoods about us, are listening to us, empathizing with us, and seeking to empower us.

What about this can be characterized as moral decline?

6 comments for “Is Increasing Acceptance of Same-Sex Marriage Really Linked to Moral Decline?

  1. April 22, 2014 at 1:35 pm

    It seems that the basic argument most conservative types are going for when they talk about moral decline wrt gay marriage is the emphasis of adult individuals and their well-being.

    When you talk about the same standard of morality of everyone, they see that sexuality is only for having kids. You can’t possibly legitimize that in their eyes. (this is also why we see positions on contraceptives, abortion, etc.)

    The only thing you can possibly do is try to get people to switch views on the moral purpose of relationships to begin with. Which, fortunately, most people are already ok with that and don’t see the primary or sole purpose of marriage and relationships as having kids

    • April 22, 2014 at 2:57 pm

      I think this viewpoint stems from the belief that homosexuality is evil. Legal same-sex marriage goes from tolerating evil to legitimizing it. I sense that a lot of the attitude that homosexuality is evil comes from a pretty visceral place. A lot of folks are just sort of driven by the “gross” factor.

      I think the argument about children has been inflated as a rhetorical tactic in the fight against same-sex marriage. In order to maintain that argument you have to do a lot of camel-swallowing and gnat-straining to downplay the importance of the emotional and physical well-being and stability of the individuals in a marriage, and to make the case that sterile heterosexual couples deserve marital rights while child-rearing gay couples don’t. Most people don’t buy it, which is why support for same-sex marriage continues to steadily increase.

      • April 22, 2014 at 4:36 pm

        I guess I just think… What is the underlying reason why someone thinks homosexuality is evil or sinful or whatever. I think many folks have a relatively not well thought out ethical framework when it comes to this, so they can be dismissed.

        But to those who have a larger, more thought out ethical system behind their view of relationships, then their position usually does seem to be phrased in the terms that I’ve described.

        And you know, I absolutely think those folks don’t really value other things as much. E.g. When talking about the “emotional and physical well-being and stability of the individuals in a marriage”, that absolutely is not something of as much importance in that other framework. So, this is why, for example, there will also be opposition to most kinds of divorce, even if there is some sort of abuse. Because it’s not about the emotional and physical wellbeing.

        I think that most of these folks will look at sterility as a tragedy, not a way to open up the definitions. They will say something about sterility being a tragedy of accident to the capability to produce children, whereas homosexuality is not “accidental,” but a categorical limitation on the bearing on children.

        This is not to say I agree with them. Although I can see the logic. Rather, it’s to reiterate that in order to convince people, you have to show them that that moral framework is not the one they should have, and that they should adopt another framework.

        And for whatever it’s worth I think many people have adopted that framework. We like contraception, we like independence for women (rather than defining them as primarily valuable for childbearing.) we like relationships to focus on the wellbeing of the adult members.

        But if we are already challenging people here, on this front, then WHY NOT recognize that more radical folks are going to note that you can go further with your challenge?

        Basically, you’re already implicitly conceding that morality is changing for everyone. It is not the same as the conservatives want it.

        But if it is changing, why stop here? You might have an argument for the value of liberal morality over radical questioning of morality, but that won’t stop conservatives from finding the change in frameworks as being moral decline, and radicals from considering the change to be too little.

        • April 23, 2014 at 6:20 am

          Andrew – It’s possible for lots of arguments to have internal logical consistency and still be wrong. Ignoring whether a particular course of action allows people to find joy and be recognized as full and equal members of society seems to me like a rotten argument, no matter how internally consistent it might be.

          Within an LDS context, considering whether a particular life course is bringing us joy and helping us feel connected to God is the ultimate form of validation. Several recent conference talks affirmed this. (I’m thinking, particularly, of Elder Hales’ talk, but there were others as well.) Experiencing joy and connection to God doesn’t mean everything always goes right all the time or that we don’t experience trials. But it does mean that the arc of our life is bending toward wholeness and communion with our Heavenly Parents.

          My relationship with my husband has provided me that kind of a framework in my life, and over the years I’ve become aware of data from hundreds of other individuals that point in the same direction.

          • April 23, 2014 at 6:38 am

            I don’t dispute that an argument can have internal consistency and still be wrong. But what I’m saying is that moral codes are more about internal consistency than right or wrong… When someone is taking about moral decline on this issue, they are almost assuredly using a different moral framework than you are.

            When you talk about finding joy and bring recognized as full and equal members of society, you’re already giving away that you have a different moral framework (one that I and certainly many others agree with – and I certainly hope that conservative religions will either change to reflect this or lose support if they don’t) … But I also don’t pretend to be a conservative, traditional religious type.)

            From an LDS perspective, notwithstanding the personal value you derive (and the LDS framework on personal revelation that allows you to justify it), don’t you kinda have to admit that the church as an institution disagrees with you?

            You can hope on revelation, but as of now, your position is not that of a worthy member in good standing.

            Several people take a drastically different message from conference each time it comes around. To these folks, it is not a message of affirmation, but a continuing rejection of joy for people who don’t fit the heterosexual mold. They don’t have the experiences that allow them to turn the talks around and draw blood from the store. What they see is that the leaders don’t care about your experience or that of hundreds of individuals you know that point in the same direction.

            (fwiw, I actually do think it would be easier for Mormons to change on this issue since the moral code on morality isn’t as strongly theoretically based, like the view I was describing in previous comments.)

          • April 23, 2014 at 7:14 am

            Part of the reason I wrote this piece is because I don’t believe that — from within a Mormon framework — same-sex marriage can be equated with moral decline. Mormon public opinion is shifting rapidly on this issue precisely for some of the reasons outlined above. Not because of moral relativism, but because the facts on the ground about same-sex relationships are challenging traditional assumptions about homosexuality.

            I can also speak to this from the framework of having interacted with ecclesiastical leaders at all levels. Their response to me has basically been to encourage me in my current path (of honoring both my relationship with my husband AND my faith), and to recognize that there seems to be contradiction between the data and where the Church stands right now. My relationship with God is such that this qualifies as a trial or a challenge requiring faith, not an invalidation!

            But, bottom line, Mormons actually care about data related to personal joy when it comes to evaluating matters like this.

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