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Generally, I hate the political cliché, “evolving position.”
As somebody who has spent the past two months going from full-fledged support of gay marriage, to dismay at the law’s sanctioning of permissiveness in divorce, to being deeply skeptical of the way the nature of marriage is framed politically, though, I’m starting to think the term may be more legitimate than I ever would have given it credit for.
As a native of Connecticut going to school in Massachusetts with gay relatives and friends, I had supported gay marriage for as long as I could remember. Being able to choose who you love, after all, seemed like a right, and who was the state to say what relationships it would and would not sanction? If straights are getting tax breaks and special legal privileges, then gosh darn it, gays deserve them under the equal protection of the laws.
Then, I started thinking about it in terms of what is natural. Sex and marriage have a dual purpose: the bonding of two people in a fully giving relationship, and the creation of new life. The reason why culture values monogamy, and why evolution points us toward it, is that committed, stable parents give kids a good atmosphere to grow up in.
Sex, child-rearing, and monogamy are intertwined quite naturally in the institution of marriage. Granted, we love to do all kinds of unnatural things, like expect that sex can happen for the sake of pleasure without consequences, and that love is more about biological pleasure than it is about what nature says it is about.
We give married couples tax benefits and legal protections because they are the primary raisers of children, and it is in the best interests of society for them to stay together. Seen through this lens, giving tax breaks and legal recognition to same-sex couples is like giving a money bonus for promising not to have sex with anyone but each other. It’s like a “congratulations on your love; here’s a tax break!” promotion.
We have equality of the law for people, not the decisions they make and lifestyles they choose. No one says that we are denying nudists equal rights by restricting their lifestyles to private places (no pun intended).
The only problem with taking this logic to its conclusions is that we have been giving these breaks to 30 million American couples that are married without children every year, and many gay couples want to get married so that they can adopt kids. Granted, I have serious issues with the culture of birth control and sex-for-pleasure’s sake within marriage, but I’m realistic enough to know that there is no way that we are going to keep justifying gifts to non-procreating straight couples without giving the same rights to same-sex couples, especially those who want to raise kids. Which is, after all, what we have traditionally expected marriage to do, and why we give it special benefits.
So, where does that leave an increasingly conservative young man like me? In an ideal world, let’s just scrap the income tax and let people designate who is their primary “other” in life. Without the income tax sucking away a third of the average American’s income, tax credits will become a thing of the past for both straight and gay couples, meaning no more unequal treatment, even with a new tax system like a national sales tax.
As for hospital visits, alimony arrangements, child-rearing agreements, pension and health benefits, and the whole slew of other issues, letting folks define who they want to share legal relationships with makes sense. You want to put grandma down on your health insurance so that she is well-cared for? That’s more conservative than cranking up public health insurance funding. You want your brother to be able to make end-of-life decisions should anything, God forbid, happen to you? Sounds traditional enough to me. Want your roommate to have to go to court to settle damage to common property? Uh… okay. Want your lesbian lover to be able to adopt your kids with you? The law won’t stop you.
Even this arrangement wouldn’t necessarily work out as intended, though: who’s to say that it wouldn’t simply discourage people from marrying at all, so that their chosen people could keep getting benefits, or get married but keep treating the best friend in a more legally serious way than the spouse? Alternatively, such arrangements could mean that, as in more traditional cultures of the world, Americans look beyond the nuclear family and start treating extended relatives like family again, too.
But that’s just idle speculation for the time being. In our less perfect world where the tax code gives us carrots for living the moral life John Edwards and Larry Craig call us to (they are, after all, the ones writing our federal marriage laws), and where legal marriage gets all kinds of legal protections not given to siblings, friends, grandparents, and whoever else you want it to, I’ll lean against the state subsidizing even the most committed of sexual relationships for their own sake, and against the state putting unnatural relationships on an equal footing with the most evolutionarily necessary of all of them.
Unless, of course, you can get me to evolve my position little more…
Matt Cavedon is a student at Harvard University.
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