Wrongfully Accused

In Time Magazine’s Dec. 18 issue, John Cloud audaciously proclaimed that “[then-Senator] Obama has proved himself repeatedly to be a very tolerant, very rational-sounding sort of bigot. He is far too careful and measured a man to say anything about body parts fitting together or marriage being reserved for the nonpedophilic, but all the same, he opposes equality for gay people when it comes to the basic recognition of their relationships.”

While many proponents of same-sex marriage would ridicule Cloud’s indictment of Obama’s supposed bigotry, he is not the only one spouting this slanderous illogic. To claim that opposition to same-sex marriage makes one a foe of gay equality is to essentially argue, as Cloud does, that all same-sex marriage opponents are bigots, for bigotry is marked by hostility toward the fundamental principle of equality for all. However, while homophobia unquestionably impels many to oppose same-sex marriage, it is not a prerequisite for that stance. While I am personally a proponent of gay marriage, it is not just bigots who are not.

On May 6, Maine Governor John Baldacci signed into law a bill legalizing same-sex marriage in his state, announcing that “I have come to believe that this is a question of fairness and of equal protection under the law.” Baldacci’s declaration, among many others, implies that same-sex marriage is an issue of equal rights. It is not. Unlike hostility toward miscegenation in an earlier era, hostility toward same-sex marriage can be induced by more than simple prejudice, for same-sex marriage is not an existing right, but an entirely new one. The pursuit of its legalization is not about demolishing barriers that barricade certain members of society from a treasured institution; it is about fundamentally redefining that institution.

As marriage is currently defined, homosexuals do technically possess the right to marry, as they are fully permitted to wed a member of the opposite sex. Obviously, this definition is flawed: It defines a relationship in terms of reproduction—sterile couples being the lone contradiction—rather than love, and it ought to be revised. Nonetheless, it is important to acknowledge that permitting same-sex marriage is indeed a redefinition of marriage.

Active redefinition can open the doors to further redefinition, as marriage is an institution arbitrarily defined by society. This does not imply that those who advocate legalizing same-sex marriage must favor legalizing incest and polyamory. “Open the doors” does not mean “approve,” “encourage,” or “support.” Nor does it in any way legitimize pedophilia and bestiality (as many conservative commentators have attempted to claim), for the stipulation of mutual consent is supported by near-universal consensus. However, incest and polyamory were not always taboo. Ancient Egypt’s Pharaonic pedigree was rife with incest, for example, and polygamy was once the status quo.

In fact, the same arguments that many proffer in favor of same-sex marriage can also justify incest. If marriage ought to be redefined as a union of two consenting, loving individuals in which reproduction is not a factor, then what reason is there to prevent two siblings or cousins from marrying? Reproduction cannot be a stipulation for marriage, as that would bar infertile couples from wedding. But then what stipulation would prohibit incest? The answer, of course, is incest’s status as a taboo.

By legalizing a form of marriage because it is no longer anathema to the majority, we acknowledge the fact that social taboos are the guiding principle of the modern definition of marriage. In this new legal environment, all candidate definitions are necessarily discriminatory toward some form of relationship. Otherwise, all conceptions of marriage would be permitted. Therefore, by extension, it is unfair to categorically label the proponents of one arbitrary definition bigots for not supporting another arbitrary definition.

Incest and polyamory are two models of marriage that, in a vacuum, are as legitimate as monogamy and same-sex marriage, as both involve consenting adults but violate the reproductive norm of one man and one woman. Should incest and polyamory be permitted? No, as society has come to a consensus that they should not be. But this agreement is an arbitrary one, as is the current agreement that marriage should be between a man and a woman. Let us then recognize that a new agreement upon the definition of marriage as the union of two consenting, non-incestuous adults regardless of gender would be equally arbitrary.

As such, when one voices a desire to preserve traditional marriage, it is not necessarily due to homophobia. Often, it is due to the fear of accepting that the definition of marriage is whatever we dictate it to be and that this reality debases the legitimacy of any boundaries we set. When we start actively redefining an already arbitrary institution, we give ourselves the power to redefine it as we please. Such redefinition is not wrong, but it does not mandate that its opponents be bigots.

Dhruv K. Singhal ’12, a Crimson editorial writer, lives in Straus Hall.