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Commentary

Some thoughts about LGBTQ identity and marriage equality

Some of this material was published in comments sections of various articles in The New York Times.  In some places, I was responding to material written by other commenters.  This is by no means comprehensive; it's random thoughts on a few of the many important issues involved in the fight for full equality under the law for LGBTQ citizens.  In some cases, these comments were written in response to different articles, so there is some repetition.

 — Marc Sophos

<< Back to OutCasting, WDFH's LGBTQ youth public radio program


  1. Gay people do not choose to be gay any more than straight people choose to be straight.  If you are straight, did you choose it?  If not, what is your basis for saying that people "choose" to be gay?  Homosexuality is a naturally occurring variant in the spectrum of sexuality, shown by many studies to be a relatively constant percentage of populations across different cultures, across history, and even across species.  There are many cultures, including some Native American tribes, in which gay people have special, exalted roles.  While we may not understand it, there must be a reason that benefits our species (and others) explaining why it wasn't "naturally selected" out of existence.  Perhaps it’s a part of a natural system to reduce overpopulation.

  2. Most everyone’s sexual orientation falls somewhere along a spectrum.  While it is not known exactly what determines exactly where on that spectrum a particular person's sexual orientation falls, there is plenty of science showing that sexual orientation is strongly influenced by genetics and by biological factors (such as the balance of hormones in the womb).  There is no respected science that indicates that it is simply a "choice."  (By the way, religion is a choice.)  Sexual orientation is an immutable characteristic in the same way skin color and eye color are.  It's an orientation, not a preference.

  3. There is one element of choice, however: the choice to accept one's homosexuality and act on it, meaning adopt a more or less open gay identity and form honest friendships and relationships.  This is not to be belittled; having to lie about a core element of one's identity is excruciatingly painful.  Gay children (and they are everywhere — probably somewhere in your own family) are at greatly heightened risk of suicide because they often fear rejection by their families, friends, and society at large.  This fear is stoked by homophobic pronouncements from church and state and uneducated and unenlightened parents, other family members, and friends.  The only immorality involved is the "choice," such as it is, to deny an essential element of yourself, and to live a life that is at odds with who you are.  The peace and harmony that occur when you can be honest with others and not have to constantly be on guard and edit everything you say, every reaction you have, is a wonderful thing.  Seeing yourself as you are, reflected in those close and honest friendships and relationships, is tremendously important in getting to know yourself.

  4. Most of the people who deny these facts have never had to deal with them directly.  The most direct and reliable evidence on the issue of whether being gay is a choice is the experience of gay people themselves.  There is plenty of documentation on this issue.

  5. Marriage is not merely a private contract.  There are over 1100 state and federal rights that are automatically activated when a couple marries.  In some instances, these rights are between the two people, and in these instances it is theoretically possible for a gay couple to privately enter into a contract giving them those powers with respect to each other.  But because in most of the country the law does not allow gay people to get married to the person of their choice, there is a disparity in that straight couples can get those rights automatically for the minimal cost of a marriage license, while gay couples must hire a lawyer to draw up the contract; this can cost thousands of dollars.  This is an example of how the law imposes different burdens on gay couples compared to straight couples.

  6. In marriage, there are other state and federal rights bestowed on the couple that are enforceable outside of the relationship.  Such rights include a right to visit an ill loved one in the hospital (hospitals allow spouses but nothing forces them to allow gay partners who are not "married"), and the right to file income taxes jointly.  There are many others.  Regardless of whether a gay couple enters into a private contract, without legal marriage, they have no power to enforce the reality of their relationship against outside parties, and this is another disparity.

  7. Nor is marriage merely a religious union.  Religious organizations have the right to recognize — and the right not to recognize — any relationships they choose.  I don't believe anyone is seeking to force any religious organization to perform marriages that go against their beliefs.  The truth is that while many religious organizations do not wish to "sanctify" gay unions, many others do and have been doing so for years.  But absent the words "by the power vested in me by the State," no religious marriage has legal consequences in secular society.  When straight couples marry in a church, I have yet to see anybody seek only a religious recognition of their union: they are there at least as much to get the legal benefits.

  8. "Marriage" is a term that has meaning in both religious and civil contexts.  It has a depth of meaning even in the civil context such that the term "civil union" is second class — in other words, separate but equal, a doctrine that has long been rejected in our country.

  9. The "sanctity" of marriage is no business of the government, unless one does not believe in the United States constitution.  What is being advocated is for marriages between couples of the same sex to have the same legal recognition as marriages between couples of the opposite sex.

  10. Stated simply, the equal protection clause of the constitution prohibits the federal government and the states from treating groups of people differently if they are similarly situated unless there is ample justification for the different treatment.  There has been plenty of analysis by many courts and scholars showing that gay people are singled out for different treatment under the law because they are gay, not because they are in some other way dissimilarly situated.  The denial of equal rights, including marriage rights, based on the immutable characteristic of sexual orientation is an unconstitutional denial of equal protection in violation of the U.S. constitution.

  11. Disregarding the sanctity issues for a moment, it is true that marriage is under assault, but that assault is coming from high divorce rates and instant drive-through Las Vegas weddings.  Expanding legal (civil) rights to gay couples does not in any way devalue the rights already given to straight couples.  Our history has been about expanding rights, not restricting them, and where the law has grown to give these fundamental rights to gay people, straight marriages have not suffered as a result.  The sun still rises in the east and sets in the west, and society isn't crumbling.

  12. It's not just about children.  If the sole purpose of marriage were to provide a stable home for children, then rightfully the law should allow only couples capable of producing children to marry, and only during the time that they actually need the legal protections, from conception to the age of 18.  Then, according to this line of thought, once the kids hit 18, the parents would no longer require those protections and the marriage should be dissolved.  Infertile couples should not be allowed to become or remain married.  Women past menopause should not allowed to become or remain married.  People who do not wish to have children should not be allowed to become or remain married.  Married parents of children should never, under any circumstances, be allowed to separate or divorce.  These are just some of the many ways to poke holes in the argument about marriage being for the protection of children.

  13. When gay couples have children, through adoption or artificial (or sometimes even natural) insemination, it is because they really, truly want to have children and have taken very concrete steps to prepare.  With straight couples, pregnancy is often an accident.  There is no evidence that gay couples are worse parents than straight couples and plenty of evidence that they are at least as good.  There is also no evidence that the children of gay couples are any more likely to be gay (even if that were bad) than children of straight couples.  In many cases, gay couples may be better parents because they don't have kids by accident.  On the issue of the sexual orientation of the parents influencing the sexual orientation of their children, it's worth noting that most gay people grow up in families headed by straight parents.

  14. This is not a "lifestyle" issue, any more than being straight is a "lifestyle."  That belittles the profound issues involved.  As I mentioned earlier, what's involved in coming out of the closet is a determination to stop lying about who you are, and to start living a life that is true to yourself.  It's an issue of personal integrity and honesty.

  15. Teaching kids about diversity — i.e., the way things are, the truth — is not going to turn them gay.  But for the kids who are gay (and many kids know that there is something "different" about themselves at a very early age — I knew that when I was three, and that's not uncommon among gay kids), intolerance breeds self-loathing and often suicidal tendencies.  If it's about "the children," then it's about the gay children as well as the straight ones.  Teaching them about hate may make bigots feel better but it does untold damage to children.  If the kid is straight, you're teaching him or her to hate others.  If the kid is gay, you're teaching him or her to hate his or her self.  Either way, it's child abuse.  Can you be a part of what it takes to break this ugly cycle?

  16. Tolerance isn't enough.  Do you think it's enough to be "tolerant" of blacks?  Asians?  Jews?  Catholics?  We're a better country than that.  If you don't believe that, perhaps it's time to expect more of yourself.

  17. There is no moral equivalence whatsoever between bigotry and being intolerant of bigotry.  If you are bigoted against gay people, recognize that in yourself and try to make yourself a healthier person; don't think it's equivalent in any way to gay people or anyone else condemning your bigotry.  So many people can find their own happiness only when they have someone to hate.  That's a pretty pathetic way to live.  Can you grow out of that?

  18. Messages of intolerance and even hate coming from church and state empower those who would do us violence.  If you advocate discrimination under the law against gay people, you are saying that we are "less than" straight people, that we are somehow immoral and bad.  If you don't think that Jesse Helms, Lou Dobson, Donald Wildmon, Dick Armey, powerful religious groups, and many others who make their living as anti-gay professionals play a major role in enabling anti-gay violence, such as the murder of Matthew Shepard, I think you have some soul searching to do.

  19. Anti-gay forces have railed against "judicial activism" in the realm of extending equal rights to gays, arguing that these issues should be left to the legislative process.  But the rights of minorities should not exist subject to the whims of the majority; if that had been the case, the entire civil rights movement could never have gotten to where it is today.  (And yes, this is very much part of the larger struggle for civil rights in this country; it is directly analogous to the fight for equal rights for other minorities.)  But since the anti-gay forces have taken a position that the legislative process is the proper place for this issue to be dealt with, I hope they will make a public statement now that when equal marriage rights are extended to gay couples through the legislative process, they will not challenge it in the courts.  (As if.)  Otherwise, they're merely hypocrites.

  20. Some people justify their anti-gay bigotry by resorting religious teachings or the bible.  Two responses: first, religious teachings or doctrine or the bible or whatever should not play a role in determining civil law in the U.S.  That is one of the core values in the constitutional requirement of separation between church and state.  Second, the bible prohibits many things (including touching the skin of a pig and wearing textiles), and unless you are prepared to live by all of the prohibitions or face stoning if you don't, you have no leg to stand on.

  21. It is well documented that many of those who harbor anti-gay prejudice have unresolved issues themselves.  If you are virulently anti-gay, or if you just believe that our government is justified in singling out gay people for lesser protection and fewer rights, you would do well to ask yourself why you feel that way.  Don't turn to external sources to justify bigotry because that's a copout.  Being a moral person means, in significant part, that you take responsibility for making up your own mind.  Even if you don't have unresolved issues with respect to your own sexuality, what in yourself drives you toward these feelings?  Can you work through it to become a better, happier person?  If not, why not?

  22. One commenter says that homosexuality was removed from the DSM because of "political activity."  There's an element of truth here in that gay people were among those pressing to have it removed, along with many presumably straight mental health professionals.  But the basis for including it in the first place was that the psychological/medical/psychiatric evidence was based on gay people who were being treated for mental or emotional issues — focusing on supposed pathologies in a self-selected small sample of gay people who were seeking treatment for their own problems.  In other words, the evidence until then entirely ignored the vast majority of relatively well adjusted gay people who were not in treatment at all.  And in most cases where there are emotional problems, they're not brought on by homosexuality itself; they're brought on by internalizing the hateful lies spewed by society.  Internalized homophobia in gay people is very well documented.

  23. We do not demand the word marriage for the sake of “political correctness.”  The word is written into thousands of laws all over the country.  Using another word to describe same-sex unions would mean that such unions are not covered by all those laws.  As a practical matter, we will never see the day in which all of those laws are re-written to specify “civil union” instead of “marriage.”  To be treated equally under the law, the necessary legal term is marriage.

  24. For all those who say we’re just in it for the financial benefits and legal protections:  If you’re so quick to dismiss the importance of those benefits and protections, then you should be first in line to give them up yourself.  If you’re married (legally), get a legal divorce and then have a purely religious ceremony.  You will be married in the eyes of your church but not in the eyes of the law.  Is that sufficient for you?  If not, why would you assume it is sufficient for us?

  25. For those who say marriage is necessary to promote procreation, are you seriously contending that giving legal protection to committed relationships that already exist anyway is going to threaten our survival as a species?  Our overpopulated planet is evidence of the silliness of this position.  Really — do you really think that growning acceptance of same-sex marriages will all of a sudden cause all sorts of previously straight people to going to say “let’s try this new thing” in such overwhelming numbers that the species will go extinct?  Are you possibly being serious?

  26. What kind of evidence would you accept that it’s not a choice?  The life experiences of gay people is the most definitive evidence available.  Ask yourself, if you’re straight: could you choose to become gay?  Why not?

  27. Some commenters say that if we allow marriage equality, we’re opening the door to polygamy, incest, and “man-on-dog sex” (thanks, Rick Santorum).  This slippery slope argument is an intellectually dishonest or just plain lazy way to avoid critical analysis.  There may or may not be common issues, but either way, each issue deserves its own debate on its own terms.

  28. Gender identity (the “T” in LGBT) is separate from sexual orientation, though the issues faced by transgender people have a level of commonality with issues faced by LGB people and should be part of the same fight for equality under the law.

  29. The marriage equality movement as it pertains to bisexuals is not to permit bisexuals to be married to two people of different genders at the same time.  That would be called polygamy, and that’s not what the marriage equality movement is about.  For bisexuals, it would mean the freedom to marry a single beloved person of his or her choice without regard to that person’s sex.

  30. “With liberty and justice for all.”  What part of that don’t the anti-LGBT commenters understand?  And how can any of these anti-LGBTQ arguments possibly be consistent with the concept of "small government," if you're one of the people who buy into that concept?

  31. As for "states' rights" (the argument put forth by many who oppose marriage equality, to the effect that the states should be free to define marriage themselves without the federal government's intervention):  The federal constitution establishes standards of fairness due process, right to counsel, freedom from unreasonable search and seizure, and equal protection, among other things.  States are free to craft their own solutions to issues, but these solutions can't violate the standards of fairness established by the federal constitution.  Before 1967, Virginia law excluded interracial couples from the right to marry.  The Supreme Court rightly determined that that law violated the federal constitution's requirements of fairness, and the law was overturned.  The meaning of simple terms like equal protection as applied to specific situations is what constitutional litigation is all about.  In the end, the states may regulate marriage according to their own policies, but they may not do so in a way that denies people their rights to be treated fairly and equally by the law under the federal constitution.

    In the aptly named Loving case, the Court also stated that marriage was a "fundamental right."  Laws that infringe on fundamental rights are constitutionally suspect under an equal protection analysis.

    Second:  The word "marriage" appears in countless laws at all levels of government all over the U.S.  Even assuming the best of intentions, as a practical matter it would be virtually impossible to amend every one of those laws to use a different term. And we certainly can't assume the best of intentions everywhere.  The word is used in a legal, not religious, context in the law.

    Third:  Marriage isn't simply a contract between two people.  It's a legal status that is enforceable against outside parties.  We can't just create a contract to get the same rights.  Contracts cannot bind outside parties.  Marriage is a legal status conferred on the couple by the state, a status that can bind outside parties.

  32. (Regarding the supposed pro-gay bias of a gay judicial nominee rejected by Virginia's Republican controlled House):  Why don't we ever hear about the biases of heterosexual nominees?  Is it OK for a straight nominee to have a bias but not OK for a gay nominee?  If certain people are going to presume that a gay nominee can't be impartial, how can we trust that a straight one can be?  I think we're all aware that Mr. Justice Scalia and others have quite a bit of antigay bias.  Do we really expect him and his ilk to be "impartial" when a gay marriage case comes before the court?

    Somehow, the issue rarely gets framed that way.

  33. Two wonderful books on some of these issues are:

    God Believes in Love: Straight Talk about Gay Marriage, by Gene Robinson, Episcopal Bishop of New Hampshire.  Bishop Robinson was the first openly gay man consecrated as a bishop in the Episcopal Church, an event that preceded a split in the church.  He was a guest on WDFH's LGBTQ youth program OutCasting.

    Why Marriage Matters
    , by Evan Wolfson.

    Patronize your local library or bookstore, if possible.