The same sex marriage debate is one of those debates that fascinates me because it's taken very seriously in the mainstream political arena despite the fact that one side is completely lacking in any serious or reasonable arguments for their position. I try to approach political discourse from a more or less pragmatic, non-moral viewpoint; specific policies, laws, and institutions are created to achieve specified goals and if they do not achieve those goals, they don't work, and might as well be abolished. The goals themselves are always an open question, which is why democracy (assuming certain important conditions are met, which I won't get into here) probably makes practical sense, because - ideally - it allows us to discuss ideas for new policies and laws, and criticize existing ones, revising or rejecting them when needed.
In the U.S., "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" was a great example of a policy that accomplished nothing but was seriously and passionately defended anyway. Granted, there were occasional arguments about how the policy was needed for the sake of "group cohesion;" you'd hear claims that openly gay soldiers would be hated by their homophobic peers, or would make them uncomfortable, so we might as well pander to the bigots and boot someone for "coming out." Implicit in this argument is the claim that we, as a society, may not hate gays, but some of us do, and we should respect that passionate hatred and accommodate it. Of course, if we were to take that logic seriously, across the board, then for the sake of "group cohesion" we should fire someone for "coming out as Jewish" just because they happen to work with a group of hateful anti-Semites. Plus, there was the fact that other, similar lines of work in which group cohesion is a priority (police departments, emergency response teams, etc.) often allowed people to be openly gay without being terminated and without any observable detrimental effects on the job at hand. There's also the fact that many other countries already allowed gays to serve openly in the military, without their military falling apart as a result.
Any honest assessment of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," leads to the conclusion that not allowing gays to serve openly in the military only accomplishes one goal: not allowing gays to serve openly in the military.
Likewise, in the gay marriage debate, it seems to me that not allowing consenting, adult, homosexual individuals to marry only achieves a similar goal. It just prevents gay people from marrying the people they love. For some this is, I suppose, an end in itself. But of course, one rarely sees them admit to this.
Take American TV preacher Jim Garlow, for example. As he argues, stopping gays from marrying is not an end in itself, but is instead something that is required for survival! Legalizing gay marriage, he says, results in "three huge losses: religious liberties, parental rights and basic, fundamental freedoms," and "could cost us everything, including our lives."
It's a little more extreme but, in its general outlines, the argument is basically the same as the most common argument we see being put forward against gay marriage, which goes something to the tune of "Exclusively heterosexual marriage is a very sacred institution which, by some mysterious, inexplicable mechanism, holds together the fabric of society. Ergo, making marriage into something that is no longer exclusively for heterosexuals will, by some mysterious, inexplicable process, cause society to collapse."
Garlow, like most opponents of same sex marriage, does not bother to explain the mechanisms and processes which cause exclusively heterosexual marriage and civilization to rise or fall together. We just have to take it on faith that legalizing same sex marriage will result in lots of bad shit: "Pastors are silenced — we will lose our liberties — we’ll be coerced and forced out of existence as the Church of Jesus Christ was forced underground," because gay marriage is "not about tolerance, it’s about coercion and crushing and taking away our liberties and freedoms."
Here, Garlow makes an interesting debate move that's always fun to see: when you're having a hard time defending your position with convincing arguments, just make stuff up! It's easy! And it works!
I live in Canada. We legalized same sex marriage in 2005. The sky didn't fall. Heterosexual marriages are (believe it or not) still legal! Canada did not, as a result, collapse into a state of total anarchic lawlessness. Do I expect this observation to be considered relevant in American debates about gay marriage? Of course not, because while common sense dictates that the legalization of gay marriage in the U.S. would, in all likelihood, play out much the same, with no real harm caused to anyone, there's still the obstacle of American exceptionalism; if all political debates in the U.S. were resolved by empirical observation of how specific policies and institutions work, in practice, in other countries, Americans would probably have universal health care by now, and would have done away with the death penalty entirely. But no, even if a policy or institution works out perfectly well for some other country, American exceptionalism slams its fist on the table and declares it to be "Un-American!" End of story.
Any way you slice it, this debate is not going to be settled primarily by purely impartial assessment of facts and statistics. It will be settled by the compassion, or lack thereof, of American citizens, because what this debate comes down to is one side who sees no harm in allowing a minority group to enjoy a set of rights that most others take for granted, and another side who simply feels that this minority group shouldn't have those rights, despite the fact that if they did, it would not, in any way, harm anyone.
Suppose I invite ten friends over to my place for dinner. I decide that five of my friends will get no food, despite the fact that I have enough prepared to feed thirty. The unlucky five just get to sit there and watch the rest of us eat. What do you think those five hungry souls think of me? Well, they probably think I'm a complete fucking asshole. I prevented them from eating just because I don't like them as much as my other friends. That's all. It would be inconsistent for me to say that there's anything objectively wrong in a moral sense about it, but when you want to stop someone from doing something that makes them happy, even when it has no negative impact on you whatsoever, you are an asshole.
I think opponents of gay rights in general should just be honest about their position. They make up a lot of baloney about how if homosexuals have the same legal rights as the rest of us, the planet will basically explode or something, when in reality, they oppose gay rights (I suspect) just because they don't like gays. Granted, some of them will give you some crap about how they don't hate homosexuals, but just homosexuality itself ("love the sinner, hate the sin," that sort of thing) and in some cases see it as something that can be treated or cured. But then this, in turn, is usually followed up with some explanation of how homosexuality destroys civilization or something, when there's really no reason to believe that.
As I mentioned, I think political issues are best viewed through a pragmatic, non-moral lens; political discourse, as I understand it, is not about "good versus evil," or establishing an objectively "just" state of affairs. It's about creating and maintaining mutually acceptable forms of living and states of affairs. It involves building consensus, or something close to it. It's a constant, endless balancing act. I believe that because different people have radically different preferences and goals, there are, in certain cases, disputes about "what ought to be done" which cannot be completely resolved by rational discussion or objective assessment of facts, and in these cases we either resort to force or fraud, or we compromise. I don't believe that my preference for a society in which homosexuals enjoy the same legal rights as the rest of us has any solid philosophical justification; I feel it's a preference which arises naturally out of my constitution due to the innumerable biological, biographical, and cultural factors that have shaped me into what I happen to be, and I guess the same goes for someone who just has a preference for gays being denied certain legal rights.
But I don't think we should have to compromise with assholes. If you want to live in any tolerable way among other human beings, you eventually have to grow up and accept that sometimes people will do things that you don't like, and if it doesn't hurt you or cause you any loss, deal with it.