Monday, May 26, 2008

The California decision, part 2

Only once, a few years ago, did someone -- a letter-writer to the Chicago Tribune's Voice of the People section, I think -- ask a question about homosexual "marriage" that I have seen few authorities address, ever. (Incidentally, I prefer not to use the term "gay." It used to mean happy or joyous; who adopted it to mean homosexual, I don't know. But it is as unfair and authoritarian a descriptor as "invert" used to be. And why don't lesbians get their own special word that means happy?)

The question that this letter writer posed was, if two men or two women can "marry," why not a brother and sister? Or why not more than two people? What parts of marriage, if any, are permanent and outside human definition?

I think that the controversies over homosexual marriage will have to lead to this. One day soon, a brother and sister, or some other people whose pre-existing relations will make our flesh crawl unless flesh-crawling reactions are not themselves outlawed, will step forward in California or Massachusetts and demand the right to marry. The judges and the Hollywood stars may be flummoxed, but on what grounds could the right be denied?

There really isn't any reason for chastity, technically. One human body is built to join any other and where they are not built to join, human beings can think up all sorts of exalted reasons why they should attempt it anyway. It seems any American born after 1950 likes to think he has discovered not only sex but a new and wondrous tolerance for homosexuality. We haven't read enough of the ancient Greeks, for a start. (After the Symposium, Alcibiades tries to seduce Socrates: "...throwing my coat about him I crept under his threadbare cloak ... and there I lay during the whole night having this wonderful monster in my arms. ... and yet nothing more happened, but in the morning when I awoke I arose as from the couch of a father or an elder brother.")

So one day soon, this right will be demanded. I would venture to guess, it might even happen within the next five years. We may not quite grasp that it can happen because for the moment, defenders of homosexual marriage put their case in such dignified, gentle, we could almost say bourgeois terms. "Our type of monogamous love happens to be different from yours, that's all," they say. Because they don't realize or don't acknowledge that they are erecting the same kinds of barriers to the next group of rights-seekers that they decry now, their demands seem like the end of the road. But why should barriers exist at all, to something that is a right?

We also may not believe it can happen because ... well, it just won't happen. Nobody would think like that. But thirty years ago, gay marriage was unthinkable. Now it's a right that people have to amend Constitutions, if they can, to overturn. We may not have invented sex, but we have created a world in which everything concerning rights is absolutely and joyously (gaily?) thinkable.

A brother and sister could argue that their type of monogamous love is just a little different, too. Maybe they need insurance, and maybe they deserve the dignity of social sanction as much as anyone. As to technical barriers to such a union, well, a brother and sister might have grown up apart, and so have no innate family feeling, like Lord Byron and his sister. If geneticists leap to the argument that their children would have problems, they can simply avow that they don't want children, or will adopt. Notice how quickly the imagination falls back to these technicalities, rather than to moral or religious taboos thousands of years old. It seems only taboos are taboo, perhaps because we know -- those of us who don't presume to define marriage -- that the people who enjoy expanding all rights will not listen to taboo. We must speak to them in a language they will understand.

I will be interested to see what happens when this first couple steps forward in California. The logic of their request will be impeccable. The logic of its refusal -- for it probably will be refused -- will have to venture into territory where it seems few people are comfortable anymore, except on Sundays in church. A refusal will have to venture into territory where mankind does not and cannot define everything, in which case, who does? A refusal will have to venture into territory where the rules and taboos of our anonymous ancestors of thousands of years ago carry more weight than the most progressive thinking now. A refusal will have to venture into territory where not everything is a right and where the individual's emotional predicament bows before society's ancient, collective, and maybe reason-less No.

And if that territory proves too frightening, too intolerant, if we can't go to a place where mankind does not define all things but something else does and we lack control, -- if the brother and sister get their marriage license, -- how interesting that will be. Then what?

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