In the epic podcast about same sex marriage between me, John Schwenkler and OG Scott Payne, John spoke about the importance of recognizing the cultural relevance of same sex coupling. John finds my personal focus on legality insufficient. In an odd inversion of what you might expect, this became framed, I think, as my providing insufficient recognition of the realities of homosexual love. (This is an inversion because I am in favor of same sex marriage, where John is conflicted, with a strong feeling that the institution that codifies gay relationships should be distinct from heterosexual marriage.)
Writing in response to this, tough cookie (and same sex marriage skeptic) Helen Rittlemeyer wrote,
Everybody remembers Ali taunting Ernie Terrell in 1967: “What’s my name, fool?” Whether or not you sympathize with Terrell’s reluctance to legitimize Ali’s conversion, I think it’s clear that the gentlemanly thing to do, given the situation, is to bite the bullet and call the man whatever he wants…. Legal recognition of same-sex unions is the equivalent of putting “Muhammad Ali” on the fight card. It won’t force conservative churches to recognize gay marriages, but it will make every reference to a man’s “partner” sound hostile. If the government calls him a husband, I can’t refuse to call him one without putting myself in a class with the people who say “freedom fries.”
To which the obvious rejoinder, it seems to me, is “so just recognize the equality of the marriage.”
As John made clear in the podcast, and I think Helen believes too, calling gay marriage marriage is an example of failing to give the elephant a goddamn peanut; they believe that there is a difference between a union between two people of the same sex, and two people of different sexes. I can only say that, of course, there are some differences in those unions, some obvious, some not, but that those differences don’t need to be recognized by government in a way that changes our nomenclature for permanent romantic pairing. As John has alluded on his own blog, part of the problem with his question is that there is a sense in which race, like gender, is also real, and yet the state doesn’t see a need to differentiate between inter-racial marriages and homoracial (neologism!) unions. I think John does a little unnecessary mental gymnastics here; simply the fact that we can draw meaningful distinctions between different situations– in marriage or elsewhere– doesn’t, I think, compel us to create two different names for the institution. And I think we should always proceed with caution when we move in the direction of “separate but equal”, as the true insight of Brown vs. Board of Ed was precisely that separate is inherently unequal.
As I’ve said before, we can draw distinctions, but we absolutely are empowered, I think, as both a culture and as a society of laws, to make up our own mind about when its necessary to draw those distinctions in explicit ways. Sure, people will draw different reactions to same-sex unions, in some senses, than they draw from heterosexual unions. But cultural and social distinctions will take care of culture and society. We can leave the law out of it.