Imagine if, back when desegregation was the controversy of the day, someone had proposed: “Let’s compromise. Let’s let the black kids into our schools, with all the duties and privileges of the white students, and give them diplomas that give them exactly the same legal recognition as the white graduates’ diplomas … but don’t call them ‘students.’ Call them, umm, ‘civil learners.’” Nobody, on either side of the integration wars, would have taken this idea seriously. But when the controversy of the day is gay marriage, one out of every four Americans opposes gay marriage and supports gay civil unions. And President Bush, Senator Kerry, and the Massachusetts state legislature all take these folks seriously. What’s going on here?
One of the most common arguments against same-sex marriage seems to be the claim that letting same-sex couples marry will “dilute” the institution of marriage. The claim is easy to mock, and as far as I’m concerned makes no rational sense, but if tens of millions of Americans would grant gay couples all the legal benefits of marriage except for the name, perhaps we should try to understand why this name has such power. I would suggest that gender identity is the culprit here.
As I discussed earlier, a person’s gender identity is his or her desire to be recognized as a man or as a woman. So, for example, Diane Wilson begins an essay by saying “Imagine that you are the person you are right now, but only on the inside. On the outside, you have the body of a person of a different gender.” We can translate that as “Imagine that you wish, on the inside, that people treat you as the person you are now. But on the outside, you have the body of a person of a different gender, and everybody treats you as such.”
(Colt Illicit argues, based on his own experience and observations, that “sex identity,” the desire to have a certain set of genitals, is psychologically distinct from gender identity. I’ll accept the argument, but it seems to me that even for sex identity, there’s some psycho-social component. I’ve never heard of anyone having a burning desire to remove an uninfected set of tonsils, or otherwise change a healthy body part that nobody else will ever see.)
Now, if you care about other people treating you as a member of a certain gender, you have to do something to respect their desires. (If I went around telling my friends and co-workers, “I’d like you to think of me as a woman,” and did nothing to change my appearance or behavior, I wouldn’t get much cooperation. At the very least, I would get better results if I shaved.) So people learn, from a very early age, what signals men and women use to announce their respective genders.
And a number of these signals are tied up with heterosexual marriage. If a person says “I am this woman’s husband,” or even “I’m looking for a wife,” that person is sending out an “I am male” signal. Those people who care about their gender identities, and who are used to relying on marriage-related signals to communicate their genders, are not going to appreciate this kind of noise in their communications channel, so to speak.
Of course, even if all of these marriage-related signals became unreliable, people could still use other signals to communicate their genders. So what? If half of all stop signs were suddenly painted blue, people would still recognize their message from the signs’ shape and wording…but most drivers would not be happy about the change.
(One could argue that the people who are made uncomfortable by gay marriage will just have to deal with it, and it’s better to make them uncomfortable than to settle for civil unions. Since civil unions really would carry the same rights and privileges as heterosexual marriage—unlike Jim Crow segregated institutions, where separate facilities were almost never equal—I’m not sure whether or not I agree with this argument.)