Friday, December 12, 2008

Trying to have it both ways

Mark Kleiman has a generally very good post over at RBC discussing gay marriage and his lack of sympathy for Maggie Gallegher, who resigned from the Coyote Grill in Hollywood after it was boycotted over her contributions to Prop. 8.

Most of the post is very good, pointing out that the boycott was about her public political acts, not her private religious beliefs, and that disapproving of something is not the same as wanting to use the power of the state to prohibit it.

So far, so good. However, in the last paragraph he reveals how little he really gets it:

Not that it matters, but I'm not especially a fan of legal recognition for same-sex marriage. I agree with Barack Obama that the state should recognize and protect committed pairwise domestic partnerships regardless of what they are called, and leave the definition of "marriage" to be worked out in civil society without the interference of the state. But that wasn't the question on the ballot.
But that's the problem. As the experience of New Jersey is showing, saying "it's a protected committed pairwise domestic partnership but not marriage" leads to all sorts of problems. Lack of insurance coverage, hospital visitation and consent-to-treat issues, and more, because the relevant (Federal, for the most part) regulations use the M-word exclusively. If it's not marriage, real marriage, it's separate and very much unequal. Leaving the definition of "marriage" to be "worked out by civil society" is playing with the lives of the people he claims to care about.

Leaving it to the states lets the states serve as policy laboratories. that's the classic Federalist argument for non-involvement. In this case, the experiment of almost-but-not-quite marriage has failed. It has not produced equality under the law for gay couples. Saying "civil society can work it out without government involvement" is impossible in an economy and society in which the government is as involved in our lives as it is. (Should it be less involved? Maybe. But that's not the question on the ballot, to borrow a phrase.)

If Mr Kleiman means that some sort of domestic-partnership status is a necessary waystation on the road to full equality, I'm skeptical but willing to be convinced. But unless I'm misreading him, that's not the point he's trying to make. He seems to be arguing in favor of benign neglect, of leaving the issue fallow because, after all, it's just so messy and while he doesn't personally have any objections, you understand, he just doesn't see the need to make it official. The states can set up something separate but equal (because we all know how well that works out) and "civil society" (by which he appears to mean straight society) can decide whether or not it's ready to allow queers to use the m-word. And if there are specific legal privileges that are tied to the m-word, well, um, I guess the queers will just have to wait, and be grateful for what they can get.

I wonder how many signatures we need to put the validity of Mr Kleiman's marriage on the ballot. We are going to get to vote on that, right? Or is he comfortable with the idea of the majority voting on minority rights because he's confident that it won't be his rights that are taken away?

I dunno. It's late, I'm in finals-week grading, perhaps I'm being unnecessarily uncharitable. But when someone who's usually so sharp says something so obtuse, it stands out.

1 comment:

Mark Kleiman said...

1. Maggie Gallegher is the columnist. The woman who lost her job is Marjorie Christofferson.

2. Some people believe that opposite-sex couples should be allowed to be "married" and that same-sex couples ought to be allowed some lesser status called "civil union" or "domestic partnership." That's not my position (and I take it it's not the President-elect's position either).

I propose something much more radical: defining in law only (pairwise) domestic partnerships, and abolishing "marriage" as a term with legal significance. All domestic partnerships, however constituted and whether or not consecrated in a church, ought to confer the same rights and impose the same duties. That leaves the question of what to call "marriage" up to civil society, taking the state out of what some see as a religious question.

Both the current ban on same-sex marriage and the proposed recognition of same-sex couples as "married" take a position in favor of one religious opinion and against another. That's not properly the business of the government.

The government ought to stand for legal equality for all citizens; it need not, and ought not, get into defining a term that for many people has religious content.