Featured Post

Welcome to Russell Arben Fox's Home Page

Note that if you're a student and looking for syllabi, click on the link to "Academic Home Page" on the right and search there.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Why I Think I Was Wrong About Proposition 8 and Same-Sex Marriage

[Cross-posted to By Common Consent]

The only time I have had the opportunity to actually vote on--as opposed to pontificate about--same-sex marriage was in 2004 when I lived in Arkansas, when an amendment to the state constitution forbidding the legal recognition of anything besides a union of one man and one woman as a marriage was on the ballot. I voted in favor of it. In 2008, though I wasn't living in California, Proposition 8--the ballot initiative to re-establish what was, at the time, the exclusively heterosexual definition of marriage in that state--was obviously something just about every informed American Mormon, due to our church's heavy involvement in its passage, had an opinion on. My opinion, which was published as part of a roundtable in Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, was that I would have, if I'd lived in California, reluctantly voted in support of the referendum. I now think both my vote on same-sex marriage in Arkansas, and the arguments I laid out regarding Proposition 8, were wrong.

Big deal is the correct reaction, I suppose. Hasn't everyone changed their mind about same-sex marriage by now? President Obama has evolved (said yes, then no, then yes, to be specific). David Blankenhorn, one of the most articulate defenders of traditional marriage, has given up the fight. Noah Millman, the blogger whose arguments against same-sex marriage influenced my thinking nearly a decade ago more than any others, has long since changed his mind. When even Wendell Berry, one of the most revered defenders of localism and traditionalism in America today, says he has no real problem with gay marriage, who am I to be a holdout? (Oh, and by the way, to all those conservatives who are perplexed by Berry's opinion on the matter--hasn't it always been obvious that Berry embraces tradition and rejects technological progress not because of some affection for the "natural order" of things, but because doing so--and using populist government programs as appropriate to accomplish such--conserves the power of people to build local communities which are healthy and decent...kind of in the way the right sort of marriage can?) But since I'm actually on record about some of this stuff, I figured I needed to say something publicly about my own evolution.

There are many causes for changing my mind, some of which are included in much of the thinking included in the arguments and statements I've linked to above. But the bottom-line reason for my change is really a consequence of how I formulated my argument against same-sex marriage in the first place. I've never been a crusader on the topic; it was, rather, as I wrote before, something I simply "nodded my head in regards to." It made sense to me to defend traditional marriage, because it made sense to see the state as an important player in maintaining certain lines in the sand regarding how men and women went about their community-building, sexual-identity-expressing, procreative work. It made sense to me to argue that civilization--our specific moment in the history of Western civilization, if you want to get particular--depends at least in part on certain norms, and the stronger of those norms, however much of a historical or socio-economic construct they may be, draw upon and thus themselves contribute to the preservation of certain naturally grounded tendencies, tendencies which harness potentially harmful and exploitive aspects of human socializing (undisciplined and irresponsible sexuality being one such) and turn them into productive, virtuous contributions (though intact families rearing children, the close civil relationship between religious belief and local lifestyles, and more). Marriage in this tradition-strengthened, locality-building, civil-religion-endorsing, socially productive sense had clearly already been dealt a near-unrecoverable blow in America by the advent of no-fault divorce and the sexual revolution, but that was no reason not to continue to fight to prevent its continued degeneration. And so, the fight in favor against same-sex marriage--same-sex relations being non-procreative, non-religiously-endorsed, non-traditional, and perhaps even arguably non-natural ones--is a fight worth supporting, with my vote.

That's what I thought then; it's not what I think now. Now, I think the above reasoning falls apart at a few key points: at the point where homosexual relations were assumed to be non-compatible with building enduring communities, the point where I stipulated the need for America's civil religion to be able to contribute to said communities through religious ordinances like marriage, etc. But that's not the real reason for changing my mind. The real reason is that the above abstract, head-nodding, I-have-no-personal-stake-in-this-so-it-remains-just-intellectual-bit-of-communitarian-cultural-theorizing-to-me arguments ran into reality. One of those realities was the It Gets Better campaign (which even made it to BYU, can you believe it?), and my subsequently reconnecting with an old friend of mine. The other realities were my daughters.

I should note that if, perhaps, I had been a crusader, fired up by orthodox Catholic commitments to natural law (or, less admiringly, by a deep homophobic revulsion to the idea that men might be sexually attracted to men, or women to women), then I could have overcome those encounters with reality; after all, many decent, intelligent, moral people continue along with their increasingly marginalized (though still politically viable!) opposition to same-sex marriage. More relevantly to my own religious tradition, if I had a deep conviction that my church's Proclamation on the Family was a revelation from God, then opposing same-sex marriage would continue to make good politico-theological sense; after all, if God in His goodness makes all His children eternally male or female, with pre-ordained and naturally validated sexual roles, then legitimating same-sex marriages might well be a matter of legitimating a mortal possibility which could only result in deep spiritual confusion and harm. (There has been, to be fair, a fair amount of elaboration on what the Proclamation truly implies for the Mormon faithful, as more has been learned about the whole range of dynamics involved in realizing for oneself and/or purposefully articulating a sexual identity, and no doubt such articulation will continue--even to the point of some acknowledgment that accepting the idea of the eternity of gender doesn't obviously have to mandate heterosexuality exclusively.) But fortunately for myself in this matter, as I've long kind of felt that much--not all, but much--of what some Mormons like to claim regarding divine embodiment, the sociality of eternally gendered beings, and endless procreative expansion, was both scripturally unwarranted and kind of dumb, not taking the (non-canonized!) Proclamation's theological claims, and all the arguments about them, particularly seriously has been easy for me. So that means there really wasn't a whole lot besides some persuasive but impersonal ideological convictions to get in way of the reality of what my girls--now aged 15, 12, 8, and 6, and none of them gay so far as I can tell--taught me.

This is what they taught me: that they are my equals insofar as their gender is concerned, and that I simply can't be part of an argument which assumes otherwise. (Can I be part of a community or polity or organization which assumes otherwise? Of course, because every human grouping is going to be a mix of causes and practices, and you identity with or reject its different parts for various reasons and in historically contextual ways--a church or association usually can't be, and shouldn't be, reduced to a single argument or cause. A vote on a referendum on same-sex marriage, however...that's something else.) What does gender equality have to do with same-sex marriage? There are very likely strong arguments against it which may get around the issue entirely...but they weren't my arguments, the ones which I read in First Things magazine more than a decade ago and found persuasive. Those arguments had everything to do with gender roles; indeed, everything I wrote up two paragraphs above here did as well, regarding procreation and sexual exploitation and more. Specifically, they have to do with the idea that male-female complementarity has to be understood as the normative basis for a civilized society. Of course, what are the specifics of that complementarity? Whatever they may be, they aren't characterized by equality. And equality...well, that's important to me, and not just for the abstract good of it: I want it for my daughters' sake as well.

This was all crystallized for me by the comments of the very intelligent, very decent same-sex marriage opponent Francis Beckwith, when he denied that opposing same-sex marriage was the same as opposing interracial marriage, because racial identity is, he asserts, obviously irrelevant to the deeper, obviously natural, male-female identity:

The fact that a man and a woman from different races were biologically and metaphysically capable of marrying each other, building families, and living among the general population is precisely why the race purists wanted to forbid such unions by the force of law. And because this view of marriage and its gender-complementary nature was firmly in place and the only understanding found in common law, the Supreme Court in Loving knew that racial identity was not relevant to what marriage requires of its two opposite-gender members. By injecting race into the equation, anti-miscegenation supporters were very much like contemporary same-sex marriage proponents, for in both cases they introduced a criterion other than male-female complementarity in order to promote the goals of a utopian social movement: race purity or sexual egalitarianism. 

This struck me hard when I read it: it meant that, for me at least, the full logic of my own head-nodding support of traditional marriage meant accepting sexual inegalitarianism. And how could I sign on to an argument which draws its logical force from an assumption which I could only see as potentially harming my daughters in the long run? I couldn't.

Yes, I can imagine, and can even find slightly persuasive, arguments which assert that same-sex marriage buys into an individualization of sexual identity, disconnected from larger wholes like families, and thus can only further contribute to a culture which already plays into male sexual independence and irresponsibility, which is almost invariably to the detriment of women. God knows I have see almost nothing good whatsoever in the world of hook-ups, out-of-wedlock births, child-abandonment, and male infantilization which I see around me, even here on my fairly conservative and religious college campus. But then the Marxist in me speaks up: Really? It's the individualization of sexual identity which has played the primarily role in the breakdown of effective, sexual-responsibility teaching norms? It's the fault of women entering the workforce and asking for a little sexual parity, and the legal and technological tools they made used of to achieve it, which has given us family breakdown and the feminization of poverty? You don't think it might also have just a little bit to do with, you know...JOBS?

My oldest daughter will probably have one more year at home, and then she'll be heading out into the world. She appears to take her religion--our family religion--seriously. She also appears to like boys. And most importantly, she has confidence and ambition and some real intelligence leading her on. When I look at what surrounds her, and the sexual snares and family dysfunction that she already knows plenty about through her friends, I see, for certain, the negative consequences of the Sexual Revolution. But I also see the ravages of globalization and financial capitalism, which have eviscerated the socio-economic basis for the post-Industrial Revolution family unit (a family unit that was, for certain, itself a historical construct, but for good or ill it was a workable one, one which carried us through most of the 19th and 20th centuries in good shape), erected in its place a--in my opinion--deeply condescending and class-reinforcing and service-oriented meritocracy, and then provided plenty of porn and computer games for all the men (and women...but mostly men) who have found themselves unable to climb that ever-shifting and frankly corrupt ladder. (Paging Hanna Rosin--or maybe Ray Bradbury--here.) Opposing same-sex marriage will not only not do anything to address this situation; it will--again, in the case of the arguments I myself at one time found persuasive--rather oblige me to buy into a ideology of marriage and female happiness that would prevent me from preparing my daughters for this unfortunate world as equals. I can't do that. And with that realization, the realization that I cannot wink at sexual inegalitarianism...my ability to articulate a case against same-sex marriage disappeared. Just like that.

Does this end all the arguments? Of course not. My own church has shifted their arguments; now, the Mormon leadership is talking less and less about orientation and nature (though the old guard remains), and more and more about preserving religious liberty, the ability of religious communities to engage in their own rituals and practices and to teach their own doctrines publicly without facing legal penalties. I care a great deal about the freedom of religious communities to define and handle their own affairs, not just because I take my (and others') religious faith seriously, but also because I believe that not interfering with what religious organizations can bring to the civic table is the best way to maximize the good those organizations can do. Hence, my frustration with President Obama's HHS mandate...and if it were the case that similar mandates were at all likely, in the wake of state decisions to legalize same-sex marriage, that would affect the ability of my church to conduct weddings and teach sexual morality as they see fit, then my opposition to it would probably be undiminished. But, despite the paranoid bell-clanging of some, there simply aren't any such mandates anywhere on the horizon. Might there someday be? Of course. But I'm not willing to personally support a logic that requires I accept an unacceptable premise, simply for the sake of what might be. That's not a good way to approach my responsibilities as a citizen...responsibilities I have to our civilization, to be sure, but also, and more immediately, to a gay friend who is also an American citizen, and most immediately to my girls, who are American citizens too. Give me an argument against same-sex marriage that has nothing whatsoever to do with presuming the normativity of a kind of sexual inequality, or makes a reasonable and believable case that the self-defined teachings and operations of churches and their sponsoring institutions are going to be imminently threatened by it, and then maybe I'll change my mind back. But I don't see that happening. Apparently, I'm with a slowly emerging majority in thinking that way. Better late than never, I guess.


Matt J Stannard said...

Just unspeakably happy to read this, Russell. Thank you.

John Mansfield said...

If I'm following this correctly, a commitment to the equality of men and women leads to the conclusion that neither sex is uniquely qualified to be the spouse of the other and must not be thought to be so qualified. Where does this put those who give place to their hetersexual biases and will only consider those of the other sex as possible spouses for themselves?

Russell Arben Fox said...


If I'm following this correctly, a commitment to the equality of men and women leads to the conclusion that neither sex is uniquely qualified to be the spouse of the other and must not be thought to be so qualified.

No, this doesn't follow, because you're assuming that by sexual egalitarianism I must be talking about sexual equivalence. I'm not; they aren't the same thing. I'm more than happy to grant not only the physical but also the psychological differences between most males and most females, to say nothing of the undeniable fact that most people are going to be attracted to one gender and not the other. I'm even happy to grant that it's very likely most successful marriages will involve the construction (by drawing upon existing norms and traditions) of distinct roles, and a lot of those roles may be grounded in the aforementioned physical and psychological differences. But I don't want to privilege that construction if it assumes, on whatever level, an inequality between men and women.

My hang-up therefore became that, in order to logically deny social legitimacy to a sexual relationship that I didn't otherwise strongly feel to be socially harmful, I had to presume the necessity of privileging as normative for marriage purposes a particular male-female construct...and that particular construct (namely, marriage as it exists today, especially the way it plays out in my own religious community) isn't an egalitarian one. Hence, when forced to acknowledge that denying legitimacy to the relationships of gays and lesbian meant assuming that it would be socially for the best that my daughters commit themselves to that same sexual inequalitarianism...I couldn't do it.

Is that clear?

Ryan said...

>>Apparently, I’m with a slowly emerging majority in thinking that way.<<

Must be nice not having to stand up for anything anymore. Just lay down and take it.

And your assertion that complementarianism equals inegalitarianism is ludicrous. But liberals will always claim that equality means sameness. And of course, we can't allow ourselves to acknowledge the blatant truth that men and women are different.

It's more sad than anything.

Ryan said...

Honestly, that isn't clear at all. You seem to say that distinct roles based on gender cannot be equal. What is your basis for this? You are wrongly conflating equality with sameness. You deny it, but there it is.

Russell Arben Fox said...


Thanks for commenting!

Must be nice not having to stand up for anything anymore. Just lay down and take it.

I'll just have to hope that my crusading against capitalism will keep me busy enough, then.

Your assertion that complementarianism equals inegalitarianism is ludicrous.

But I didn't make that assertion; Francis Beckwith, in defending the idea that race-based marriage restrictions shouldn't be coded into law while orientation-based restrictions should be, made it. And, in time, I came to realize that he wasn't alone; that stipulating male-female marriage as it exists today as natural or normative or normal essentially required me to believe that accepting a kind of sexual inequality between men and women was obligatory as well. As I couldn't follow Beckwith there, being an egalitarian myself, I couldn't maintain my opposition to same-sex marriage either.

You seem to say that distinct roles based on gender cannot be equal. What is your basis for this? You are wrongly conflating equality with sameness. You deny it, but there it is.

I don't think so; I think I leave plenty of room for marriage relationships where distinct gender roles are constructed (out of natural inclinations and tradition as well as choice) by the partners in question. But I don't want to believe that an inequality in those roles is inevitably coded into male-female complementarity. One works, the other doesn't; one is maternal, the other isn't; one must accept a heavy burden of socially prescribed sexual or familial or social expectations, while the other need accept only a fairly light burden. If ours were a different, more traditional world, then it's possible that intellectually I simply wouldn't have ever been troubled by the idea that firmly and unequally shaped roles are inevitable, and hence the argument that civilization needs this particular kind of male-female complementarity to survive might have remained strong in my mind. But for better or worse, the sexual revolution happened, divorce and women working became accepted, and now the idea that male-female marriages have to work this particular way is pretty much gone (even, when you get down to the ground level, within conservative churches like my own). And if that idea is gone, then whatever role marriage continues to play in our civilization (and I agree it plays a role...just not one that has to accept an inegalitarian complementarity between men and women) doesn't appear any longer to be a role which a gay marriage can't fulfill as well.

Anonymous said...

Dr Fox,

Thank you for this article. The argument you make in amendment of your former position reads as convincing to me, and I appreciate that you neither take assignment of gender roles as essentially given nor 'flatten' the genders into completely interchangeable, entirely constructivist categories.

Also, I wanted to draw attention to, I guess, a tangential point given the overall punchline of your argument, but one which I think is important for other reasons. I appreciate that you are attempting to sort to some degree the detrimental effects of the Sexual Revolution from those of the Reagan Revolution (or Thatcher Revolution, in the case of British communitarian theorists like Phillip Blond). I don't think the two Revolutions of radically reductive individualism are really distinct (and one can and probably should make the argument that one played a significant role in bringing the other one about). But I think the kind of sorting you are doing here will become more and more necessary as Blond's theses are refined.

Thanks again; really appreciate your posts like this one here!


Russell Arben Fox said...


Thanks very much for commenting!

I appreciate that you neither take assignment of gender roles as essentially given nor 'flatten' the genders into completely interchangeable, entirely constructivist categories.

Well, I appreciate that you see that's what I was trying to say. On the basis of the comments here and at By Common Consent, it's likely that I didn't make that point clear enough--and maybe I myself haven't thought through clearly enough just how to pull off that balance between deterministic essentialism and free-will constructivism. But you see that I'm trying, and I'm grateful for that.

I don't think the two Revolutions of radically reductive individualism are really distinct (and one can and probably should make the argument that one played a significant role in bringing the other one about). But I think the kind of sorting you are doing here will become more and more necessary as Blond's theses are refined.

Oh, absolutely! The economic and the moral interpenetrate each other as we go about building our lives and conserving what has been built. I wouldn't ever want to say that homosexuality, much less same-sex marriage, wouldn't have appeared as a socially pressing issue if the traditional family unit hadn't undergone the wrenching economic disruption which globalization and modern capitalism visited upon it....but I've no problem saying that, if jobs were more stable and communities less mobile and traditional heterosexual norms more economically and socially validated in Western society, then the conversation about same-sex marriage (at least for people like me, who have daughters that I want to grow up in an environment of equality) would have developed much differently. We have to be faithful in the world that is, not in the world which we imagine exists.

Stephen said...


As the partial instigator of your earlier post on the subject (in all honesty I had forgotten I'd, so to speak, asked for it (and I still owe you a post on a topic you're interested in, redeemable upon request (with due delay for business))), I'm sorry I didn't see this earlier. But as a wise man recently said on another topic, "Better late than never, I guess."

I don't have much to say particularly, except to thank you for writing this. A lot of people, yes, have been changing views on this issue (as you note -- although it's not quite correct to imply that "Hasn’t everyone changed their mind about same-sex marriage by now?" is a rhetorical question, since for the most part supporters of equal marriage rights have remained constant on it (a few disgraces, such as our current president, aside). But your changes are particularly thoughtful. I'm interested in particular that your change of heart is one of few that I've seen that doesn't focus on personal encounters with actual gay and lesbian people (the closest you come is in the reference to "It gets better"). In fact, your personal focus is on your daughters -- and through them on the sexism inherent in opposing equal marriage rights. It's an interestingly different view, and I'm glad I got to read it.

Incidentally, do you know the book Wrestling with God and Men: Homosexuality in the Jewish Tradition by Rabbi Steven Greenberg, the first (and, SFAIK, the only) out gay Orthodox rabbi? I mention it because his analysis of the role that misogyny and gender inequality play in the bias against gays and lesbians, and in particular in how the relevant verses in Leviticus are understood, is central. (I remember rereading it at some point and realizing I'd forgotten just how central feminism was to his argument.) It's a book that's very deeply embedded in the Jewish context, but my memory (which may be faulty) is that it should be fairly accessible to those outside that. And of course some of his topics, particularly the interpretation of the anti-gay verses in the Hebrew bible, are of direct relevance to other religions. Anyway, it's a great book, and you might want to check it out.

Thanks again for the post.