The legalization of same-sex marriage may be one of the most controversial social issues in the modern American political climate, and, in fact, throughout the Western world. While it may seem as if this highly polarizing issue has come out of nowhere, cultural norms about homosexuality and the acceptability of same-sex romantic relationships have always existed. Some societies have been accepting of same-sex relationships, others have violently condemned them, but there have always been cultural norms about sexually appropriate behavior. What is new is the legal battle over these cultural norms. The civil rights advances in the 1960s and 1970s, which successfully challenged the cultural norms that allowed for discrimination against some minority groups, led to changes in the legal environment, making legalization of same-sex marriage a possibility when it was outside of consideration years before. Also new is the fact that the development of privacy laws has led to the Supreme Court being unwilling to invade the privacy of the bedroom, which has led to laws criminalizing adult consensual homosexual behavior being struck down as unconstitutional. Therefore, society is not just arguing about the social and cultural impact of same-sex relationships, but also about the legal principles guiding the decision whether to legalize same-sex marriages.
Of course, it would be easy to focus on the legal battle and ignore the social context, but the social context is why the debate is so heated. Societal changes regarding attitudes towards same-sex marriage are not only based on legal changes. For example, the sexual revolution of the 1960s and 1970s led to changes in how the country approached sex. In addition, the social changes that came about as a result of the civil rights movement have emphasized the basic equality of all human beings. "Recent decades have seen much interest in the idea of diversity. The argument for same sex marriage asserts that it is hypocritical to deny the full rights and opportunities of citizenship which includes the access to an institution as basic as matrimony" (Phy-Olsen, 2006, p.76). Therefore, many people argue that sexuality is not a public issue that consensual adults should be able to engage in consensual sexual and romantic behavior without public censure, and that people should not be discriminated against on the basis of sexual orientation.
However, those arguments must be considered against a cultural background where heterosexual relationships have been, are, and will continue to be the cultural norm, even if same-sex marriage is legalized. There are simply more heterosexuals than homosexuals. Heterosexuals form the majority of society and the basic nuclear family structure that dominates Western society has formed around the heterosexual marriage and the children of that marriage. Even most extended family relationships can be traced back to the primary marital relationship or the biological parent-child relationship. In addition, it cannot be ignored that many religious traditions prohibit homosexual behavior or that most religions define marriage as a male-female relationship (Phy-Olsen, 2006, p.3). Whether or not one agrees with those religious prohibitions, many people hold them to be valid and important in their lives, which makes it impossible to ignore religious arguments.
The result of this social upheaval and change is that same-sex marriage has become a short-hand way of discussing many of the bubbling social, cultural, and legal changes that are occurring in Western society. Legalization of same-sex marriage does not only mean recognizing equality for homosexuals, but also means that society is reconsidering what it means to be family. That is an important factor that must be considered when discussing the issue of legalization. In fact, most of the arguments against the legalization of same-sex marriage are based on the notion that doing so will lead to the destruction of important social and cultural norms. Therefore, this paper will examine the arguments for and against the legalization of gay marriage.
Arguments against Same Sex Marriage
The people who argue against legalizing same-sex marriage have several different reasons for objecting to the practice, but those different reasons all lead to the same conclusion: same sex marriage challenges the traditional idea of the family. These traditional ideas may be built upon custom, law, or religion. Usually, they are built upon a combination of all three elements. Moreover, because these elements frequently overlap, it can be difficult to separate them. Instead, they frequently are lumped together as a single challenge to legalization, but investigating the different elements may help explain why so many people see same-sex marriage as such a threatening notion.
One of the primary arguments against the legalization of same-sex marriage is that it violates traditional religious norms. The holy books of all three of the major religions in the Western world, Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, all contain some prohibitions against homosexual sexual activity, if not against homosexual sexual orientation. Therefore, one of the primary arguments that people make when arguing against same-sex marriage is that legalization would violate their religious principles. In fact, according to Margaret Denike, an advocate for civil rights for gays, "god has staged an unprecedented revival, and religions that invest in His word on sex and related matters have a tenacious hold on the politics of certain liberal constitutional democracies" (Denike, 2007, p.71). While some of these countries may recognize a basic separation between church and state, the fact is that religion influences morals and laws reflect the morality of a country. The impact of this religious resurgence has been to limit the rights of gays and lesbians who wish to marry, because those marriages do not reflect traditional biblical marriages (Denike, 2007, p.76).
Another argument against same-sex marriage is that it threatens the family structure. Rather than just focus on what same-sex marriage means for the institution of marriage, opponents focus on the idea that it has a potential negative impact on children. This argument is not based on the idea that gay people are somehow inferior or that they are incapable of parenting. On the contrary, it is actually based on the way that parenting is defined in society. This argument is based on the interrelationship between marriage and parenting. "Marriage functions at the societal level to establish and institutionalize not only one adult's relationship to another adult, but also those adults' relationship to the children born to them" (Somerville, 2007, p.179). However, in purely same-sex relationships, children of the relationship are, by definition, not created biologically within that relationship. She goes on to suggest that, by altering the definition of marriage, same-sex marriage changes the very nature of marriage. Ergo, it also changes the nature of parenthood, since parenthood and marriage are linked institutions. This results in a disruption of the traditional interconnection between parenthood and biology (Somerville, 2007, p.181). This argument may be true, although a surprising number of homosexuals have biological links to their children. Furthermore, the argument would be equally applicable to other scenarios in which a non-biological relative actively parents the child, such as in heterosexual step-parent relationships or in traditional non-biological adoptions.
However, these concerns that gay marriage will threaten the family structure are about more than the status of the nuclear family. The sexual revolution ushered in tremendous changes to the structure of the American family. While the white-middle class family model was primarily focused on a nuclear family with husband and wife, that model is quickly changing. A huge number of children are born out-of-wedlock in non-traditional families. Moreover, the choice to create non-traditional families is impacting families at all levels of society. In other words, single mothers are no longer primarily to minority groups or the lower socio-economic class. What this suggests is that fears about same-sex marriage are representative of larger fears about the dwindling role that straight men, as both fathers and husbands, play in the family. This, in turn, leads to questions about the place of masculinity in society. Traditionally, marriage has been a way for men to establish their masculinity, and there is a question about whether men can do that in a homosexual marriage between men, while it is clear that they cannot in a homosexual relationship between two women (Edwards, 2007, p.252). In other words, if homosexual marriage is legalized, will there still be a role in society for the traditional heterosexual father?
It is important to keep in mind that not all arguments against same-sex marriage support the idea of the traditional family. While most of the people who argue against legalizing same-sex marriage have an anti-homosexual bias, it is important to understand that not all of the arguments against legalization are based in bias or prejudice. In fact, some of the most salient arguments against legalizing same-sex marriage actually come from the far left. They criticize the institution of marriage and believe that it should be abandoned, rather than suggesting that homosexuals base the legitimacy or illegitimacy of their relationships on a legal institution that does not pertain to them and has long been used to signal some type of ownership or control. Therefore,…