Monday, August 14, 2006

Polly Wants a Parent

Dan Savage has been hilarious lately because he's refusing (well, pretending to refuse) to answer questions about the sex problems of married straight people. Why? Because various American courts have recently handed down anti-gay-marriage decisions that don't seem to be much more than, "Silly faggots, dicks are for kids."
(INVENTED) SAMPLE QUESTION: Dear Dan, I'm a 27-year-old male who's been married for three years. My wife knows that I like to have a blind dude with a massive schlong stretch my asshole while I give cunnilingus to a woman dressed up like Pope Joan. My wife used to play the role of Joan, but recently she told me that she's no longer willing to do so. She says I can find another woman to take her place if I must but that she doesn't want to know anything about it. That's fine, except that the woman I really want to stand in for her is her half-sister, and I'm afraid that my wife would be hurt if she were to find out I'd licked her sister's clit. What should I do?
(INVENTED) SAMPLE ANSWER: Fuck you. I cannot fucking believe that you're allowed to get married and I'm not.
It's kind of hard to argue with Dan on this one.

The reasons politicians and judges give in repudiating gay marriage are almost never the ones they really believe (roughly, "God hates fags" or "that's just gross.") Respectable suit- and robe-wearers tend to fall back on the argument that the purpose of marriage is to generate and protect offspring. And since straight people are the only ones capable of producing a child just by swapping fluids (lucky us!), marriage is for straights only.

Now, I'm about the billionth person to point out that by this logic impotent men, post-menopausal women, and the separately or jointly infertile shouldn't be granted marriage licenses either. Especially if their marriage licenses don't contain legally binding declarations of their intention to adopt.

In fact, the "marriage is for kids" argument implies that couples who go more than, say, three years without producing offspring should probably have their marriage licenses revoked. (Picture Alec Baldwin yelling at them: "Marriage is for breeders! The couple that makes the most babies gets a Cadillac Eldorado. Second place gets a box of Pampers. Third place is you're fucking divorced. You're not a family man? Then don't go home to your fucking family!")

Clearly, having two parents to raise kids is often better than just one. But the "marriage is for kids" argument ignores the other three big reasons that for milennia have prompted people to pair off: the religious, socioeconomic, and emotional. People get married because their beliefs encourage or oblige them to do so, because the economic and legal realities of their society encourage or oblige them to do so, and/or because they want the emotional rewards of a durable, reliable emotional (and sexual) connection with another human being.

I'd argue that the religious and emotional motivations aren't any of the American government's damn business. The dictates of someone's faith or the content of their romantic yearnings aren't fit topics for legislation. If, for example, your Catholicism requires you to be married in a Church ceremony before you sleep with your loved one, then, fabulous, by all means marry (or keep your pants zipped). But the American government should not be in the business of officially recognizing the sacrament of your marriage, any more than it should officially recognize (or prevent) your baptism, your bat mitzvah, or your hajj. Neither should the government have any obligation to solemnize your emotional fulfillment as the result of twelve years of marriage to a wonderful woman. If you and your wonderful woman need something official, Photoshop yourself a lovely certificate and hang in the foyer.

That leaves the socioeconomic reasons. For a long time in this country, women were obliged to get and stay married because it was unthinkable that they work for a living. (Unless of course, they were working-class. In which case, of course, they didn't matter anyway. Let 'em scrub laundry. Or, even more of course, unless they were slaves, in which case it was illegal for them to marry. Because married women produced children, but slave women produced property. Let 'em pick cotton.)

So, an unmarried, unemployed woman woman could be a drain on the resources of friends and family who had to look after to her. And if she had children, that was a bigger drain. So, if she was going to have kids, she damn well better have done it from the economic security of marriage. Given that long history and despite immense advances made by women in the last 150 years, there's still a legacy of legal arrangements from earlier times that makes marriage a better financial and legal arrangement for both partners and their kids. (Tax breaks, inheritance arrangements, the right to make health care decisions, etc.) But there's no reason to perpetuate old legal arrangements based on the assumption that heterosexual monogamy is indispensable for responsible parenting.

Yes, unless Americans decide that all our children should be raised in government or commercial nurseries, the American people (represented by their state) have a real interest in ensuring that parents--biological or adoptive--fulfill their responsibilities as parents. That means devising laws and tax codes that encourage responsible parenting. But there's nothing that says the parents have to be of different sexes and nothing that says that they need to be married to parent responsibly.

There are lot of powerful arguments against same-sex parents and same-sex marriages. But the power of those arguments comes from their appeals to religious and emotional convictions, not from a concordance with the economic and political principles that underlie what most Americans understand as good government. Accordingly, I think the US government should do everything that it can to encourage parents--straight parents, gay parents, bi parents, transgendered parents--to contractually determine and respect their specific responsibilities for child-rearing. If those parents, for emotional and religious reasons, also want to get married, let them go to their priests, their imams, or their touchy-feely commitment celebrants.

I've made these points to opponents of same-sex marriages, and they've usually nodded and said, "But, by that logic, wouldn't polygamy be acceptable?" And then they smile because they're sure they've zinged me. And I suppose they have zinged me because they've put me in the position of backing an unpopular view because, yes, I do think polygamy would be acceptable.

In fact, any arrangement in which adults responsibly work out a division of labor that ensures that a child has all the love, attention, discipline, schooling, health care, food, clothing, and safety that she needs is not just acceptable but desirable. Practically speaking, I have a hard time imagining that polygamy would work very often; long-term monogamy is hard enough. But the fact that most people, at least right now, couldn't make it work doesn't mean the government should make it illegal for them to try.

I'm not sure why I'm supposed to nod my head in liberal affirmation every time a nineteen-year-old with no GED decides that it's a good idea for her to have her second kid, whereas I'm supposed to recoil in liberal horror at the idea that some guy might marry two women. Or that some woman might marry two guys. Or, rather, I am sure, but I don't buy it.

The reason most liberals hate polygamy (other than they're just more conservative and uptight than they'd like to think) is that polygamy has a nasty history. Historically, polygamy has meant one man subordinating multiple women, some of whom enter the marriage too young to have really been able to decide soberly and freely whether they want to enter it. That sort of polygamy is basically a symbol of the patriarchy.

Of course, hardcore conservatives should embrace polygamy for precisely that reason. Conservatives who insist that the Bible defines marriage as a relationship between a man and a woman haven't read the Old Testament, in which it's often a relationship between a man and fifty-eight women.

But liberals should be inclined to tolerate polygamy, even if it creeps them out. If you want to embrace the "non-traditional family," you have to be ready for families even more non-traditional than a same-sex Cleaver family in which either June is a big chick or Ward doesn't need to shave his face. Other than offering a bunch of Queer Eye quips about tract lighting disputes or mixing up panties, can anyone who isn't homophobic tell me why three lesbians or three gay men or two lesbians and a gay man (etc.) are necessarily incapable of successfully raising a child whom they loved dearly? Or why a couple consisting of a straight wife and infertile husband couldn't form a functional domestic unit with the gay biological father of their shared child? I don't think you can, at least not if a few smart lawyers and judges get together and draft parenting contracts that allow prospective parents to understand their responsibilities and to commit bindingly to them.

And "polygamy" might be the wrong word here. Polygamy comes from the Greek (poly + gamy) for "often married." And I'm not talking about marriage here. I'm talking about parenting. So maybe "polyparentry" would be better.* If the straight couple and the gay man are partnered as parents, I don't see any reason why they should have to be imagined as lovers, cuddlers, or foot-massagers. They should go to PTA meetings together, but there's no reason they should go on romantic anniversary dinners. In this sense, polyparenting families wouldn't really be any different than the maiden aunts who take in their orphaned nephew or the father and grandmother who jointly raise their son/grandson while mom pursues her career in Jim Beam absorption and intermittent incarceration.

Would gay marriage and/or polyparentry require a shift in social attitudes and legal arrangements? Yup. Would it be "bad for the children"? Nope. If anything, it would provide a potential families for the hundreds of thousands of children in orphanages and foster care hoping to be adopted.

* The Greek terms for parent are gendered male (gennao) and female (tikto), which would undermine the whole point. Also, they sound dumb when affixed to "poly."


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