Redefining Marriage, Part 9: Stigma and Hate

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Because our culture still generally celebrates an institution it no longer understands, people are put in a position of wanting something without knowing what it is. The pageantry of a wedding, the emotional reward of exchanging vows, the social approbation of a marriage license, the security of “making it official”: these things still attract people to marriage. Not everyone, of course; increasing numbers of people no longer see the point of marriage, and many couples stoutly profess that a ceremony or a piece of paper can’t give them something they don’t have already (and often enough, in a perverse way, they are right). But enough people feel the pull of elements of the whole marriage thing, or even of the reality of marriage itself, to keep the institution alive, if diminished.

The wish to participate in an institution that is no longer understood naturally leads to redefining the institution, by stages, further and further from its true raison d’etre. The marriage contract must be modified—first passively, by society, with the groundwork of divorce on demand; then actively, by the couple, with divorce-ready prenuptial agreements.

As noted earlier, there are calls to remove fidelity from the equation—to redefine marriage as a pact of love that allows for some outside pursuits—a move that will allegedly strengthen marriage by redefining what used to be called adultery as a non-betrayal. Monogamy is regarded as unnatural, and marriage must be restructured accordingly.

Meanwhile, individuals with same-sex attraction grow up in the same marriage-positive culture as everyone else. They see the same Disney movies and romantic comedies. They watch their peers celebrate weddings and anniversaries. Like cohabitating couples, same-sex couples are uneasily aware of a lingering stigma regarding their socially unsanctioned status.

In the case of same-sex couples, this stigma is compounded by the more entrenched disapproval of homosexuality. It’s true that the concerted efforts of the diversity machine have gone a long way toward stigmatizing disapproval of homosexuality. So successful—and at times obnoxiously ubiquitous—has the effort been to raise the collective consciousness that a recent survey found that most Americans believe that homosexuals comprise 25 percent of the total population, exaggerating the actual figure of 2 to 3 percent by more than an order of magnitude.

Even so, aversion toward homosexuality runs deep. Deeper, in a sense, than religious instruction, and probably deeper than cultural formation, although both religious and cultural formation reinforce it. Unfortunately, the matter is clouded by distorted forms of disapproval—contempt, hatred, even fear—often lumped under the inadequate, overused, but not entirely invalid label of homophobia.

Terms like homophobia and gay-bashing are wrongly overused to stigmatize all disapproval of homosexuality as well as disagreement with or criticism of homosexual activists. As a result, many people who naturally recognize homosexuality as disordered are inhibited from expressing the validity of their moral beliefs. Hostile and punitive acts are increasingly being directed against those who affirm Christian moral teaching or who do not wish to acknowledge same-sex relationships in some way. (For example, photographers, caterers and other professionals who are Christians have been sued or fined for declining to serve same-sex ceremonies. Christian clergy have been harassed and even forbidden to express their views. Others have lost their jobs—and we are still very much in the early stages of all this. For more, cf. Mark Shea.)

We should resist this, but we shouldn’t easily dismiss the element of truth behind the terms homophobia and gay-bashing—especially since these distortions, and the failure of many to treat homosexuals with appropriate dignity, is also part of the context of our current difficulties.

Spontaneous feelings of aversion toward homosexual acts—feelings in themselves natural and in principle even healthy—are wrongly but easily extended to individuals who engage in such acts, or who are prone to them. Since those prone to such acts are few and thus weak, they are easily stigmatized by the majority.

Fear of stigma then causes others to fear to be associated with the stigmatized, either socially or, worse, by identification. Such pressures move many, particularly the vulnerable or insecure, to vigorous expressions and demonstrations of scorn for the ostracized population and their inclinations—bullying and contemptuous acts that reinforce their own identification with the acceptable majority.

Adolescents in the throes of the mysterious process of sexual maturing, intimidated by a world into which they have not yet been initiated and fearing ostracism above all, may be especially frightened of being implicated in, or even of developing, stigmatized inclinations. Parents likewise may fear not only the ostracism and unhappiness of their children, but also perhaps the emotional and social cost to themselves to have a child who may be stigmatized. Adults not paired off with a member of the opposite sex may be uncomfortable with how others could perceive them. And so on.

Any of these concerns and pressures can contribute to unjust hostility toward gays, in the process perpetuating and deepening the cycle of fear and hatred, all the more because of the lamentable human tendency to hate those we have wronged.

Homophobia, hatred and gay-bashing are contrary to human dignity and to the common good. Efforts to combat homophobia and gay-bashing have made real strides, partly through praiseworthy means, but also partly by promoting a false moral equivalence between heterosexual and homosexual indications and acts, by celebrating homosexuality as a positive good, and by stigmatizing not only gay-bashing but also moral disapproval of homosexual acts.

At the same time, individuals with same-sex attraction and in same-sex relationships continue to suffer bullying, hostility and the general stigma against their inclinations and acts. For all the gay-positive messages out there, they are sharply aware of the deep-rooted disapproval of their lifestyles. In some cases the conflict may not be all external: Influenced by mainstream culture, or by the movement of their own consciences, they may struggle with interior discomfort, shame or guilt regarding their own status and actions.

For such individuals, the institution of marriage can present a conundrum. On the one hand, they’ve been shaped by the same marriage-positive culture as everyone else, and many of them have supportive married parents, siblings or other relations and friends. On the other hand, marriage as it has has always been known and is still for the most part celebrated today remains an imposing cultural and institutional symbol of heteronormativity—a cultural, state-sponsored form of social approbation available to heterosexual couples but denied to homosexual couples.

Reductionistically put, marriage can feel to such people like a sort of state-sponsored private club that admits people of one persuasion but not others. The very existence of such a club, with the active recognition and participation of the state no less, both validates and perpetuates the heteronormative moral order, and can be seen as giving tacit support to the mistreatment of gays.

Which, lang syne, brings us to where we are today.

More to come.

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