Gay Marriage: The Social Issue
By Chris Mercer
June 11, 2006
The proposed U. S. Constitutional Amendment defining marriage as “the union of a man and woman” is seemingly so simple and uncomplicated. But now that I am studying sociology, I am finding out just how complicated, interdependent, and unpredictable such a simple definition can be to our society.
In its entirety, the proposed amendment states, “Marriage in the United States shall consist only of the union of a man and a woman. Neither this Constitution, nor the constitution of any state, shall be construed to require that marriage or the legal incidents thereof be conferred upon any union other than the union of a man and a woman.” The proposed constitutional amendment says nothing about same-sex (gay) marriage, but clearly is designed to outlaw gay marriage nationwide.
An article titled, “Same-Sex Marriage Foes Say Religious Liberty at Risk” published by Judy Perez in the Chicago Tribune on June 5, 2006 points out conflicts between equal treatment of gay unions under the law and religious faiths that do not accept homosexuality, and goes on to discuss the result of socio/economic consequences that may ensue. Ms. Perez raises the specter of religious institutions losing their tax-exempt status, closing their adoption agencies, and being denied access to public resources.
The best way to grapple with the complexities of the gay marriage issue is to analyze it through the discipline of accepted “perspectives” in the study of sociology.
The Functionalist Perspective:
The Functionalist Perspective adheres to a theory that society is a stable, ordered system that relies on various interrelated functions (parts) to stay at equilibrium. Examples of these interrelated functions are educational institutions, the government, religious institutions, the economy, and the family unit. Many religious organizations feel that the institution of heterosexual marriage through the ages has been the foundation within which successful civilizations have had their children, protected their families, and have passed on their society’s morals and values. This faction sees gay marriage as a threat to this critical function. If the door is open to same-sex marriage, then any other combination of human relations will eventually receive the same status and privileges of heterosexual marriage. They believe this erosion will leave heterosexual marriage unprotected and unfavored in the society. Plural marriages (Polygamy) and incestuous relations would eventually apply for equal status. Historians of Ancient Rome have theorized that the decline of the Roman Empire was immediately preceded by wide acceptance of deviant sexuality, the destruction of the family unit, and the consequential decline of the morals and values of that society.
Opponents of gay marriage argue that the implicit and manifest function of the heterosexual family unit is that of procreation. By the definition of homosexual behavior, procreation is not the object or goal. Therefore, to grant homosexual relationships the same status as heterosexual marriages would run counter to the primary manifest function of the marital institution. On the contrary, same-sex marriages are deemed by opponents as dysfunctions of the primary manifest function of the marital institution as they would in fact inhibit society’s ability to procreate. Opponents of gay marriage do not want same-sex marriage and homosexual behavior to be a part of the definition of marriage. They do not want same-sex marriage and homosexual behavior to be “normalized”. On the contrary opponents of same-sex marriage and homosexual behavior want that behavior to be viewed as deviant and fringe behavior in the society.
Proponents of same-sex marriage argue that not granting their unions equal status in society is exclusionary and unjust. They feel they are relegated to the status of second class citizens as they do not have the same rights and privileges as heterosexual partners have under the same circumstances.
Proponents of same-sex marriage argue that if society relies on the institution of marriage to reinforce and pass down the morals and values of society, then it is in society’s interest to include same-sex unions in the marital institution to further perpetuate these norms. Further, proponents state that the options of adoption, invitro procedures, and lesbian relationships dispel the myth that gay marriages are childless. Accordingly, they argue that it is just as important for same-sex marriages to have the protections and privileges of the marital institution for all the same reasons that it is important for heterosexual marriages. For example, doesn’t society want the children of a same-sex marriage to be raised with all the benefits that the children of a heterosexual marriage would have?
The Critical-Conflict Perspective:
The Critical-Conflict Perspective advances the theory that social problems arise from major contradictions inherent in society. In a free society, when a class of people are excluded from that society (e.g. blacks through Slavery/Reconstruction/Separate-But-Equal; or women through no right to vote, patriarchal dominance in the work place), then a tremendous inequality based on “class” exists and will manifest itself in various social problems until such a time that the inequity is resolved. Analyzing the gay marriage issue with this perspective, I see the major conflict arising from the inalienable rights that are guaranteed to every member of a truly free society. The inalienable right in question here is freedom of choice.
Proponents of same-sex marriages argue that they are hard-working, tax-paying citizens who already have the right to live with who they want and in what capacity they want. In fact, acceptance of the gay lifestyle is embraced by society more now than ever before. Yet in today’s society, governmental and financial institutions refuse to acknowledge marital contracts in which two same-sex partners have agreed to be bound.
Proponents report that, notwithstanding their marital contracts with each other, they are not afforded the status of “family” in hospitals; they are not eligible for health insurance benefits that the spouse of a heterosexual partner would be entitled to; they are not entitled to the right of survivorship for retirement benefits that a heterosexual spouse would be entitled to; and they are not entitled to any of the benefits of the inheritance rights that the law affords a heterosexual spouse. Homosexual partners complain that they really don’t have the right to choose, claiming that governmental and financial institutions prevent them from truly being free to choose how their earned assets are to be used.
In the Critical-Conflict Perspective, the opponents of gay marriage are the factions of society that control the marital institution. They are threatened by the way same-sex marriage may change the morals and values of society for the worse. They are fighting to maintain the definition of marriage and all the privileges that the go with it. They do not want the definition of marriage to include same-sex partners. They do not want same-sex relationships to be considered “normal” by society and their children. They very much want to relegate same-sex relationships as a fringe element of society. These opponents are truly in a power struggle to maintain control of what is deemed to be “normal” in society. One spokesman for a right-wing conservative Christian organization stated that, “The battle to ban gay marriage was far more important than the war on terror.”
In the Critical-Conflict Perspective, what we have in the gay marriage issue is an inequality based on sexual orientation. Until that inequality is resolved or negotiated away, this social conflict will not go away. Homosexuals (the disadvantaged class) will continue to fight for equality against heterosexuals and religious organizations (the controlling class). National protests will occur, organizations supporting either side will be boycotted by the other, and one could predict that violence through prejudice will also be a manifestation of this inequality.
As it turns out, on June 7, 2006 the U.S. Senate voted on this proposed amendment and there were only 49 votes in favor, well shy of the 67 that would have been necessary to approve the constitutional amendment. Be sure that this issue will not go away soon, however, the comforting thing about our society is that we are free to have a national debate for as long as it takes for a consensus to rise to the top.