Brown: Gay marriage isn’t about equality

Phil Brown

Same-sex marriage is in the news a lot recently. From Utah to D.C. to Oklahoma, there are battles being fought in the courtrooms and capitol buildings across the country on the issue. So just why is it that this one group, who only comprises a small percentage of our population, is getting so much attention?

Many would fall back on the answer of equality. I myself have made this claim many times, but even I will admit that such a sweeping purpose must be qualified. After all, pure equality, even in the narrow context of marriage, is not what so many have been fighting so hard for. 

To take extreme examples, most would argue that people should be able to marry non-human animals or children (the age limits for marriage vary state by state, but the point remains). These categories can fairly easily be written off, though, by simply qualifying “equality” to mean equality among consenting adults. Neither beasts nor children can effectively consent to a marriage, yet consent seems fairly crucial to the idea, so this caveat would only make sense.

There are other, more complicated examples, however. For instance, polygamists and related individuals who wish to marry are often left out of the discussion when speaking of marriage equality. Again, the degree to which one can marry a relative varies by state, but some unions are banned everywhere in our country, such as those between siblings.

So here it can easily be seen that the touted movement for equality is purely hypocritical, merely pushing for one small special interest, right?

Well, no, not really.

If the idea behind legalizing same-sex marriages was really about complete and full equality, then yes, the movement would be fairly hypocritical. Unfortunately for any salivating at the thought of another way to attack gay marriage, this is just not the case.

When dealing with anything pertaining to our laws, the general public has a tendency to generalize. That means that specific phrases like “equal protection of the laws” become “equality” when these two things have very different definitions in practice. The whole idea of equal protection is not to ensure that everyone is always treated the same no matter what, but rather to make sure that the discriminations our governments create through their laws have some rational basis.

For example, here in the United States, felons are not able to vote. This is undeniably discrimination, but it has a rational basis. It can be seen as a deterrent to would-be felons and also as an assurance that those who do not value our laws will not have a hand in reshaping them.

Of course at this point, many would argue (and they have) that gay men and lesbians, like felons, should be discriminated against. A variety of reasons exist for this belief, but they all revolve around the idea that there is some rational basis for our governments to exclude same-sex couples from the institution of marriage.

On the federal level, and in an increasing number of states, this idea has been rejected by various courts. By striking such laws down, a judge or panel of judges is saying that there is no rational reason for this discrimination, therefore, it must be lifted, according to our constitution.

Anyone in the world is free to argue that point until they are blue in the face, but our system of government is clear — our courts interpret our laws and our constitutions, so they get to make that call.

But what about those other groups being discriminated against with regard to marriage?

In the case of polygamists, it can be seen that there should be some upper limit on the number of individuals in a marriage. A marriage of a hundred individuals is probably too many, and one is possibly too few. Some number in between must be chosen, and like speed limits, it may very well seem arbitrary, but that is the nature of placing legal limits on anything.

Incestuous unions, on the other hand, are sometimes socially discriminated against in the same way that schools do not allow teachers to form sexual relationships with students: Parent-child marriages and other familial relations have been banned from entering our government’s institution of marriage due to the possibility of manipulation and abuse.

On top of these possible concerns, the groups themselves have not made their plight a popular issue. If specific groups or individuals that are being discriminated against do not wish to exercise their right to equal protection, it is no one else’s business to initiate such a movement.

A polygamist or a sibling couple could very well argue for marriage equality, but that does not mean that others must step in to defend them.

So no, the marriage equality movement is not really about full equality for anyone and everyone. It is, however, about giving a group of our citizens, however small or incomplete, the freedom to be recognized as equals with regard to who they love and wish to spend their life with.