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Pursuing happiness together

Neil Patrick Harris and David Burtka’s wedding
with fireworks. Source

Over the Independence Day weekend, I kept on thinking about dignity after writing this post.

In particular I considered dignity as it relates to the pursuit of happiness, to which we all have a right according to the Declaration of Independence.

I wondered if I’d managed to articulate that if dignity is an innate quality, then it’s an innate need, not an innate possession. No matter how you treat a human being, he or she still needs to be treated as having control over his/her own life.

When this control is denied, adult human beings are made unhappy. It’s understandable to deny control to a child or someone otherwise not capable of making life-changing decisions, but if we presume that neither of these is the case, then we’re talking about a human being who is at the pinnacle of his/her ability to make decisions for him/herself. If Beth is an adult woman of sound mind, there is no point in Beth’s life at which she will be better equipped to engage in the pursuit of happiness. So to deny Beth the ability to do this is to deny her the dignified treatment she needs.

Thomas’s treatment of dignity as an immutable quality has it that Beth’s dignity will be completely unaffected by whether or not you acknowledge that she has a right to marry. Hell, his treatment of dignity has it, as we have already seen, that Beth’s dignity will be unaffected even if you intern or enslave her.

Which would make a person logically ask– what, then, is the moral infraction involved in interning or enslaving people? What is the wrong action committed when a person is denied the right to pursue happiness by joining his/her life to another person on the basis of factors like race, religion, or sexual orientation?

Because that is, fundamentally, what “marriage” means, isn’t it?

It doesn’t mean binding yourself to another person in order to have children (though that might be a choice you make).

It doesn’t mean binding yourself to another person to get tax benefits (though you may get those too).

It doesn’t mean binding yourself to another person to please God (though that may be involved in your decision).

And it doesn’t mean binding yourself to another person in order to survive (though opponents of any sort of social safety net would seem to prefer that).

The pursuit of happiness is not survival. Survival is what you have to take care of before you can pursue happiness. And people shouldn’t have to get married to survive.

Which dovetails nicely with this column by Amanda Marcotte, that I also came across over the weekend:

Right Wing Watch posted about Christian conservative activist Wayne Allyn Root—the same one who posited that Obama must have blackmailed Justice Roberts on the Obamacare decision—going on a radio show and positing that gay people are just going to be getting all divorced all the time. From their coverage: “Marriage is the most difficult thing in the world,” he said, “I’m talking to you as someone who has been married 24 years, marriage is so difficult that if you do not go to church every Sunday and your whole life isn’t built on a bedrock faith in God and you don’t have kids and your whole life isn’t built around those kids and none of that’s in place and you’re married, the odds of you staying married are close to zero. Divorces will now triple. Gays will never stay married. They just bought themselves the biggest bunch of unhappiness and legal bills that they could ever imagine.” I always found it facile to write off homobigots as all closeted gay people who are afraid to let their true desires out, as that is statistically impossible. But I do think you hear that theory a lot because there is a weird kind of resentment and jealousy that radiates off these people and it demands an explanation. I think these comments get to the root of it. They’re not jealous that you get to have a bunch of gay sex. (Though I do think some do think that gay people have more and better sex, which creates some envy.) What I think is going on here is a little more complex, and Root’s comments about what a miserable slog and hellpit of suffering marriage is gets at it. Look, I believe Root when he says that not only is his marriage miserable but that he believes marriage is inherently miserable. The religious right argument is that men and women are deeply, fundamentally different—opposites, really—who will never really understand each other. They often talk about marriage as a tense transaction, where women exchange sexual access and family service for financial support and a promise of fidelity. It’s a worldview where marriage is seen as a grim duty, instead of something you do to be happy. This isn’t even that hidden from the surface, as Ross Douthat’s sour response to this decision shows. For a lot of homophobes, the logic appears to be something like this: I had to give up hope for happiness by saddling myself with a marriage to someone I don’t really like much in order to fulfill my procreative duties. Who do you gays think you are, with all your talk of love and passion? You’re starting to give other straight people the idea that they should marry for love? Piss on all of you. If I can’t be happy, no one can. Indeed, if you think marriage should be about duty and not love, and that it’s meant to be a slog from which only death provides sweet relief, then you probably don’t see the problem with bullying gay people into marrying people of the opposite sex and committing to a life of pleasureless sex and resentment. That may, in fact, sound like your life. This kind of thinking was even in Justice Scalia’s unhinged dissent in this case. In response to Justice Kennedy arguing that marriage allows people to “find other freedoms, such as expression, intimacy, and spirituality”, Scalia cracked a take-my-wife-please joke. “Really? Who ever thought that intimacy and spirituality [whatever that means] were freedoms? And if intimacy is, one would think Freedom of Intimacy is abridged rather than expanded by marriage. Ask the nearest hippie.” Hurk hurk, because people stop having sex when they get married, right? Thigh slap! Bitter laugh. Considering that these are the same folks who think you should not have sex before marriage, one does wonder when sex happens, in their worldview. It appears the answer is “rarely, with the woman in particular being reluctant”. Needless to say, the impact of this decision on the divorce rate will be negligible. There’s no reason to think that gay people think about marriage differently than straight people. The mentality Root is decrying—the belief that marriage should make you happy instead of being a miserable slog—is widespread amongst straight people. And it’s actually associated with a lower divorce rate, because people hold out for partners that make them happy, making the commitment easier to stick with once it’s made.

Marriage is not part of everyone’s pursuit of happiness. The nature of happiness, and humanity, is that different humans have different ideas of what happiness entails. But binding yourself to another person in such a pursuit, legally or spiritually or otherwise, is central enough to our notion of what it means to be a human in our society that there can be no justification for denying that equal right to people on a basis which has nothing to do with their equal ability to make that decision for themselves.

Dignity in light of Obergefell: What Thomas just doesn’t get

Image: A black person’s hand and a white person’s hand
forming a heart. 

Someday somebody’s gonna ask you 
A question that you should say yes to 
Once in your life 
Maybe tonight I’ve got a question for you 
— “Question,” Old 97’s

Control over your own life. Since we were old enough to recognize the concept, each one of us has wanted this. We wanted it long before our parents, who knew better, were willing to give it to us. And when they started to give us control, it was incremental– you can choose what to wear today. You can choose what electives to take in school. You can choose where to get a job, assuming they’ll hire you. You can choose where, or whether, to go to college, assuming you qualify and can afford it.

And when you’re 18, you can choose everything else (except what to drink in America, for reasons that aren’t exactly clear). It’s a rather arbitrary point at which society decides that an individual is going to have as much control over his or her life as he/she will ever have, but a point had to be chosen. To be an adult is to make your own choices. To be in control of your life, and recognized as such by society.

This control over your life is called autonomy. The mutual recognition of such, between you as an individual and the society in which you live, is called dignity.

There is a competing notion of dignity which is outdated, but persists largely for religious reasons. According to this notion, dignity is an immutable characteristic of humankind by virtue of membership in our species. We all have it, not just from birth, but from conception until…well, forever. It sets humans apart from non-human animals, and is the foundation of free will and moral responsibility. As Kant put it, “Morality, and humanity as capable of it, is that which alone has dignity.”

There’s a recognition in this view that dignity is based in moral autonomy, but that autonomy is believed to be inherent in humanity, which would entail that a) all humans have dignity, and b) cannot ever be deprived of it, c) because they are human.

In reality, of course, we know that this is not true. We have seen the gradual erosion of this concept of dignity, which has correlated with certain realizations that are largely the result of scientific research. We know, for example, that humans are not the only species which makes meaningful choices– even moral choices. We know that mental mechanisms for making such choices exist in our brains, which are themselves far from immutable– the capacity must develop (their ontogeny) according to how they evolved (their phylogeny), it may malfunction, and it will inevitably die, at the same time the organism itself does.

There’s no particular reason to believe that dignity will continue beyond our death, if the machinery which makes meaningful control over our lives possible is disabled at that time….and by all appearances, it does. As anyone with experience around people with degenerative brain diseases knows, it can easily happen prior to death.

For these and other reasons, our understanding of dignity has evolved, along with our understanding of what it means to be human and, by extension, to be a person– a person being a legal entity, with rights and responsibilities that are due to an individual who exists in a society of other people.

A person is someone who should be treated with dignity. They should be treated by their government as if they are autonomous agents, in control of their lives, because to be treated by your government this way enables you to be autonomous and in control of your life. It enables you to take control. To make meaningful choices. To pursue happiness.

This is the sort of dignity described in the decision for Obergefell v. Hodges, authored by Anthony Kennedy.

He describes1 how government came to treat women with dignity with regard to marriage:

Under the centuries-old doctrine of coverture, a married man and woman were treated by the State as a single, male-dominated legal entity. As women gained legal, political, and property rights, and as society began to understand that women have their own equal dignity, the law of coverture was abandoned.

 He continues:

These and other developments in the institution of marriage over the past centuries were not mere superficial changes. Rather, they worked deep transformations in its structure, affecting aspects of marriage long viewed by many as essential. These new insights have strengthened, not weakened, the institution of marriage. Indeed, changed understandings of marriage are characteristic of a Nation where new dimensions of freedom become apparent to new generations, often through perspectives that begin in pleas or protests and then are considered in the political sphere and the judicial process. This dynamic can be seen in the Nation’s experiences with the rights of gays and lesbians. Until the mid-20th century, same-sex intimacy long had been condemned as immoral by the state itself in most Western nations, a belief often embodied in the criminal law. For this reason, among others, many persons did not deem homosexuals to have dignity in their own distinct identity. A truthful declaration by same-sex couples of what was in their hearts had to remain unspoken. Even when a greater awareness of the humanity and integrity of homosexual persons came in the period after World War II, the argument that gays and lesbians had a just claim to dignity was in conflict with both law and widespread social conventions. Same-sex intimacy remained a crime in many States. Gays and lesbians were prohibited from most government employment, barred from military service, excluded under immigration laws, targeted by police, and burdened in their rights to associate.

The decision is an analysis in two parts:

  1. a meditation on the significance of marriage in the context of an individual’s dignity, which is to say his or her control over his/her life and equal ability to pursue happiness in that life (“A first premise of the Court’s relevant precedents is that the right to personal choice regarding marriage is inherent in the concept of individual autonomy”), and
  2. a description of the injustices that gay and lesbian Americans have been dealt in having their dignity denied at every turn by their government, specifically in their equal right as people to be able to make this one specific critical choice in their lives– to be married (“There is dignity in the bond between two men or two women who seek to marry and in their autonomy to make such profound choices. Cf. Loving, supra, at 12 (‘[T]he freedom to marry, or not marry, a person of another race resides with the individual and cannot be infringed by the State’),” “Under the Constitution, same-sex couples seek in marriage the same legal treatment as opposite-sex couples, and it would disparage their choices and diminish their personhood to deny them this right.”)

The conclusion is basically this: To have dignity acknowledged by one’s government is to have the freedom to take part in the institutions considered fundamental to society, to be able to choose for oneself as an equal citizen to commit to marriage. Homosexual Americans have, to date, been denied this dignity at the federal level. That ends now.

In his dissent, Clarence Thomas made what might seem to be the gobsmacking argument that the dignity of homosexuals has been completely unaffected by the denial of their equal right to marry:

Perhaps recognizing that these cases do not actually involve liberty as it has been understood, the majority goes to great lengths to assert that its decision will advance the “dignity” of same-sex couples. Ante, at 3, 13, 26, 28.8 The flaw in that reasoning, of course, is that the Constitution contains no “dignity” Clause, and even if it did, the government would be incapable of bestowing dignity. Human dignity has long been understood in this country to be innate. When the Framers proclaimed in the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal” and “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights,” they referred to a vision of mankind in which all humans are created in the image of God and therefore of inherent worth. That vision is the foundation upon which this Nation was built. The corollary of that principle is that human dignity cannot be taken away by the government. Slaves did not lose their dignity (any more than they lost their humanity) because the government allowed them to be enslaved. Those held in internment camps did not lose their dignity because the government confined them. And those denied governmental benefits certainly do not lose their dignity because the government denies them those benefits. The government cannot bestow dignity, and it cannot take it away. The majority’s musings are thus deeply misguided, but at least those musings can have no effect on the dignity of the persons the majority demeans. Its mischaracterization of the arguments presented by the States and their amici can have no effect on the dignity of those litigants. Its rejection of laws preserving the traditional definition of marriage can have no effect on the dignity of the people who voted for them. Its invalidation of those laws can have no effect on the dignity of the people who continue to adhere to the traditional definition of marriage. And its disdain for the understandings of liberty and dignity upon which this Nation was founded can have no effect on the dignity of Americans who continue to believe in them.

Okay, for just a moment, let’s imagine that the “the majority” did, in fact, reject the notion of innate dignity (even though it did no such thing, at least in the body of the decision). Let’s imagine that dignity is a quality that every human being is born with and dies with, purely because he or she is a human being, and it can neither be bestowed upon us nor deprived from us by any other human being or body of such entities.

In fact, let’s go with an analogy to something that we acknowledge is innate to being a human, at least for the time being: optimal body temperature. The average normal body temperature is 98.6 degrees. This is a fact about human beings which no human can (currently) change.

Now, let’s imagine that the government was in the business of awarding materials for temperature control to its citizenry based on factors like race, gender, and sexual orientation.

  • Winter: Are you white? Here’s some firewood. Are you male? Take this coat. Are you straight? I’ve got kerosene for you!
  • Summer: Hey white, male, straight people, come and get your fans, your sunblock, and some bags of ice! Take the 20 pounder; you’ll need it– it’s supposed to hit 100 tomorrow!

Imagine that the Supreme Court came along and decided that women should get firewood, too. And then it said that interracial couples should also get fans to use when it’s hot. And then, one day, it declared that there is no reason at all why gay and lesbian Americans, possessed of an equal need to maintain their bodies at 98.6 degrees as anyone else of any other race, gender, or sexual orientation, should be likewise afforded a damn coat when it’s snowing outside.

I know, I know, it’s a silly analogy. But it makes my point adequately, which is that even if dignity is something innate to every human being, in order to treat citizens equally under the law as the 14th Amendment requires, the government must, if it is going to afford benefits of temperature control to anyone at all, afford them to minority members of the population whose need for this innate characteristic to be acknowledged by their government does not differ in the slightest from any other member of the citizenry by virtue of their minority status. And such is decidedly, irrefutably, the case if the innate characteristic is dignity instead of optimal body temperature, and the form of acknowledgement is the right to marry rather than to be provided sunblock or kerosene.

For a less silly but very important perspective, see George Takei:

I was only a child when soldiers with bayonetted [sic] rifles marched up our driveway in Los Angeles, banged on our door, and ordered us out. I remember my mothers’ tears as we gathered what little we could carry, and then were sent to live for many weeks in a single cramped horse stall at the Santa Anita racetracks. Our bank accounts were frozen, our businesses shuttered, and our homes with most of our belongings were left behind, all because we happened to look like the people who had bombed Pearl Harbor. Executive Order 9066, signed by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, was issued on the premise that anyone of Japanese descent could not be trusted and was to be treated as an enemy, even those of us who were American citizens, born in this land. We were viewed not as individual people, but as a yellow menace to be dealt with, and harshly. The guns pointed at us at every point reminded us that if we so much as tried to stand up for our dignity, there would be violent consequences. . . For many, it was indeed a great loss of self-worth and respect, a terrible blow to the pride of the many parents who sought only to protect their children from coming to harm. Justice Thomas need have spent just one day with us in the mosquito-infested swamplands in that Arkansas heat, eating the slop served from the kitchen, to understand that it was the government’s very intent to strip us of our dignity and our humanity. Whether it succeeded with all of us is another question: There was a guiding spirit of what we called “gaman”—to endure with fortitude, head held high— helping us get through those terrible years. At the end of it all, each internee was handed a bus ticket and twenty-five dollars, on which we were expected to rebuild our lives. Many never did.

For these purposes, it doesn’t matter whether you say “The government tried to take our dignity” or “The government denied our dignity.”  Takei says both. Thomas was deliberately side-stepping the point by making it all about whether Whitney Houston was right that no matter what you take from me, you can’t take away my dignity. (Because “dignity” in that sense actually means “pride,” and pride really is a self-assessment)

You can take away someone’s freedoms. You can take away their equality. You can take away official recognition that they are people– adults, citizens, agents– with the right to ask the person they love to marry them, or the right to be asked that question. You can deny their dignity by denying them the right to join in that bond, which is mutually acknowledged, by those who think gays have the right to marry and those who do not, to be foundational in our society.

So of course, in the end, what you’re really arguing about is not whether the government can or should give dignity to gays, but whether it should acknowledge that dignity in the way that gays are asking for. In the way the government is perfectly capable of acknowledging.

And in the end it did, Thomas’s attempt at derailment notwithstanding.


Thomas’s was the most important dissent to me because of the discussion of dignity, about which I have a strong interest. Reading the decision itself was impactful to me as a person who has never been married, but who has, simply by accident of birth, always had the right to marry a partner with the expectation that such marriage would be federally recognized and my standing in it considered equal to that of my partner. I think that anyone who has ever considered marriage should read the ruling, regardless of their current status, for a better understanding of what marriage means and why people would want it so badly, and why they would feel like partial citizens in their own country for being denied it.

I meant to write about this article in the post, but found the current carrying me away from it and didn’t manage to work my way back. I might still have things to say about it, but just in case, definitely give it a read anyway.

1 Some internal references removed for clarity. 

Pretending to be

Spotted on Facebook:

Left side: Photo of Caitlyn Jenner on the cover of Vanity Fair magazine. Caption: “Pretending to be a
woman: Must accept and approve of”
Right side: Photo of Rachel Dolezal. Caption: “Pretending to
be black: Unacceptable!! We disapprove”

The people I see most often making the equivocation/slippery slope argument between “acceptance” of transgenderism and “acceptance” of “transethnicity”* depicted in this meme, and mentioned in my previous blog post, seem to inevitably be those who are most definitely not accepting of either one.

They morally disapprove of both transgenderism and “transethnicity,” and think they’ve caught well-meaning liberals in a tolerance trap by claiming that they’re exactly the same thing.

While I’ve seen varied reactions to Rachel Dolezal from trans women and people of color, ranging from anger to scorn to confusion to pity, there has been one thing in agreement: what she did is not exactly the same as what Caitlyn Jenner did, and there is no betrayal of the liberal principle of tolerance in saying so.

*Scare quotes are ugly; I know. I just need to use them here to acknowledge the varied meanings and/or controversiality of the terms surrounded by them. 

We have to make the comparisons…they will anyway

I was all set to write a post on TERFS, right before Caitlyn Jenner came out. I had several paragraphs written, comparing trans-exclusionary radical feminism to regular transphobia, explaining how regular transphobia tends to be rooted in religious belief and social conservatism, whereas TERFism comes more from a second wave feminist idea of a sisterhood with common experiences of patriarchy, which rejects trans women based on their presumed lack of those experiences.

A trans woman, I was going to say, is seen by a TERF as a person who deliberately chose to move from a place of privilege to a place of relative non-privilege (male to female), and resented on that basis. Normal transphobia is much more blunt– women cannot become men, and men cannot become women, because biology is destiny in this regard and God doesn’t want it that way. Normal transphobia is more likely to get trans women and men physically attacked. However, transphobia among feminists aids and abets regular transphobia, and should not be tolerated.

Then Caitlyn Jenner appeared on the cover of Vanity Fair, and suddenly it wasn’t just the bloggers I follow and a few friends on Facebook talking about what it means to be transgender, but everybody. I stopped working on my blog post, because there was so much new conversation going on that I couldn’t keep up with it all. Instead I just kept reading.

Elinor Burkett complained in the New York Times that because Caitlyn Jenner was formerly Bruce and experienced male privilege as Bruce, the female identity she claims now “is not my identity,” and therefore, presumably, any feminism which includes Jenner isn’t her feminism. Ellen Goodman policed Jenner’s new appearance from the pages of the Boston Globe, demanding to know why Caitlyn couldn’t “come out as a 65-year-old woman rather than a 25-year-old starlet.” And Stephanie Zvan wrote a post called Let’s Stop Exercising Our Gender Anxieties on the Backs of Trans People which, while calm-headed and reasonable, appears to have been ignored by the majority of people involved in the TERF wars.

That post made me realize that I didn’t want to take part in those wars.

However, it was followed less than a week later by news that Rachel Dolezal, head of the Spokane chapter of the NAACP, a  37-year-old woman, was born to two white parents but is now passing herself off as black. And on note, the two cases were inevitably compared and the American internet began ruminating on gender anxieties and racial anxieties, at once. The American internet, which has already been anxious about race in the context of institutional racism and police brutality for a very long time. That American internet found this news absolutely fascinating. And largely abhorrent.

Dolezal’s attempted transition from white to black has benefited her personally, which has entailed a lot of what would legitimately be called fraud. Reportedly she posed with an older black man in a photo and claimed he was her father. She apparently claimed to be a mixture of white, black, and American Indian in an application to become chairwoman of Spokane’s Office of Police Ombudsman Commission.

According to the Washington Post her biological father Lawrence Dolezal says that predominantly black Howard University, “‘took her for a black woman’ and gave her a full scholarship,”which might or might not mean that her scholarship was based on the assumption or actual claim that she is black. Dolezal also allegedly reported being the victim of nine hate crimes, the validity of which has been called into question. However, it’s not really clear whether the doubt is that crimes were committed against Dolezal, or whether they constitute hate crimes in light of recent revelations.

The notion of “transethnicity” is not going over well with anyone I know of who is transgender. The analogy is viewed as insulting and dangerous, as illustrated in tweets today from Janet Mock, who is black and trans:

First tweet: “Stop using ‘trans racial’ in regards to Dolezal. There is no such thing unless we’re
discussing trans racial adoptions, adoptees & families.”
Second tweet: “Stop comparing Dolezal’s performance of black womanhood to my & my trans
sisters’ lives. It only further erases/delegitimizes our existence.”
Third tweet: “I’ll always champion intersectionality, but in this case trans folks’ lives should
NOT be part of the Dolezal conversation. It’s dangerous.”
Fourth tweet: “There are dangerous implications when we compare experiences. The only ones
hurt will be those who embody blackness and transness and womanhood.”

Here’s the thing, though– if proponents of trans and black equality don’t openly consider the comparison, their opponents will.

In an inevitable column in The American Conservative called, with a particular lack of taste, ‘Call Me Rosa Parks’, Rod Dreher writes

But look, if Bruce Jenner can put on a dress and call himself a woman, even though he still has all his junk, and we’re all supposed to go along with it on pain of being denounced as bigots, why shouldn’t Dolezal have the right to expect us to do the same with her race fantasy? She has made a chosen blackness the core of her identity. Who are we to deny it?

It’s interesting that Dreher points out that Dolezal has “made a chosen blackness the core of her identity,” when he describes Caitlyn Jenner as Bruce in a dress. If you look at Jenner’s photos from Vanity Fair, she looks like a woman. For that matter, she looks so much like a conventionally attractive cisgender woman as to provoke reactions like Ellen Goodman’s above, calling her a “25 year old starlet.” No person with an understanding of the terms would call Caitlyn Jenner a cross-dresser, a man in drag.

Likewise, Rachel Dolezal does not seem to be in drag. She seems to have made her “transition” shortly after college, and maintained it until this day. Dolezal grew up with adopted black siblings, attended Howard University, and is a part-time professor of the Africana Studies Program at Eastern Washington University. Her father said that ever since getting the scholarship to Howard, “she’s been involved in social justice advocacy for African Americans. She assimilated into that culture so strongly that that’s where she transferred her identity.” I think that, given all of this, it’s difficult to say how much her identity as a black person was “chosen.”

And that right there is a big point of contention– perhaps the biggest. A persistent and damaging myth about transgender people is that they chose to become another gender. As in, a conscious choice, based on preference. It’s easy to see why this suggestion is offensive to a trans person when you consider the amount of risk and suffering that changing your gender can entail, and the amount of prejudice and ignorance that must be confronted from the moment of publicly acknowledging that you’re trans through the rest of your life.

One of the complaints voiced about Caitlyn Jenner was that because of her relative status and means, she could afford to undergo extensive physical changes that make it much easier to “pass” as female, whereas others are not so fortunate. In some cases, trans men and women undergo surgery and hormone therapy that drives them deep into debt. This is not a choice in the sense of waking up one day and deciding that you “find your your feminine side” and so will present as female, much as Mike Huckabee’s people would like to claim.

Dreher then quotes the reader who sent him the news about Dolezal:

Didn’t we just spend the last five years hearing that this is the civil rights issue of our time? That opposing gay and transgender rights is the same as racism? Oh hell. I can’t keep up.

Pictured: People who would, today, be holding signs that
say “Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve”

See, I don’t think anybody has said exactly that opposing gay and transgender rights is the same as racism. Rather, they’re saying it’s like racism, because the two civil rights struggles have a lot in common, as is commonly revealed in arguments against gay marriage that sound, word for word (except for the words “gay” and “interracial,”), like the arguments against legalizing miscegenation back in 1967 when that right was finally won in Loving v. Virginia. You may have even heard someone say that those who oppose gay marriage are on the wrong side of history, just like the people who protested that “race mixing” was against the will of God back then.

And further, it’s just a bit of a stretch to claim that because comparisons exist between these two struggles for civil rights, the racial side of struggling for civil rights includes the right for white people to become black people.

Dreher finishes up by saying:

So, to recap, if Rachel Dolezal says she is a man, we must all agree, on pain of being publicly censured. But if Rachel Dolezal says she is black, it is fair game to challenge her claim. But LGBT status is exactly like race.

And that was the reductio ad absurdum/slippery slope argument that prompted me to tweet this:

Because we know perfectly well that Dreher doesn’t accept that people can be legitimately transgender or transethnic. He’s simply playing fast and loose with analogies by pretending that liberals hold a position that they actually don’t (LGBT status is exactly like race) in order to maintain that they must support X racial thing if they support Y gender thing. Just like so many social conservatives like to pretend that marrying someone of the same sex is so far out of the realm of moral acceptability that it leads inexorably to people marrying their dog….or car, or vacuum cleaner, or whatever. Given that liberals do tend to be supportive of animal rights, Dreher could’ve made that argument with as much validity– which is to say, of course, none.

Intersectionality is the study of interactions between systems of discrimination or oppression. To be intersectional in your activism is to pay attention and be active in more than one kind of struggle for equality. It’s fascinating, in a morbid kind of way, how often opponents of social justice try to portray this as a weakness. As if by simply recognizing that two (or more) different groups of marginalized people have things in common, similar things to fight for, you’re required to think about them and treat them exactly the same. As if those identities and the experiences associated with them must work in exactly the same way.

I don’t honestly know what to think of Rachel Dolezal. I’ve explained in a few different places that I think it’s possible to have at least a little bit of sympathy for her without in the slightest defending the real deception she has committed for personal gain. But I don’t think it was malicious, or that it has all been part of some big long-term con, and I don’t necessarily think “cultural appropriation” is the right term for what she did. But I’ll be damned if I know what is.

Things you should read

The NYPD’s ‘Work Stoppage’ Is Surreal. Matt Taibbi describes the strange twist of New York’s Police Benevolent Association (which becomes a more and more ironic title by the minute) deciding to start making arrests “only when they have to” in order to try and stick it to Mayor Bill de Blasio by depriving the city of needed revenue.

Is this considered abuse? Leelah Alcorn (the chosen name of a transgendered teen formerly called Josh who committed suicide at age 17 on December 30th by stepping in front of a truck) started a Reddit thread asking for help two months ago. Some good advice and comfort was offered, but it obviously wasn’t enough.

On Nerd Entitlement. Laurie Penny’s patient, compassionate, but also poignant and pointed explanation to Scott Aarsonson of what it’s like to be a bookish, awkward, nerdy girl in response to his depiction of being a bookish, awkward, nerdy boy, and how the latter does in fact have privilege in comparison to the former.

Dollree Mapp, 1923-2014: “The Rosa Parks of the Fourth Amendment.” It’s interesting that when we consider the hallmark cases in which the rights outlined in the Constitution were asserted and argued in front of the Supreme Court, it isn’t always an immediate realization that for any violation of rights you can name, members of minority underclasses have experienced it more. That when it comes to civil rights, overt racism (for example) isn’t the only indignity people of color in America have to face. Institutionalized bigotry means that every violation of rights felt by the privileged classes is felt more by the non-privileged. But Dollree Mapp fought hard for her right to be secured in her person, house, papers, and effects– and for all of our right to the same– and should be remembered for this.

So many questions about what Jim Garlow knows

From Right Wing Watch:

Earlier this week, Jim Garlow called in to the “Point Of View” radio program to discuss his participation in the Vatican’s recent summit on marriage. During the course of the conversation, Garlow offered up a rather interesting argument against the acceptance of gay marriage. “All the people who advocate for so-called same-sex marriage ought to have to live in homes in which the plumbers who built them, or the electricians who built them, didn’t understand the difference between the male and female end of piping or plumbing or of electrical as well,” he said, “and see how that home works out for them.” “It doesn’t work,” he concluded.

Does Jim Garlow know…

  • that plumbing and electrical outlets aren’t literally gendered?
  • that while people didn’t invent water or electricity, we invented the means of conveying them– and named those means? In other words, that people precede plumbing rather than being modeled after it?
  • that people are, themselves, neither plumping nor electricity?
  • that it will always sound utterly creepy for homophobes to talk so obsessively about genitalia?
  • that countless same-sex couples have managed to make it “work” quite well, all over the world and throughout time, in our species as well as others?
  • that “Make it work” is in fact the catchphrase of a famous gay man with his own considerably larger and more fabulous congregation?
  • that if corresponding connectors and fasteners had been instead named “America” and “Gay Marriage,” it would be an equally valid analogy?
  • that he has the moral reasoning skills and existential aptitude of a five year old child?

Actually on that last point I should be asking– does this pastor’s congregation know? And if they do know…do they care?


Niall Ferguson

So, just as I’m finishing reading comedian Jen Kirkman’s book I Can Barely Take Care of Myself: Tales From a Happy Life Without Kids, historian Niall Ferguson goes and claims that people who don’t have children don’t care about society or the future. Or at least, he claims that about economist John Maynard Keynes, while suggesting that Keynes was gay:

Speaking at the Tenth Annual Altegris Conference in Carlsbad, Calif., in front of a group of more than 500 financial advisors and investors, Ferguson responded to a question about Keynes’ famous philosophy of self-interest versus the economic philosophy of Edmund Burke, who believed there was a social contract among the living, as well as the dead. Ferguson asked the audience how many children Keynes had. He explained that Keynes had none because he was a homosexual and was married to a ballerina, with whom he likely talked of “poetry” rather than procreated. The audience went quiet at the remark. Some attendees later said they found the remarks offensive. It gets worse. Ferguson, who is the Laurence A. Tisch Professor of History at Harvard University, and author of The Great Degeneration: How Institutions Decay and Economies Die, says it’s only logical that Keynes would take this selfish worldview because he was an “effete” member of society. Apparently, in Ferguson’s world, if you are gay or childless, you cannot care about future generations nor society.

That was on May 2nd. For two days the blogosphere discussed whether Ferguson is a homophobe, and on May 4th he apologized— kind of. He went to great lengths to disavow any possible homophobia, including suggesting that it would be impossible for him to be homophobic since he’d asked Andrew Sullivan to be godfather to one of his sons. The reader is treated to a lecture on how absurd and idiotic it would be to think that Ferguson of all people might harbor any bigotry toward homosexuals, as well as the fact that Keynes himself was not immune to such, being somewhat xenophobic toward Poles and Americans. Which is relevant because…I’ve no clue. The apology ends with a flourish of snark so abrupt it threatens rhetorical whiplash:

Shock, horror: Even the mighty Keynes occasionally said stupid things. Most professors do. And—let’s face it—so do most students. What the self-appointed speech police of the blogosphere forget is that to err occasionally is an integral part of the learning process. And one of the things I learnt from my stupidity last week is that those who seek to demonize error, rather than forgive it, are among the most insidious enemies of academic freedom.

Be warned! All who took offense to Ferguson’s remarks and fail to accept his apology given here are forthwith declared members of the self-appointed speech police of the blogosphere and enemies of academic freedom! Criticism is censorship! Free speech! The ability to speak one’s mind openly is in peril when people object too stridently to illogical and offensive smearing of widely respected economists! Geez, you’d think he was a comedian who made a rape joke.

And one common theme that exists in both Ferguson’s “apology” and the reactions of people who took exception to his remarks is this: the emphasis on homophobia. Being anti-gay is wrong. Nobody should suggest that gay people are selfish, impetuous, nihilistic, or otherwise deficient in character in any way because they are gay, say the detractors. I didn’t mean to suggest that, don’t believe it, and don’t attack me too much for accidentally claiming it or else you’re the speech police, says Ferguson.

Okay…but how about what he suggested about the childless?

Ferguson remarked on the added stupidity to his comments arising from the fact that Keynes’ wife did actually get pregnant but suffered a miscarriage, implying that it’s underhanded to criticize that particular couple for not having children because at least they apparently tried, and it would amount to pouring salt on the wounds of someone who has lost the baby they hoped for to claim that no such hope ever existed. Which, indeed, it would be…although considering that Keynes died in 1946 and his wife Lydia Lopokova in 1981, it’s safe to say that those wounds have long since scabbed over. More fundamental to the point, however, is the fact that Ferguson’s characterization of Keynes as selfish and shortsighted due to not being a parent is equally a catastrophic failure of logic and fairness whether he and his wife had attempted to procreate or not. This is because not only does not having children count as character flaw; neither does not wanting them.

Childless by choice, otherwise known as childfree, is not a bad thing to be. Really.

Jen Kirkman

I frequently make the same joke as Jen Kirkman makes in her book’s title– how could I be a parent, when I can barely take care of myself? But let’s be clear…it’s a joke. Mostly. In addition to being a quasi-memoir and thoroughly enjoyable read, Kirkman’s book tears to shreds a lot of popular misconceptions of what it’s like to not want children, as well as countering arguments– yes, arguments— people make for why you should have children, even though you don’t want to. Especially if you’re, you know, female. People without children don’t understand how precious life is. They won’t have anyone to take care of them when they’re old and infirm. They have no legacy to succeed them. They are doing a disservice to their parents and partners (who, presumably, not only want children/grandchildren themselves, but require them). They are not truly fulfilled and actualized women (not applicable to men, seemingly– they don’t tend to get this one, even from Niall Ferguson).

Along with revealing the extent and nature of homophobia in the United States, the culture war over gay marriage has revealed a lot of other kinds of prejudice and narrow-mindedness that tend to overlap with it. They’re like a Darwinian tree of bigotry, the root of which is basic sexism. From that root sprout a seemingly infinite array of stringent and ingrained beliefs about what men and women should do, say, and in general be, and one of the things they should be is parents. With a person of the opposite sex. Naturally. That is, by a combination of the man’s sperm and the woman’s egg achieved via sexual intercouse within the context of marriage, probably in the missionary position with the lights off. Not artificially, whether by adoption or in vitro, not outside of marriage, not with a partner who has the same type of genitals you do, and absolutely, positively, not not at all!

It’s sort of like atheism, in that a religious person would prefer that you be of the exact same religion that they are (after all, their belief is the Truth with a capital T)…but they can deal if you’re, say, of another denomination. Methodists can get along with Presbyterians when they need to get things done. And hey, when it comes right down to it, if you at least agree on a lot of traditions and have a similar basic history underlying your respective belief systems…okay, Protestants can get along with Catholics. And then, well, you know, in the spirit of ecumenicalism, they can also manage to get along with Jews and maybe even Muslims. And then, hey, I guess if we’re going to try and all be on the same page, in the end what matters is that we all worship God, right? In our own ways, but everyone has a different path up the mountain and what matters is that you get there.

But wait….you don’t even believe in God?
You don’t even want children? 

The brain seems to short-circuit here, as in a conversation Kirkman recounts having had at a wedding with someone she’d just met:

“I know you’re not even married yet,” Lucy lectured, “but at your age, you have to think about making a family while you’re planning the wedding.” Five minutes ago I was too young to know that I was going to change my mind and suddenly I’m too old to waste any time after my wedding to plan on making a family? Which age bracket am I in? Young and stupid or old and barren? And “making a family” is another expression that grosses me out. I pictured Matt standing over me in a lab coat with a turkey baster. Lucy took a big sip of her red win, wiped her lip, and leaned into me. She may have been a little drunk or a little dehydrated or a little both, because she had that dry “wine lip” that looks like someone poured purple paint into the cracks of a sidewalk. She leaned in close and whispered, “What would you do if you accidentally got pregnant?” I didn’t even understand the question. “Oh, I would never cheat on Matt,” I answered. “No, Jen, I mean what if you got pregnant, by accident, with Matt’s baby?” “Are you asking me, someone you barely know, at our friends’ wedding, if I would have an abortion?” “Well,” she said, “it’s something you have to think about if you don’t want kids. I mean, I personally think that abortion is something for teenagers who couldn’t possibly raise a child. But ever since I decided that I wanted to try to become a mother and I see how difficult it can be to get pregnant, I realize that it’s a gift to be pregnant and if a married couple who are both employed accidentally get pregnant, I don’t see how you can give that up.”  A total stranger tried to small-talk me about abortion. I have never had an abortion. I never want to have an abortion. I also don’t want to have a baby. 

And trust me…we’ve thought about it. We’ve heard all about how Jesus wants to be our lord and savior how great parenting can be, how fulfilling, how important, how necessary. And by “necessary,” I mean we’ve heard about how it’s necessary for everyone who is capable of procreating, especially the rational and intelligent ones, to partner up and make some babies already, for the sake of the human race!

But really…we don’t. We have our reasons. And it’s okay.

The most concise explanation of how marriage equality threatens the institution of marriage

…comes from James Sweet, in a comment on Dispatches:

For some people, marriage is still an institution that is defined by proscribed roles. The man has certain rights and responsibilities (mostly the former), and the woman has certain rights and responsibilities (mostly the latter), and these are handed down by God and should not be questioned — and even if you don’t agree with the theological angle, our culture has defined it that way, so you’ll be safe from Jeebus’ fig tree-hatin’ wrath either way.  Same-sex marriage, by not filling the “appropriate” genders, challenges the notion that proscribed gender roles are necessary for a successful marriage. If two men can have an effective relationship, and one of them fulfills the role that was “supposed” to be assigned to the woman (or, GASP, even more sinful, if they work out their own individual division of responsibilities in an equitable and loving way, that doesn’t necessarily conform to 1950s gender stereotypes — oh god I can’t believe I typed that GET THEE BEHIND ME SATAN!) then the next thing you know, women in heterosexual relationships will be wavering on the whole “unquestioned obedience” principle. It’s a slippery slope, you know?  Despite some sarcasm in that last paragraph, I’m not joking at all. Marriage equality poses a direct threat to the patriarchy. So in that sense, the wingnuts are dead-on accurate: If your definition of the institution of marriage inherently requires a patriarchal arrangement, marriage equality is corrosive towards that institution.


Bravo. I have nothing to add to that.

10 ways the opposition to gay marriage insults all of us

What I didn’t mention in the previous post about the purpose of marriage, because I intended to discuss it in this post, is that marriage currently serves– for many people, at least– the purpose of cementing gender roles. The single biggest fear of gay marriage opponents honestly seems to be that if men are allowed to marry men and women are allow to marry women, both men and women will forget the paths in life which they were assigned by God himself, which will bring about the destruction of society itself. No, I’m not exaggerating. Let me give you some examples:

1. “A child has a right to his/her biological father and mother”
Who this insults:

No, my wife and I are not of the same sex; I am a man and she is a woman. But we are infertile. We did not procreate. For the past nine years, we have been the adoptive parents of our daughter; we are legally her mother and father, but not biologically, and since Tuesday have been surprised and saddened to be reminded that for a sizable minority of the American public our lack of biological capacity makes all the difference — and dooms our marriage and our family to second-class status.

  • And single parents, obviously– parents to 25% of America’s children. Children who are not necessarily doing any worse than those raised by two parents at once and in some ways might be doing better? Insulting to them, too.

2. “Young people just favor gay marriage because TV tells them to.” — Really? 
Who this insults: Anybody who is young, pro-gay marriage, and watches TV.

3. “Same-sex marriage would just allow feminists to marry each other and leach off the state. Men would be used for their sperm and money but otherwise unwanted.” — Yes, somebody actually claimed this
Who this insults:

  • Feminists, because supporting the radical notion that women are people does not make you a gold-digger. Or a lesbian.
  • Men, because they have more to offer than cash and sperm. 
  • People legitimately on welfare, because hey, apparently they could just get gay married and all of their problems would be solved!

4. “Gay marriage will lead to people marrying their dogs, goats, cows, etc.”
Who this insults: Anybody who doesn’t think of their spouse as an animal. Well, a non-human animal.

5. “Gay marriage cannot be legalized because homosexual relationships don’t produce children.”
Who this insults: Our intelligence.
Who else this insults:

  • People who know that sexual orientation is an orientation and not a legal mandate or a natural law– gay people have occasionally been known (as in, a significant portion of the time in which the stigma against homosexuality was sufficient to make it illegal) to have straight sex, which has been known to create babies. 
  • Adoptive parents, again. 
  • People who want to get married with no intention of having children, either because of physical inability or because they just don’t want to. The comfortably infertile. The childfree. The elderly. 
6. “Gay marriage will destroy marriage as an institution. Men and women will no longer want to marry each other.”
Who this insults: Straight men and women, who represent the overwhelming majority of people who are sexually and romantically attracted to each other, and always will. 
7. “Gay sex is icky.”
Who this insults: 
  • Straight couples whose sexual repertoire include mundane and commonplace practices such as anal sex (which, let’s be honest, is the only kind people who say this are thinking of).
  • Men specifically. Because certain sexual practices have been designated as off-limits to them, however enjoyable they might be, because of the association with homosexuality. Point of order: If a woman is doing it to you/with you, it’s not gay. 
8. “Marriage equality will lead to ‘sexual anarchy.'”
Who this insults: 
  • People who are aware that being gay is not the same as being polyamorous or a hedonist
  • Actual polyamorists and the hedonists
  • People who are in monogamous relationships and like it that way. 
9. “Legalizing gay marriage leads to the destruction of a nation.”
Who this insults:
Nations which have legalized gay marriage and yet somehow have managed to avoid destruction. Such as Denmark (the first country to recognize same-sex civil unions in 1989, which legalized gay marriage in 2012),  the Netherlands (legalized gay marriage in 2001), Mexico (2009), Portugal (2010), South Africa (2005), and many others. 
10. “Legalizing gay marriage would corrupt the institution of marriage.”
Who this insults:
Anyone who is married. Who wants to be married. Who has ever thought about being married. Because it suggests that their commitment to a (hopefully) lifelong relationship with the person they love could be “corrupted” by the fact that two people of the same sex are able to make the same commitment. 
If you have doubts about whether some of these arguments have actually been made, please see this list. Tom Junod, who wrote about how the supposed right to a biological father and mother is an affront to his relationship with his adopted daughter, says:

I was not the only one to reject out of hand the logical fallacy of what might be called the “zero sum” defense of traditional marriage, and before long I started hearing an argument based on biology or, as groups such as the National Organization for Marriage would have it, “nature.” For all its philosophical window dressing — for all its invocation of natural law, teleological destiny, and the “complementary” nature of man and woman — this argument ultimately rested on a schoolyard-level obsession with private parts, and with what did, or did not, “fit.” There was “natural marriage” and “unnatural” marriage, and it was easy to tell the difference between them by how many children they produced.

Fundamentally, the greatest fear of gay marriage opponents is something we all should be concerned about. It’s the fear of their losing the ability to tell men how to be men and women how to be women, which is what “rigid gender roles” means. Gay marriage opponents have planted a flag in the notion that men and women are not just different, but different in ways that make it a crime against nature and morality for there to be two husbands without a wife, or two wives without a husband….which says some very restrictive and unfortunate things about what they believe it means to be a wife or a husband. A man or a woman. Things we all should reject, if we don’t enjoy being told what to be.

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