The endless debate on gay union

February 20, 1996|By Peter M. Nardi

ONE OF THE most contested cultural debates since that of gays in the military is whether states should recognize same-sex marriages. The impetus is that Hawaii may become the first state to legalize same-sex unions.

Several states are considering legislation that would limit the customary reciprocity of recognizing marriages that took place in other states. The California Assembly has passed and sent to the state Senate a bill to deny recognition of same-sex marriages. But several cities, including San Francisco, New York and Madison, Wisconsin, have instituted civil-commitment ceremonies in their city halls for same-sex couples.

The debate is hardly new. The primary arguments center on whether the institution of marriage can survive this so-called threat and whether a union of this nature legitimizes homosexuality to a social acceptability it does not deserve.

Probably unconstitutional

At an American Bar Association meeting in 1970, an American representative to the U.N. Human Rights Commission, Rita Hauser, said laws banning same-sex marriages were probably unconstitutional.

More than 40 years ago, gay Americans were debating same-sex marriage. In the August 1953 issue of One magazine -- a publication that grew out of the original Mattachine Society in Los Angeles and became one of the United States' most important gay publications -- an article asked whether copying heterosexual marriage would mean introducing into gay relationships the limitations that such marriage imposed.

When the article appeared, there were laws forbidding interracial marriage; wives were viewed not as equal partners but subordinates; many cultures continued to arrange marriages for economic purposes, and procreation was the publicly spoken reason for condoning heterosexual sex. Could homosexuals follow these same limitations? Could they get married if they couldn't procreate, they asked?

Possessing another

Another warning appeared in the April 1959 issue of One: Marriage was a legal sanction for possessing another person, similar to property rights. Is this what we gay people really want?

In a 1963 One article, several of the key points raised today were put on the table. Some argued that gay marriage would be a ''much, much superior'' way of life than the unfulfilling single life faced by homosexuals in pre-gay-liberation American society. Others felt that we shouldn't be copying heterosexual life and that homosexual unions would be viewed by heterosexuals as making a mockery of the institution which would, in turn, set back acceptance of homosexual people.

Whether gays and lesbians should assimilate and adopt the heterosexual ways of living or whether they should transform the oppressive institutions are still contested issues in the gay community.

In perhaps the most famous case on the topic, the Australian same-sex spouse of a California man was denied a visa in 1975 after the U.S. Department of Justice failed to recognize the couple's ''marriage'' that had been held in Boulder, Colorado. The Los Angeles district office stated that ''You have failed to establish that a bona fide marital relationship can exist between two faggots [sic].''

After a storm of protest, it was rewritten: ''A marriage between two males is invalid for immigration purposes and cannot be considered a bona fide marital relationship since neither party to the marriage can perform the female functions in marriage.'' Whether a similar statement would have been issued to couples in which the female could not or chose not to have children is unclear. Perhaps ''the female function'' meant subordination to the husband.

The statements from the debate in the 1950s and 1960s are the same heated arguments being heard today. Perhaps it's time to go beyond these points and approach the topic with reasoned discussions about equality and dignity -- values that should guide all forms of committed relationships.

Peter M. Nardi is a professor of sociology at Pitzer College and co-author of ''Growing Up Before Stonewall: Life Stories of Some Gay Men.'' He wrote this commentary for the Los Angeles Times.

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