Friday, August 15, 2008

Same-sex Marriage

A same-sex marriage is a legally recognized union between two people of the same gender, i.e. two homosexuals. Same-sex marriages have only of late become legal in several European countries and in a few states in the United States. However, such unions may have existed in some parts of the ancient world, including in India. The Kama Sutra (II, 9, 36) says; ‘There are citizens who love each other and with great faith in each other, who take each other as a husband.’ The word for husband here is parigraha and the Pali equivalent is patigaha. In his commentary on his verse Yasodhara says; ‘Citizens so inclined, reject women, willingly do without them and get married, bound by a deep and trusting friendship.’ It is not clear if these marriages, if this is the right word for such unions, were performed by Buddhist monks or Hindu priests or were recognized by the state, probably not.
What would be the Buddhist attitude to such marriages? Buddhism sees marriage as a secular institution (see yesterday’s posting), an arrangement between two people, and thus Buddhist monks or nuns do not perform marriages, although they are often called upon to bless the couple either just before or just after the marriage. Monks also often give short sermons and chant a few suttas during the opening of new businesses, at birthdays, funerals and at the bedside of the sick or the dying. If two men or two women were genuinely committed to each other and wanted a monk or nun to bless their union and wish them well in their life together, it is not difficult to imagine that he or she would be happy to do this for them.
I often think how lucky I am being a Buddhist. One of the many advantages of this apart from peace of mind, contentment, happiness, a realistic world-view, rational moral principles to live by, inspiration from the Buddha and having good Dhamma friends, is that when a contentious issue arises I can always adhere to the ‘middle way’ and not endorse any one side in an argument. Take same-sex marriage for example. I happen to think both sides of this issue, at least as it is playing itself out in America, have got it wrong. For goodness sake! What is the big deal if two men or two women wish to marry each other? God may disapprove but he disapproves of many thing that are legally acceptable and nowadays commonplace. According to Leviticus ‘prawns are an abomination’ but no one wants to ban seafood platters. I Corinthians 11,14 says that long hair on males is a ‘disgrace’ and unnatural but no one boycotts Steven Segal movies (although I can think of many other good reasons for doing so). More relevant to the issue at hand, divorce is absolutely forbidden in the New Testament unless one partner commits adultery. Despite this, Christian social activists are conspicuously silent about America’s very liberal divorce laws. Surely if anything is ‘against the family’ it would have to be the ease with which one can get divorced, and yet I know of no Christian groups in the US crusading to have it made more difficult. Could it be that in opposing homosexuality they only alienate approximately 10% of the population, whereas if they opposed easy divorce they would rattle just about everyone? Not necessarily relevant to the gay marriage issue but certainly worth pointing out anyway, is the interesting fact that most churches in the southern US considered inter-racial marriage to be ‘unnatural’ and ‘immoral’ until the early 1960’s and supported the laws that made it illegal. South Africa’s Dutch Reformed Church took a similar stand until just recently. If you were white male and you wanted to marry a black woman you had to leave the so-called ‘Bible Belt’ or South Africa. If you were black male and wanted to marry a white woman you were risking your life. In short, the churches’ ‘moral compass’ is not a very reliable one. The decision as to whether or not homosexuals should be granted the right to marry should be based on common sense reasons and the principle of equality. And on this basis I can see no good reason why same-sex marriages should not be allowed.
On the other hand, being just a simple monk I cannot understand why homosexuals would want to get married. For goodness sake! What’s the big deal if two men or two women walk down an aisle and then get a certificate with both their names’ on it? How does that make their commitment to each other more binding? Why pressure churches to do something they clearly don’t want to do, something which goes against scripture and 2000 years of Christian tradition? Creative hermeneutics may bypass what the Bible says about homosexuality, willfulness may ignore it, wishful thinking may reinterpret it - but none of this changes what it says. And as for the churches that will perform same-sex marriages – who would want to be a member of an organization that so casually compromises its long-held, scripturally sound teachings just to be popular? Of course, not all homosexuals who want to marry are religious. But it seems to me, and of course I’m just a simple monk, that such people are motivated by a rather childish ‘they’ve got one so we want one too’ attitude. What’s wrong with a legally binding and recognized civil union which gives the couple all the rights, privileges and obligations of heterosexual couples? Homosexuals who wish to have legally recognized marriages should also consider that in doing so they will presumably becomes libel to all the problems that arise when conventional marriages break down (and in America, UK, Australia, etc. about 1 in 3 do) – bitter divorce proceedings, mutual recriminations, quarrels over property and so on.
So when people ask me what my position on same-sex marriage is (no one has asked me yet, but I’m ready when they do) I say ‘I do not adhere to one side or the other’ (Naham ettha ekamsavado, M.II,197).


Ken and Visakha said...

In the US the campaign for legal marriages between people of the same sex is in response to the move by conservatives to deprive homosexual couples of all the rights that couples can enjoy under the law, including owning property jointly, raising children, next-of-kin medical decisions, survivors' benefits and much more. Don't underestimate the "dog in the manger" meanness of rank conservatives. If they could, they would take away all rights but their own.

All the problems that a divorce might bring can be eliminated by depriving the couple of their civil rights (or one party, e.g. the woman in Saudi society who can't even claim her small children.)

namkhim said...

Actually, Civil Unions (as they are practiced in the USA) do not carry the same rights as marriage. Hence the fight for same-sex marriage.

For example, the partner in a Civil Union are not entitled to state benefits the way a married spouse is. And there are finer legalities when it comes to things like inheritance.

I think it is not so much "childish ‘they’ve got one so we want one too’ attitude." then a yearning for equal acceptance.

Personally I am not sure that a conventional marriage for gay people is necessarily better, or that civil unions are inadequate (I would be plenty satisfied if civil union is even possible in Singapore). However, I do recognize that for a society to legalize gay-marriage speaks plenty about the acceptance of gay people.

It does not mean that discrimination will disappear, but to the gay people, it is a big signal that they are given a place in the society.

So I think the fight for same-sex marriage is not just the fight for the marriage itself. It's significance is really about the social acceptance being it.

leejean said...

I'm gay. I would like to get legally married to a man I love who love me in return.

Yes, I know, if we love each other, we do not need a piece of paper to say that we're committed to grow together. However, that piece of paper would ensure that he can make many decisions on my behalf, and I him. Things like hospital visit, inheritance, adopting children or having surrogate children.

It'd also make me think twice about straying, and hopefully likewise for him, because of the potential ramifications that come with a divorce.

I think it's perfectly natural to want religious blessing for such a major undertaking as marriage.

And of course the marriage ceremony must take place before an audience of family and friends. It has been said that many gay couples do not last long because they do not have a network of community support/sanction against straying, etc.

I really don't think anyone get married with divorce in mind. All couples start with the hope that they'd live happily ever after. Having said that, I suppose it's only sensible to sign a prenup.

namkhim said...

Having thought about it further, I would like to suggest a few more reasons why same-sex marriage could be good for the gay people and that the desire to be allowed to do it is more than a childish pursuit, as you say.

First, if it were allowed it would help bring about a higher level of acceptance towards homosexuals in society. I think that would certainly help in terms of improving the overall well-being of the gay people, mentally and emotionally. Gay people struggle with issues of self-esteem and internalized self-hate due to their alienation by the mainstream society.

Secondly, marriage creates a social and legal support that helps to maintain healthy relationships. Among the gay community in Singapore at least, it is commonly believed that gay relationships are difficult to sustain. Gay relationships lack a social support framework which the straight couple gets when they marry. Besides more social support, gay marriage would also create visible and positive role models from which other gay couples could learn. Of course, the marriage institution is not perfect. But I suspect that without it, relationships, even among the straight people, would be a lot harder to sustain.

Suzanne said...

Hello Venerable Dhammika,
I am enjoying your blog from Sweden.

NamKhim, I think you've made some very good points in your comment.

On a lighter note, I like the comedian Wanda Sykes' comment on gay marriage. "If you you don't believe in gay marriage, don't marry someone of the same sex!"