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PDY Blog for 11-29-04

‘Better to Marry than to Burn’
‘Behold how good and sweet it is where brothers dwell as one.’

    My initial reaction was that gay marriage had been the Ralph Nader of the 2004 election.

    I felt the promising young mayor of San Francisco and others in Massachusetts and Oregon and New York had been irresponsible, even suicidal, by pushing the issue at such a volatile time as this. It was, as more than one talking head observed, too much too soon.

    Although I’ve rarely had a relationship last more than a few hours or days, I have been openly gay and an activist for the cause for more than 30 years. So, this was even more intensely confusing an issue for me than it may have been for your average voter. Having been born in 1941, a part of me was delighted to even witness such a public discussion. Mine was the time of the love that dare not speak its name. It was a time when the only mention of homosexuals in news reports was when we got arrested for lewd and lascivious behavior. Or, more tragically, when people were acquitted of murder after testifying that they beat some gay man to death because he had made “improper advances” toward them. The whole idea that there would ever be a public discussion of gay rights much less legitimizing gay relationships was something I never dreamed of seeing in my lifetime.

    But when I woke up in a mournful haze the morning after the election of 2004, I had to ask myself: Was this issue really worth the horrors we face with four more years of George Bush? I had to answer: no way. Apparently going through a similar state of mourning, Sen. Dianne Feinstein said: “I believe it did energize a very conservative vote. I think it gave them a position to rally around…so I think that whole issue is too much, too fast, too soon. And people aren’t ready for it.”

    To his credit, the mayor of San Francisco, Gavin Newsom, refused to back down in the face of the election results. He said: “If you think something is right, you have a moral obligation to act.” Kate Kendell, executive director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights, took it a step further: “Shame on Senator Feinstein and other Democratic leaders for latching to the most facile and shallow of explanations for the results. What Mayor Newsom did really accelerated the conversation and the movement, and I will never accept an analysis that says a leader who stands for equality and fairness and who has the courage of his convictions is doing the wrong thing.”

    The issue of banning gay marriage was on the ballot in 11 states. Voters in every one of those states voted overwhelmingly against gay marriage and for laws that defined “marriage” as between a man and a woman only. In Mississippi, the vote was 86 to 14 per cent; in Ohio, 62 to 38 per cent; in Oklahoma, 76 to 24 per cent. The statistics appeared to confirm that gay marriage had been the issue that brought out millions of new fundamentalist voters and gave the election to Bush.

    But statistics can lie. More to the point, the simplistic reports of the vote counts may have hidden other statistics that offer real hope for a more enlightened time in our country for homosexuals. In an article published in the November 5, 2004, New York Times, Andrew Kohut, president of the Pew Research Center, warned against placing too much emphasis on “values voters.”

    “After reading the newspapers this morning, we’re getting a little carried away with the cultural and religious interpretation of this election,” Kohut said. He pointed out that the percentage of voters in 2004 who said they went to church every week and opposed abortion was the same as it was in 2000. In spite of the massive vote against legalizing gay marriage, Kohut said exit polls showed a surprising 60 per cent of all voters favored legal recognition of same-sex couples—25 per cent favored gay marriages outright, 35 per cent favored civil unions. Only 37 per cent felt that gay couples deserved no form of legal recognition. [Incredibly, what brought out the majority of voters was the use of that word, “marriage,” not the idea of legalized domestic partnerships.]

    Those are amazing statistics. We still do not have the ancient sodomy laws—laws truly “against nature”-- removed from the statute books in many states, including North Carolina, but 60 per cent of the people now favor legal recognition of gay unions. The looney part of this whole controversy is that for generations right wing religious leaders have preached against homosexuals for their unstable relationships and sexual promiscuity. Now, when we make efforts to legitimize stable relationships, they come down on our heads for God only knows what reasons of their own. I have often been critical of my fellow homosexuals for yearning to ape the bourgeoisie through such rituals as marriage. But, the truth is: we ARE the bourgeoisie. The same religious upbringing that caused the fundamentalists to react so violently to the idea of same sex unions is precisely what caused so many homosexuals to feel they have every right to have their lifetime commitments to each other blessed by God and recognized by law.

     It took one of their own to point up the hypocrisy in the conservative position on gay marriage. David Brooks wrote the following in his column published Nov. 22 in The New York Times: “Some conservatives may have latched onto biological determinism (men are savages who need women to tame them) as a convenient way to oppose gay marriage. But in fact we are not animals whose lives are bounded by our flesh and by our gender. We’re moral creatures with souls, endowed with the ability to make covenants, such as the one Ruth made with Naomi: ‘Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried.’

    “The conservative course is not to banish gay people from making such commitments. It is to expect that they make such commitments. We shouldn’t just allow gay marriage. We should insist on gay marriage. We should regard it as scandalous that two people could claim to love each other and not want to sanctify their love with marriage and fidelity.”

    It would also appear that Chris Matthews and all other commentators may well have been wrong to declare that gay marriage was the deciding issue that brought more people to the polls for Bush than for John Kerry. Anti-gay marriage amendments were on the ballot in only three swing states. Kerry won Michigan and Oregon, Bush carried only Ohio. In fact, Bush’s majority in Ohio was less than it was in 2000. Also, in Ohio, there were nearly 1 million more voters in this election. Kerry got 540,000 more votes than Gore did in 2000; Bush had 500,000 more voters, 40,000 fewer than Kerry did. The other eight states that voted overwhelmingly to ban gay marriages—Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, Montana, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Utah—would have voted for Bush any way.

    The fundamentalists’ focus on what they termed a threat to American family values also brought out some embarrassing statistics on the instability of their own sacred rites of matrimony. According to the National Center for Health Statistics, more than 50 per cent of all first marriages in America end up in divorce. Furthermore the figures show that divorce rates are far higher in states that voted to ban gay marriage than they are in Massachusetts where the state supreme court has upheld same-sex marriages. In December of 2003, Arkansas reported 2,922 marriages and 1,968 divorces; Michigan reported 2,959 marriages and 2,597 divorces. Massachusetts, meanwhile, reported 3,349 marriages and only 917 divorces.

    This also brings us to the question of the origins of the institution of marriage in our society and how in the world the religious ceremony ever got tangled up in the civil laws of our secular government. The truth is our rebellion from Mother England was not nearly as far-reaching as it might seem on the surface. After the dust had settled from our Revolutionary War, the states continued almost verbatim with the letter of the laws the colonies had carried on from the common law of Great Britain. And much of the common law had derived from the canon law of the Roman Catholic Church.

    In a detailed article on marriage in the distinguished 11th edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, the author explains that the canon law came partly from the Roman Law and partly from the Jewish law “as modified by the new principles introduced by Christ and his apostles, developed by the fathers of the Church and medieval schoolmen, and regulated and defined by popes and councils.” While the Old Testament sanctioned any number of wives, {Samuel had 200], the Christ of the New Testament had the radical new idea that marriage between a man and a woman was indissoluble. Mark 10:9: “What therefore God hath joined together, let no man put asunder.”

    And then we come to a stunning observation by the Britannica author: “This lofty view of marriage, according to which man and wife are made ‘one flesh’ by the act of God…was, however, modified by the idea of the consummating act of marriage as in itself something unholy, a result of the Fall.” Christ himself never preached this, however, “for St. Paul marriage is clearly a concession to the weakness of the flesh… ‘it is better to marry than to burn.’”

    In I Corinthians 7:1-1, Paul wrote: “Now concerning the things whereof ye wrote unto me: it is good for a man not to touch a woman. Nevertheless, to avoid fornication, let every man have his own wife and let every woman have her own husband.” This will surely come as no surprise to half the heterosexual married couples I know, who constantly complain about the lack of sex in their lives, but it was a revelation to me: the Christian marriage was rooted in the idea that fornication was evil and marriage was the surest way to avoid fornication.

    The early Christians held to the ideal of celibacy because they saw no importance in procreation. They felt the return of the Messiah was imminent and theirs would be the last generation on earth. Even though St. Paul’s own writings are full of contradictions on the subject, the mystical sacrament of marriage can be traced directly to his teachings—at least, some of them. As the Britannica author observed: “These are the main foundations in Scripture on which the Christian law of marriage is built up, and they are obviously principles which admit of a large amount of variety of interpretation and practice.”

    Yes, dear brothers and sisters, even unto the marriage of a man and a man and a woman and a woman. Considering the original intent of the early Christians, this would seem to be the most Christian of all unions.

    Until 1897, there was a ritual in the Eastern Orthodox Church in which two men were formally united in friendship or brotherhood in much the same manner that a man and a woman were united in marriage. I learned about this when I was writing God’s Bullies and involved (yes, sexually) with a priest in an Eastern rite in communion with the Roman Catholic Church. In fact, my friend was a tremendous help in researching the many confusing theological arguments discussed in that book. He had come across this early equivalent of same-sex marriage in a book by Paul Florenskij, a Russian Orthodox priest who died in a prison camp in 1943. Floresnkij writes that the earliest printed version of the “rite of becoming brothers” was 1647, but he suggests that it must have existed long before that. He offered no explanation as to why the rite was suddenly removed in 1897.

    The ritual is included in the chapter on friendship in Florenskij’s book, La Colonna e il fondamento della verita, published by Rusconi Editore, 1974, Milan. The following is my own paraphrase of my friend’s literal translation from the Italian. You are welcome to try this at home or in your own church or synagogue.

    --The two who are to become brothers come into the church and stand before a lectern on which a Gospel Book and cross have been placed. The older man stands to the right, the younger to the left.

     --Prayers are offered, asking for the union of these two in love, recalling the examples of male friendship in the church—David and Jonathan, Jesus and John, Peter and Paul, Samson and Diomede.

    --The two are then bound with one belt, put their hands on the Gospel and given a lighted candle.

    --The epistle is read: 1 Corinthians 12:27. And then the Gospel is read: John 17: 18-26. This is followed by other prayers and supplications. The Our Father is recited. Then the two receive the Holy Eucharist.

    --After this, the two brothers are led in procession around the lectern as a married couple was in many Christian churches, also, as a priest was in his ordination rites. The “troparian” hymn is sung during this part of the service: “Lord, look down from heaven and see and visit your vineyard and confirm that which your right has planted.”

    --The two men then kiss.

    --The service closes with the singing of Psalm 132 (133 in the King James Version of the Bible): “Behold how good and sweet it is where brothers dwell as one.” (In the King James Version, it is translated: “Behold, how good and pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity.”)

    --Sometimes, the two also exchanged baptismal crosses. Florenskij suggests this was not written into the actual ritual because the two had probably done this before the service began. The exchange of crosses together with the reception of the Eucharist constitutes the ideal moment of the rite—the first signifying that the two intend to carry the cross for each other and the second to remind each of the brothers that he must renounce himself and be faithful to his friend.