A lot of people have been talking about conservative New York Times columnist David Brooks’s piece on marriage equality earlier this month. The argument he makes is pretty much as old as, well, making arguments.
In fact, Plato made Brooks’s same argument in The Republic: Namely, that one should lead a life where his desires and unbridled freedoms are ordered around something higher. Plato was critiquing the “democratic man,” who is unordered, takes advantage of his freedoms, and gives in to every desire like a shopper at a bazaar.
In his column, Brooks (clunkily) drops the fight for marriage equality into that equation, heralding the now-complete arrival and acceptance of gays into civil and civilized society. Brooks says that gays have grown up enough to “surrender” our freedoms for something bigger, better, and nobler. He writes:
“Whether they understood it or not, the gays and lesbians [have] committed themselves to a certain agenda. They committed themselves to an institution that involves surrendering autonomy. They committed themselves to the idea that these self-restrictions should be reinforced by the state. They committed themselves to the idea that lifestyle choices are not just private affairs but work better when they are embedded in law.”
Whew. I’m so thankful someone figured that out for us — and a conservative, no less. Too bad he’s wrong.
First off, his attempt to use the fight for marriage equality as the vehicle for his argument is a typical example of someone who just doesn’t get it. How can you tell? Once he drops the “lifestyle” bomb, he’s done. By using “lifestyle,” he betrays that he just doesn’t grasp that gays and lesbians aren’t defined by the things we do but who we are.
To be sure, even within our own community there are debates about sexuality, identity, whether there really even is an “us.” But that’s not even the point either, because this is simply about who we are in the eyes of the law and seeking equal treatment by our government. It’s not about giving up freedoms or gaining admission to a white-picket-fenced hetero world; it’s simply about getting “equal justice under law.”
In fact, I’d suggest that marriage equality has nothing to do with “freedom” at all (despite the names of organizations like Freedom to Marry). Federal and state recognition do not limit our freedom. They just give us something (benefits, recognition, access to things, etc.) that laws based on bigotry, religion, or both have denied us.
Indeed, we’ve been pretty good at being more “free” than most heteros, defining our own relationship rules, family structures, and child-rearing strategies. That doesn’t need to change with a civil marriage license, unless one wants it to.
Which gets to the second way Brooks misses the point: We will make our marriages however we want them to be, thank you very much. They certainly don't have to fit Brooks’s or anyone else’s hetero-patriarchal “definition” of how marriage “should” order one’s citizen-soul under the aegis of nobly restricting some Judeo-Christian definition of licentiousness.