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We are not just talking terminology here between calling something marriage and calling it a civil union. Actual, concrete rights are being denied, including things like health benefits, insurance, taxes and housing rights. As of August 2006, amendments adopted by 12 states (Arkansas, Georgia, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Texas and Utah) ban state or local governments from creating civil unions or partnership benefits similar to marriage. Not only can gays not marry, they can't get the benefits married straight people do no matter what you label it.
The recent rulings seem to be based almost solely on the fact that heterosexual marriage is for procreation, and since gay couples can't procreate, they have no need to marry. Of course, this completely ignores the fact that a lot of straight people marry not just to have kids -- they do it to make a lifetime partnership commitment, they do it for religious reasons, they do it to save on taxes and payments and get insurance and health benefits that are based on married status, and for many other reasons.
If marriage was only allowed for reproduction, then heterosexual couples who don't plan to have kids, who are sterile, who are too old for children, or celibate or whatever -- these people should not be allowed to marry. But the rulings uphold their right as heterosexuals to marry even though marriage is allegedly for procreation only. Heterosexuals get this exception as a benefit of the doubt; but no such luck for people who love someone of the same sex and want to dedicate themselves to that person for the rest of their lives. Gay couples who adopt children don't even get the exception that childless heterosexual couples do, despite them actually needing the official benefits of marriage for the same reasons that heterosexual couples supposedly do: to better be able to raise and support their child.
We're talking here about idiotic denial of basic civil rights because of backwards, outmoded belief systems or general 'ickiness' feelings surrounding homosexuality. Two men kissing, two women having sex, a gay couple of 25 years wanting to make their life commitment official -- these things don't hurt anyone. Love is love, and it is just as genuine and real and amazing when it's between two people of the same sex as any other time. How anyone could think that love is harmful to the state's interests boggles my mind.
When we start letting government dictate who is or is not allowed to marry based on absurd reasoning like that found in recent government decisions, we risk allowing the government to dictate further restrictions. Soon Deaf people won't be allowed to marry -- after all, they are more likely to have hearing-impaired offspring, and since many people see deafness as a disability or negative medical condition, they won't allow couples to irresponsibly bring disabled children into this world. Maybe couples will have to go through genetic testing and if both parents have a recessive gene for some 'negative' trait, they won't be allowed to marry: eugenics at its finest.
Let's face it, marriage is a symbol. As a symbol, it represents a strong, lifelong commitment. People confuse the symbol for the thing itself: they think the ceremony or title of marriage is what is important when it is the underlying thing itself that is crucial, the love and commitment between people. That is what existed first in human history, before the institution of marriage was ever invented. The symbol is not the thing. When we recognize this distinction, I think it becomes clear that, if anything, we should be trying to protect what is at the core of marriage -- the relationship between people -- rather than reifying the symbol into its own thing and defining it based around superficial factors (like the gender of the participants). And marriage certainly does not *require* children, else celibate priests and post-menopausal women would not be allowed to marry. We obviously as a society see the core of marriage as something other than just procreation.
Of course, it is not just marriage that some people want restricted to the purpose of having children, but sex too. Only for procreation, they say. Generally only the more fundamentalist religious believers assert this, but it's probably still unconsciously underlying the perspective of more liberal believers (i.e. the familiar 'Catholic guilt' or feeling that masturbation or sex for fun displeases God, etc.), and I think maybe it subtly finds its way into the minds of non-religious as well. The evolutionary function of sex is to have kids, and if it's enjoyable, that's because we evolved pleasure-oriented nerves in order to encourage us to have sex more often in order to pass on our genes more successfully.
But come on, we are not bacteria, programmed just to pass on our genes. Yes, that's part of the equation; we're still biological creatures with DNA programming that affects us. But we've also grown beyond that simplistic programming -- the fixed action patterns of really basic life -- in exchange for a much more rich and varied behavioral repertoire. We have evolved complicated brains full of deep, tangled-hierarchical, self-referencing feedback and self-representation that we can control our own actions, think about what we want to do and make choices. We can choose when and how to have sex, and furthermore why. We are not even constrained to simple estrus cycles like many other primates -- we can and do have sex when we feel like it. And birth-control technology has allowed us even further control over the consequences of our sexual behavior.
We've loosened the biological tie between sex and reproduction, and I think that's a good thing. It's not that reproduction is any less important or beautiful, but we now understand that sex is more than just a means to that one end.
I think sex is an integral part of the human experience. It is a form of play, a ludic romp, sometimes silly or messy but always fun. It is a method of deep communication between two people, understanding another person's desires and feelings on a profound level without having to speak a word. Sex is a way of expressing your affection physically; it's like a whole-body kiss. Touch is a crucial need for humans, and in sex your entire body is in tactile contact with another. It is an intimate bonding experience; you open yourself up, make yourself vulnerable, but eventually you transcend self-consciousness and psychological hang-ups and end up closer than before. Physiologically - neurochemically -- it bonds a pair together, as well. Sex is so many things, and few of them are by necessity attached to reproduction.
Reproduction is just one element of a multi-faceted behavior that is so much more than that. And it is sad that so many people still see sex on such one-dimensional terms. And it is sad that people would restrict sex and marriage -- and the legal rights that come with marriage -- on such arbitrary and inconsistent terms as well.