Gay Marriage and Proposition 8, Part 1

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by James Goldberg

Two straight men holding hands indicating its ok to be gay! Its ok to show natural affection!Next month, the Supreme Court will hear oral arguments about the constitutionality of California’s Proposition 8. Today was the deadline for outside groups to file briefs with the court offering their perspective on the case.

To mark the day, I’ve been asked by the editors of Real Intent to revise and expand a series of posts I wrote in March 2012 about same-sex couples, marriage, and Proposition 8. I am neither a lawyer nor a sociologist, but do my best to give some depth to an issue that deserves more detailed consideration from all parties than it typically gets. I hope you’ll join us for the ride and get some new perspectives in the process as the six-part series unfolds throughout the day.

Part One: Let Me Take a Step Back

My grandpa, Gurcharan Singh Gill, taught college math for decades. We used to joke that you should only ask him for homework help, though, if you were ready to get the history of mathematics clear back to Pythagoras on your way to an answer.

Like grandpa, I suppose, like grandson. Before I get to California in 2008, I’m going to wander through the Bible, Shakespeare, ancient Greece, and the Disco Era to show that our current way of thinking about same-sex relationships — sexual or not — is hardly the only way to think about them.

Let’s start in the Bible. Sociologist Rodney Stark describes ancient Jewish culture as radically “pro-natal,” which is a scientific way of saying “baby crazy.” This is hardly a shocking revelation for anyone who knows the Bible well: the book is obsessed with intergenerational relationships. Examples: God’s promise to Abraham isn’t a harp in heaven, it’s descendants like stars in the sky or grains of sand in the sea. The Israelites aren’t even out of Egypt yet when the Lord tells them how to teach their children about the Exodus. A prophet says the hearts of the children will turn to their fathers, and the hearts of the fathers to the children — or the whole earth is cursed. Etc.

Given beliefs that put such emphasis on children and future generations, it’s no surprise that Jewish thought was for sexual bonding in the context of male-female marriages and against any other kind of sexual activity or relationship.

But if we were to take a time machine back, most modern Americans would probably think the majority of Biblical-era men they’d see were totally gay. Read the Bible: men don’t just give awkward half-hugs, the phrasing is often more like “fell on his neck” to describe an embrace. They don’t give quick Latin-style air kisses to each other—in 2 Sam 20:9, it seems to be standard practice when Joab takes Amasa’s face in his hand before a kiss. And men in the Bible are not afraid of deep same-sex emotional attachments: it’s beautiful to them when “the soul of Jonathan was knit with the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul.”

And it’s not just the Bible. From a historical perspective, current American expectations about the limits of appropriate levels and expressions of affection between men are extremely rigid. Most cultures have valued close, deep emotional bonds between men far more than Americans do today.

Take Shakespeare’s plays as a second example. In the climax of Two Gentleman of Verona, Valentine offers his girlfriend to his best friend as a token of reconciliation in their friendship. That’s pretty offensive to modern audiences (especially given the circumstances!), but was probably moving to many men in Shakespeare’s time — who took their own closest friendships more seriously than their marriages. In Twelfth Night, the pirate captain Antonio takes huge risks for Sebastian because of an admiration or affection which sounds downright passionate in its intensity — and no other characters seem to think this is particularly strange or queer. For them, seeing one man deeply drawn to another probably seemed perfectly normal and did not raise questions about sexual identity or corresponding minority status.

I put sexual identity in italics there because the idea that an individual’s attractions defined his/her identity or belonging to a group is fairly recent in Western cultures. Ancient Greek culture did not distinguish between gay and straight people the way we do today, and Plato seems to have felt that a love between men which combined intellectual engagement and sexual energy was far superior to the merely procreative sexual relationships that took place between men and women. According to Plutarch, the generals of the Greek city-state Thebes successfully channeled the power of sexual bonds into military might by forming a unit known as the Sacred Band made up entirely of male couples. Soldiers might desert their comrades, the generals’ reasoning went, but would fight to the death for their lovers. And it seems to have worked: no one defeated the Sacred Band until they all fought to what the Greeks considered deeply noble deaths in a desperate last stand against Philip of Macedon.

Alexander the Great

Philip’s son Alexander had a famously close relationship with his friend and comrade Hephaestion. Though each later married a daughter of the deposed Persian emperor, their relationship with each other was likely sexual in their youth and may have remained sexual throughout their lives. And though Alexander had conquered most of the known world and seen plenty of suffering, he was still inconsolable when Hephaestion died. Ancient sources say that Alexander mourned over Hephaestion’s body all day long, at which point he had to be physically dragged away by his remaining companions.

Though we rarely talk about it, stories like Alexander’s are probably not confined to the ancient world. I’ve read convincing arguments that in upper-class Victorian single-gender boarding schools, strong same-sex attraction was fairly common: sometimes leading to intense friendships, other times to relationships that were also sexual. I’ve also read and heard that in a context like a naval ship mission, where an almost exclusively male population is isolated for an extended period of time, men who would otherwise consider themselves heterosexual find themselves drawn to members of the same gender.

There are two main lessons I think we can learn from all this:

1) Gay and straight isn’t an on/off switch. A few people may be exclusively attracted to members of the same gender regardless of culture and context. A few people may be exclusively attracted to members of the opposite gender regardless of culture and context. But the vast majority of us are somewhere on a spectrum in-between, at least theoretically capable of feeling a variety of levels of attraction, admiration, and emotional investment in members of the same sex. It is historically strange, to say the least, that we view so many manifestations of male connection and affection as signaling membership in a separate gay minority group. We stigmatize feelings and ways of relating today that are probably normal components of human nature for almost everyone.

2) The 1960s and ’70s gay rights movement used language of sexual liberation and personal freedom from social accountability, which created a common public association between homosexuality and casual sex or promiscuity — but that’s not necessarily representative of same-sex relationships now or throughout history. There have been and are many same-sex couples who are deeply committed and faithful to one another. And I think we do ourselves a collective disservice if we treat the emotional reality of those bonds lightly as we decide which legal framework to use for same-sex relationships in a democratic society where subjective experience should carry weight.

Read the 6-part series

About James Goldberg

James Goldberg's family is Jewish on one side, Sikh on the other, and Mormon in the middle. Goldberg co-edits the Everyday Mormon Writer literary website, teaches composition and creative writing courses at BYU, and blogs at Mormon Midrashim. His debut novel, The Five Books of Jesus, was published in September 2012.

3 Responses to Gay Marriage and Proposition 8, Part 1

  1. Paul says:

    “…a common public association between homosexuality and casual sex or promiscuity —but that’s not necessarily representative of same-sex relationships now or throughout history”

    That there are stereotypes like this one is a key component to the discussion of this subject. Glad you’re taking this on.

  2. Sarah Dunster says:

    So well put. That on/off switch, boxed-off mentality in relation to sexuality bothers me deeply. And my husband has been saying for years how there is no socially acceptable outlet for men to show real and deep (passionate, even) love for one another without it being categorized “gay.”

  3. Bonnie says:

    This is a powerful series, James, well-reasoned and comprehensive. I think we have some vocabulary now to separate important issues, and to address with compassion but wisdom the needs of the society as well as the needs of individuals. Thank you.

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