Last week, gay marriage and civil union legislation played out in legislatures across the country with varied results (Associated Press, 2012). In New Jersey, Governor Christie vetoed gay marriage legislation that had made it through the legislature, while in Washington state, Governor Gregoire signed similar legislation into law (Associated Press, 2012). Meanwhile, in Colorado, the Colorado State Senate Judiciary Committee recently weighed in on civil union legislation, voting in favor by a 5-2 margin (Moreno, 2012). The bill is expected to get through the Democrat-controlled Senate, while facing a tough fight in the Republican-controlled House (Moreno, 2012). At stake in the religiopolitical debate are minority rights, equality, the legal and social definition of marriage and family; perhaps even our national character and the separation of church and state.
As the debate rages anew here in Colorado, familiar arguments from well-trenched positions have reemerged in the battle, as supporters argue for fairness, equal rights, and legal protection for same-sex couples and their children (Bartels, 2012). While opponents argue that same-sex couples are immoral, that civil unions will lead to same-sex marriage, that marriage is between a man and a women, and that to allow same-sex marriage or even civil unions will lessen traditional marriage and by extension society (Bartels, 2012). In addition, opponents frequently argue that children are better off when they have a mother and a father. What should Coloradans make of these arguments?
Gay couples face overwhelming discrimination as the price of their sexuality; discrimination that is “baked” into the legal system, tax system, into the very fabric of society. For example, Bernard and Lieber (Bernard & Lieber, 2012) found that gay couples would incur between roughly $41,000 and $460,000 dollars in additional costs over heterosexual couples, as a result of being in a committed, lifelong, same-sex, relationship. The additional costs came from increased tax liability, reduced benefits, and increased legal costs (Bernard & Lieber, 2012). The lesson for gay couples is simple; it pays to be straight.
Discrimination also occurs in the legal system, where despite anti-discrimination legislation, judicial stereotypes and bias in child custody cases is still a pervasive problem (Kendall, 2003). Kendall (2003) finds that:
The judicial animus in these cases is directed at adult lesbians and gay men, the true brunt of the discrimination is borne by their children, who are inevitably harmed by decisions that undermine their love and respect for their parents and their pride in their families-and, by extension, themselves. (p. 1)
The irony in the situation is thick, as many opponents of civil union and same-sex marriage are arguing that gay parents somehow harm their children, a point of view recently articulated by GOP presidential contender, Rick Santorum (Krasny, 2012). While Santorum lacked specifics on how specifically children of gay parents are harmed (Krasny, 2012), Zach Wahls, a University of Iowa student and Eagle scout that happens to be the child of a lesbian couple was eloquent in front of the Iowa legislature as he argued that “the sexual orientation of my parents has had zero affect on the content of my character” (James, 2011, p. 1).
Of course, it isn’t surprising that Zach turned out fine, despite having lesbian parents. Social science research has found “that children who grow up in homosexual families are much like children who grow up in heterosexual families” (Brym & Lie, 2007, p. 316). Moreover, the scientific research is so overwhelmingly consistent, that the American Psychological Association (2004) issued a policy statement indicating that 1) they support legal protections for gay couples and their children, 2) they support protection of the parent-child relationships of same sex parents, 3) they will take a leadership role in opposing discrimination based on sexual orientation, and 4) they will take an active role informing public discussion and policy development. In summary, gay couples face ongoing discrimination in a variety of social institutions resulting in higher costs, less rights, and fewer legal protections than similar heterosexual couples, despite scientific research that suggests equal rights for same-sex couples would benefit society. Why does civil society work to prevent gay couples from equal rights?
The simple answer is likely religion, or more correctly, the religiopolitical perspective shared by lawmakers and clergy, whose origins are scriptural in nature. According to Brym and Lie (2007), many in the United States are part of a vast religious revival, while others are increasingly secular, “resulting in a world that is neither more secular, but one that is certainly more polarized” (p. 343). Nowhere is polarization more apparent than in the gay marriage public debate. Despite the founder’s intention to separate church and State, religion clearly holds sway in political life. As the Colorado Senate Judiciary Committee considered the civil union legislation, whose testimony opposed civil unions? It was clergymen from both Catholic and Evangelical Churches, arguing that “homosexuality is immoral“ (Bartels, 2012, p. 1) and “anything that lessens [traditional marriage] lessens society at large. Marriage is the cornerstone of society” (Moreno, 2012, p. 1). Conservative members of the GOP echo their reasoning, as if in one voice. GOP contender Rick Santorum argued that “The uniqueness of marriage is it provides an intrinsic good to society” (Krasny, 2012, p. 1). The gay marriage debate has demonstrated that church and State are bound together, seeking to use the definition of marriage as a legitimizing myth to prevent gay couples from participating equally in a civil society; their position a moral argument, rather than a legal one.
States legislatures and citizens across these United States are in the midst of determining whether gay people will receive equal rights and treatment under the law. At stake, is more than the welfare of gay couples and their children. Rather, the outcome of this debate will have implications for our national character and perhaps even more importantly, set the stage for the degree to which the United States will behave as a theocracy. The XIV Amendment of the Bill of Rights is clear, stating “No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States…nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws” (United States, 1868). How then, can we citizens of these United States allow discrimination of gay couples? There is no place in this debate for moral arguments, as the Bill of Rights is clear; the debate is about what is legal and what is right. Who are clergy members to deny a person their rights based on a moral argument? More importantly, who are we as citizens to deny gay couples their rights? Providing equal protection under the law is an easy decision. Deciding whether we will allow the U.S. religious revival to dominate politics to the point that citizens lose their civil rights is proving to be a tougher debate.
American Psychological Association. (2004, July 30, 2004). Sexual Orientation, Parents, & Children Retrieved February 19, 2012, from http://www.apa.org/about/governance/council/policy/parenting.aspx
Associated Press. (2012, February 18, 2012). Legislatures open same-sex marriage brawl on multiple fronts Retrieved February 18, 2012, from http://www.foxnews.com/politics/2012/02/18/legislatures-open-same-sex-marriage-brawl-on-multiple-fronts/?test=latestnews
Bartels, L. (2012, February 16, 2012). Vote by Colorado Senate panel embraces civil unions Retrieved February 18, 2012, from http://www.denverpost.com/commented/ci_19975260?source=commented-
Bernard, T. S., & Lieber, R. (2012, October 2, 2009). The High Price of Being a Gay Couple Your Money. Retrieved February 19, 2012, from http://www.nytimes.com/2009/10/03/your-money/03money.html?pagewanted=all
Brym, R. J., & Lie, J. (2007). Sociology : your compass for a new world (Brief ed.). Belmont, CA: Thomson/Wadsworth.
James, S. D. (2011, February 3, 2011). Son of Iowa Lesbians Fights Gay Marriage Ban Retrieved February 19, 2012, from http://abcnews.go.com/Health/zach-wahls-son-lesbians-speech-anti-gay-legislators/story?id=12832200 – .T0Euqpi_FLo
Kendall, K. (2003, 2003). Lesbian and gay parents in child custody and visitation disputes. Human Rights, 1.
Krasny, R. (2012, January 5, 2012). Santorum sees “harm” to children with same-sex parents Retrieved February 19, 2012, from PGM460 Week 6 Critical Thinking Richard Rock.docx
Moreno, I. (2012, February 16, 2012). Colorado Civil Union Bill Advances In State Senate; Headed Toward Showdown In Republican-Controlled House. Huffington Post Retrieved February 18, 2012, from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/02/16/colorado-civil-union-bill_n_1281353.html
United States. (1868). The Bill of Rights [graphic .]. Washington DC: United States Congress.
The United States is a country that is based on the triumph of the ideals of Western tradition; a tradition founded on the democratic principles of liberty, equality, and freedom that has given rise to variety of myths about America’s destiny, goodness, opportunity, and place in the world. American exceptionalism, “Manifest Destiny”, and the American Dream are but a few, that describe the cultural narrative of the United States, and can be considered the yardstick by which each citizen measures themselves. These myths are both true and false simultaneously; at times, true for the dominant class and equally false for nearly everyone else throughout our long and storied history. Since the early European settlers arrived in the United States, the dominant class has been white, heterosexual, males, who through economic, military, legal, political, religious, and social power, have maintained their class position for more than 300 years. The result is an American story that can be considered at odds with the experiences of so many of its inhabitants, who have been victims of genocide, slavery, servitude, discrimination, deportation, prejudice, and yet continue to struggle for the opportunity and equality proffered by our myths and laws. Despite the progress women and minorities have made to gain equal treatment and opportunity in American society, societal norms still serve to prevent equal access to resources, opportunities, wealth, and privilege for those that differ from the dominant class majority, while American myths serve to devalue their class experiences.
Gender Identity and Class Experience
Women in the United States have sought to improve their rights in society for more than a century, advocating for property rights, voting rights, and even the right to control what happens to their own bodies. Gender role socialization is likely a significant causal factor in continued gender equality as traditional gender roles are taught and reinforced across societal institutions like “ language, education, mass media, religion, laws, medical institutions and mental health systems, occupational environments, [and] intimate relationships” (Fiske-Rusciano, 2009, p. 60).
A great example of the way in which U.S. institutions continue to exert influence in gender equality issues is the abortion debate. While the landmark Supreme Court case, Roe v. Wade, made abortion a constitutional guarantee, the debate still rages with special interest groups, politicians, and religious organizations, seeking to influence a change in the law (PBS, 2006). While women are treated with greater equality today than at any time in recent history, there remain significant gaps in gender equality, particularly as it relates to work, due to occupational discrimination, occupational segregation, and societal expectations for women to align to traditional gender roles (Rock, 2011).
The result of gender inequality in the workplace is a continued gender wage gap, where, despite the Equal Pay Act of 1963, women continue to earn on average, 81% the earnings of men (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2011). In order to create greater gender equality and improve women’s class experience in the United States, continued efforts to close the wage gap and to change gender role expectations, particularly as it relates to childrearing, must be at the forefront of issues addressed by the modern women’s movement.
Sexual Identity and Class Experience
Traditional gender roles, idealized into beliefs, are a source of widespread attitudes towards sexual identity, serving to stigmatize lesbians, bi-sexual, gay and trans-gender persons in U.S. society. Kite and Whitley (1996) found a link between heterosexual’s beliefs about the characteristics that men and women should have and their attitudes towards lesbians and gay men, suggesting that the strength of dislike is related to the strength of their beliefs. Whitley and Aegisdottir (2000) later find that gender beliefs are further used to legitimize popular myths about homosexual persons in order to justify prejudicial attitudes held by the socially dominant class. “The social dominance perspective holds that people who possess social status and power are motivated to preserve the status quo that provides that status and power” (Whitley & Aegisdottir, 2000, p. 951).
This phenomenon plays out often in the popular press, where recently a lesbian couple attempted to enter the Dollywood theme park and were barred entry for wearing a t-shirt that promoted gay marriage (Clark, 2011). There can be far more serious consequences for LBGT persons than being barred from opportunities, including overt discrimination, aggression, and even violence. Stearns (2009) describes the discrimination that led to her termination as an airline pilot after undergoing gender reassignment surgery; and who can forget the violent killing of Matthew Shepard, who in 1998, was beaten to death simply for being gay? It is likely that existing gender belief system held by the socially dominant class, namely white males, are threatened by persons whose sexually identity challenges the norm, and as result is the basis for the exclusion of lesbians, bi-sexual, gay, and trans-gender persons from mainstream U.S. societal institutions.
Racial and Ethnic Identity and Class Experience
U.S. history can be considered a history of the triumph of the Western tradition at best and a triumph of white privilege at worst. The social construct of racism has been present in the United States since before the birth of the country and persists today. Non-whites, including African-Americans, Hispanics, Asians, Jews, Native Americans, and others have all suffered as victims of racism at the hands of the dominant social class (Zinn, 2003). Racism, or the legacy of racism, continues to be a pervasive problem as ethnic minorities continue to be disadvantaged compared to the dominant social class in terms of income, wealth, and access to opportunities (Elkin, 2011; Kochhar, Fry, & Taylor, 2011; U.S. Census Bureau, 2010). In modern America, racism is often cloaked, in rhetoric, restrictive policies or laws, or fundamental myths about America.
For example, immigration reform is at the forefront of public debate with politicians and the media seeking to influence the public in a vitriolic debate aimed primarily at Hispanic immigrants. Special interest groups such as the Federation for American Immigration Reform, that helped develop Arizona’s SB 1070 law, are framing the immigration debate for the U.S. Congress (FAIR, 2010) despite their white supremacist origins (The Pioneer Fund, 2011; Zeskind, 2005). The pervasive misinformation has served to fuel fear and anti-Hispanic sentiment into the dominant social class, with many concerned of the effects of Hispanic immigrant use of services, tax evasion, criminality, and overall negative impact on the U.S. economy. In this example, the debate appears to deem Hispanics as a causal factor preventing the pursuit if the American Dream by the dominant social class.
The more things change, the more they appear to stay the same. While the United States has become significantly more multicultural and laws have been created to allow multicultural citizens to live up to the ideals of liberty, equality, and freedom inherent in our national myth, the dominant social class remains the heterosexual white male. Heterosexual white males overwhelmingly occupy positions of power, hold more wealth, and earn more income than women, LBGT persons, and ethnic minorities and are motivated to maintain their position of privilege. Despite the march of progress, the societal norms of the dominant class still serve to prevent equal access to resources, opportunities, wealth, and privilege for those that differ, and our American myths support the ability of the dominant class to maintain the status quo.
Clark, J. (2011, August 4, 2011). Dolly Parton apologizes to lesbian couple over Dollywood T-shirt incident, USA Today. Retrieved from http://travel.usatoday.com/destinations/dispatches/post/2011/08/dolly-parton-apologies-to-lesbian-couple-over-dollywood-t-shirt-incident/413677/1
Elkin, A. (2011, July 27). Valedictorian sues school: Was she snubbed because of race? Retrieved from http://news.blogs.cnn.com/2011/07/26/valedictorian-sues-school-was-she-snubbed-because-of-race/?iref=allsearch
FAIR. (2010). Federation for American Immigration Reform 2010 Annual Report (pp. 32). Washington DC.
Fiske-Rusciano, R. (2009). Experiencing race, class, and gender in the United States (5th ed.). Boston, Mass.: McGraw-Hill Higher Education.
Kite, M. E., & Whitley, B. E., Jr. (1996). Sex Differences in Attitudes toward Homosexual Persons, Behaviors, and Civil Rights: A Meta-analysis. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 22(4), 336-353.
Kochhar, R., Fry, R., & Taylor, P. (2011). Wealth Gaps Rise to Record Highs Between Whites, Blacks, Hispanics Pew Social & Demographic Trends. Washington DC: Pew Research Center.
PBS. (2006). Roe v. Wade and beyond. Frontline Retrieved August 12, 2011, 2011, from http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/clinic/wars/cases.html
Rock, R. (2011). Reflections on the gender wage gap. Essay. Colorado State University. Denver.
Stearns, J. R. (2009). A transexual’s story. In R. Fiske-Rusciano (Ed.), Experiencing race, class, and gender in the United States (5th ed., pp. 94-107). Boston, Mass.: McGraw-Hill Higher Education.
The Pioneer Fund. (2011). The Founders Retrieved August 10, 2011, from http://www.pioneerfund.org/Founders.html
U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. (2011). Median weekly earnings of full-time wage and salary workers by detailed occupation and sex. In cpsaat39.pdf (Ed.). Washington DC: Bureau of Labor Statistics.
U.S. Census Bureau. (2010). Income, Poverty, and Health Insurance Coverage in the United States: 2009. In p60-238.pdf (Ed.). Washington DC: U.S Census Bureau.
Whitley, B. E., & Aegisdottir, S. (2000). The Gender Belief System, Authoritarianism, Social Dominance Orientation, and Heterosexuals’ Attitudes Toward Lesbians and Gay Men. SEX ROLES, 42, 947-968.
Zeskind, L. (2005, October 23, 2005). The new nativism. The American Prospect Retrieved August 10, 2011, from http://prospect.org/cs/articles?articleId=10485
Zinn, H. (2003). A people’s history of the United States : 1492-present ([New ed.). New York: HarperCollins.