Queers on the Altar

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Last week’s ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court, in Obergefell v. Hodges, legalizing same-gender marriage across the country has resulted in the usual mix of joy and condemnation. A little more than a decade ago the same court ruled, in Lawrence v. Texas, that anti-sodomy laws are not constitutionally enforceable. That decision came less than two decades after the High Court ruled in Bowers v. Hardwick that states can declare same-gender sexual activity illegal.

Writing for the majority in the narrow 5 – 4 ruling, Justice Anthony Kennedy stated that “couples of the same sex may not be deprived of that right and liberty,” according to the U.S. Constitution’s 14th Amendment. That amendment was designed initially to grant former Negro slaves the dignity of a human life; that is, they would be considered as equals to Whites. But, the nearly 150 years since, it has come to mean everyone in the United States is considered equal.

In the minority opinion, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote the Court had taken an “extraordinary step” in deciding not to allow states to decide the issue for themselves, noting that the Constitution doesn’t define marriage. No, it doesn’t. And it shouldn’t. But that’s the curious thing about human rights: they’re not to be voted upon; hence the term “rights.”

Reading and listening to the plethora of responses from religious leaders and social conservatives is almost laughable. Even before the gavel fell, former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee called on fellow Christians to engage in a “biblical disobedience” campaign against the “false god of judicial supremacy.” After the ruling, Huckabee told Fox News’ Megyn Kelly, “I will not acquiesce to an imperial court any more than our Founders acquiesced to an imperial British monarch. We must resist and reject judicial tyranny, not retreat.”

East Texas Congressman Louie Gohmert warned that the Obergefell decision ensures God’s wrath upon the nation. “I will do all I can to prevent such harm,” he said, “but I am gravely fearful that the stage has now been set.” He went on to recommend fleeing the U.S., lest we all get obliterated by a massive hurricane or earthquake or a toenail fungus epidemic.

One of the best reactions came from Texas Senator Ted Cruz who bemoaned, “Today is some of the darkest 24 hours in our nation’s history. Yesterday and today were both naked and shameless judicial activism.”

Aside from the fact Cruz doesn’t understand proper verb-subject agreement, I’d like to take this opportunity to point out some of the darkest periods in American history:

December 29, 1890 – Wounded Knee massacre;

October 28, 1929 – “Black Monday” stock market crash;

December 7, 1941 – Pearl Harbor attack;

November 22, 1963 – assassination of John F. Kennedy;

March 30, 1981 – attempted assassination of Ronald Reagan;

April 19, 1995 – Oklahoma City bombing;

September 11, 2001 – Al Qaeda terrorist attacks.

Of course, Cruz may not even be aware of these catastrophic events, since…you know, he’s not from this country and probably hasn’t studied American history too much.

In advance of the SCOTUS ruling, Texas Governor Greg Abbott signed the “Pastor Protection Act,” which would allow religious figures in the Lone Star State the right to refuse to conduct same-gender marriages, calling it a move to protect free speech. But, as soon as the decision was made public, same-sex couples in Texas began flocking to county offices to obtain marriage licenses. Many county officials wouldn’t issue them; claiming they had to await proper instructions from Abbott’s office. Others simply refused for obvious reasons: they don’t like queer folks and felt their religious beliefs were under attack. And we thought Ebola was scary!

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton proclaimed that “no court, no law, no rule and no words will change the simple truth that marriage is the union of one man and one woman.” He also falls in line with the right-wing mantra that traditional Christian family values are under attack – again – by stating, “This ruling will likely only embolden those who seek to punish people who take personal, moral stands based upon their conscience and the teachings of their religion.”

Hey, Ken! Take it easy, man! No one’s trying to circumvent your religion. But I know that religion – any religion – doesn’t trump human rights. Whenever they clash, human rights takes precedence – always and forever. Or, it should. Plenty of people feel differently. They equate the two; seeing them as symbiotic. Yet more than a few use their religion as a tool of obstruction and division.

Here’s something else though: for more than a thousand years both the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches conducted and sanctified same-gender marriages. Yes, the very same people who burned Joan of Arc to death and blamed Jews for the 14th century’s “Black Plague” may not have had many qualms letting queer people get married. In his groundbreaking 1994 book, “Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe,” the late religious historian John Boswell found evidence that some clerics oversaw these types of ceremonies as far back as the 4th century A.D.

One manuscript preserved in the Vatican and dating to 1147 bears this prayer:

“Send down, most kind Lord, the grace of Thy Holy Spirit upon these Thy servants, whom Thou hast found worthy to be united not by nature but by faith and a holy spirit. Grant unto them Thy grace to love each other in joy without injury or hatred all the days of their lives.”

According to Boswell, it’s more than just a prayer; it’s an affirmation of marriage between two men. His extensive research produced more than 60 texts from Paris to St. Petersburg that talked of “spiritual brotherhood” or “adoptive brotherhood.” Boswell, of course, had to translate scores of documents written in antiquitous languages. And, given the difficulty in properly conveying what someone wrote, it’s not fully certain if same-sex marriages actually were allowed in the Byzantine Empire anywhere during the Middle Ages. Some scholars accused Boswell of rewriting history. These “ceremonies” were not rites of marriage, they say, but rather brotherhood-type bonds between men entering the cloistered life.  But the thought is intriguing nonetheless.

Illustration of Saints Serge and Bacchus allegedly united in a same-sex union. Source: Annalee Newitz, “Gay marriage in the year 100 AD,” io9.com, July 29, 2013.

Illustration of Saints Serge and Bacchus allegedly united in a same-sex union. Source: Annalee Newitz, “Gay marriage in the year 100 AD,” io9.com, July 29, 2013.

Among North America’s indigenous peoples, homosexuality and bisexuality were widely accepted and, many cases, revered. Interpretations of various Indian languages have produced the term “two-spirit people.” While some communities clearly mocked such people, others viewed them as uniquely deserving of respect and consideration. There’s no verifiable documentation that actual same-sex marriage ceremonies were performed among Native Americans. But, with the intrusion of Christianity ideology, “two-spirit people” were relegated to obscurity and treated with disdain. Regardless, same-gender unions may not be a just a 20th century concept.

Right-wing claims that same-sex unions pose a danger to traditional marriage, but it’s a dubious argument. Divorce rates in the U.S. had reached near 50% by the 1980s, but then began dropping. Marriage rates, however, have also been dropping. Moreover the greatest threats to marriage should be obvious: poverty and other financial difficulties; unemployment and underemployment; domestic violence; and drug and alcohol abuse.

Once as taboo as homosexuality itself, divorce became more acceptable, beginning in 1969, when California became the first state to enact no-fault divorce. Ironically the law was signed by then-California Governor Ronald Reagan, an icon of conservative family values who became the nation’s first and – to date – only divorced president.

The late actress Elizabeth Taylor was married eight times. Former radio personality Larry King was also married eight times, twice to the same woman. Faux singer Britney Spears once married a childhood friend as a joke. Kim Kardashian’s 2010 marriage to Kris Humphries lasted 72 days.

Former Congressman Newt Gingrich (who tried to impeach President Bill Clinton in 1998 for lying about an affair with an intern) is married to his third wife. His first two marriages ended in divorced after he was caught having affairs with younger women. He delivered divorce papers to his second wife, while she was recuperating in a hospital from cancer surgery.

I want to point out something more personal. The day after the Obergefell decision, my parents marked their 56th wedding anniversary. They’ve lasted this long, not because they’ve just become stuck to each other, like parasites on a cow, but because they took their marriage vows seriously. They respect one another, have a great sense of humor, and occasionally spend quality time apart. It hasn’t always been easy. Like any married couple, they had their share of arguments and disagreements. But nothing was ever so bad that they had to separate. More importantly, they never felt threatened by any gay or lesbian person. The Obergefell case isn’t going to bring an end to their nearly 60-year union. In their twilight years, they’re more concerned with their own physical health and financial well-being.

In other words, they’re minding their own damn business. I recommend all the malcontents pissed off over the Obergefell case do the same.

Despite a looming rainstorm, gay couples and their families and friends marched down Cedar Springs Road in Dallas to celebrate the same-sex marriage ruling on Friday, June 26.

Despite a looming rainstorm, gay couples and their families and friends marched down Cedar Springs Road in Dallas to celebrate the same-sex marriage ruling on Friday, June 26.

6 Comments

Filed under Essays

6 responses to “Queers on the Altar

  1. I always enjoy reading your posts. So full of information, much of it new to me. I wasn’t aware of the pre-modern European same-sex marriages, or what appear to be marriages. Very interesting.

    It was a great week for SCOTUS last week, no doubt. These political leaders with multiple ex-wives decrying the decision is comical. Those in glass houses…

    Congrats to your parents on 56 years. That’s fantastic.

    • Thank you, Carrie. Yes, it is truly laughable to hear some politicians and even some religious leaders claiming they possess the omnipotent power to determine what’s best for everyone else. But tell them how many guns they can own or where to send their kids to school, and they explode with self-righteous anger.

      My father has told me more than once in recent years that, despite my mother’s increasingly ill health, he made a commitment in 1959 to love and honor her. I’ve known people who’d file for divorce after enduring only a fraction of what’s happened to my parents.

  2. I really like the way you put it into perspective by listing some of the truly “dark” periods in history.

    When I hear about folks who refuse to do business with same-sex marriages, whether it be pastors refusing to officiate or bakeries refusing to make wedding cakes, I just have to shake my head. Do they turn away interracial couples? What about couples of mixed religious beliefs? What if they don’t approve of couples with a big age difference or too many past marriages? If it’s NOT okay to turn away couples for those reasons, why is it okay to do so because they are the same sex?

    • Thank you, A.J. Just about anything Ted Cruz says irks me, so I’m especially harsh with him. Actually I’m tough on any elected official; they all get on my nerves. This same-sex marriage debate should be a non-issue, but the hostile right-wing reaction is to be expected. They spit out their religious ideology, uninvited most of the time, yet forget that it’s no one’s place to judge others.

      I guess businesses have a right to refuse service to whomever they please. But why do that, when their goal is to make money and ensure solid livelihoods for themselves and their communities?

  3. Alejandro, so nice to read you! I had read, in some of my research, about historical same-sex marriages and the controversy surrounding them. I found it interesting but didn’t pursue my research very far at the time. Thank you for reminding me of this interesting part of the church’s history.

    You are so very right, this nation has a much darker history than this blip. I am pleased we have taken a step toward human and civil rights being broader. Can we simply call it marriage now? I wonder.

    • Yes, it would be nice, if we could just call it marriage. As long as no one is forced into it, why bother? Social conservatives usually have nothing better to do, except pass judgment on other people’s lives.

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