09 January 2010

On Same-Sex Marriage And New Jersey

While I was enjoying my time with Dwayne the other day, something that disturbed him, me and many other people we know was happening on the other side of the Hudson River.

As many of you know by now, the so-called gay marriage bill was defeated in New Jersey. In many ways, that's a disappointment, but in still other ways, it's not a surprise.

Let me clarify something: I don't necessarily think that a law that gives a person the right to marry someone of his or her gender is itself a solution to the problem of inequality, simply because I don't think governments should be in the business of defining or sanctifying marriages. I don't understand how, in a country whose constitution specifies a separation of church and state, clergypeople have, in essence, the power to decide who is and isn't married. I mean, if two people are married by their priest or rabbi or whomever, those two newly-married people have over a thousand legal rights that non-married people don't have--all because of a clergy member's say-so.

In that sense, clergypeople not only decide who is married; in doing so, they decide on which people are first- and second-class citizens. That is to say, they're helping, wittingly or not, to administer a form of apartheid.

On the other hand, given the legal, political, social and economic systems we have, so-called "gay marriage laws" may be the best we can hope for.

One of the reasons why voters in several states and state legislatures in others have voted against laws to give someone the right to marry someone of his or her own gender is that the laws are written, and presented to the public, as gay marriage laws. Thus, some people think that gays are getting "special treatment" with a law that defines their right to marry. The reality is that gays who want to marry are simply looking for the same rights as those enjoyed by married heterosexual people.

So, even though laws defining the right to same-sex marriage may be the better alternative in this society, the drafting, voting on and passing or defeating such legislation is premised on a major flaw in the current marriage laws, and the way people think about them.

As I said earlier, current laws give undue power to clergy people. That, in turn, amplifies the power government has over a segment of people's lives: marriage. I, for one, happen to think that governments should have no power to decide who is and isn't married. Furthermore, I don't think any government should give people special privileges simply for being married.

The very same people who think that gays are asking for "privilege" are the ones who themselves enjoy over a thousand privileges the government bestows upon them for being married. A good number of those privileges are financial, courtesy of tax laws and such.

If governments are going to have any power at all over unions between people, it should be limited to the equivalent of civil unions. If two people want to hook up, that should be their right. But they shouldn't get any tax breaks or preferences for tying the knot or for having kids. After all, that is a choice. (Funny, how some of the people who take those privileges for granted claim that homosexuality--or transgenderism--is a "lifestyle choice.")

Of course, in order to realize the vision I have just described, an entire legal and economic order will have to be dramatically re-structured. And, until that re-structuring takes place, LGBT people will still be second-class citizens. So, perhaps, having laws that allow gays to marry is the best we can do until that change comes about.

Now, I want to offer some of my own thoughts as to why the bill was defeated in New Jersey.

My family moved to New Jersey from Brooklyn in 1971. I spent my high-school years in Middletown and went to Rutgers University in New Brunswick. My parents lived in 'Jersey for more than two decades before moving to Florida; one of my brothers lives in the so-called Garden State now. So I can say that I don't have the condescending, snobbish view that many New Yorkers have of the place.

People who aren't familiar with the state think that it's all part of the New York Metropolitan Area and therefore shares the Big Apple's social diversity and the social tolerance they attribute to the city. New Jersey does indeed have quite a few gay people. But most of them live in a few neighborhoods of Hoboken, Jersey City and Plainfield, and some spend weekends or holidays in Asbury Park. Even in those enclaves, gay people don't live as openly as they do in Chelsea or even in Jackson Heights. Part of that has to do with the fact that most of the gay residents of New Jersey are male and living in couples: People tend to live quieter lives under such circumstances. But there is also a largely unspoken and almost entirely unwritten expectation that they will live that way.

This expectation stems, in part, from the fact that New Jersey is, for the most part, a suburban state. People move there to get a little more space than they would have in the city and, very often, to stake out a part of the American Dream for themselves. The price of admission consists of their down payments and mortagages on their homes.

A large part of homeowners' time and energies--not to mention their incomes--is directed to their stake in the dream. For most, that is the sum total of their net worth. Such circumstances make people fearfully protective of not only their properties and investments themselves, but also of anything they fear will devalue that investment or encroach upon the status they have attained by building a middle-class family and home life.

Such a way of thinking can very easily, and often does, turn into a siege mentality: I worked for this. Nobody gave me any special consideration. Why should anyone else get it (I can't begin to tell you how many times I've heard that, almost verbatim.) In New Jersey, such fears and resentments are exacerbated by the fact that New Jersey homeowners pay the highest property taxes in the nation. Plus, there is the relatively high cost of living and, for many, the high cost of commuting to their jobs (and paying an additional tax if that job happens to be in New York). And, finally, if they have kids--which nearly all of them do--there is that cost.

People in that situation feel that they're working harder and paying more than anyone else, and are not getting any special consideration for it. So they look at gay people, most of whom don't have kids, and feel resentment. That homeowner who's raising kids somehow feels that his or her taxes are subsidizing the life of libertine privilege they imagine that gays live, just as those same suburban homeowners feel (rightly so, I might say) that they are financing the incompetence and corruption for which New Jersey's largest cities are famous.

In brief, they feel--with at least some justification--that they're paying for people who don't pay their share. To see anyone else share the privilege they enjoy is, to their minds, an affront to their hard-working, law-abiding ways.

In addition to the large swaths of suburbia, there's a part of rural southern New Jersey that actually falls below the Mason-Dixon line. The Ku Klux Klan had active chapters there and in other parts of the state before World War II, and New Jersey was believed to have the largest Klan membership of any state north of the Potomac. The Klan has had a resurgence there in recent years, and in recent elections has supported various candidates, mainly those who oppose immigration.

This isn't to say that New Jersey is Alabama North. But it isn't Massachusetts South, either. So, at least to me, it's not such a surprise that the state allows civil unions for same-sex couples, but not same-sex marriages. So, as is typical of governments, the New Jersey State Legislature applied the right idea (civil unions) for the wrong reasons to one group of people and, as a result, merely elevated them from third- to second-class citizens rather than to equality. And they voted against the solution that, in a corrupt and cumbersome system, was the best chance at achieving equality.