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Bernard-Henri Lévy Headshot

Marriage in '13

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The gay marriage debate has taken an odd and worrisome turn.

I will not waste time on the pious hypocrites who seem nostalgic for the good old days of deviant, outlawed homosexuality when gays and lesbians did not aspire to be "normal," nor on the condescension shown by those right-wing thinkers who claim that in times of economic crisis, ordinary people have more urgent matters to attend to than the social lives of gays and lesbians (carefully avoiding any derogatory terminology), nor on the comical panic among those who believe that gay marriage (wrongly rechristened "marriage for all" by overcautious allies too timid to call a spade a spade) opens the door to pedophilia, incest and polygamy.

What I cannot let pass, however, are the following offenses.

1. The backward way in which the role of religion in this fracas has been framed. That religions should have their say in a matter that has always been, and that remains, central to their doctrine is unobjectionable. But that their views should become law, that the voice of the grand rabbi of France or of the archbishop of Paris should be more than one voice among many, that their lofty eminence should be used as a pretext to cut off discussion or to silence a legitimate demand for rights -- that is not compatible with the principles of neutrality upon which French society (at least for the last century) and American society are supposed to operate. Under the law in France and the United States, marriage is a contract, not a sacrament. And while everyone is free to complement contract with sacrament, and, in so doing, to declare an additional form of union or bond before a priest, minister, qadi or rabbi, that choice is not what is at stake when it comes to a law permitting gay marriage. No one is asking people of faith to abandon their doctrine. And no one should be asking citizens to behave in accordance with this or that religious tenet. Some religious leaders would have you think that gay marriage represents an attack on their values. Please! It is secular values that are being threatened.

2. The mobilization of the views of a segment of the psychoanalytic community to lend scientific credibility to the argument that gay marriage would burden contemporary civilization with yet another malaise, indeed a malaise that might prove fatal! It cannot be repeated often enough that Freudian theory does not operate in the manner of natural science. The symbolic order at work in the unconscious is not a biological order. And the use of the Oedipus complex as a name for the triangle known to family specialists as "daddy, mommy and me" (that "little incestuous family" of the heterosexual realm described by Michel Foucault) was probably an adolescent misjudgment on the part psychoanalysis, and one that has not been conjured up for ages. Today, no serious practitioner would try to explain the parent-child relationship or parental influence in terms of biology alone. Read the literature on the subject. For example, there is no indication that adoption by a gay couple might predispose a child to homosexuality. No particular harm is done by removing children from sordid orphanages and placing them with a loving single parent or two loving gay parents. If one is looking for trouble, one is more likely to find it in the way a society steeped in homophobia views the child than in any blurring of roles that might occur in a nontraditional family.

3. And, yes, the family, that sacrosanct unit that we are urged to view by turns as the foundation of society and as the glue that holds it together, as if the notion of family had not had quite a long and complicated history; as if only one and not several models of the family, all recognized as families, had been passed down from antiquity to our time, from ancient Greece to the emergence of the middle class, from the authoritarian era (when the family unit indeed functioned as a cog in the machinery of social control) to the more recent era characterized by the right to "the pursuit of happiness," a right about which Hannah Arendt wrote in her 1959 essay on interracial unions (in which marriage became an opportunity for freedom and fulfillment, particularly for the less-privileged partner); as if there hasn't been a rise in divorce, contraception, in vitro fertilization, adoption and single families; as if more children today are not born to unmarried parents than to married parents; as if the sexual and conjugal realms had not been uncoupled some time back; and as if all these things had not shaken the traditional family model to a degree much greater than a law permitting gay marriage could ever do, particularly as such a law, unlike the aforementioned developments, would, by definition, affect only a minority of society.

The truth is that the opponents of gay marriage are finding it increasingly difficult to conceal the homophobia that skews their views. I prefer a position that is at once more dignified (because it's based on the principle of the universality of the rule of law), wiser (because sometimes the purpose of a law is to acknowledge a change that has already occurred in society) and more confident (because married gays may well end up enriching rather than impoverishing the arts of living and loving in the societies to which they have already contributed so much in the last half-century): May legislatures deliberate calmly, without caving in to pressure from the street or to intimidation by self-described experts. Hanging in the balance -- but not in the sense that the loudest voices would have us believe -- is the future of that beautiful but fragile vision of mutually tolerant civic life in a republic of laws.

This piece was translated from French by Steven B. Kennedy.