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Corn, Grant Wood and Gay Marriage: Welcome to Iowa

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Full disclosure: I'm an Iowan. Born and raised in Des Moines, I was caught by the sucking vortex of the Brain Drain, taking all of the advantages bestowed upon me by excellent public education and lively civic engagement, packing them into my little hobo bindle and emigrating to some coastal place where people would forever think that I'd never seen electric lights and was wearing shoes for the first time. I was lured by my comedic aspirations to this peculiar island city which, like a crotchety boss, I grudgingly tolerated before I came to understand and ultimately love the old bastard. However, I still continue to self-identify as an Iowan and, moreover, I will brook no guff directed at the home state, much to the perplexity of my friends in Brooklyn who expect me to keep to the trite narrative of having narrowly escaped a lousy place, thank goodness, blahbity blah. After all, why would I stick up for a place that everybody who's never been there knows is crappy?

Because of things like this. Today, the Iowa Supreme Court unanimously declared a ban on gay marriage unconstitutional, thus making the Hawkeye State only the third in the nation where gay couples can legally marry. Not have a union or a partnership or whatever, just regular old get married. And all day long, Iowans in and out of the state have been delirious with pride. As for the case, I won't go through all the whats and wherefores, but you can read a good excerpt from the court's decision here (which, as Ben Smith points out, basically argues that gay couples are normal) and the Des Moines Register's coverage not only gives a good overview of the case, but the comments are not to be missed. There are some ignorant, hateful ones of course, but mainly you see why this is the state that bucked lame conventional wisdom and gave Obama the first victory of the presidential race.

Okay, I promise that'll be the last time I verbally wipe that expat tear from my eye. But hey, I've got to jump on the opportunity when I can.

What I really want to get to here are the arguments against gay marriage, both those presented in the case as well as those shouted and scrawled on signs by whoever had to time to hang around the court house this morning. The latter are familiar - God will be mad, kids won't know what's going on (because, of course, social norms are innate rather than learned), now there's no way to stop polygamy or incest or a woman who wants to marry her socks. The Register article quotes a guy who was holding a sign stating that animals don't gay sex on each other. So yeah, clearly it's unnatural. For a moment, we'll ignore the fact that animals do have gay sex. Know what else animals "don't do," Dr. Logic? Wear pants or drive a car or write words on poster board to convey their political opinions or - that's right! - even have marriage at all. But that's your position so, okay, stop using fire - let's see how committed to this idea you really are.

The foes of gay marriage are particularly fond of the slippery slope argument, a position that is as insulting as it is absurd. According to this line of thought, if we allow something as abominable as the legal formalization of gay relationships, then what's to stop people from marrying a thousand concubines or eating babies or pooping wherever they want. Why, denying homosexuals civil rights is the very lynchpin of our social order! Take that away and before we know it, men will have long hair and women will fart and Ragnarok will be just around the corner.

The nuclear option of this argument is almost invariably something like, "You think you're pretty smart, huh? Well lemme ask you this - what if I want to marry a horse?" Alright then, let's go there! Let's say there's this guy, right, who wants to marry a horse. Because he's lived with the horse for a years now and they've built a life together, the details of their individual existences blending and weaving together to create a wholly new organism greater than the sum of its parts, and he wants to make sure that the horse can get covered under his medical insurance, that he and the horse can file their income taxes jointly, and that the horse can legally make medical decisions should he ever fall into a coma or be otherwise incapacitated. The horse, of course, wants all this too, and can somehow express that in a legally valid way. Also, the horse can sign it's name on a marriage license. Also, the thousands of other glaring errors in this analogy magically vanish. If all of that, then who am I to stand in the way?

One problem here is that a lot of gay marriage opponents still conflate marriage and sex. "What if I want to marry a horse?" really translates as, "What if I want to have sex with a horse?" To which I respond, a horse can't really consent so, no, you shouldn't rape a horse. I'm not saying that conflating sex and marriage is necessarily wrong. I understand that some people want to save sex until marriage, making it a special and sacred rite reserved only for the duly consecrated marriage bed. That's fine. Meanwhile, I want to systematically purge myself of desire and free myself from the confining bonds of the ego so that I might truly realize the organic interconnected oneness of the universe. That's fine too. But these are religious matters, not legal ones.

Leading us to another logical error, which is that gay marriage opponents try to claim, either explicitly or implicitly, that marriage is by definition religious. Never mind the fact that there are plenty of religious officials willing to marry gay couples (yes, my coastal friends, even in Iowa), the fact is that marriage is not inherently religious and it's been that way for a while. If the concern is the sanctity of marriage, where is the furor over elopement and common law marriage? Where is the hue and cry to strip ship captains and justices of the peace of their authority to perform marriages?

The fundamental problem in this issue, though, is revealed by the arguments presented by the state in favor of the ban. First, another disclosure: the Assistant Polk County Attorney who argued in favor of the ban, Roger Kuhle, was my Mock Trial coach through junior high and high school. Though I haven't been in touch with him in a while, I still certainly feel the warmth and respect that I felt for him when he was teaching me how to be a great mock lawyer. In other words, even though I profoundly disagree with the case he made in favor of the gay marriage ban, I don't think he's a dick. These things are possible.

Anyway, Kuhle argued that allowing gay marriage would lead to future generations discarding the institution of marriage because they'd be like, "Hey, we've gotten to a place where a kid can marry cookies or whatever, so what's the point?" The point is that marriage is just a formalization of pair bonding, which we human animals seem pretty inclined to. Marriage is just the symbol. There was a time when people thought that civilization couldn't exist without earls and duchesses and margraves and such and shuddered to imagine a world without these esteemed personages. But here we are, and it turns out not to be a problem because we have CEOs around to sap of us of our resources and treat us like dirt. (Boom! Take that, titans of industry.) Just like graft and lust for power over your fellow man, pair bonding isn't going anywhere, so neither is marriage. The only thing changing is our notion of what is normal, and that is, well, normal.