09/07/2012 01:21 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

On the Dan Savage vs. Brian Brown Debate: Can We Please Just Admit That We're Different?

If you don't typically watch one-hour-and-six-minute-long YouTube videos, then you might not have seen the one where Mark Oppenheimer moderated a debate between Dan Savage and Brian Brown. Well, that happened.

Brian Brown is the president of the National Organization of Marriage, an anti-gay advocacy organization, and Dan Savage is a syndicated columnist, gay rights activist, the guy behind It Gets Better, and so on and so forth. I think you get the idea. The whole premise of this debate came out of a comment that Savage made during a speech to high school journalism students. He said, "There is some bullshit in the Bible." I thought that was a pretty tempered and reasonable comment, considering that the Bible does suggest we stone unchaste brides, but I guess that's neither here nor there. Savage was given some time at the top of the debate to defend those comments, Brown was given some time to respond, and then shit got real.

Before we get into the meat of what went down, let me say this: Like others who derive pleasure from engaging in volatile arguments, I had discussed and heard much of what was touched upon in this debate before -- many times. However, the debate did clarify a shiny new piece of the puzzle for me that I never saw quite as clearly whilst in the heat of debate as I did while watching Savage argue for the right to marry. That shiny new nugget is this: Gay people and straight people are different. Weird, right? Let me explain.

Savage was sitting across the table from Brown with a stack of materials: statistics, quotes, personal notes, and dissected thought processes. Meanwhile, Brown had nothing at his side other than a small notepad that I don't think he ever touched. Brown apparently didn't need any notes, background information, research findings, or any sort of material to use as a reference point for his argument. This is not because Brown is a superior orator or debater but because, at the end of the day, his argument isn't based on any such worldly materials; it's rooted in his belief that "cultures throughout human history have shared [the idea] that marriage is the union of a man and a woman and that this is a unique and special union... There is something unique about men and women. There is something unique about marriage between men and women."

Brown's repetition of and continual return to this belief, while Savage referenced notes and delivered arguments, triggered in me the teeniest out-of-body experience, this feeling that no matter what you say, you're up against an immovable reality (in the context in which this debate has been framed), and that reality is the fact that we are different. A union between a man and a woman is unique. However, a union between a woman and a woman, or between a man and a man, is also unique. These are different relationships, different experiences, and different unions.

At about the 20-minute mark, once we got past the personal defenses and minimal niceties, Brown set up this argument, framing the debate for the remaining 45 minutes:

On one side there is the idea that there is something unique and special about men and women coming together in marriage, and no other union of whatever kind is the same thing as marriage. There is something special and unique about marriage.... And there is the second idea ... [that says] there is nothing morally different between men and men, women and women united together; they're all the same.


Brian Brown

Unfortunately, Savage didn't even question Brown's framing of the debate. He never said that this should not be a debate about whether or not there is something (morally or otherwise) different between a straight union and a gay union. He never argued that instead, this was a debate about the rights of two consenting adults to form a legal and equal union. Instead, Savage accepted this premise and the entire framing of the conversation and addressed the notion of difference as laid out by Brown. That was a real bummer.

I understand that saying that we're different goes against the LGBT activist code of honor and the Human Rights Campaign's talking points, but I don't think trying to convince people like Brown to see us as all the same is really working for us. Even if it does help in the short term (a bunch of million-dollar ads featuring cute gay families might help win some state referendums), in the long run it's a big mistake, because it avoids a reality rather than addressing it. It puts us in the position of having to plead (as Savage did) to be part of the straight group, as opposed to saying we're all different, we're all unique, and that when it comes to equal rights, that shouldn't matter.

The debate actually triggered flashbacks of this asshole in my fourth-grade class, Candace, who used to stand on top of the playground and tell (only some) kids that they weren't special enough to play on the wooden playground. Those kids had to play on the sad patch of muddy grass on the outskirts of the monkey bars. Brown, in words that could have easily been stolen from that buttface Candace, insisted repeatedly that he and all straight people are special and unique, and that no matter what Savage says, gay couples will never be special in that same way. Savage tried his best -- the entire LGBT movement is trying its best -- to say, "That's not true," or even, "That's not fair."

From atop his wooden playground, Brown spoke these words:

What the truth is, and what our faith has taught and other faiths have taught, and what, frankly, people of no faith can come to through natural law, is the simple idea that marriage is a union between a man and a woman. And you say, "Well, we don't want to change your institution. We want to be a part of it."

At that point Savage should have told fourth-grade Candace and Brown to go fuck themselves, and then he should have taken his friends, expanded that patch of grass, and built a new playground out of stainless steel and diamonds. Instead, Savage responded by trying to explain that the definition of marriage has changed in the last hundred or so years, that the rules for acceptance have changed, that it's no longer a property contract centered on procreation but is instead about "commitment and love ... establishing that next of kin ... finding that one person in the world to be there for you, who you will be there for." We know this shtick: The definition of marriage has already evolved, so now allow it to evolve some more, and let us in. I understand why he went there, and he went there well. The problem is that he is still playing by Brown's rules and trying to negotiate in such a way that Brown will accept him. For example, he says:

There is this argument on your side that we want to change the institution of marriage... We don't want to change the institution of marriage... This isn't an attack on anyone's faith... It takes nothing from you or your definition of marriage for the institution of marriage, as straight people currently define and practice it, to be open to accommodate us, as well. We are 3-ish percent of the population. We are not going to de-center what it means to be a man and a woman from what it means to be married, by allowing same-sex couples to marry. If anything, it affirms the original sort of understanding of marriage and its importance, particularly for family life, to bring us into that order.


Dan Savage and his husband, Terry Miller

Oy. It bothers me, first, because it is a faulty argument: If Brown's definition of marriage is that marriage is between a man and a woman, then by letting gay people get married, we would be changing the institution. Savage can't say we don't want to change the institution of marriage. Of course we do. Right now, the institution of marriage is predominately defined as a union between a man and a woman, and we want to change that. Secondly, this is a pathetic argument. It puts Savage, an unbelievably impressive, smart, bold writer and activist, in the position of asking Brown and his ilk to please, pretty please, if we promise not to mess anything up and follow most of his rules about family and love, let us into his club and "bring us into that order."

Well, I don't think I'm alone when I say that I have absolutely no interest in convincing Brown to let me join his club. To quote my hero, Sarah Silverman, "I cannot imagine wanting to get married right now at this time in America. If you're for equal rights, why would you get married right now? It's like joining a country club that doesn't allow blacks or Jews. There's no difference. Why would I wanna join that club? It's gross.

The debate between Savage and Brown, at its core, was really just a fight over whether or not gay people can be deemed appropriate or special enough in the eyes of people like Brown to be permitted in the institution of marriage. This is the wrong debate and the wrong fight, because it's based on the false premise that we have to prove our sameness in order to be granted equal rights. That's a real problem for us. It disadvantages us legally, culturally, socially and emotionally. It also leads to the kind of debates like the one that Brown and Savage had, one that spends way too much time on questions like, "Is the Bible a justification for denying gay marriage?"

Instead of trying to argue that I can fit into your rules and regulations and be the same, why can't we just live by our own rules and have our own unique value? Because you're right: My relationships are not the same as yours. My uniqueness is different. My value and contribution to society, as a human being and someone who isn't straight, is also different. You live by your Bible, and I'll live by mine.

Eventually Oppenheimer started to push Brown and Savage away from the Bible talk and, near the 50-minute mark, posed a pretty genius question: "If you're making an honest argument, one with integrity, then presumably, if it's based on evidence rather than just ideology, presumably some evidence could come along that would make you change your mind.... Could any evidence come along that would make you say gay marriage is a good idea?"

This was the moment when Brown started foaming at the mouth (literally), because this deeply rooted belief of his uniqueness as a heterosexual, married man was being brought into question. "It would be like saying, 'What would convince you that a square could be a circle?'"

I'm actually OK with this. The way Brown said it, and the beliefs he holds that inform it, gross me out, but on a basic level I'm OK with the assertion of this difference. I am not the same as Brown. I do think some people are circles and some are squares and some are all kind of shapes I wouldn't even know how to identify. Oppenheimer pushed to make sure he understood correctly that there is no evidence, ever in the world, that would convince Brown that gays should be allowed to get married. It got really interesting for a few minutes.

Unfortunately, Savage continued down the same path of negotiating for acceptance based on sameness and not being a threat of change. Brown started getting a case of crazy eye at the idea of gays being able to marry, saying, "This good, true, and beautiful thing that is marriage, the union of a man and a woman, we will have our public culture and law saying that this is not true." Instead of Savage trying to assuage Brown's fears by responding, "How is it going to say that when over 90 percent of all marriages are still going to be opposite-sex marriages, even if gay people can get married?" he should have simply said, "You keep your idea of what is 'good, true, and beautiful,' and you call it 'marriage,' and you get it sanctioned in your religious institutions. I'll keep my own idea of what is 'good, true, and beautiful,' and I'll call it a legal union. We will both have the same rights under this legal union -- all consenting adults will have the same rights under this legal union. Meanwhile, you go ahead and be a circle, and I'll go ahead and be a square, and we'll make the appropriate, non-government-officiated arrangements to label and identify ourselves as such."

We don't need to pander and promise to Brown that we won't take over and change his idea of what "good, true, and beautiful" means because we're just a teeny, tiny group of people. Instead, let Brown keep this belief in his specialness; he is very attached to it, and nothing is going to change that. He can believe that marriage is only between a man and a woman, and I can believe that marriage is between any consenting adults.

At the end of the one hour and six minutes, a big part of what I took away could actually be summed up (shockingly) by a rogue comment by Brown: "Just because you believe something is wrong does not mean you make it illegal."


Brown and his cohorts (and plenty of other people) probably believe that lots of things I do and believe are wrong. Good for them. I think lots of things they do are sad and gross. When it comes to discrimination and equal rights, this is a moot point. If you want to argue about equal protection and the "rational basis test" as a justification for denying me this right, bring it on (as is currently happening in the Prop 8 case and elsewhere). But don't try to justify discrimination on the grounds of your beliefs, be they Biblical interpretations or personal poems.

Watching, instead of taking part in, such a visceral debate drove home the fact that we cannot have an argument of beliefs. Most people are not going to budge on their definition of marriage, and I think that's OK. To that end, this debate illustrated the benefits of simply owning our differences and the potential solution of not caring about the word "marriage." The only thing that really matters is that consenting adults are able to come together under a legal union with all the same legal benefits afforded any other legal union.

Meanwhile, let Brown believe whatever he wants to believe when it comes to how special and unique he is. I certainly have no interest in convincing anyone that my specialness is anything even remotely similar to Brown's specialness. I'm much more comfortable explaining all the ways in which we're different.

This piece originally appeared at Autostraddle.