04/05/2013 08:43 am ET Updated Jun 05, 2013

You've Had All of Recorded History to Come Up With a Reason Gays Can't Get Married

Something very important happened on Bill O'Reilly's show this week that I'd like you to consider for just a moment. The current conservative case against same-sex marriage was laid out, and it is...

We'll come up with something later alright, you can't just spring this on us, OMG leave us alone already, we'll do it okay!

A quick recap, for context: O'Reilly had come under fire for observing -- quite rightly, I might add -- that his fellow conservatives have yet to offer a compelling case against gay marriage. He noted that, instead of offering substantive arguments, conservatives simply "thump the Bible." Laura Ingraham dropped by to say that she wasn't personally offended by his wording, but that O'Reilly shouldn't poo-poo everyone's awesome future anti-equality arguments just because they do not yet exist.

In Ingraham's exact words: "Give it some time to percolate. People will come up with better arguments."

Rationalizing bigotry is hard, man.

To continue her metaphor: Ingraham hasn't yet smelled the coffee. Actually, I suspect that she has. She just doesn't want to get out of bed yet.

Do take a moment to watch the clip, though. The explanation comes at about 6:09 into the video. It only takes a few seconds if you skip ahead. Go ahead. I'll still be here when you get back.

Note also how casually she says it. It doesn't read like she's announcing on live television that conservatives are struggling to find a reason to justify prejudice so much as like she's telling a shop girl that she lost the receipt but will gladly take store credit.

It should go without saying that if you don't have a reason for doing something as serious as denying one group of human beings of over a thousand legal rights, you probably shouldn't do it. It should. But in the year 2013, in the United States of America, it does not. Here and now, "I have no reason," is the new reason. It was even suggested in the Supreme Court oral arguments last week.

The excuse for holding a position with no rational basis behind it is that the very concept of same-sex marriage is somehow just too new, too alien to have been properly considered. Anti-equality forces can only assure us that once we have weighed their forthcoming argument, we will be solidly on their side.

At this point I feel someone should observe that same-sex unions are just about the least new thing about our current definition of marriage.

A few years back I was struck by a somewhat off-hand comment I read in, of all places, Charlotte Chandler's biography of Mae West. In interviews conducted shortly before her death, West recalled:

I had homosexuals I knew tell me that their dearest desire was to marry their lover of the same sex. It didn't satisfy them just to live together, as if they were married. They were more anxious to be legally married than a lot of man-woman couples I knew. Certainly more anxious than I ever was to be married.

Apparently there are no Mae West fans on the Supreme Court. I guess that's not such a surprise. Delivering this line to a real judge helped land her in jail in 1927.

What's interesting is that Mae West was born in 1893. She was recalling all of this in either 1980 or the late 1970s. But while the thought of same-sex marriage was undoubtedly outside of West's time, it was also not exclusively ahead of it. After all, gay marriage has been happening just about as long as straight marriage -- and not just in old Mel Brooks movies.

When anti-equality Christians are forced to acknowledge gay marriage in history, they usually go right to Nero, who viciously persecuted Christians -- and married two men. So did Elagabalus (yep, two,) and his reputation is nearly as bad, depending on which historian is doing the analysis. But these are, obviously, calculated, aberrant examples.

While it is likely that no copies of the Roman daily Acta Diurna survive, the infamously homophobic Juvenal lamented the regularity of its gay wedding announcements. It's a little surprising, in fact, that Juvenal isn't more of a hero to paleo-conservatives -- after all, he was railing against foreigners and gays when certain contemporaries were conspicuously silent on these core Christian issues. Combine this with his claim that young male sex partners were preferable to those damned demanding women and one gets the sense that, had he been born 2,000 years later, he could very well have been a United States Senator.

Available records show the same thing all over the world and throughout human history. Pan Zhang famously married Wang Zhongxian a thousand years before Christ and Nero. This is probably a work of fiction, of course, but one that shows gay marriage was not unheard of in the early Zhou Dynasty. Eusebius, Aristotle and Bardaisan all write that the Gauls honored same-sex marriage. Native American tribes are known to have performed same-sex unions. And, of course, same-sex marriage wasn't banned in Rome until well into its decline -- just six decades before the barbarians crossed the Rhine. Even in the face of church prohibition, it went on. Surviving documents suggest that gay marriage was still common in late medieval France. Basically, if we have records of marriage in a given culture, we probably have records of same-sex marriage in it, too.

That's a rather rushed history, and one that I'm sure historians would love to nitpick and expound on, but my overall point is that conservatives have had all of recorded history to come up with a compelling argument against gay marriage. If Laura Ingraham can't come up with one in 2013, I'd say it's about time to give it up.

Certainly they've had the entire history of democratic debate. After all, if Harmodius had not spurned Hipparchus for Aristogeiton, Hipparchus probably wouldn't have publicly humiliated Harmodius' sister, the gay lovers might never have killed the tyrant and Athenian democracy might not have happened. Do consider that next time gay rights land on your ballot.

Instead of using all that time to come up with an argument, however, anti-equality forces have chosen to simply re-write history as their argument. Mitt Romney was probably the most daring offender, brazenly standing on stage and declaring to the world that marriage had been "between one man and one woman," for 3,000 years. Then 6,000. I like to imagine that he has doubled it each time he made the claim, his starting point having been the moment his father was born in a polygamist colony, with at least six known grandmothers. (I don't know how many wives his mother's father had, but his father's father had five.) Hell, even that Bible O'Reilly accused people of thumping records the polygamous marriages of Abraham, Jacob, Saul, David (that one's tricky,) Solomon, Lamech, Gideon, Esau, Rehoboam, Elkanah, Ashur, Abijah, Jehoiada, Ahab, Caleb, Simeon, Ezra, Zedekiah, Belshazzar, Jerahmeel, Ahasuerus, Joash, Eliphaz, Mered, Jehoram, Ashur, Machir, Benhadad, Nahor, Jehoiachin, Manasseh, and maybe Moses.

Let's face it: marriage ain't what it used to be, and for damn good reason. Human history probably shouldn't be our guide when it comes to matters of human rights. But it also shouldn't be misrepresented to excuse prejudice when no other rationalization presents itself.

So, here's what I'm going to do, because the other side won't. I'm going to tell you the two main reasons people are against gay marriage.

The first is the unspoken belief that straight people are just better than gay people. The prospect of losing privileged status really freaks some people out. That is the position from which idiots like this approach issues of gender, race, class, nationality, sexual orientation and anything else that can be summarized as "us vs them." It's ugly and, when people see it in the mirror, they usually change their mind.

The second is the belief that Ingraham seems to hold: that societies are just stronger if they adhere to certain traditions and customs, even when those customs harm some individuals. There is some value to tradition, of course, but this is dangerous (and uneven) territory. So we require laws that limit individual rights to serve a legitimate state interest.

On the topic of same-sex marriage, prohibition just doesn't pass muster. Bill O'Reilly knows it. Laura Ingraham knows it. At this point, everyone knows it -- they're just afraid of what Alabama will do when it finds out. O'Reilly is willing to say it and, for that, he should be commended.

Still, it's a little difficult not to enjoy O'Reilly's headache as the latest victim of the "oppressed Christian" outrage machine just a little. After all, his outlandish annual "War on Christmas" coverage is one long parade of imagined sleights against Christians, usually aimed at people who are actually just trying to be considerate and inclusive. Sounds a lot like what's happening to him right now. Except, of course, that unlike school administrators in towns you've never heard of, he probably enjoys the attention.

We can't be too hard on the guy when we're thinking about history, though. Just as there were gays and homophobes, immigrants and xenophobes throughout history, so too have there been Santas and Scrooges. Though Caesar induced vomiting to continue feasting and Cicero showered his soldiers with generosity at the end of each December, Martial complained about cheap presents and re-gifting. Libanius took the opposite view, directing his outrage at all the consumerism. "People suddenly go mad," he wrote one fourth century December, "and blow what they took a year to save."

So the good news is that if O'Reilly doesn't want to talk about gay marriage anymore, there's still no end in sight to that War on Saturnalia. History, eh?

Since there is no link available online, the author would like to acknowledge that entry 157 of Barry Baldwin's Classical Corner column in the Fortean Times was his source for or introduction to the translation from Oration 9 and all accompanying Saturnalia anecdotes. He would also like to announce that he laments the dearth of classical texts online, even on large archives, and add that any writer who can afford one and doesn't have a subscription to the Fortean Times is a damn fool.