My Wedding Ring

With great joy, I decided to put my wedding ring back on my finger this past weekend.

I had stopped wearing my ring because I was slightly embarrassed to live in a state where people like my sister couldn’t marry the people they love.

But I have no reason now to be embarrassed on this score, because on Friday the Connecticut Supreme Court struck down the statutory exclusion. You can read Justice Palmer‘s opinion here. (Disclosure: An amicus brief was filed in the case on behalf of me and other Connecticut law professors, and my spouse, Jennifer Gerarda Brown, was the co-author of another amicus brief.)

I view the legal exclusion of gay people from marriage as morally wrong; a form of invidious discrimination. Many people hold different substantive views about marriage equality.

But in this post, I want to focus on a different question: How should people respond to the legal option of taking a benefit that is invidiously denied others? It’s a question that transcends the specific issue of same-sex marriage. You can also ask, for example, whether it would ever have been appropriate for whites to drink from a “whites only” water fountain.

When I ask my students the water fountain question, very few whites say they would drink. But at the same time, heterosexual students who strongly oppose the marriage exclusion nonetheless, like me, choose to take the benefits of marriage that are, to our minds, denied others.

Jennifer Brown and I devote an entire chapter to this question in our book Straightforward: How to Mobilize Heterosexual Support for Gay Rights.

One of our central conclusions is that people ignore intermediate responses and mistakenly focus on all-or-nothing responses. Instead of refusing to marry, it’s possible to renounce (for consequential or non-consequential reasons) some of the trappings of marriage.

I not only took off my wedding ring, but until Friday, I’ve tended to refer to Jennifer as my partner instead of my spouse.

But there is also another under-appreciative alternative; the simple algebraic logic of what Jennifer and I call pro-rata sharing:

Here’s a simple monetary (and therefore quantifiable) example. If a person takes a $100,000 college scholarship that is invidiously denied to 20 percent of qualified beneficiaries, we believe that, at a minimum, the person should give up 20 percent of the scholarship. In this example, there are four beneficiaries for every victim. If the four beneficiaries each surrender $20,000, then both the beneficiaries and the victim end up with a nondiscriminatory allocation of $80,000. (Straightforward, P. 165)

Pro-rata sharing is an attractive moral response because it makes the moral duty literally proportional to the magnitude of the harm:

It would be bizarre to require people to give up all the benefits of a scholarship, regardless of whether 1 percent or 90 percent of the qualified beneficiaries were unfairly excluded …

In many contexts, it’s not feasible to identify and effect a direct transfer to the victims of the discrimination. But it is useful to keep in mind when we are the beneficiaries of invidious discrimination, and then to “disgorge” a portion of those benefits by devoting some of our time or making a cash contribution to remedy the situation.

By the way, lest you think my scholarship hypothetical is unrealistic, I received thousands of dollars of support for both college and law school from the Victor Wilson Scholarship, which to this day invidiously excludes women. (Again, my sister was shut out, but this time solely because of her gender.) I took the money, but now feel honor bound to engage in pro-rata sharing.


Ryan B.

Re: #67 Daniel

My comment about horses was not an argument, it was a joke. There are many statements on here that are inappropriate, but I don’t think that a joke about horses is. Please do not question whether I have thought critically about this issue. I have been raised to believe that gay marriage is morally wrong and my faith holds that it is morally wrong as well. I am currently in the process of figuring out what my beliefs are about the issue. In my circle, I am thinking more critically than anyone by even questioning whether gay marriage should be legal. I see denying homosexuals the right to marry as equivalent to denying rights to blacks in the 1800’s.

Perhaps to you marriage is “purely for legal protections,” but I think of marriage as an expression of love and a commitment to your spouse for the rest of your life. I also believe that any two people who love each other should have equal right to express that love.

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Laura

+1 to some points rased by #33 and #35 - one can hardly deny the importance of "procreation of children" in the formation of family and marriage concepts in various civilizations. However, is reproduction the single most important component of "marriage" definition and reason for people marrying? Probably not, since not every couple can have children etc. And talking about equality, a heterosexual couple is the one in which the children are supposed to have "equal" exposure to the two sexes represented by female mother and male father. how good and how equal the real exposure is (or the roles performed by each parent) are, is a different question.

However, at the same time in definition of marriage as an expression of love and a commitment (one of the favorite arguments) can anyone define "love" and how long it should last in order to be a valid reason for marriage? What about the people who pretend to love but marry for other reasons - money or all those legal benefits/protection?

Here goes +1 to #33, there are numerous legal considerations about "marriage" which in principle are less related to "love" and "commitment" but provide specific benefits which have important monetary and non-monetary values. However, before asking "Why should some couples be denied these benefits while others aren't?" let's see... how do we define the "eligible" couples? In addition to homosexual/heterosexual couples, why friendships or other types of "couples" cannot have the same rights - they may be doing even more good for society sometimes than marriages, and can be just as full of love and loyalty and commitment?

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Jessica

First-The ring is symbol of ones "forever" commitment to another. And last time I checked...not just "straight" couples wore rings.

I believe marriage to be a commitment between one man, one woman and GOD. And I believe we all know that it is morally wrong to practice homosexual relationships. However I do believe in having a tolerance and understanding of others and the choices they make. This does not mean you have to accept it as right, or ok, but that you give them the respect you would want to be given. I have been fortunate enough to live in a country where rights have been given to me simply for being born here. I know how priveledged I am. However, I have been forced to sit in countless classes, listening to teachers/profesors, teach me about evolution, when I believe in God being the creator of all. I refuse to sit in anymore classes where my beliefs will be stiffled because of what is "politically correct" Our we forgetting just what our country was founded on? Does "one nation under GOD" ring a bell? I refuse to have to sit in one more class and be forced to learn something I do not agree with on a moral level. The fact that parents will have no legal right to prevent THEIR children from learnign about same sex couples as "normal" family relationships absolutely disgusts me. If parents cant stop their five year old sons and daughters from learning about this then are parents going to lose the right to not have their child be apart of the "sexual education" courses they start in ELEMENTARY school. So many complain about, personal beliefs coming into puplic places, that religion, should be left at home. Well what is the difference between allowing prayers in school, and forcing someone elses belief on others? Can we say double standard? Only when it suits those who feel they are being discriminated agains is it an actual propblem and do people try to "correct" the situation. We voted on this exact same issue not too long ago...but thanks to (three) judges, our votes no longer mattered, and here we are again. What is wrong with the government when our votes or tossed aside and we are sent to argue the issues that we already resolved? I love how both Obama and Mccain are AGAINST gay marriage! Maybe there is some hope.

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Erin

To #8 (Michael)

Turks also have two separate ceremonies for wedding: one religious, one civil. Without the civil ceremony the religious ceremony is void. And one does not need to hold the religious ceremony to be married, a civil one is sufficient. Now, being the two most strict secular countries in the world, I wonder whether they are the only two countries to do it like this.. I know that gay marriages are not yet allowed in Turkey..

Dave

I want to marry a dolphin but I can't marry a dolphin. Would you please keep your wedding ring off until I can marry a dolphin? Also, I prefer that we change the dolphin-marrying law in the courts so that all those dumb voters don't get a say in the matter. "Democracy" is much better served when we decide decisive issues by judges who have little to no accountability to the public. Thank you.

Griff

In the UK, same sex couples have been able to register 'Civil parnerships' legally/officially since 2005.

Religious ceremony is not allowed as part of the registration process/occasion.

I believe that a civil partnership is equivalent to a UK civil marriage in legal terms.

Society has not fallen apart... nobody much comments... a lot of people get to express their commitment to each other & get a degree of legal protection & security.

What harm could civil partnerships do to America?

Don

Every one of those scholarships at UMKC was exclusionary. In fact, almost every scholarship at every university is exclusionary in some way.

Did your sister get another scholarship? How many scholarship opportunities give preference to males compared to how many give preference to females? Were you excluded from any other scholarships that you wanted to apply for because of your gender or race?

Since you received a male-only scholarship that your sister didn't apply to, you donated part of your scholarship money to a gay marriage organization?

htb

This won't work in some cases. Asian students are significantly overrepresented in Univ. California admissions. You can't "halfway" attend UC Berkeley, and randomly revoking admission to every third Asian student isn't a good solution, either.

(For those that don't follow the stats, Asian-American students are significantly, even *dramatically* more likely to be admitted to UC Berkeley than their proportion among California high school graduates suggests. Contrary to all the doomsayers, white students are to the UC system in almost exactly the level that their proportion among high school students would predict. Every "extra" Asian student is offset by the absence of a student that is Latino-American, African-American, or Native American; the "race-blind" efforts have not affected white students at all.)

Kevin P.

Is polygamous marriage between consenting adults allowed under the laws of Connecticut?

No? But polygamous marriage has far more historical sanction than gay marriage. It has been commonplace in Asia and Africa for generations.

I trust you will take your wedding ring off again until consenting adults have the right to enter into polygamous marriage.

El Christador

But these are all normative propositions. The discussion is pointless.

Daniel

Re:Ryan, #36

"What happens when someone decides that they really love their horse and want to marry it?"

Last time I checked, horses, among other animals, have no capacity for expressing will on the level necessary to sign a legal document. Being able to express a flight or fright response doesn't count.

Your argument is not only inappropriate, but demonstrates a lack of critical thought when approaching this issue.

Marriage is religious. Let individual religions define marriage. Let civil unions (secular and legally binding) be the standard for all persons of legal age who desire to enter into an economic contract such as marriage. Love requires no documentation: the paperwork is purely for legal protection, and it is that which should be equally available to all citizens. And perhaps while we're at it, we really should legalize polygamy, on the sole condition that is is equally available to women who desire multiple husbands as it is to men who desire multiple wives. There can hardly be any greater chance for abuse than there already is within this overly glamorized institution. If you desire equality, go all the way with it.

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Martin

Should a black student admitted to Harvard with a full scholarship turn it down because there is at least a reasonable chance that, because of affirmative chance, he would not have gotten in if he were white, holding all of his intellectual abilities and academic accomplishments equal?

I am not saying that black students at Harvard don't deserve to be there. I am saying, however, that at schools like Harvard, where they turn down hundreds of over-qualified candidates, that affirmative action likely made the difference for some students.

Personally, if I were that black student, I would go to Harvard. If I were in love, I would have no problem getting married in the state of Virginia, a state that explicitly defines marriage as between a man and woman (I should mention that I am strong supporter of gay marriage). Had I been around 100 years ago, and I were thirsty and no other fountain was around, I might have drank from the white only fountain, although part of me wishes that wasn't true.

I was born an American citizen, and have received all sorts of benefits that people born outside the U.S. have not. I never decided to be born in America; nor did they decide to be born in, say, China. But because of it, I enjoy all sorts of benefits that they do not. That's reality. I'm not saying it's fair. I'm not saying that it is necessarily moral even. But I am saying that turning down the benefits of being born into a free nation isn't going to solve anything.

I agree that sharing the benefits, when possible is morally admirable. But my point is that when there's nothing you can really do about it (i.e. you cannot legalize gay marriage yourself, I cannot make a foreigner a U.S. citizen, etc), I would still enjoy the benefits allowed to me.

But perhaps I only say this because I am a game theorist.

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Ashwin Rayasam

This article is all around ill conceived. I get what he is trying to do but comparing marriage to a scholarship is idiotic whether or not he did it simply because the scholarship was quantifiable.

And to stop wearing his ring... hilarious, my wife would kill me.

Tali B

I don't follow your comparison to a "white only" water fountain. According to your logic even an unsegregated fountain would should be considered invidious due to the fact that in other places in the country (why stop there? other places in the world) have "white only" fountains. If this were your logic then I would agree not to participate in marriages but apparently it's not. You only question the "white only" fountains and once Connecticut changed their laws you began to wear your ring again but what about the other states that don't allow gay marriages? How can you be satisfied while there is still injustice in the world?

Kathryn

Josh: while I agree in theory, the reality is that recreating the web of rights that currently attach to marriage automatically would be very, very expensive, and probably to some extent impossible. (Ask any gay couple who has tried to do so.) Making some rights or benefits transferable by private contract among "family" members (health care, pensions, etc.) may be impossible without some sort of state requirement for recognition, or may require state recognition outright (SS benefits). But some sort of state sanction or enforcement will be necessary.

I do agree that there is no reason to conflate a religious matter with a legal one, though. It is damaging to both the religious and state institutions.

Ralph

AS a gay man, and speaking only for myself, I find it really tiresome when well-meaning heterosexuals talk about renouncing marriage rights on my behalf, much less referring to their "partners." Really, not to be ungrateful, but no-one's asking you to. (Why not go further still and start referring to your wife as your "boyfriend"?) Your gay-friendly votes are appreciated, but frankly it's presumptious of you to push the "solidarity" this far into identifying with, and appropriating, the constraints and the vocabulary of same-sex relationships. (I'd thought we might at least be entitled to keep the latter for ourselves.) Please live your own life, don't assume you know what's best for us, and drop the self-righteously symbolic sacrifice.

cv

JML, you suggest that domestic partnerships for gay and lesbian couples in California are equivalent to marriage and that being able to be legally married would not confer additional benefits. If this is the case, then I suggest that heterosexual couples should be happy with domestic partnerships for themselves as well. The fact that most straight couples instinctively reject this idea shows that there is a real qualitative difference between the two.

Being able to use the same words as everyone else - spouse, marriage, husband, wife - does matter. It matters when you have to choose between the "single" or "married" box on forms. It matters when a hospital employee isn't familiar with the exact nature of the rights conferred by a domestic partnership, or you have to explain the nature of those rights to your car insurance company on the phone. It matters when you want to move across the country, and you have to do research to determine whether you need to get a civil union in New Jersey if you already have a domestic partnership in California.

These things may not seem like a big deal, but dealing with them day in and day out sends a clear message that society considers gay and lesbian couples inferior to straight couples.

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Adam

@ #5:

I don't think Vonnegut meant that story as a defense of the institution of marriage in its present state. Or of taxes in any way.

Katie

I'm not sure I'm convinced that not wearing a ring or chosing not to partake in marriage and its benefits is a very effective form of protest. The amicus brief, meanwhile, seems a much more proactive form of protest that has a much better chance of making a change.

Not that I am denying the effectiveness of protest and gestures, but many of these gestures are subtle and would be missed by most except those who know you well enough to know you stance. Not drinking from the fountain would not be noticed, though filling a pitcher with water from that fountain and giving it to people at the black-only fountain might be noticed.

I suspect that a starving African child would not find it morally satisfying if you refused to eat since ample nutritious food is a luxury you are allowed by virtue of your circumstances that they are not. They would probably think you were crazy. I think they would appreciate it more if you used your good fortune to support a reputable program that fed him.

This probably falls closer to the lines of "pro-rata sharing" without a strict equation guiding you donation. This is a fairly old concept- charity- and only works out nicely when it's a matter of distribution of wealth (money or otherwise). How do you share a freedom with others? How do you share recognition as a dependent for insurance?

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ALB

When the founders of our country wrote the constitution they made sure that we would remain free in our choice of religion but slowly the government has taken away these rights. The founders wanted people to be able to pray in places such as school freely, they did not want them to be forced to pray to any one God but to be free to pray to their god.

I believe that marriage between two people of the same gender is morally wrong. However the main reason that I am for prop 8 is it gives me the right to sit in my classes without being taught the ideas of the world. My parents can not afford to send me to private school where I would be able to worship how I want to, So instead I sit in public school where in classes such as Science I can not talk about how I believe in Heavenly father forming the earth, instead I am forced to study their belief of evolution. By voting yes on prop 8 you’re allowing the education system to take away my freedom to worship as I wish. I and any of my classmates can get in to trouble for saying a quick, silent payer before a test, now they want to force me to believe marriage is o.k. if it is between same sex couples. Even though I know it is morally wrong. By voting no on prop 8 you are allowing the government to once again take away a little more of my freedom to worship how I wish.

I can't vote this election. Please remember to keep those of us who are slowly being stripped of our freedoms yet who are hardly seen in the government’s eye in mind at the polls.

Thank-you for your time.

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