Before the year 2000, no US state recognized same-sex marriage. By 2015, it was legal throughout the US and most of Western Europe. Before 2015 most Americans knew nothing about transgender issues. Within a year transgender issues are on the front pages of newspapers every day and schools may be forced to provide special bathrooms for trans students. The pace of change in the sexual revolution is not just rapid. It’s accelerating around the world. Why?
This is the third article in a MercatorNet symposium.
MARGARET SOMERVILLE: we are witnessing the latest battle in the progressive values revolution.
Here’s my short and simple answer: The emergence, rapid acceptance and normalization of same-sex marriage and now transgenderism (1) in our Western democracies are just the tip of an enormous iceberg of change in individual and societal values, euphemistically labelled “the progressive values revolution”.
We need to understand the components of this revolution, especially its history dating back to the 1960s, to understand current so-called “progressive” attitudes to same-sex marriage and transgenderism. These attitudes have not emerged as rapidly as it might seem and, while some of the conditions for their emergence simply evolved, others were carefully planned and executed over nearly half a century. Their emergence is not a metaphysical accident or just an aberration and there is no single factor that is the cause. Rather a wide variety of forces and complex interactions among them have resulted in the changes in values and attitudes that we now see.
So let’s look at some of these forces and factors.
The emergence of “progressive values”
Postmodern ethics – “progressive values” – are characterized by deconstructionism, often without viable replacements for the values dismantled; “adolescent progressivism” – the view that change is always beneficial and necessary, and a knee-jerk rejection of traditional values and views; and “totalitarian utopianism” – a belief that the sought-after change will do only good and a blindness to its risks and harms, and espousing a primary ideology of individual choice and tolerance, but rejecting any values or views that are seen as interfering or inconsistent with the envisioned utopia, often through the imposition of “political correctness”. Progressives see themselves as creating a better world and as entitled to impose their values, even at great cost to those who disagree with them, in order to achieve that goal.
The radically different values stances of conservatives (those who see worth in “examined tradition”) and liberals (progressives) have been researched by evolutionary psychologists, and in particular Harvard University political scientist Jonathan Haidt (2). They have articulated six moral foundations that underlie our values-based decisions and shown the interpretation and adoption of these moral foundations can differ between liberals and conservatives.
The moral foundation “Care/Harm” – protect others and do not harm them – was important to everyone, as was the “Liberty/Oppression” one. Both groups supported the value of fairness and rejected cheating, but conservatives had much stronger attachment to loyalty and respect for authority than did liberals. And most pertinent to our discussion of the emergence of same-sex marriage and transgenderism, conservatives, unlike liberals, also sought and employed a sense of sanctity.
Conservatives view the possibility that a man and a woman can together conceive a child as central to marriage and as making marriage sacred. Same-sex marriage negates this central element and hence, in conservatives’ eyes, de-sanctifies marriage. I hasten to add here that although sanctity is often connected with religion – the “religious sacred” – I believe, and Haidt’s research affirms, that we can have and use a concept of sanctity outside of religion – I call this the “secular sacred” (3).
Loss of a sense of mystery and of the sacred
With the decline in religious practice, we have lost our sense that there is any mystery in life and with that any sense of the sacred. This changes our perceptions and our worldview. Utilitarianism (the ends justify the means) and moral relativism (nothing is inherently right or wrong it all depends on the circumstances or personal preferences or other criteria) become dominant and concepts that some actions are inherently wrong (natural law) are regarded as passé. Science is seen as eventually being able to explain everything, rather than what we discover through science increasing our sense of amazement, wonder and awe.
With technoscience developments we have technologized, medicalized and dehumanized our most intimate human encounters. So, for example, with reproductive technologies passing on life to our children has gone from being seen as a miracle to a technological or medicalized event.
Rejection of the natural as having any moral status or value
With the extraordinary expansion of the power of technology came a rejection of the need for respect for the natural. The natural differences between men and women (sex difference), male and female (gender difference) are rejected and replaced by a doctrine of “gender neutrality”.
Assisted human reproduction technology challenges the values surrounding natural conception, and genetic and molecular biology advances face us with the possibility of designing our children. This could include creating a shared genetic child between two men or two women. I have been told that gay activists in Canada will challenge as unconstitutional under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms any law that would prevent them from attempting to create such a child.
Paradoxically, while science has vastly increased our knowledge of the importance of genetics and of the innate biological and functional differences between men and women, arguing for the recognition of those differences is decried as “privileging biology” and discrimination. (I note here that accepting difference does not mean accepting inequality – women and men are different but equal.)
Likewise, the evidence from social science research of children’s need for bonds to their biological forebears is largely rejected by those not wanting to recognise the importance of knowing where we came from, through whom life travelled to us and to whom we are related. They deny the importance of the fact that our biological bonds are the only ones that can never be broken.
Love becomes the justification for the choices that individuals make about forming a family. For example, it’s claimed that children only need one loving parent (usually a single mother or occasionally a single man who has a child with a surrogate mother) or two loving “parents” of the same sex, they don’t need a mother and a father. Moreover, they are conceived intending that they will only have one parent or that with a same-sex couple one or both parents will be biologically unrelated to them. (This contrasts with adoption where biological un-relatedness of adoptive parent(s) and child is unintentional at the time of conception.) The definitions of a parent and a family then become whatever group we define as such, it has no natural intrinsic biological reality.
Rejection of the relevance of history
Rejection of the natural as having any moral status is accompanied by a rejection of the relevance of history in helping us to make wise ethical decisions. “Progressive values” adherents tend to treat history (human memory (4)) as old-fashioned and irrelevant and see the lessons it can provide as restrictive of their freedoms. They call people who have conservative values “restrictives” – although the antonym of that word is “permissives,” not progressives.
The progressives’ informing principle is “choice, control and change.” So they want to be free to choose to marry a person of the same sex, which requires change in the definition of marriage. In contrast, people with conservative or more traditional values, while recognising that values evolve, believe we must remember the past, especially very longstanding values and institutions such as marriage, to protect the present and future (5).
Contraception and the sexual revolution
The advent of the “contraceptive pill” and the sexual revolution that followed disconnected sex from procreation – sex went from being seen as primarily connected with procreation to being primarily connected with recreation. It was more focused on the self than the other person – an exercise in self-affirmation and perhaps narcissism. Sex as recreation eliminates any considerations of children’s rights – in fact, they don’t have any. If a child is conceived by “accident” it can be aborted. (Between one in three and one in four pregnancies are aborted in Canada, resulting in over 100,000 abortions each year.) This recreational trend has only intensified with “sexting” and the “hook up” culture.
Marriage became seen as primarily based on romantic love between two adults and as the public recognition of that love, rather than recognition of the man’s and woman’s commitment to founding a family together. The logical follow-on argument is that it doesn’t matter that gay sex is not connected with procreation as that’s no longer central to marriage, and same-sex relationships are likewise based in romantic love — so why can’t gays marry?
It merits noting that founding marriage primarily on romantic love means that if that love dissipates divorce is the appropriate solution. The advent of “no fault” divorce as part of the sexual revolution seriously weakened the traditional underpinnings of marriage, in particular, that it had a sacred element that must be respected and held on trust. It’s been noted elsewhere that heterosexuals’ treatment of marriage, from the 1960s on, opened the way to same-sex marriage.
The goals of the homosexual community in seeking the legalization of same-sex marriage included wanting recognition at an institutional and a societal level of their sexual relationships and of the families they founded, which is what marriage provides. They sought this recognition as an antidote to the horrible wrong of discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and the harm it had inflicted, especially through the criminalization of homosexual relationships. They were fully justified in wanting such discrimination recognized and remedied and today some governments are apologizing for such laws and their devastating effects on gay people`s lives.
But legalizing same-sex marriage was not the appropriate way to seek these remedies because of its harms to children`s rights. Some – a very small minority of gay activists – also wanted same-sex marriage recognized in order to undermine opposite sex marriage, which they characterized as the leading institution implementing a form of discrimination they called “privileging heterosexualism”.
Emergence of progressive values regarding “sexual ethics”
However, although the birth of progressive values regarding “sexual ethics” can be traced to the sexual revolution in the 1960s, the events and strategies that led to the mainstreaming of these values first manifested themselves in the early 1980s, concurrently with the appearance of the HIV/AIDS epidemic and as one of the reactions to it, and bore full fruit at the turn of the millennium.
I personally knew a small number of gay intellectuals, academics, and judges from different countries, who cooperated with each other to carefully and skillfully articulate the arguments and strategies to see that same-sex marriage would be legalized. It was not an accident that Canada was chosen as the site for a major battle that resulted in victory for same-sex marriage.
The factors contributing to that victory included recognition and articulation in law of individual human rights and the wrongs of discrimination, both in general and on the basis of sexual orientation, a focus on upholding individual autonomy, identifying the LCBTIQ community as an “identity based social movement”, like feminism or anti-racism, seeking justice for its members, and introducing broad-based sex education, encompassing both heterosexual and LGBTIQ conduct, into schools.
The role of educational establishments in creating the conditions which favoured legalizing same-sex marriage should not be underestimated. Many young people have never been exposed to more traditional values regarding sexual conduct and marriage, indeed, some schools are now publicly celebrating transgender children “coming out” and in universities political correctness is being used to silence any disagreement with progressive values, including about sexual conduct. As well, almost all young professors, and a substantial proportion of older ones, promote progressive values.
Looking at what has happened in education, we can see that the current situation is not a sudden change or revolution, but has emerged through careful planning by progressive values advocates over the last 20 to 25 years. An anecdotal observation on my part is that, at least in Canada, it is very difficult to find professors teaching family law who espouse traditional values.
Human rights and avoiding discrimination
The emergence and use of human rights law was clearly established by the early 1980s and was epitomized in Canada by the addition of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms to the Canadian Constitution.
The recognition that discrimination in general, including on the basis of sexual orientation, was wrong, especially in relation to people suffering from HIV/AIDS, did much to change attitudes to homosexuality.
The same-sex marriage battle was largely won on the basis of a claim that refusing it was wrongful discrimination equivalent to discrimination on the basis of race, skin colour, sex, or ethnic or national origin. Many people were persuaded by this argument and, as a result, accepted that the definition of marriage should be changed from being between a man and a woman to between any two people (excluding consanguinity).
Those who opposed same-sex marriage were stigmatized as bigots, hateful and homophobic. This stigmatizing, derogatory labelling of those who disagreed was effective. Opponents of same-sex marriage , especially politicians, were frightened of being characterized in this way and, consequently, many kept silent regarding their opposition and justified doing so on the basis that same-sex marriage would not affect their own marriage or family. Young people on the whole saw no problem with same-sex marriage and older Canadians (Boomers), who have an obsession with youth, possibly did not challenge their views for fear of being seen as fossilized dinosaurs. (I know the feeling of being so labelled: I was once described in an editorial in Nature as “Canada’s neo-Luddite bioethicist”.)
Perhaps the greater acceptance of same-sex marriage by younger people is a result of their devaluing marriage in general. A recent Nanos Research poll of 1000 Canadians 18 years old or older carried out for Cardus Family Institute found that when asked if marriage is an outdated institution, most Canadians disagree or somewhat disagree, at 56 percent , but younger people ages 18 to 29 were least likely to value marriage. Almost 30 percent of 18 to 29-year-olds (28.4 percent) agree or somewhat agree that marriage is outdated.
The rights of children that opposite-sex marriage establishes and same-sex marriage annuls were almost never discussed in the same-sex marriage debates that became ubiquitous, except to the extent that children in same-sex “families” were presented as being unfairly disadvantaged and harmed by the reality that their “parents” could not marry. Same-sex parents being able to do so led, in turn, to the redefinition of who constituted a family: it was no longer on the basis of biological relationship, but of the intention of the adults involved to form a family.
The emotional component
With the “Gay Pride” movement and homosexual people publicly identifying as such, homosexuality was no longer hidden, as it was in the past. The media focus on individual same-sex couples, some of whom had been partners for decades, who made heart-felt pleas to be allowed to marry, and of parents with gay children who wanted that possibility for their children, was also a very powerful force in the legalization of same-sex marriage. People, in general, were persuaded by advocates of same-sex marriage that they were being vindictive, small-minded and mean to exclude gays from marriage and deny them families when that was possible for heterosexuals, and even in denying them the opportunity for a romantic wedding – opening up that possibility was a bonus for the wedding industry. That unfairness argument was relied on heavily to make the case for same-sex marriage.
So, in the 1980s and 1990s there were two concurrent trends both pushing in the same direction of favouring the legalization of same-sex marriage: the legal-logical rights claims and the emotional claims, both of which were underpinned by the then increasingly dominant value of respect for individual autonomy (the right not to be prevented from creating one’s authentic self, respect for each individual`s dignity through the right of self-determination, the right not to be offended, and so on).
Focus exclusively on the individual person
A “chicken-and-egg” relationship between “choice, change and control” as the informing principle for “progressive values” and intense individualism has led, in practice, to respect for individual autonomy becoming the dominant value in Canada and other post-modern Western democracies, trumping all other values in most situations. You love someone of the samesex and want to marry them; no one else has the right to tell you that you may not do that. You are a male, but feel you are female, gender is a fluid concept and you may choose your gender and others must respect your choice.
Progressives prioritize respect for individual autonomy as a dominant value in order to operationalize their belief in individuals’ right to control what happens to them.
Respect for individuals’ rights must be considered and is a valid concern; the problem is when that is all that is considered and what is needed to protect the “common good”, especially in relation to children and society, is suppressed or ignored.
By giving same-sex couples the right to found a family, same-sex marriage takes away children’s rights to a mother and a father that opposite-sex marriage establishes. It transfers the central raison d’être and focus of marriage from children’s rights and natural (biological) parents’ responsibilities, to adults’ rights. As mentioned previously, this argument against same-sex marriage was given almost no attention in the public square or mainstream media.
Anecdotally, when I was an expert witness on affidavit for the Government of Canada in the “Same-Sex Marriage Reference” to the Supreme Court of Canada, I was expressly told to delete this argument, which I believed was the only valid one on which to object to same-sex marriage, from my affidavit. My speculation was that the reason I was told to do this was that the Government wanted the same-sex marriage issue settled before an upcoming election and it believed that allowing same-sex marriage, especially when they could claim they were doing that pursuant to a Supreme Court of Canada ruling, would be the least disruptive stance to take and best for them.
In this brief article I have discussed same-sex marriage more than transgenderism, because the latter has emerged as a social issue and debate more recently than same-sex marriage and from the same forces and developments as described for same-sex marriage.
Whether we are progressives or conservatives, we need to understand better the bases on which we make moral and ethical decisions and the values that come into play when we do so. For instance, the reason we oppose same-sex marriage makes an ethical difference. To oppose it because we hate homosexuals is wrong. To oppose same-sex marriage because it harms children’s rights is not wrong.
One reason the LGBTIQ community has so adamantly promoted and imposed its views and values is that they want those values, including those relating to same-sex marriage and transgenderism, to become part of the societal norm. Whether that should happen needs very careful consideration from many perspectives (not just the LGBTIQ one) and at many levels (not just the level of the individual person but also institutional and societal levels, with the common good, especially of children, being given at least equal consideration).
What we should keep in mind in debating values in relation to issues such as same-sex marriage and transgenderism is that the vast majority of people on both sides of an issue act in good faith; that mutual respect is essential; that values surrounding marriage and sexuality go to the heart of our most intimate selves; and that there are good – and bad – arguments on each side and we must consider all of them.
Margaret A. Somerville is Samuel Gale Professor of Law and the Founding Director of the Centre for Medicine, Ethics and Law at McGill University in Montreal.
(1) I am using the term transgender to include transsexual. The differences between the two terms is an open discussion which I will not pursue here.
(2) Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion (New York: Pantheon 2012).
(3) Margaret Somerville, “The Ethical Imagination: Journeys of the Human Spirit”, (Toronto; House of Anansi Press, 2006)
(4) John Ralston Saul, The Unconscious Civilization, 1999
(5) Jonathan Haidt, The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom, 2005
Other contributors to MercatorNet’s transgender symposium