Suppose someone has a really big nose, so tremendous that ridicule and trouble follow when this outcast Cyrano de Bergerac visits certain parts of town. Suppose his proboscis is so vulnerable that even his friends suffer. Even local leaders are offended.
They decide to forbid people with such unwieldy noses from getting married. Their argument is that they are preventing social disturbance, and also the taint big noses would inflict on the hallowed institution of matrimony.
This, of course, sounds absurd. You don’t ban someone from marrying because they have a controversial shape, even when that shape draws scorn from vocal factions. Being ugly in the eye of some beholders should not result in legal penalty. To inflict such penalty seems not only wrong but illogical and ignorant.
Judge Vaughn R. Walker nicely sums up this simple point in his recent ruling, which overturned the ban on same-sex marriage in California: “The state cannot have an interest in disadvantaging an unpopular minority group simply because the group is unpopular.”
Gay lovers are singled out for penalty in the same manner as our Cyrano. Someone sees two women (or two men) kissing to consummate a marriage, and then makes a snap judgment based on observed anatomy. In the case of Cyrano, it is a big nose. In the case of the gay partners (let’s call them Jane and Joan), they share the same type of genitalia, the same mammiferous breasts
What makes Jane and Joan targets isn’t their connubial kiss. Puckering up, in itself, is insufficient evidence to make any kind of moral judgment. It isn’t their action, their kiss, that gets them into trouble but rather their looks. They have a certain shape of flesh.
An observer glances to see two women entwined and then winces, all in a second. In that snapshot instant, it is impossible to know anything about the hearts and personalities of Jane and Joan. The judgment against them proceeds without comprehension of who they are.
In other words, Jane and Joan are in the same boat as our Cyrano. If it is wrong to outlaw him from marrying based on his invidious nose, which we all admit, it is wrong to outlaw Jane and Joan from marrying based on their anatomies.
The idea that people should be judged by their actions, not the shape of their bodies, is fundamental to equality. It is also essential in Christian ethics. The Bible instructs us to focus on the heart of a person, whether good or evil flows from it, and what fruits are reaped in consequence of a malicious or generous will.
In The Book of Matthew it states that, “The tree is known by its fruit.” And the Old Testament offers one of the fundamental keys to Christian morality: “Man looketh on the outward appearance, but the Lord looketh on the heart.”
Even detractors of gay marriage acknowledge that the hearts of gay couples are full of affection, romance and generosity — everything we associate with deep love. And yet many people with bad hearts — certain murderers, for example — who seek out a partnership with the right physical shape, the one that conforms to heterosexual standards, are allowed to marry, even from prison.
I’m not advocating that certain heinous felons be banned from marriage, though at least it would be consistent with the idea of moral judgment based on the heart rather than physical shape. I would, however, if my wish were granted, hope to spark a cultural dialogue on the following questions:
Why do we give murderers, rapists and pedophiles an important privilege denied to gays? And why does the outward appearance of Jane and Joan, standing in love together, incite a visual decree that ignores their personalities, their inner light and their accomplishments?
Chris Crittenden of Lubec teaches ethics at the University of Maine at Machias.