Gay Marriage’s Challenge to Fertility

The vehemence of the opposition to same-sex marriage should make those of us who are in favor of it look at the real reasons for the furor. It’s not enough anymore to end the discussion with the simple conclusion that everyone who decries this innovation must be a closed-minded bigot.

We have to ask why anyone would care how other adults define their relationships.

And we can find no possible answer until we look beyond the surfaces of the argument. The fact is that the notion of same-sex couples marrying strikes at the most primal human fear––the anxiety that the sun won’t come up tomorrow morning.

The ancient mind did not separate between “sacred” and “profane” acts. Everything a person did affected the unseen forces governing and indeed threatening human life. The sex act between a man and a woman was not understood as a discrete occurrence between two consenting adults. It was part of the general fertility. By virtue of “sympathetic magic” (“like makes like”), a sex act affected nature and even the supernatural.

If people in the village were copulating, then of course there would be more babies to replenish the tribe, but much more was at stake. The fertility of the fields was encouraged by this act, as were the life giving rains (a sort of cosmic sex act), the return of spring, and all the other cycles that guaranteed the continuation of life.

For the Egyptians and the Mexicans of antiquity, among others, the sun’s daily and yearly cycles were proof enough of the continuation of life, both in this dimension and in the next. In the words of Norman O. Brown, the recently deceased philosopher who authored “Life Against Death: The Psychoanalytic Meaning of History,” the basic pattern of recurrence in nature bears witness to the resurrection. No measure was considered too extreme to keep the energy flowing, as we moderns might say, in the proper direction. Human sacrifice was practiced virtually everywhere, even to the absurdity of sacrificing children in order to assure fertility.

Before we dismiss all this as ancient hokum, we have to admit that much of it still exists in diluted form. Weddings are celebrated communally––quite rightly, since the event affects the entire community when seen in this light. We still mark the union of a heterosexual couple with signs of fertility, abundance, and continuity––rings, rice, flowers, too much food, communal circular dances. That’s right: the Hokey-Pokey might well be a bizarre vestige of the original Rites of Spring. Even the most ostensibly secular among us participate in fertility rites by hanging wreaths or lighting candles and lights at Christmas or Hanukkah, the darkest time of the year, as a ritualistic sign that one is adding one’s own sympathetic magic to the universal urge for more light and continued life.

War, too, is part of the ancient universal fertility cult. Though it engenders death, war also hones the virility of young men and eliminates the older and weaker among them. Women are exempted from war as well as from sacrifice in most fertility-based systems, not because they are weak, but because they are too valuable. War also offers the earth some of the sacrificial blood that is always demanded by vegetation deities (Bacchus, Proserpine, and the like.)

While most of us don’t worry about the crops in the fields the way the ancients did, we have our modern analog: the stock market, whose patterns of rising, falling, and rebounding are often discussed as being led by unseen forces. Indeed they are. The essence of the stock market is spiritual, and Wall Street has never been entirely averse to war. When there cannot be war, there can always be sports, its somewhat more civilized stepchild.

Small wonder that the Republican Party, which is most closely associated with big business and military interests, sometimes in the same quarters, is also the party most vehement in its opposition to gay rights. But the fact is that everyone is made nervous by a disruption to the signs and symbols of fertility. We all hang wreaths, wear rings, and light candles at special moments.

Looking at individual sex acts in light of ancient mythical beliefs makes it obvious why the battles for gay rights are being fought where they are: the military, the churches, and the marriage registries. No one complains about the presence of gay people in the arts, because, to our national shame, the arts have been marginalized beyond the sphere of the general welfare. Religious institutions, the military, and the state remain the guardians of the ritual acts that guarantee the continuation of life in all its forms: personal (material wealth and spiritual resurrection) and communal (fertility, reproduction, and abundance).

Sometimes these institutions overlap. San Francisco’s gorgeous City Hall is a very deliberate architectural reference to both the United States Capitol and to St. Peter’s Basilica. It is a resonant and provocative background for same-sex unions. No wonder half the country is freaking out.

Because deep down, all rhetoric aside, very few people believe that what two people do in bed is really a private act. Same-sex unions are thought of as ritual acts whose sympathetic (in this case black) magic will aversely affect the entire community. Every day, letters to the editor, opposed to same-sex marriages, express concerns about the effects recognizing gay marriages would have on the “general welfare” and “on our children,” two related notions in fertility-based cosmographies. In other words, either gay unions have power to impede the whole delicate concatenation of fertility, or straight unions really have no magic power at all.

And who is willing to concede that?

One problem here: this gives me way more power than I actually possess. I assure the American public that when I have sex with a man, I do not approach the situation with fiendish visions of the dome of St. Peter’s imploding, the NFL disbanding, all the corn stalks in Nebraska wilting, the infantry’s bayonets going limp, and the General Resurrection being cancelled for lack of interest. Nor can anyone honestly believe that my actions will have any of these effects.

It may have been possible to believe in my black magic at one time, when all actions in life were associated with the principle of “like makes like” and nobody knew any same-sex couple to gauge accurately what effect their shenanigans were having on the crops, but those days are gone. Behold a great mystery revealed at last: we too are part of the Life Force. Living outside of the shadows has convinced me of that.

If your corn stalks are not tall and erect enough, I ask you to look to your own planting methods and not seek the culprit in my acts of love and sympathetic magic. Tomorrow will come whether I can marry my lover or not, and I intend to celebrate the sunrise with everyone else.

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