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University News

Sparks fly at same-sex marriage discussion

An hour before the panel, the R.I. Senate Judiciary Committee voted in favor of same-sex marriage

Contributing Writer
Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Academics, religious leaders and advocates on both sides of the debate gathered for a panel discussion on same-sex marriage legalization.

Academic experts and religious leaders debated the legalization of same-sex marriage at a heated forum sponsored by The Herald and the Taubman Center for Public Policy and American Institutions Tuesday.

Speakers from both the pro- and anti-same-sex marriage perspectives shared the stage with scholars in history and law to discuss their views the same day a bill legalizing same-sex marriage was passed by the Rhode Island Senate Judiciary Committee. The bill ­— which faces a vote in the full Senate today­ — will be sent to Gov. Lincoln Chafee ’75 P’14 if it clears today’s vote. Chafee has previously indicated he will sign the legislation if it reaches his desk.

Thomas Petri, Catholic priest and a friar in the Order of the Preachers who spoke on behalf of Bishop Thomas Tobin, the head of the Catholic Diocese of Providence, and Celia Wolf-Devine, a writer who previously taught at Stonehill College, argued against same-sex marriage by asserting it is contrary to the societal mission of marriage, which they linked to producing good citizens through childbearing.

Janson Wu, a staff attorney with Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders, and Associate Rabbi Sarah Mack of Temple Beth-El in Providence both spoke in favor of same-sex marriage. Courtney Cahill, a constitutional law professor at Florida State University, and Professor of History Robert Self delivered commentary on the historical and legal dimensions of the same-sex marriage debate and gay rights movement. The forum was held in MacMillan 117 and attended by about 100 people.

“If marriage is an emotional union — a solid commitment of love — I will go on the record in favor of gay marriage,” Petri said. “But equating marriage and love is a relatively recent idea.”

Wolf-Devine cited examples of children who claimed to have suffered as a result of having same-sex parents. “This is not a matter of judging individuals,” she said. “Basic heterosexual relationships are best for the children.”

Both Petri and Wolf-Devine were met with criticism from the other panelists and audience members.

Aidan Dunbar ’16 introduced himself as a son of two lesbian parents during the question-and-answer session. He said the panelists opposed to same-sex marriage seemed to imply his family background had “harmed or disadvantaged” him.

“I had an incredible childhood, but this was because I was lucky enough to have parents that loved me,” he told the panel.

Mack offered a defense of same-sex marriage on behalf of “religious liberals,” adding that she feels limited in her ability to allow Jewish couples “to sanctify their relationships” because Rhode Island does not permit same-sex marriages.

Wu, who was involved in the 2010 debate to legalize same-sex marriage in New Hampshire and has testified in the Rhode Island Senate hearings on the current legislation, said the lack of legal recognition for same-sex marriages has a detrimental effect on families. “What’s important is that real families are being hurt by the law as it is today,” Wu said. “The LBGTQ community has faced much discrimination.”

Cahill laid out the constitutional background for the same-sex marriage debate, citing a line from the U.S. Supreme Court case Lawrence v. Texas that bolstered gay rights, as well as current cases over the constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act and California’s ban on same-sex marriage.

Though Petri said he is not aware of any sociological studies that show children of homosexual parents are worse off than children of heterosexual parents, he added that research does show children raised by single parents or step-parents fare worse than children who grow up with a mother and a father.

Some students reacted strongly to the panel’s inclusion of same-sex marriage opponents, whom they accused of using hateful rhetoric.

More than a dozen protesters attended to oppose the invitation of Christopher Plante, the regional director for the National Organization for Marriage. But Director of the Taubman Center Marion Orr announced in his introductory remarks that Plante could not attend and that Wolf-Devine replaced him on the panel.

The protestors carried signs with slogans like “Hate is not debate” and wore strips of gray tape over their mouths to reflect what they called the silencing of their voices. During the question-and-answer session, several students denounced some of the speakers, with one criticizing the event as a whole and saying she had never been more disappointed in Brown.

The historical context of marriage lies at the center of the debate, Self said. “Amidst the many changes in the definition of marriage over the decades, it stands as one of the principal institutions through which states regulate legal obligations,” he said, adding that marriage has been the most powerful institution for earning respectability in American life.

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  1. How disappointing it is that the Taubman Center, an institution with roots meant to promote the “theory, experience and practice of our country’s social, economic, and political institutions,” failed to include an adequate balance of voices belonging to those whose rights and lives were being dissected in this public forum. Shame on The BDH for co-sponsoring a panel that encouraged the exchange of ideas from the privileged majority but not the scrutinized minority. The demonstrators’ sign said it best, “Your Privilege is Showing.”

    • YOUR privlege is showing says:

      I think critics of the panel fail to recognize that this was a POLICY debate and not about divisions within the gay community over marriage and what it means (essentially that in many way’s it’s been advocated by privleged white-man organizations). If anything, this letter completely disregards the fact that this is what this debate looks like in the U.S. and in the state at Rhode Island (did you follow this is the legislature at all)? You need to recognize that while we as a community are very accepting, the world is not and to not address that is to keep students in a “bubble.” I encourage the queer community to host the debates they think this panel should have been rather than criticizing it for something that it never aimed to be.

  2. Kyle Albert '15 says:

    Since it was largely ignored and misrepresented by the BDH reporter we talked to, here is the full statement Nicole Hasslinger ’15 and I gave regarding the purpose of our protest:

    “We were protesting the Brown Daily Herald and the Taubman Center’s decision to put together a homophobic, damaging, and reductive panel on same-sex marriage without consulting LGBTQ students. We feel as though the selection of certain speakers demonstrates a complete disregard for who this debate actually affects, namely the LGBTQ community and LGBTQ families. Giving platform to speakers such as Rev. Thomas Petri, O.P., who repeatedly drew allusions between same-sex marriage, polygamy and incest, and Celia Wolf-Devine, who suggested that a student audience member raised by two mothers could suffer damage down the road, shows a complete disregard for the mental and emotional health of those intimately affected by the “issue” of same-sex marriage. By choosing these speakers, we feel as if there was no space to have a productive conversation that was not based in defending our queer identities. Queer and allied students approached the Taubman Center and the Brown Daily Herald with their concerns and demands; we have felt that these demands have been largely ignored.”

    • Actually, invoking polygamy in this debate is quite legit. If preventing same sex marriage violates the rights of people who wish to marry a person of the same sex, then deosn’t not allowing polygamy violate the rights of people who wish to have more than one spouse? Can anyone explain to me how there is no hypocrisy here?

      • Inis_Magrath says:

        There is no hypocrisy.

        First, genuine scientific researcher experts (to distinguish them from laymen with no more than unsupported anecdotal statements such as Rev. Petri and Ms. Wolf-Devine) note that there are observable recorded negative aspects to polygamy that render it a reasonable thing for the government to prohibit. Conversely, recognized experts report that there are no negative aspects to a same-sex union in any respect different from an opposite sex union — so the government has no legitimate constitutional basis to deny the civil right of marriage to same sex couples.

        Second, you refer to “people who wish to marry a person of the same sex” and compare this to “people who wish to have more than one spouse.”

        The two things are apples and oranges. You cannot compare LGBT people to polygamists.

        Gay persons do not simply “wish to marry” one of their same sex. When you talk about gay people you are talking about sexual orientation — it is not just a “wish” to marry. All people are born predisposed to their particular sexual orientation be it gay, straight and otherwise. This is the conclusion of all major recognized mainstream professional organizations in the medical, psychological, psychiatric, sociological and social work fields.

        By contrast, there is no such thing as a polygamist sexual orientation. People are born gay, but no one is born a polygamist.

        Finally, you are making the “slippery slope” argument. That argument works both ways: If we agree that one specific religion has the right to define marriage in our secular laws as excluding gays, then the next thing you know that religion will be forcing laws on us that exclude Jews and Blacks from marrying. In other words — I hope by this example you see that slippery slope arguments are largely illogical. They may sound almost reasonable on the surface, but under scrutiny are usually revealed to be baseless and even stupid.

        • Thank you for not engaging in name-calling. With that said, please identify the “observable recorded negative aspects to polygamy,” well as the “recognized experts” who’ve noted them.
          Secondly, of course people who want to get married (since obviously not everyone “wants” to be married), whether they want to marry a person of the same sex, the opposite sex, or a different race, do in fact “wish to marry” someone. To argue otherwise is just semantics and is silly. Regarding your statement that there is no such thing as a “polygamist sexual orientation,” do you believe there is an “interracial sexual orientation?” Because you logically must, unless you don’t believe people are entitled to marry someone of a different race.
          I’m lost on your last paragraph. Pease explain what specific religion has ever been allowed to define marriage for everybody else. Admit it, you dislike polygamy, and you and those who think like you want your concept of marriage imposed on everyone else. But how people opposed to SSM do that!

        • I want to make a position that shouldn’t be (and I wish it never were) political or persuasive in any way in debates such as these. It’s in regard to the claim that “all people are born predisposed to their particular sexual orientation…” This claim is actually not well substantiated, and coming to genetic conclusions about high-order issues of the mind is largely beyond us. One of the large obstacles in the way of making genetic ties is the seemingly endless ways in which one’s mind develops, and the multitude of ways there are in manipulating it. Many repeated studies have shown the sort of drastic alterations that can be brought about by making various aspects of one identity salient, for example, or the use of context and rhetoric to change the way people do on a test, for example. The general consensus statement is something about “mix of genetic and environmental factors”, but this is largely because it would seem ridiculous to say that genetics have nothing to do with it (or anything, really). There haven’t (yet) been any correlations between any set of genes, for example, and sexual orientation; and, indeed, the same sort of evidence there is for “genetic predisposition” to homosexuality is the same sort of evidence for “genetic predisposition” for women to be bad at math, and for black people to be dumber that white people. These (unfortunate) observances can be heavily modified, and sometimes completely negated, by social factors. I want to assert that genetics should be irrelevant in these debates, and generally considered morally irrelevant. Personally, I would generaly avoid alienating, discriminating against, or otherwise projecting hate on to people for being whoever they are, however they became that way, as long as they’re not really hurting anyone. And seriously, who is gay marriage hurting again?

          • I actually support same sex marriage. But I realize I then also have to support polygamy too lest I be a hypocrite. Now let me ask you a question: seriously, who does polygamy hurt?

  3. One said “she had never been more disappointed in Brown”? For having the gall to allow a panel discussion on same sex marriage in which not every speaker is in support of it? Grow up. Not everyone’s going to agree with you.

    • missingthepoint says:

      She said she hadn’t been more disappointed in Brown because the debate was focused on if gay people were equal to straight people.

      It was not an objective discussion as it was billed, nor was it free of hate speech. There’s a difference between having people not support marriage equality on a panel and people being blatantly homophobic and triggering on a panel. The first obviously is welcome, whereas the second shouldn’t be.

      • Alright then, please provide examples of what was said that was “hate speech” and “blatantly homophobic.” I certainly couldn’t find anything in the article and I wasn’t at the forum.

        • As a member of the queer community I find this entire uproar completely ridiculous. How about the privilege of being able to sit from your ivory tower to make this fuss? You are absolutely moronic if you think Taubman needed to consult any more than they did. When I think of other controversial panels rarely do these heavily involve student input. Like it or not, this was a POLICY debate directly related to the politics of the situation. This was not about privilege in the queer community and the divisiveness of supporting same-sex marriage rather than focusing on other issues and how dare some of the white,male students there try to even claim that.

          • Another perspective says:

            Ditto to outraged – even if you want to call these people hate-mongerers, if they are prominent voices in the debate, let them come with their destructive attitudes, and question them to their faces. As long as they’re players in the political debate, it’s worth having them, and worth taking them down a few notches. Your “hate-mongering” is someone else’s line of defense: what they said are common arguments, held by MILLIONS AND MILLIONS of Americans, unfortunate as it is. If you’re getting all offended about them being allowed to express these views in a debate here, then, valid as you hold your own points to be, you’ve missed the point about confronting oppositional views. For some students, these “hate” speeches are the sort of commonplace things they hear, spoken at the dinner table and by politicians. They’re prominent, and they should be exposed for what they are. Quite frankly, they’re useful on the Brown campus, even if just for making our insular community understand that the world out there can think VERY differently than we’ve become accustomed.

        • missingthepoint says:

          Stating that children of queer parents are inherently worse off with no legitimate scientific basis, and an individual story to go off of, was homophobic. Telling a student who had two mothers that phe didn’t know that phe would never miss having a father or wasn’t damaged was hate speech. Blaming recent negative events in Boston on queer people being able to marry was hate speech.

          I know it must be shocking that the BDH didn’t report on their own event impartially or faithfully. -.-

          • Right, as if you are a model of impartiality. It seems that you think any argument against same sex marriage counts as “Hate speech,” (whatever that means), a designation clearly designed to silence points of view that you and your ilk don’t like to hear.

  4. This is my number one problem with Brown. As soon as you disagree with the leftist norm set by the most vocal students, you instantly become a bigot, and your words of disagreement get transformed into words of supposed hate. I am so happy to have finally graduated.

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