This commentary, which is the third of a three-part series, considers how legalisation of same-sex marriage would affect the traditional meaning of marriage in the Virgin Islands.

The fact that men and women are biologically different and are uniquely capable of procreating as a couple has underpinned the traditional definition of marriage as a union between a man and a woman. Whether one is male or female is something that is normally determined at birth, even though people may subsequently self-identify sexually as attracted to members of the same sex. I am highlighting the point that sex is a biological concept to make the further important points that (a) same-sex couples cannot procreate, and (b) marriage traditionally has a procreative function.

Whatever else marriage may be about, it has traditionally been an institution created by society to help ensure that a particular societal functional requisite is met. That functional requisite is the production and rearing of enough children to prevent the society’s population from dwindling or eventually disappearing from losing too many members. To be sure, a population does not necessarily have to dwindle or disappear because of birth rates affected by gay and/or lesbian marriages. For one thing, immigration can help to keep things in check. Nevertheless, I believe that legalisation of same-sex marriage in the territory would aggravate the problem of a birth rate that has declined massively in the territory over the last half century.

 

Family concept

This concern with same-sex unions and the procreative function of marriage leads me to comment briefly on the concept of the family as it relates to marriage.

Let us state briefly what a family is. A family is a group of people related to one another by kinship. Kinship itself is a set of socially recognised ties between persons that are linked by blood or marriage. There are several family types, but the one which is of immediate interest here is the nuclear family. Under the traditional definition of nuclear family, one finds a married husband and wife and their biological children living together under the same roof. Research recently conducted by the Pew Research Centre indicates that in the United States, whose way of life is considered the most desirable by so many people in the West, it is the nuclear type of family arrangement that is considered by most people to be the ideal one in which to raise children. This holds for single parents as well as for unmarried couples and persons who were once married but are now divorced. There is no provision in this family type for two “dads” or two “moms.”

 

Same-sex marriage

How legalisation of same-sex marriage would lead to a redefinition of marriage can be shown even more pointedly from some observations made by American professors Walter Schumm and Jason Carroll, who have opposed legalising same-sex marriage in the United States. In 2015, their observations were made in an article in Public Discourse, an online journal published by the Princeton, New Jersey-based Witherspoon Institute, a conservative think tank that has also opposed same-sex marriage. That article was based on the amicus brief the two professors presented before the US Supreme Court when it was ruling on whether marriage between people of the same sex should be made legal in the US.

Professors Schumm and Carroll have argued — controversially but in my opinion correctly — that it is fallacious to portray the debate over the definition of marriage as a decision about whether to “expand” or “extend” marriage to include same-sex couples. They rightly contend that redefining marriage to include same-sex couples undermines the ties between marriage and procreation. They argue that what is at issue with this effort to redefine marriage is not the absorption of same-sex partnerships within the existing boundaries of marriage but a fundamental change in (a) how marriage is collectively understood, and (b) the primary social purpose for which it exists. That primary purpose is to meet the societal functional requirement of solving the population replacement problem through production of an adequate number of children.

 

‘Instructive’

Among the instructive things that Professors Schumm and Carroll have to say on what they call the “procreative norm of marriage” is the following: “The most basic message conveyed by the institution of marriage across virtually all societies is that where procreation occurs, this is the arrangement in which society prefers it to occur. Although sex and procreation may occur in other settings, marriage marks the boundaries of procreation that is socially commended. Although marriage benefits its adult participants in countless ways, it is designed around procreation. The man-woman definition conveys and reinforces that marriage is centred primarily on procreation and children which man-woman couples are uniquely capable of producing naturally.”

In addition to shifting the focus of marriage away from procreation and children, with the implications which this appears to have for population replacement, legalisation of same-sex marriage would endorse an adult-centric model of marriage and devalue the role of marriage.

Here again are Professors Schumm and Carroll: “Redefining marriage in genderless terms breaks the critical conceptual link between marriage and procreation. It implicitly endorses an adult-centric model of marriage, ignores the inherently generative nature of heterosexual marriages, and sends a powerful message that marriage-based procreation is not a valued social priority. The actual experience of states and nations that have adopted this redefinition shows that such a change would erode the role of marriage in our society, leading to fewer marriages and fewer births.”

 

Potential resistance

Traditions die hard, and Virgin Islanders who accept the traditional definition of marriage as the only definition of marriage will continue to resist any attempt at a redefinition. The question is whether a decision by the law courts in favour of recognising same-sex marriage would force Virgin Islanders to accept the redefinition. Admittedly, attitudes can change over time. But using the force of law to make people obey and acknowledge the existence of a certain culture is not the same thing as willing acceptance. This is illustrated by the case of Kim Davis, a former county clerk in Kentucky, who refused to issue a marriage licence to a same-sex couple soon after same-sex marriage was made legal in the US.

For the benefit of readers not familiar with this case, Ms. Davis was briefly jailed in 2015 for her refusal to obey the new law and grant the licence. She was subsequently taken to court, and a federal judge ruled that she should pay over $250,000 in attorney fees and expenses. The court also ruled that she should pay $100,000 in damages to the two men to whom she refused to grant a marriage licence. Ms. Davis’ attorneys are expected to appeal the ruling.

It is most useful to note that Ms. Davis claimed “God’s authority” as the basis for her refusal to grant the permit but that the authority that prevailed was that of the man-made court. Emphatically, the people of the VI have an obligation to tell their government in no uncertain terms where they stand on this “touchy” matter of same-sex marriage and its legalisation. They need to tell the government what laws to pass and have the law court respect their decision on the matter.

 

Conclusions

This three-part discussion of the legalisation of same-sex marriage has been limited to an examination of three areas:

  • where the world seems to be on this matter;
  • the situation in the VI regarding (a) the lawsuit which has been brought against the government, and (b) the planned referendum; and
  • how legalisation of same-sex marriage would lead to a redefinition of marriage in the territory.

We have observed that while same-sex marriage has been made legal in a growing number of countries over the last two decades, it is supported by only a relatively small portion of the people of the world. Notably, though, that minority happens to be wealthy and powerful for the most part, and its top leaders seem committed to making same-sex marriage an integral part of the way of life across the globe. I have argued that the issue should be resolved in the VI by way of an acceptable referendum, and I have also argued that legalisation would lead to a radical redefinition of what most people in the world understand marriage to mean.

Underlying all the controversy and conflict over same-sex marriage and its legalisation is the difficult question of the meaning of “human rights,” but there is also the even more challenging one of what people wish their societies to become and how they wish their societies to develop. The VI is said to be a developing society. But what exactly does this mean? What is it seeking to become?

The noted political scientist Dr. David Apter opined some 60 years ago in his book The Politics of Modernization that the developing countries of his day were in a state of becoming — but that becoming what was the problem. That observation is as applicable today as it was in the 1960s, and the case of the VI is no exception.

 

Going further

One could and should go further than Dr. Apter and contend that all societies are in a state of becoming, with becoming what being the problem. This includes those societies which are now generally regarded as being the most “developed” because of their level of industrialisation, gross domestic product per capita, modernisation, and technological advancement. The problem is that while every country or territory in the world would say that it wants to become developed, there is disagreement within and between them as to what development is to be understood to mean. Until this prescriptive concept is clarified and agreement is reached on its specific meaning in the VI, the debate over whether same-sex marriage should be legalised will continue to be superficial, polemical and vacuous.

Let us be clear about one thing. Legalisation of same-sex marriage has become acceptable among substantial portions of the population in Western Europe and parts of the Americas, but the VI is under no obligation to be overawed by that fact and join the club. This is not to say that the VI is obliged not to legalise same-sex marriage. It can do so if this is what Virgin Islanders want. Unfair social inequalities distort the personalities of homosexuals and heterosexuals alike and are therefore an obstacle to development. At the same time, treating people the same when they are clearly different in some mutually agreed relevant respect is unfair and also an obstacle to development.