In the course of his travels, Gulliver came upon an island very much like our own. Not unlike how it was for us, the complementarity of their genitalia was for most of their history the sine qua non of reproduction, and reproduction was serious business for pretty much everyone. But because reliable birth control had long since become so widely available, and because the job of perpetuating the species could be assigned to those who wanted the job, the bivalence of their genitalia had become pretty much vestigial.
Which is not to say their genitalia no longer served a function. On the contrary, the stimulation of their genitalia continued to provide them tremendous pleasure. And mutual stimulation, otherwise known as having sex, continued to encourage and sustain the same emotional bonding between people that it always had. So in these respects these islanders’ sex lives were indistinguishable from our own.
Not entirely unlike us, their society was made up of two very distinct races. And for some reason – Gulliver asked, but no one could remember why – white people and black people had sex with each other, but only about 7% of people had sex with people of their same colour. Though it struck most of these islanders that sex with people of the same colour was a tad odd, generally their attitude towards it was a shrug and a chaque a son gout. But there was a significant proportion who were viscerally disgusted that anyone would want to have sex with someone of the same colour. And that disgust would sometimes escalate to hatred. And that hatred would sometimes manifest itself in violence. The word the islanders coined for those who were prone to such disgust and/or hatred, and/or violence, was – ‘racist’.
When Gulliver returned to his own country he took with him a friend he’d made on the island. The visitor took notes on what he observed, and after a time he reported to Gulliver that he was both amazed and delighted to discover that there was no racism whatsoever in Gulliver’s country. But he was at the same time utterly baffled by something else, which, for want of a better term, he decided to call ‘heterosexism’, or alternatively, ‘homophobia’, by which he meant the visceral disgust that anyone would want to have sex with someone of the same sex. And, he observed, that disgust would sometimes escalate to hatred, and that hatred would sometimes manifest itself in violence.
Being as they were both amateur anthropologists, they discussed these two culture-specific phenomena, racism and homophobia, at great length, trying to come up with narratives that could account for each. Both cultures, the island’s and Gulliver’s, had long since taken the Darwinian turn, so of course the first place they looked was to the evolutionary history of these traits. There were no end of just-so stories that could, perhaps, account for them. But they noticed that for neither the racists on the island nor for the homophobes in Gulliver’s country did any such evolutionary story resonate. This doesn’t mean one or more of these stories couldn’t have been true. Much of our evolutionary history is inaccessible to our conscious reflection. But that was just the problem. There were too many such stories, each as non-falsifiable as the next.
So next they tried religion. On the island homo-racial sex was, at least for many racists, an abomination in the eyes of God, and in Gulliver’s country for many homophobes it was homosexuality that would condemn one to Hell. But both Gulliver and his guest were astute enough to realize that this just begged the question. Even if God’s druthers were not just projections of our own, why was God a racist there and a homophobe here respectively?
But Gulliver and his friend were also astute enough to realize that it really didn’t matter why there were racists and homophobes in their respective countries, because how something came to be says nothing about whether we should hold on to it. And if there’s no justification for holding on to it now – and assuming it makes life unpleasant, even if only for a small minority within our communities – we should probably just let it go. Assuming there’s something deep in their respective DNA’s that’s driving the islanders’ racism and Gulliver’s community’s homophobia, there’s nothing to be done about the former’s discomfort with same-race sex or the latter’s with same-sex sex. Pedophilia might be in our DNA too, but that’s hardly a reason to just let pedophiles have their way with our children.
Needless to say, this chapter of Gulliver’s Travels, like the chapters Swift himself wrote, is meant as a parable. What it tries to argue is that there’s no morally relevant distinction between homophobia and racism, and that if acting on one’s homophobia is justified, so is an islander’s acting on his racism. And the point of racism being defined in the story as discomfort with sex within a race, rather than between two races, was to show that the one makes no more sense than the other.
Like all parables, it’s an argument by analogy. And like all arguments by analogy, it’s refuted if one can find in it something relevantly dis-analogous. I can’t. But maybe someone else will.
The application of the argument to the same-sex marriage debate should be obvious. The islanders’ law doesn’t insist that would-be couples be of opposite colours. Why, then, should our law insist they be of opposite sexes? If state-recognized marriage is an institution worth preserving – and that’s a whole nother issue – then genitalia should be no more of an impediment to marriage than skin colour. Or, if you want to re-introduce genitalia as an impediment to marriage, then you should have no objection to those who’d re-introduce skin colour as an impediment to it.
Come to think of it, that might not be such a bad idea, provided the prohibition runs with the islanders’ intuitions. I’m white. We already have it that I can’t marry my sister. We’re just expanding this to say I can’t marry anyone who looks like my sister. And, well, you know, all us crackers look alike.