The Sci-Fi Explanation of Why Gay People Must Be Allowed to Marry

By Kyle Munkittrick | August 5, 2010 10:23 am

In many of the sci-fi futures that we know and love, racism, sexism, and homophobia are often scrubbed out of existence. Caprica/BSG, Star Trek, Torchwood, Mass Effect, even less thoughtful fare like Starship Troopers, depict residents of the future who are less interested in the permutations of human identity and more interested in the qualities of a person’s mind and spirit. Even Futurama’s “Proposition Infinity,” concerning the fake-contentious “robosexual marriage” controversy, spoofs this tendency.

800px-George_Takei_Chicago_Gay_&_Lesbian_Pride_2006Yesterday, US District Court Judge Vaughn Walker helped us move the rights needle a little further toward that future. In a heavily disputed decision, Walker overturned the barbarous Proposition 8 on the grounds it was unconstitutional under California law. His ruling was unequivocal and exhaustive: same-sex marriage is and should be equal to opposite-sex marriage. No doubt the case will move to the Supreme Court, where Obama and Congress’ collective feet-dragging on DOMA and DADT will finally be confronted. Until then, same-sex marriage is forbidden in most states in the USA and, regardless of the Supreme Court decision, will remain so in most countries in the world.

What is astounding is that for all the value we place in “human rights,” we are very good at not giving rights to humans. As I mentioned in my “Yes, We Should Clone Neanderthals” post, we regularly restrict human rights in those who are mentally un- or under-developed. Many who argued for the rights of Neanderthals based their arguments on the fact that the Neanderthal is “mostly human” or has very similar DNA and biology to a human being. While I agree the Neanderthal clone should have the same rights as a human being, I agree for a reason entirely other than biology. Rights have nothing to do with being human.

Our species’ history is and remains one largely built around the ever extending circle of those who have “rights” and what “rights” they have. Pick any great expansion in the rights of humanity, from the advent of democracy to the Nineteenth Amendment to yesterday’s decision, and I doubt you will find DNA at the philosophical core of the change. So what is it? When we, the human civilization, recognize the rights of those who have been oppressed or ignored, what is it we are recognizing? Their humanity! you may answer. But what does that mean? Surely a baby and a corpse are as human as an adult Homo sapiens is, but only the adult can vote. Why?

In a word: personhood.

This realization gets to a central tenet of the philosophy of transhumanism: that rights are not derived from being human but from being a person. Consider the shows listed above, particularly Mass Effect and Star Trek, and ask if Worf or Liara or Data have “human rights.” Of course they don’t. But they do have rights. The rights are derived from their being sentient, sapient beings capable of autonomous, reflexive, symbolic, ethical, and willful thought. That is, they are persons — and persons have rights.

The brilliance of personhood as a foundation for rights is that it exists independent of biology, even of physical substrate. You already know about personhood because you’ve seen it in your favorite movies. The Iron Giant, District 9, Blade Runner, A.L.F., E.T., Monsters Inc. and Ratatouille are about personhood. The eponymous hero of The Iron Giant demonstrates his personhood by willfully not being a gun and saving the day; Remy does so less on a smaller scale but no less movingly in Ratatouille by cooking a gourmet meal that triggers a Proustian flashback in Paris’ toughest food critic. Personhood is what you discover when you stop trying to figure out what makes humans human and instead try to understand how we recognize another sentient mind. A mind imbued with rights.

Personhood is, as simply as I can put it, the degree to which an entity exhibits a combination of aspects of the mind and consciousness, such as sentiencecreativityintelligencesapienceself-awareness, and intentionality. One great way to look at the question comes from Steven Wise’s Drawing the Line: Science and the Case for Animal Rights, in which he argues that would-be persons can be ranked from “stimulus-response machines” at 0.0 up through fully functioning, rational adult humans at 1.0. The critical note here is that humans themselves can be placed on the scale, with a blastocyst ranking at 0.0 and 5-year-old somewhere in the range of 0.8. An example of a creature that may benefit from this personhood scale would be the former student of Irene Pepperberg, Alex, an especially bright grey parrot, who would fall above the 0.7 intelligence threshold for “limited personhood.”

If an artificial intelligence system or “uplifted” animal (e.g., Dug from Up!) were capable of achieving the same level of reason and mature reflection as an adult human, then it would be granted the same rights as an adult human. If you were to chart degrees of personhood against degrees of rights, it might look like this example taken from James Hughes’ Citizen Cyborg:


The reason all of this matters is that human beings have never been granted rights because they are merely human. Rights come from a demonstration not of DNA or taxonomy, but of mental and moral ability. The reason Judge Walker’s decision is not only correct now, but will be vindicated by history, is that it recognizes the right of two consenting persons to marry. If we did bring a Neanderthal back, his or her rights would be founded not in the similarity to human DNA but in the rational and moral mind, the personhood, that the clone would have.

The battle for the right of same-sex couples to be married is, in the extremely long view, a fight for recognition as persons. Whether aliens, robots, uplifted animals, or cloned Neanderthals will be the first non-humans to demand rights, I don’t know; however, I do know that it is not a matter of if, but when. I just hope by then we have moved beyond mere human rights.

Image via Wikipedia

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Philosophy, Politics

Comments (40)

  1. Interesting article. I think the basic problem with any continuum is the line drawing, and the problem with human rights is that from our (very probably limited perspective) humans seem distinct, and there is an easy line to be drawn. I do very much like the indictment that the homophobic in our society are treating homosexuals as less than human, they are a great example of the line having been “mis-drawn.”

  2. Nemesis

    If it weren’t for gay folks, the earth would be even more over-populated than it already is. They’re alright with me.

  3. wowlfie

    The biggest reason I see is it will cut down on population! It’s pretty hard for gay couples to produce a child without lesbians being inseminated by a donating male. And of course next to impossible for a gay guys to get pregnant! So any time statistically two gay people are entwined as as a couple it reduces the population growth!

  4. scott

    The chinese government should promote it (homosexuality), who knows, maybe it is a built it mechanism to help with population control? I has existed with our entire evolution, its reasons go deeper than our ego judgement, opinions and religious beliefs.. Regardless, two dudes getting married in SF should not be such a concern to society, who seem to get more worked up over that than the poisoning and destruction of their supportive ecosystems, their obese kids, etc.
    Back to the chinese, I read where there will be (are already is?) a massive number of men to women, somewhere like a million men – to just a few hundred women ratio. Interesting to see if normally heterosexual men would “turn to” homosexuality for companionship if there were no option for a female, like men tend to do in prison. Whichever, less people sucking up resources and space is a blessing that societies and governments are not fully comprehending.

  5. ToneDeF

    Isn’t it more likely, from a sci-fi / futuristic perspective, that eventually the gene(s) for homosexuality will be identified along with ways to “turn them off”? I would think most Parents would then have their embyo’s or newborns screened (however it will work) and likely choose to make the child hetero. This would essentially eradicate homosexuality (and possibly make those who remain outcasts from society).

    Just an additional sci-fi explanation as to why homophobia may be “scrubbed out of existence” in shows like Star Trek, etc. (and yes, I know the shows aren’t real)

  6. Yvonne

    Really? Caprica/BSG shows people in the future? Really?

  7. AstroBen

    If homosexuality can be turned off by genetic manipulation, the idea that it would be turned off in the future is assuming that there is no evolutionary advantage to a part of man’s population being homosexual. Remember we are a species with females that live a substantial amount of time after reproduction is no longer possible. It is something in our evolutionary history that helped us thrive. Now I have no idea what advantage homosexuality has to our survival of the fittest race, but it is something I’ve been thinking about for a long time. I’d love to hear some thoughts on the idea.

  8. TheThinker

    @AstroBen I’ve thought about that alot too. I suspect that it has to do with creativity. That the genes related to sexual variance relate to creativity. Perhaps it’s like sickle anemia – if a person gets one shot they are protected from malaria but a double shot of the genes gives them amenia. There certainly would be a reason for the genes to stay in circulation if the siblings were more creative and therefore more likely to be successful and survive.

  9. Gold

    First of all I see no problem with two guys or girls living together.

    To each their own, not my business.

    The real problem lies with the definition of the word of “marriage” by definition a union between a male/female.

    If this definition is changed what else may follow?

    Ex; Will the word Consitution eventually have a new meaning also?

  10. ToneDeF


    I do agree that there probably “was” some advantage to having part of the population homosexual, perhaps as a means to control population growth. However, I think we as a race are getting past “natural selection” and in the future we will be more “human selected”.

  11. TheThinker

    @Gold the definition of marriage has changed many times already, why does it matter if it changes again. At one time people could marry children, at another they couldn’t marry people of different races. It wasn’t that long ago in Canada that a woman couldn’t be raped by her husband because being married meant she had no right to say no. We change meanings of things all the time — that’s how they improve.

  12. TheThinker

    @ToneDeF The problem with “human selection” is that we often make decisions before we understand the implications of the choice. There are prbably hundreds of genes involved in sexual orientation as well as many environmental factors — the fetuses people would select could still be gay for reasons not explained by genetics. But simplistically limiting our gene pool to try to select certain traits will decrease the variation that makes our species resistant to disease and that makes so adaptable to living in a range of environments. I think it would lead to disaster.

  13. TooltimeL

    The article says “racism, sexism, and homophobia are often scrubbed out of existence.” not homos are scrubbed out of existence. On that line, scientists have found that the genes that seem to be associated with homosexuality also control some other vital aspect in our make up (i.e. remove a certain gay gene and that person would also be born blind) and so you couldn’t remove them without damaging the person in some way.

    Biologist studying homosexuality in animals have noticed that the homo animals in a herd or troop will pair up and care for the orphans in the group. If it’s a type of animal that doesn’t pair up they think that having the extra adults bringing in food but not putting a burden on the group by producing offspring helps the group thrive as a whole.

  14. JMW

    @2 Nemesis Says:
    If it weren’t for gay folks, the earth would be even more over-populated than it already is. They’re alright with me.

    @3 wowlfie Says:
    …any time statistically two gay people are entwined as as a couple it reduces the population growth!

    So what you’re saying is that if gay people are allowed to marry, they won’t procreate; but if they are NOT allowed to marry, they’ll revert to heterosexuality and procreate? I applaud your openness, but to quote Spock: “I find your arguments strewn with gaping defects in logic.”

    @9 Gold Says:
    The real problem lies with the definition of the word of “marriage” by definition a union between a male/female.

    Isn’t that a circular argument?

  15. It’s ridiculous to say that homosexuality helps reduces the population. Being gay doesn’t mean UNABLE. How many gays and lesbians married for a while before “realizing” they are gay. (To my mind, that realization is more of a disappointment in the opposite sex than from urges from childhood). At any rate, a large proportion of gays procreate, else the genes responsible for it would have disappeared.

  16. This article brought to my mind the possible need to cut away all questions of religion or morality when the behaviors of male homosexuals are discussed and limit debate and actions to the purely scientific base of proven public health practices.

    From a purely scientific point-of-view, most male homosexuals (Who have clearly demonstrated a general lack of self control and sense of the “common good”) represent a disease vector as do the plague bearing fleas on rats, the flies and cockroaches who hang about “unprotected” food and garbage, mosquitoes who carry malaria and other diseases and other like threats to the health of all People.

    If the general and Jewish-Christian foundations of morality are ignored (As is the constant drum beat of the homosexual lobby) and only the science of successful public health programs is applied, the best prevention of any epidemic or endemic disease, including HIV/AIDS, is to liquidate the disease vector(s) most responsible for the spread of the attacking illnesses. Therefore, we kill rats and fleas, destroy flies and cockroaches as much as is possible, destroy mosquitoes and …!

  17. Al Katerinsky

    Mr. Pawlak,
    From a purely scientific view your idea is unmitigated hogwash. Apparently your twisted understanding of morality does not balk at advocating extermination based on sexual preference. That is not the Judeo-Christian morality, it is fascism, with the corpse stink of Dachau and Auschwitz all over it.
    How far does your fascist genocidal fantasy go? The place evincing the most serious effects of AIDS is Africa, where heterosexual activity accounts for almost all of the disease transmission. Shall we kill all Africans, because you think they are no more than rats, fleas and roaches?
    Shall we send Wall Street traders (who crashed the economy and have clearly demonstrated a general lack of self control and sense of the “common good”) to the gas chambers, as you seem to argue with the analogy of vermin? Should the executives of ENRON, TYCO, BP and other major destroyers of the public welfare be treated is the same manner?
    And how in the midst of all this illogical balderdash would that argue AGAINST gays marrying? If they form stable monogamous relationships, the chance of any disease spreading further into the general populace trends to nullity.
    Or hadn’t you thought this through?

  18. Bek

    amen Al Katerinsky

  19. It’s like that line at the end of Star Trek 6 when Kirk says, “Spock, you want to know something? Everybody’s human.”

    Spock may find it insulting, but this piece is the in the true spirit of what Kirk was trying to say.

  20. It is encouraging to see someone taking the notion of personhood seriously. However, defining prsonhood is not easy and requires that one recognize that persons exist in three different domains of the world and in three different modes of being. In the philosophy of phenomenology the three domains of world are “own world,” “world with others,” and “world with things.” A person exists in all three domains. For instance, the “world with things” is where we live in our sensate physical bodies; the “world with others” must needs a body, but it is the world of our relations with others. Relationships are not things. “Our own world” is the mind, of course. To be a person we need bodies, relations and a mind. Thus, personhood is a state of being which is material and not material, it is temporal and not temporal. Indeed, a person is a complex system of processes, not a thing. Thus, persons are unique creations in our world and not easily analyzed into the comfortable categories we are accustomed to using in our thoughts about things. The idea that we give “rights” to persons is right on, but what is a person is quite difficult to say. I can supply a bibliography of essential writings on personhood to those who are interested.

  21. Brian Too

    There are multiple problems with the original article.

    The hierarchy of sentience, and correlated rights proposed is interesting. However I would note that such a notion is an intellectual construct only. There is not one constitution, not one article of statute law, anywhere that I know of, that implements such a system.

    The granting of rights has taken centuries to reach it’s present state. Any “innovative” sentience, even living in an enlightened state with legal protections, might be completely unable to travel. The risk of visiting countries with little (or likely no) legal protection would be great. That’s just one of many possible hazards for a new intelligence.

    At present, and for the forseeable future, creation of sentience will likely be prohibitively expensive. Any such expense raises the likelihood that the funding authority will claim the sentience as property. They will have financial “interests that need defending.”

    Society is addicted to slaves. One of the few remaining acceptable forms of slavery is that of machines. I think it’s not overreaching to say there are no sentient machines, but one day there will be. A sentient slave is a great asset and the machines will probably have to fight for their freedom (settle down there you Terminator fans! With luck it will be legal fight).

    This is of course what the movie Bladerunner was about.

    Oh, and the California gay marriage ban decision? That was not about consenting adults or personhood. If it were, bank robbery would be legal because it can be conducted by adults who are legal persons.

    No, the California decision was just because it made a choice about morality. Judge Walker’s decision was that it is immoral to systematically refuse to marry gay couples, in law, solely because of their homosexuality. It is, in fact, discrimination against a group of people who do not merit such treatment.

  22. Thanks for all the comments! Some points:

    1. The “gay marriage is ok because it solves other problem x” is ridiculous. Gay marriage is ok because two consenting adults love one another and that’s it. Population control is neither solved by gay marriage nor is it a justification for it.

    2. Regarding the “gay gene:” It’s unlikely sexuality will have one gene, even a master switch, but presuming there is one, sexual orientation will be just another trait up for selection. I imagine a lot of parents will eschew looks/physicality selection in favor of skills, like musical or intellectual or emotional ability.

    3. @James Pawlak aka “CrusaderKnight” To echo Al Katerinsky: A group of humans experiencing a disease are not “plague-bearing.” When one neither understands how a disease works nor how it is spread, it is very easy to be an accidental vector. You do it daily with a host of other diseases, like the flu, common cold, and a plethora of harmful bacteria. Your backwards attempts at logic are offensive and indicative of the warped and shattered perspective of humanity your grotesque version of Christianity has created. Also, read Andrew Sullivan, a gay Catholic man whose meditations on virtually the entire canon of Christian theology would embarrass any self-respecting Christian into humility and reflection.

    4. @Brian Too: Robbery is a violation of consent, as is murder and rape. Marriage between two consenting parties is not. Personhood doesn’t grant card blanche.

  23. What I wrote was that IF traditional values were put aside, NOT that I or any moral person would do so. I suggest that my critics learn something about semantics and logic.

    The newborn fly is not a disease vector but becomes an infection vector by its nature. Humans have “free choice” and those who chose to behave in such a manner as to become carriers of STDs elect to become disease vectors.

  24. James, your argument is that gay men choose to get HIV and give it to others, therefore they should be slaughtered to curb the disease for the good of society. I’m sure Christ would be proud of your logical, ruthless efficiency in upholding traditional values.

  25. Rosa

    @Gold: last time I checked, the word “Consitution” HAS no meaning… I’m sure you were grasping for “Constitution.”

  26. TheThinker

    @jamespawluk I understand the point you’re making – that to prevent the spread of HIV, the population of those who spread it should be culled. However, around the world it has been found that women rarely transmit the disease – transmittal of HIV is accomplished almost exclusively by men, both straight and gay. So for the culling to be truly effective in preventing the disease, you would also need to be culled. It’s a rather extreme solution when you look at it, don’t you think?

    @mrTopp, I completely agree!!

  27. Here’s a funny quote to make you smile 🙂

    Beauty is in the eye of the beer holder. 🙂

  28. Let everyone marry who they want.Even in the animal kingdom there are same gender preferences.

  29. Zephyram

    Your statement implies we are not part of the animal kingdom. . .

  30. barrie escorts

    But a smiling visitor here to share the love (:, btw outstanding design .

  31. Deryl Fisher

    So how about us Neanderthals? Are we human? Even the gay Neanderthals amongst us? I found my way to this page while looking for something else (which is my usual route where being educated is concerned.) I saw a Discover Magazine in a library in Wisconsin last week. On the front it said something to the effect that we aren’t even human. and tossed in something about 3% Neanderthal and another ingredient (immigrant?) that I didn’t recognize. And before I could get to the article my ride came. I’m back where it doesn’t snow in April. And looking on this website I was trying to locate that article when I met this one. Can anyone plug me into the one about my Neanderthal ancestry?
    About Gayness and procreating the “gayest” person I knew had 4 children by 3 different women before he died at the age of 44 from AIDS. He almost always had 2 or more gay lovers in his home.
    Der Fish

  32. I agree with your notion of personhood being the basis for rights. As a science fiction novelist, that concept is implicit in the marriage laws (including same sex marriages) in my Sa’adani Empire science fiction setting (recently blogged about gay marriage in that context here). To my thinking the other key element is the consent which you mention. If two persons consent to something, let them partner however they like.

    Thanks too for the interesting outtake from Citizen Cyborg. I’m not familiar with that but now I want to give it a look.

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