Seven states have just voted to "ban" something which does not yet exist in any of them, fixing an imaginary problem: gay marriage. You hear a lot, from "defenders" of marriage, that we are meddling with an institution which, in what they astonishingly refer to as its "traditional" form, is the "basis of civilization." If we "redefine" marriage, we are undermining civilized society.
As this public debate continues through the coming year, you will hear a lot about "tradition." Dark humorist that I am, I find that there is something deeply comedic about defending a "tradition" that is hardly 100 years old.
What is "marriage" then, as you and I understand it? Let's try this on for size: Man loves woman, woman loves man. Man proposes to woman, woman gives her consent. Man and woman marry, and begin a family. They are partners, complementary halves, with equality under the law. This is just as true in the reddest, red heart of Wyoming as it is in Massachusetts. It is also, please note, a complete aberration from the institution of marriage as it has been practiced for thousands of years the world over.
"Traditional" marriage - the basis of civilization, remember - works on one very simple, and, until quite recently (historically speaking), unshakable premise: woman is property. The traditional marriage does not ask the woman's consent in marriage, but rather the consent of the woman's father. It does not grant the woman a right to divorce an abusive husband, nor does it consider the woman's happiness or personal fulfillment a pertinent issue at all. Any civilization before the 20th century would have laughed in the face of any woman who spoke of such concepts - for this reason, suffragettes and proto-feminists were relegated to the lunatic fringe of political discourse for centuries. And then, when they finally gained real political traction at the beginning of the previous century, they were considered a threat to civilization.
We often overlook just how many features of our present-day marriage rites are artifacts of this older mindset - we follow them out of a kind of cozy sentimentality without contemplating their meaning very much. Nonetheless, the facts are what they are: the marriage rite originated as a religious ceremony to commemorate the transfer of property (woman) from one family to another - this is why her family name changes and the man's does not; she is in the hands of new stewards. She wears white to symbolize that she is not "used goods" - that her purity is intact (and recall that in a number of societies it is still "traditional" for virginity to be proven before marriage by forced examination, and to display, on the wedding night, the bloody aftermath of the broken hymen on the bed sheets by hanging them from the window for everyone to see. Ahh, tradition). In the eyes of modern society, even the most conservative among us would properly view this process as enslavement.
Enslavement though it is - it was the basis of what was then charitably called civilization. Every aspect of society - economy, politics, and culture - was organized according to this property-driven view of gender relations. An especially important consequence of this is that homosexual marriage before the 20th century would've been inconceivable, though the sameness of gender would've been only one of many complications. How, for instance, could one free man become the property of another? How could a woman become a property-holder? Marriages, after all, were inevitably accompanied by dowries, land titles, etc. Who gives the dowry to whom, and in what name? Whatever moral issues may have been at stake in a homosexual union, they would have also been accompanied by insurmountable economic and legal complications.
Yet another thing that should be remembered about traditional society - homosexuality, while readily observed and often feared, was not then viewed as a rival to or alternative deviation from heterosexuality - it was a different thing entirely. When it came to relations between women, it was rarely even viewed as a form of sexual behavior at all - at least not until Freud came on the scene. It was most likely seen as a form of (perhaps underdeveloped or perverted) love, but this would've occurred in a climate wherein "love" as we know it today (as an expression of personal values) wasn't given much importance in one's choice of marriage partner, where economics ruled above all - in every social class - and "marrying for love" was itself considered a potential danger to civilized society.
Changing this balance of power, was, without question, an attempt to change the course of civilization as a whole - and so it has. The ascension of women to a state of legal equality with men is more than a correction of some historical mistake, a "righting of past wrongs" as is usually portrayed in keeping with the enforced blandness and soporific simplicity of our history textbooks. It occurred as part of a fundamental revolution in society that was engendered - was, in fact, required and made inevitable - by Enlightenment thinking. The revolutionary idea was this: that rights belong to individuals, rather than groups. Unless we are prepared to advance the implausible, largely indefensible thesis that the women's rights movement, the civil rights movement, and the gay rights movement all came to fruition within a few decades of one another after millennia in the darkness purely by coincidence, we are stuck with the inevitable conclusion that they are branches which share the common root of individualism.
Individualism is, indeed, a threat to the old order. It was called out as such from the very beginning, and the prognostications regarding its impact have been largely correct - Western civilization has changed, completely and irrevocably. We are now born into a world in which more of us than ever before can expect to live a life of our choosing, pursuing our own interests, and finding our own loves, regardless of what others have to say about it.
We have seen the statistics, and we know that fundie Christians get divorced just as often as us pagans, and for more or less the same reasons. It is time that these defenders-of-tradition take a close, informed look at their own lives and understand that they enjoy something that is not traditional at all, but rather new and wonderful and more truly human than anything that has ever gone before - the pursuit of love according to one's own values and desires above all else. For this happiness, this new-found freedom which is barely four generations old, and which upturns, eviscerates, and consigns to the dust-heap six-thousand years of tradition, they have the fringe activists of the past to thank; the feminists and civil libertarians who internalized Enlightenment ideals and saw their implications while most of the world was still relinquishing control of their lives to the commandments of long-dead ancestors.
Any constitutional amendment that "protects" marriage from being practiced by homosexuals would do more than just legally entrench a form of homophobic discrimination - it would also require the entrenchment of a legal distinction between "male" and "female." This is not something that people seem think about when they discuss the issue of banning gay marriage. Such an amendment would have to explain why individuals who are recognized as having equal status relative to the state - which, we must recall, is expressly forbidden from discriminating on the basis of gender - are nonetheless distinct entities when entering into this one particular social contract, and no others. There is immediately a glaring legal inconsistency: if my rights are equally protected, and my partner's as well, how do they become unequal in combination?
At this point we need to make a very important distinction - that currently there are two distinct aspects of marriage; the religious and the civil. This is not just some academic exercise. For the religious and the secular alike, the distinction is crucial and immediate.
The marriage ceremony, as already stated, has its origins in religion, and hearkens back to a time when church and state were not separate entities. The stated purpose of the marriage ceremony is to perform a ritual, declaring and binding one's responsibilities to church and community before one's own God. It is a spiritual exercise, the specifics of which vary greatly from one religion to another.
The modern civil marriage - the kind performed at City Hall, for instance - is also a declaration of commitment before representatives of one's community, but it is done before the eyes of the State, rather than God. The procedure results in numerous binding legal and ethical obligations, but it is, for all intents and purposes, bereft of formalized spiritual meaning. It is binding in that specific ethical privileges and responsibilities are declared, though this is done without reference to theology or metaphysics. In other words, the moral dimension, which speaks to one's relationship with one's own God or conscience, is not spoken for in this affair of the State. This is by design, and is a direct and necessary consequence of the separation of Church and State.
When one is married in an American church, one is married before the Church and the State more or less simultaneously, since for convenience's sake the State allows for the certification of religious functionaries as civil functionaries as well for purposes of the ceremony. But make no mistake; these are two separate contracts. It is entirely possible, for instance, to be married in the eyes of the State only (as in the City Hall marriage). As far as the State is concerned, and as the secular couple is concerned, the City Hall man and woman are every bit as much married as a devout Baptist couple, though the latter would no doubt see it differently since the former made no pledge of marriage before God, and in fact may not even believe in God. I'll furthermore wager that for the devout Baptist couple being married before God is of far greater importance, with the marriage before the State being only a distant second, necessary as it is for purely pragmatic reasons. In fact, one could easily be married before one's own God without being married before the State, if one's religion or one's priest is not recognized by the State as having such civic authority. Such marriages occur every day.
The question, then, is not who gets to "define" marriage. Every faith defines marriage differently. There are already a number of Christian churches, for instance, which are willing to recognize and perform homosexual marriages this very moment, even though the State, in what can now only be called an act of religious discrimination, refuses to recognize them. There are other churches which do not recognize such marriages. It is the business of each individual faith to define marriage on its own terms, just as it defines God, family, life and death on its own terms, even though all of these terms have specific and universal meanings in relation to the State. The State, a separate entity as mandated by our Constitution, must not seek to prefer one religion's views over another.
Some of those who oppose gay marriage express fears that their own church will be forced to recognize marriages which they find morally objectionable. This is a free country, after all, and does freedom of religion not also include the right to uphold religious views that consider homosexuality to be a sin? This is a fair question, and if we are honest with ourselves, there is only one fair answer to it: no one's church should be forced to make such a recognition. Just as many Christian churches might consider a Buddhist wedding - or a City Hall wedding for that matter - to be spiritually meaningless (as it is absolutely their right to do so), there can be no ethical requirement for them to recognize a gay marriage within the confines of their own religious community. Their recognition of a gay marriage need only go so far as their relationship to the State; to wit, in the buying of houses, allocation of insurance benefits, etc., just as it does for my City Hall wedding. I would never seek to force a devout Christian to recognize my marriage in any religious sense. It is his right to object to my lifestyle in the most vehement sense, as long as he does not interfere with it. This, in essence, is the classic distinction between morals (measuring one's behavior according to God, personal conscience, or other metaphysical criteria) and ethics (measuring one's behavior in light of social obligation, civic duty, and the notion of one's rights within society as protected and codified, in this case, by the State).
There inevitably arrives, at some point in the conversation, the objection that gay marriage is a "slippery slope," leading to three-way and four-way marriages, and perhaps to bestiality (it is interesting how the Christian Right seems to live in a cosmos of slippery slopes - gay sex that leads to screwing chickens, joint-smoking that leads to mainlining heroin and prostitution, rock music that leads to suicide, and video games that lead to Columbine...it must be hard work, stepping so carefully all the time, never being able to run and frolic). Leaving aside the goat-fuckers for a moment, let's address the question of multiplicity. A three-way marriage is objectionable...why exactly? Because a child might have too big a family? Too much security and love? Because it sounds like too much fun? Certainly, such an arrangement may not be for everyone. Nonetheless, there may be certain individuals for whom a three-way marriage might provide a kind of perfect balance and stability that they could not otherwise have. Just think of how those lover's spats would play out, when there is always a third party observing from the sidelines! Or when one can always resort, thanks to the numerical situation, to democratic resolutions. The potential for self-knowledge in a relationship wherein one has two distinct mirrors is potentially greater than in traditional coupling (in Berkeley, I knew such a threesome - three women who had been committed to the triad for fifteen years. One of them confessed to me, one afternoon, that "none of us would have made it as a couple - in any combination."). Anyone concerned that the availability of state-sanctioned threesomes might lead to abuse need only consider the following - the legal and economic obligations of a two-way marriage are already more than enough to dissuade any but the most serious applicants. A three-way would necessarily double those responsibilities for each individual involved. It is therefore likely that only those most ardently committed to their triad would dare undertake it. As for the bestiality-types, it should be clear that this question answers itself - no meaningful contract can exist on equal terms between man and beast, so the point is moot. The specter of cross-species pollination is not a rational objection, but rather a form of bigoted fear-mongering.
Western society is a work-in-progress, still struggling to escape its adolescence, and no doubt will be for centuries to come. Our culture is still "growing up" to the true implications and responsibilities of a free society. Properly viewed, we are a young species, which spent 99% of its time on this Earth hiding in caves and throwing spears at wildebeest. Recorded history is a very recent invention. We are now undergoing a vast transformation as a newly-technological, science-wielding species, for whom many of the old superstitions are still alive and kicking, and informing - unknown to our conscious minds - the subtext of our fears and assumptions about other people, and the natural world in general.
The free society, as conceived by the Founders, was intended to be a laboratory, a place of national self-discovery. They said so, quite explicitly. This, in fact, is the ultimate benefit of liberal freedom. It is not that we would produce wealth and comfort - these were happy by-products, a means to an end, a sign that things are running as they should. The purpose of freedom is the betterment of humanity. It is crucial to add that this can only occur, as again explained by the FF's and their fellow philosophers-of-the-day, that the only freedom worth the name can occur in a society that worships reason. Superstition - the systematic entrenchment of false ideas and methods of knowing - is the modus opperandi of kings and tyrants - infants on thrones claiming divine mandate. Freedom is meant to be the centrifuge in which minds are enriched, where reason can be purified and shed of historical detritus. And, so, we have ended the subjugation of women, because we understand, on the basis of science and reason, that their subjugation was wrong. We have ended slavery and legal segregation because reason demanded what superstition forbade. All those dire predictions about the end of civilization occurring when men and women of all colors could stand on equal footing turned out to be completely wrong. And yet, now, we are to believe that those who claim, without a shred of evidence, that homosexuals are a threat to civilization, are now predicting the future correctly?
To be fair, there are many among the anti-gay marriage crowd who take a more moderate position. They are not claiming to object to homosexuality in general, nor do they equate same-sex love with animalism. Some may even favor the creation of "same sex unions," but wish to retain the term "marriage" solely for heterosexual relationships. They no longer view homosexuals with fear or repulsion, and genuinely wish to extend to them a certain amount of socially normalizing tolerance. It is important that we address this position as well, since it is well-entrenched in the American political center.
Here is the central tenet of this position:
By changing the definition of marriage to include same-sex relationships, this will change marriage into something which emphasizes sexual love over child-rearing. This will have a negative effect on heterosexual marriages and families, by making the welfare of children less important to society.
I think the above is a fair representation of the views held by many moderate (and perhaps moderately religious) Americans on this topic. This view ties into a concern that virtually every American can sympathize with or relate to - the secularization of mainstream culture. There exists the popular social narrative that our society is becoming too selfish, that we commodify every aspect of our lives, and that the urban elite and the dream makers of film and fashion have come to view child-rearing as an impediment to lifestyle.
There are two important objections to this. The first and simpler is again historical: compare the welfare of children in our modern secular culture to the same at any previous era in our history. Never has child-rearing been taken more seriously. If anything, middle-class secular urban culture smothers its children with excessive concern over their self-esteem and emotional health. Where these sentiments do not occur, where sex is engaged in recklessly, without regards to its consequences, is not amongst secular communities devoid of religion, but rather in populations where the only choice presented is ascetic self-denial or hellfire (and this stark absolutism is there, in only slightly altered forms, in mainstream hip-hop or suburban grunge-rock - the fiery preacher is not the only proselytizer, nor the pop icon the only painter of the apocalypse). For the young and confused, such dark fatalism is unbearable, and hellfire seems the preferable choice if the path to it provides momentary release. Look at secular culture directly, and what is its essential characteristic? It is choice and deliberation - that one's life, including one's children, occurs as a series of planned events. Secularism is the enshrinement of human intentionality, whereas traditional western religion seeks the glorification of human helplessness and fallibility. Which of these tenets is the most pro-child?
But perhaps I have deviated too far from the claims of the moderate, who wish to find a happy medium between the spiritual and the secular world. They might state that their concern is rather more simple - that choice and personal responsibility are all well and good, but that society must have some standard, that it must hold something specific as an ideal, rather than idealizing personal choice above all else. They will argue that difference can be tolerated, that there can be a place for everyone, but that heterosexual marriage must be the highest ideal in our society, and that child-rearing must be marriage's ultimate raison d'etre. After all, without procreation, society ceases to exist. Ergo, the health of our civilization requires that marriage must continue to represent what is always has, even before the emancipation of women, i.e., the investment in the generations to come. Therefore, the State has a vested interest in defining marriage in its ideal (heterosexual) form.
Here, I wholeheartedly agree with the intention, but not the conclusion. Love and commitment should be a legal and social prerequisite to having children. For most of history, when birth control was both unavailable and/or inadequate, mutual love and attraction as a prerequisite for marriage was seen by most as a foolish, pie-in-the-sky luxury, and marriage had to be enforced to make sure that children had parents. Once a woman become pregnant (whether as an outcome of genuine sexual love, or simple recklessness, or rape) a man had to be made to stay and take care of wife and child. This was when society afforded only men a "self" - women were seen as inherently self-less (i.e., both docile and naturally altruistic). The male ego had to be restrained and made responsible. This social coercion did not necessarily lead to happiness, nor was it meant to. It was simply in place to make people take responsibility for their actions, to face consequences whether it made them happy or not.
However, one of the great outcomes of the sexual revolution is the now widespread acceptance that happier parents have healthier children. As such, our modern culture recognizes that women experience desire (i.e. have an ego) just as men do, and encourages planned parenthood rather than accidental parenthood. Our modern view of marriage posits that one should be in love first, and have a secure relationship, before attempting to reproduce. This means that we lead happier lives, and do not have to foist our bitterness about being trapped in an unwanted marriage on our kids. So it seems to me that defining marriage as being about love first and foremost, would actually benefit children rather than hurt them. In other words, marriage would be defined as "mutual love and lifelong commitment." That would be our social ideal. It may lead to children or it may not. But at least by putting sexual love first, you create a cultural climate in which people learn to take love and sexual happiness seriously, as something socially important. When marriage is no longer a thing which can be acceptably resorted to once one has failed all other tests of personal responsibility and foresight, when marriage is elevated to a question of love and choice, and not as a coercive means to mend human accident, when people are expected to be in control of their lives (and the pursuit of personal happiness is the greatest incentive to self-control), marriage is elevated, not denigrated, and children will benefit.
Children with single parents are not the victims of re-defined marriage. Unplanned children come about when two people take risks that are not appropriate for their lack of commitment to one another. If we want to foster a healthy society, the last thing we should encourage is the idea that marriage is an alter upon which adults sacrifice their happiness to live for their offspring. We should encourage gay marriage, and use the word "marriage," for all the reasons the conservatives and moderates have us deny it to gays; because it would promote the belief that mutual love and happiness must come before any attempt to have children.
There are many who decry the sexual revolution for what they claim to be its negative effects on children and families. I, on the other hand, applaud the sexual revolution for what I claim to be its positive effects on children and families. I'm thereby suggesting that personal responsibility and personal happiness, far from being at odds with each other, are in fact inextricably related; you can't have one without the other. The sexual abandon that many associate with the detritus of the sixties is, in fact, a product of great social unhappiness and a lack of self-knowledge, and the best corrective to this is the intellectual and emotional elevation of sex and love - in all its forms - to something more than a means (and duty) to procreate. Moderation must be learned though the responsible pursuit of personal experience. There is no room for young individuals to learn the habits of self-discipline and happiness when all experience is forbidden to them by society's moralists.
M C R
This work is copyrighted by the author, Andrew S. Taylor. All rights reserved.