Sunday, June 26, 2011

On Marriage - Gay, Straight, In The Past, In The Future . . . And Mine

Kudos to New York, in particular Gov. Andrew Cuomo for working so hard to get marriage equality passed in my home state. All the same, there have always been voices of dissent that question the value of the institution. What follows is little more than some thoughts to spark interest, perhaps thoughts of your own.
I saw this over at Eschaton yesterday, and it sums up what I've said, too many times, about marriage.
It shouldn't be too hard to understand that there is, effectively, a secular state aspect to what we call marriage - mostly a property contract - and then there's the part that's between you, your mate, and, if you care, your church/religion and they ultimately don't have all that much to do with each other.
Checking out the summer issue of New Politics, there is an article entitled "A Young Radical's View of Marriage". It was nice to read the view I put forth on marriage as rooted in property rights (including the legitimacy of children) was also held by Friedrich Engels. Nice company.

An important point she raises, with which I neither agree nor disagree, is that, in contemporary American society, not only a favorable view of the institution but the practical use made of it is determined by race and class distinctions that render so many of the voices defending what they call "traditional marriage" suspect on a variety of grounds. Both survey data of attitudes as well as trends in marriage over time show pretty definitively that, if you are white and upper-middle class or higher, you are far more likely both to have a positive view of the institution and actually get married than if you are poor, African-American, or Latino. With particular emphasis on African-Americans and the history of attempts to destroy the slave family ties, it seems to me a radical view such as this faces serious questions. All the same the reality of the lack of attractiveness of the institution in certain groups, and its lack of practice, certainly raise questions that have not been addressed by the shouting over the matter.

After setting out various arguments against marriage, from both political radicals and feminists from Emma Goldman (who was both) to Betty Friedan, the author admits her own misgivings about the state-recognized institution while desiring the kind of communal celebration of long-term commitment that we usually associate with a wedding:
Personally, I like the idea of having a public ceremony — minus the religious trappings — where I declare my love for my partner in front of those I care about, and then we eat cake. I even like the idea of both of us being dressed up when we do this. But, particularly with the divorce rate as high as it is, I don’t feel eager to enter an institution that I associate with social inequality and housework. In my foggy vision of the future, my partner and I stand before a gathering of family and friends and recite love poems or self-made vows, then share a meal with people we love. At some point, maybe, there is dancing, which, unlike marriage, Emma Goldman might have appreciated. Then we move on with our equal and independent lives, with some commitment to togetherness and chore-sharing. It’s a simple idea, and one more ancient than the origin of property rights.
In the course of the article was a link to a Boston Review article by a historian that debunks the idea put forth by opponents of marriage equality that marriage has always been the same (at least in the west; I rarely see evidence or discussion of non-western marital practices).
Opponents of equal marriage rights for same-sex couples say that marriage has always been between a man and a woman and must remain so. They argue from “tradition.” Counter to their claims is an argument from history—a history of change over time.

Many features of marriage that were once considered essential have been remade, often in the face of strong resistance, by courts and legislatures. Economic and social changes have led to increasing legal equality for the marriage partners, gender-neutrality of spousal roles, and control of marital role-definition by spouses themselves rather than by state prescription. Yet marriage itself has lasted, despite these dramatic changes. Not only that: it retains vast appeal.
One particular point needs to be emphasized here: The history of marriage in America, from colonial times to the present, emphasizes the legal, contractual, secular institution over any religious principle.
Seventeenth-century English colonists in North America created marriage laws almost immediately upon settling. In England the established Anglican Church ruled marriages, but rather than replicate that arrangement or treat marriage as a sacrament (as Catholics do), colonial legislators asserted that marriage was a “civil thing” because it dealt with matters of property. Although the great majority of colonists believed in the basic tenets of Christian monogamy, colonial legislators explicitly rejected religious authority over marriage. Thus even before the American Revolution, marriage was deemed a civil institution, regulated by government to promote the common good.

After the founding of the United States, state after state maintained this principle. State laws allowed religious authorities to perform marriage ceremonies and to recognize only marriages adhering to the requirements of their own faith, but not to determine which marriages would be considered valid by the public. For example, California’s first state Constitution stipulated, “No contract of marriage, if otherwise duly made, shall be invalidated for want of conformity to the requirements of any religious sect,” a provision now retained in the state’s Family Code. To be sure, many people, then as now, invested marriage with religious significance, but that had no bearing on any marriage’s legality.
With the arrival of same-sex marriage, civil unions (such as here in Illinois), and the general trend toward acceptance of marriage equality across the country, time, history, and sentiment seem to be on the side of changing, yet again, our understanding of marriage.

I would like to add some thoughts from my own 18 years of marriage to the mix. First of all, neither Lisa nor I got married for reasons of legal or financial expedience. On the contrary, when we got married, we were so poor, I can't imagine any of that stuff being anywhere in our thoughts. We married for what most would call old-fashioned reasons: we loved one another, wanted to spend our lives together. We didn't talk about children at all, other than to agree we did not want children right away. For a bit of time, six months or so, we even talked seriously about remaining childless.

Most of all, when we first talked about getting married, I insisted that I did not want Lisa taking my name. I did not like the implications of it, that she was a piece of property that changed hands, the name-change signifying a change of ownership from her father to me. After some discussion, we decided that we would both hyphenate. We went to the DC Social Security office the week after we got married and when time came, we changed our names on both our Social Security numbers. The clerk behind the desk looked at me like I was from Mars and said, "You don't have to do this. Only she does."

I smiled and said, "I'm changing my name, too."

He looked at me, then looked at Lisa and said, "Lady, he must really love you," then handed over the form for me to fill out.

The name change is important. Getting married changed both of us. I'm not who I was before I got married. The change wrought by marriage affects us both. If I sat around with the same name, what would that tell anyone? Taking Lisa's last name and adding it to my own - not just conventionally but legally - tells the world that we are in this together. We are partners, equals.

In that sense, then, Lisa and I do not have a "traditional" marriage, for which I am thankful. We are hardly a conventional, traditional couple. Our example, I think, makes the simple (but largely unnoticed) point that each and every actual marriage adds its own distinctive color to our collective understanding of the institution. Non-traditional marriages, in whatever form they may take, accumulate change over time that leads to changing legal understandings. It usually begins, however, with couples making choices about their lives, just as Lisa Kruse and I did all those years ago.

Marriage is not some ideal "thing", but a mixture of legal definitions and actual marriages between real human beings, all of which change over time. As we move toward marriage equality in more and more states, our understanding of what marriage "is", or what it might be, will continue to change and grow, or perhaps shrink and fade. Whatever happens, it is an institution that changes each and every time a judge or priest or minister or rabbi or imam or some other officiant says, "I now pronounce you husband and wife."

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