Why gay marriage is good for everyone
This weekend in the Washington Post, there's an article about a couple who first met while serving in various capacities during WWII, who just celebrated their marriage in DC this weekend after a "62 year engagement." This would be a romantic story in any context - but it isn't a story of parted lovers who finally found each other again after decades apart. Instead, it is of two men who have lived a life almost wholly together, sharing work, family and community, but who lacked legal and social recognition.
What's interesting about this story to me is not simply that it is a charming love story, although that too. What I found striking about this is that in order to marry, the two had to rescind a legal adoption undertaken as recently as 1990. That is, before the legalization of gay marriage, in order to have meaningful legal protections, the two had had to create the legal falsehood that they were parent and child.
"I think the reason it was so moving is that there were many in that audience who realized a relationship like ours could exist," Bob says. "There was still hope that they could accumulate enough love between two people to make it last."
And it really has lasted, Henry says. "We're not only friends, we're lovers, we're brothers and, incidentally, along the way, in 1990, I legally adopted Bob."
True story. When Henry was 69, he legally adopted Bob, who was 70. It gave them legal protections, offered an advantageous inheritance tax rate and made the pair into a family.
I think it is safe to say that outside of extreme exigency, this is not, for a host of really obvious reasons, a subterfuge anyone would voluntarily undertake. Our cultural taboos against even the shadow of incest mean that most people really dislike the idea of standing in even artificial parental relationships to one's romantic partner. And yet is a measure of how difficult it can be to achieve the basic protections that normal, married couples have for one another.
Growing up in a household led by two lesbians, I got to see those basic difficulties upfront. My youngest sister, Vicky, is 7 years younger than I am, and because my parents divorced when she was an infant, she remembers no time in her life when Sue, my step-mother didn't stand in a parental relationship to her. Within a day or two of my turning 18, my mother sat me down to tell me that she was changing legal documents to leave her share of Vicky's guardianship to me if my mother died.
I was, to say the least, startled by this - not only had I no thought of my mother dying (and she's healthy now two decades later, so this was merely advance planning), I had never thought of being my younger sister's guardian. But my mother observed that if anything happened to her, Sue would have absolutely no legal rights in my sister's life, and that my father could take her entirely away from Sue, or the courts could dispose of her relationship as so much dross. To my father's credit, he would never have thought of such a thing - but my mother simply didn't feel it was possible to leave something so basic as a relationship with her other mother up to the hope of a sympathetic court, or in the control of someone else. Now that I was a legal adult, even though I was no more capable of standing in parental relationship to my sister than any other teenage big sister, I could at least provide a pretence to keep my sister with her parent. The idea that the courts would find me, a typical feckless teenager, a guardian to my sister in preference to my step-mother was insane. But then, the world was crazy on the subject of our family, and I'd known that for years.
There is no question that I am personally biased in favor of gay marriage. My own argument is that even if all the societal detriments claimed by religious conservatives are actually true, that's still insufficient justification to make gay people suffer the kind of fears that underly a life without full legal protection. It is still insufficient to justify the pain and suffering of the children of gay parents whose families are not treated as fully real, and who are forced to know how vulnerable they are far too early. I don't think the claims of religious oppression and cost to the institution of marriage made by gay marriage opponents are largely correct, but even if they were, I would argue that second-class status for an entire segment of the population is too great a price to pay to preserve benefits to heterosexual society.
Ultimately, the arguments against gay marriage are weak - the idea that it in any way undermines heterosexual marriage is wholly unproven, but more importantly, it relies on an underlying assumption that it is acceptable to do harm to some social group in order to strengthen an institution. But that requires we give attention to the institution itself - an institution that began its "decline" long before anyone ever said the word "gay" out loud. Any case that the institution of marriage deserves to be strengthened at the cost ot gay people and their families must begin by asking how well marriage is doing as an institution. And the answer is "not so hot."
Moreover, most honest opponents of gay marriage fully admit that institutional harm didn't start with gay marriage - it would be impossible to credibly argue otherwise, honestly. Looking around at all the divorced folks, it seems hard to imagine that unless gay people have an astonishing radius effect (every gay person kills marriages for 15 miles around them, say), most of the harm has been done by the participants of these marriages, almost all heterosexual.
Indeed, the critical moment for divorce and marital instability actually begins around the time that Bob and Henry in the article met - at World War II. World War II was responsible for an astonishing number of divorces - two, three, four years apart off fighting war is not conducive to stable families. Some people married in the heat of the moment as a loved one was going off to war and then found they'd made a mistake, many men came back traumatized, women who went into the workforce to meet needs never were satisfied coming back. We make a material mistake in history when we begin to analyze the history of marriage from the 1950s forward (or of women's working outside the home) - in fact, the rise in marriage failures begins with WWII and while it declines for a while in the 1950s, that's a smaller bump and irregularity than you'd think.
My own family mirrors those trends in many ways. My paternal grandmother married shortly after World War II, and lived happily ever after - for about 10 minutes. My grandfather who was shot down over France and was a genuine war hero was also deeply traumatized by his experience, and came home a right bastard, frankly. I can't honestly tell from my knowledge of him whether the war changed him or not, although I think it likely and he suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder for his whole life afterwards, but he came home and beat the crap out of my grandmother. My grandmother had had polio in her youth, and was small - my grandfather was better than 6 feet and huge, and when she was unable to protect her sons or herself, she left him and moved in with her sister and sister's husband.
My mother's mother married a man old enough to be her father, and was widowed in the 1950s, then married again in a marriage that did not last, and divorced. My parents married and divorced because my mother was a lesbian - like many, many gay people raised in the supposed good old days, they longed to grow up and get married and have a family, just like everyone else. But unlike today, when one can marry a partner of the same sex and not have to harm some innocent man or woman by discovering or acknowledging their sexual preference in medias res, my mother didn't have that choice. I'm grateful, of course, to be here and to have my sisters, but no one can claim that the world benefits by the destructive implosion of marriages due to fundamental incompatibilities.
There are two generations of divorce in our family to model on - two generations of failed marriages and steps and sundered relationships. And yet my sisters and I are all stably and happily married after some early romantic errors. Eric and I have been married for almost 12 years, my sisters for six and five years respectively, and they look good to last. The single best and most lasting partnership in our immediate family is my mother and step-mother's, 31 years and counting. It is on this all three of us base our (heterosexual) partnerships, and the model is sturdy and set to last a lifetime (technically Eric and I have the deal that after 75 years of marriage, we can discuss dating other people - he'll be 103 and I'll be 101 and we figured by then we might need a change ;-)). In our case, at least, these three traditional, heterosexual, nuclear family models rest firmly on a foundation created by gay marriage. It is a sturdy place to rest.
I often tell people that my wedding day wasn't one of the happiest in my life. Don't get me wrong, I liked it just fine. But it doesn't rate up there with the very best moments of my life, which include the days that my children and nieces were born, and also the day that my parents were married. It was the first legal day of weddings in the state of Massachusetts, and the day before, as the news was filled of stories of weddings, my phone rang off the hook. Friends, neighbors, exes - everyone who knew me or had known me wanted to know one thing "were they going to do it?" Everyone I knew was delighted in absentia that my mothers would get to marry. Even people I knew who were ambivalent about gay marriage, or even personally opposed to it in general called me to congratulate me and ask me to extend my congratulations to them.
To my sorrow, I didn't get to attend their wedding - my husband's grandparents were ill and we couldn't leave them. But my best friend from college was in Cambridge MA at midnight when the first brides and grooms walked down the stairs, and told me of the celebration, the sheer joy that he and everyone there, gay and straight, had felt as they celebrated something truly historic. My mother and step-mother were married more quietly in the town they live in. And I told my sons, the ones newly old enough to begin a tiny piece of understanding that that day in May was an important one.
And it was - it was more important to me than my own wedding, because it was the day that a thousand old fears, all the worries about legitimacy, about death and illness were simply laid to rest, and more, that it felt like the whole the world, all the people who had known me or my family all these years, was united in joy. Weddings are supposed to make that happen - and mine did, in a way. But instead of my inviting all of these old friends and allies into my life, instead, they called on their own, every one of them wanting my parents to know that wherever they were, they were suffused with happiness for them. Instead of a room full of people celebrating one marriage, I lived in a whole world full of people who were celebrating.
This, of course, is purely personal and anecdotal, and we all know that personal stories are not sufficient to make societal judgement calls. In the title to this piece, I promised to tell you all why Gay Marriage is good for everyone, rather than just for me, but I allow myself to indulge in the personal here because I think it is important. I think if you could think of no other justification for gay marriage than this - that on the day that my state, New York, legalizes gay marriage (finally!), there will be thousands of such moments of joy spread out across the state, that would be quite a good argument (I hope it is self-evident that in valorizing weddings, I do not mean to valorize the kind of wedding excesss that is customary in the US - I've danced at some dandy potlucks!) The Torah teaches that dancing at someone's wedding is such a great mitzvah (good deed) that in a woman who had no other good deeds in her life, this was sufficient to redeem her. A thousand or ten thousand blessings and moments of perfect joy alone would be worth a great deal - weddings are joyous because we can enter into a moment of happiness and share in it. Imagine half a million of those weddings, all on the day that the United States as a whole legalizes gay marriage (and it will) - half a million moments of joy and delight, deferral revoked - how else could you get that?
And yet, it is fair to argue that the state has a more compelling interest in marriage than just ensuring tears of happiness and a lot of really terrific parties (And perhaps we could argue that society has a vested interest in reducing the number of times we all have to hear the same songs by Bob Seeger and Kool and the Gang. I have yet to hear gay marriage opponents argue that reducing the sheer number of marriages would prevent the chicken dance, but I begin to see the emergence of a compelling case against gay...and straight marriage ;-)) I dwell on the joy of gay marriage because I think it is more important culturally than it gets credit for - but it isn't all. And this is why I think gay marriage isn't just good for gay people, and the children of gay people - although I think it would be sufficient to justify gay marriage if it merely protected those compelling interests.
The case of Bob and Henry illustrates something truly important - the degree to which marriage is about a host of things that we don't like to talk about - many of them economic. We are uncomfortable bringing up marriage as an economic institution. To prove this, consider your own reaction to a child telling you that she's decided to marry "because she's a good provider and we're economically compatible" or because you share views on financial stability." Discussions of marriage in our society focus heavily and exclusively on love, and where there are religious and cultural belief, on those. It almost never involves money or economic issues in modern American culture (this is not true in the cultures of many recent immigrants). Indeed, any kind of preoccupation with the financial and legal impllications of marriage is seen as either gold digging or as being overly preoccupied with wealth (consider the gleeful discussion of prenupts and the underlying assumptions about them).
Even thought money and finances are a major cause of marital failure, even though differing views on these are a major source of stress, even though nearly half of all US marriages involve at least one previously married party and thus issues of custody, inheritance, etc.... that must be dealt with, these are seen as shadow issues, outside public discussion, to be dealt with if necessary discretely, and ideally, not at all. The focus in marriage is on how much you love each other - as though that feeling is itself the centerpiece of the marriage. But as many people who have been married for a good while can attest, feelings are transient in some ways, and the change. The high passion of early love sometimes emerges as something else - and yet as long as we are fixated on that passion, and as long as we hold a powerful emotion rather than its complex expressions at the center of a marriage, its temporary dispersal in times of stress, or its re-emergence as something calmer, more comfortable but less dramatic can look like the loss of the marriage itself.
Moreover, because of our reluctance to talk explicitly about establishing a household economy, most of us have little preparation for dealing with the economic realities of marriage - particularly in a time of declining wealth and resources. Given that even the most optimistic economists predict a long and bumpy recovery with a real likelihood of long term unemployment and a lost decade (and I don't share the opinion of any of the most optimistic economists), the fact that we don't look at our marriages as fully economic institutions, nor are we prepared to openly deal with the economic realities of marriage seems to contribute to the divorce rate considerably more than gay marriage ever will.
Contrast this modern preoccupation with love to the exclusion of the practicalities of marriage with the attitude of the past. Historian John Boswell puts it succinctly and accurately:
In premodern Europe, marriage usually began as a property arrangement, was in its middle mostly about raising children, and ended about love. Few couples in fact married 'for love,' but many grew to love each other in time as they jointly managed their household, reared their offspring, and shared life's experiences. Nearly all surviving epitaphs to spouses evince profound affection. By contrast, in most of the modern West, marriage begins about love, in its middle is still mostly about raising children (if there are children), and ends - often - about property, by which point love is absent or a distant memory. (Boswell, _Same Sex Unions in PreModern Europe_ xxi-xxii)
No one, I suspect longs to go back to the days of marriage as primarily a property and family arrangement, or to arranged marriages. Indeed, the shift away from parent-chosen economic alliances towards love marriage has been one of the most central narratives of our human history for centuries, and it is an important shift culturally. But it is also worth noting that there are real costs to erasing the legal, familial and economic implications of marriage from all discussions of the institution.
As long, for example, as we view the establishment of a marital household as the creation of something discrete and apart from the families from which they emerged, in both economic and social senses, we find ourselves in the predicament that each family is set afloat to establish itself more or less without help, apart from parents and extended family - and that the established families exist mostly as a model of an economic standard to achieve. How often do older people lament that their children want it all now, that they aren't prepared to save and struggle for years to get what their parents have - but the way we conceive marriage pushes families down this path of debt and crisis and failure, because we have not prepared our kids to see themselves a part of a larger economic and social project.
I think all of us can think of people unprepared for the most basic economic realities of establishing a family and household, of marriages torn apart by economic strain that the participants were unprepared for. The erasing of marriage as a system of family ties that bind two families to one another means that every family is left to reinvent the wheel, to reform a family connection and reestablish what their relationship will mean in a larger family context from the beginning.
Enter gay marriage. Gay people may choose each other from love, from the same emotions that motivate heterosexual couples, may live together from love, may care deeply about the religious institution of their marriage (and any discussion of religion and gay marriage cannot ignore the fact that many gay people were married, as my parents were, in their churches and synagogues and covens before they could marry in their states) but they have not had the luxury of pretending that the economic, family and legal ties of marriage are not central to the institution. No gay person can ever rest content that they will be permitted at a hospital bedside for their spouse without a big shiny pile of paperwork. No gay person can ever be a parent without worrying about who counts, and how the schools will treat them and their partner. No gay person can write their will or establish guardianship for their children without a worry. No child of gay parents gets to grow up without hearing some idiot say "she's not your real mother" or "he's not your real Dad." No gay family can count on getting social security if a partner dies or health care from every employer, or coverage for the kids from the non-biological parent.
Gay people, once in love, have done society a signal service by simply placing a renewed emphasis on the legal, social and financial benefits of marriage - they have forced us to stop talking *only* about love, and start talking about money and benefits and rights and legal protections - and what those things are for, about the compelling interest society has (if, indeed, it has one - I think it does) in creating stable families and households.
And this is why there is something fundamentally empty about the rhetoric of most gay marriage opponents. They too speak mostly about love and blessings and holiness and religious institutions - they too leave out the secular elements, or at best, speak disparagingly of them, suggesting that a preoccupation with those elements is trivial in comparison to the holiness of holy matrimony, and that if marriage is "only" about rights and legal issues that it doesn't really matter whether gay people get a separate-but- equal civil unions setup.
And yet they ignore that the holy institution of marriage (for them that care) is in its origins about those contractual rights. The Ketubah, the marriage contract of ancient Israel, primarily set forth the legal obligations of husband to wife - rights of survivorship, of maintenence in the case of widowhood or divorce, the right to things like sexual satisfaction within marriage (yup, Ketubots include the requirement that the man satisfy the woman sexually - the reciprocal obligation is not mentioned).
Early Christianity was deeply ambivalent about this preoccupation with legal arrangements - mostly because it was seen that marriage was a sub-ideal state, secondary to celibacy. It wasn't until a thousand years after Christ died that marriage was stabilized as a "holy ideal" with fixed rituals in the Catholic Church - before that, rituals were many and varied, and mostly involved adding blessing to extant legal practices by various states. Boswell and many other historians have traced the emergence of holy matrimony from a variety of sources, many of them decidedly non-theological. The Roman, Germanic and British rites and their roles created a hybrid that became holy - but began as much in money, property and family ties as it did in any faith.
The sacredness of marriage for religious institutions descends in large part not just because of its recognition that love is sacred, but also that families and households and the society as a whole are best served by offering protections carefully and wisely. There are many things to criticize about ancient religious models of marriage - the idea, for example, that women were primarily an object of exchange or for the cementing of alliances, the idea that the victim of rape was the husband or father whose woman was devalued, the fundamental priority of male interests and the mistreatment of women.
But underlying both the Ketubah and the Christian marriage ceremony, and indeed, most marriage rituals, religious and secular - is the sometimes effective, sometimes failed recognition that we do not profit from a society in which unsupported widows and orphan proliferate, where families do not have formal ties and legal rights that have been fully established. It is not that that marriage is sacred and economic, property and legal rights are the dirty necessities - marriage is sacred in part *because* it provided those protections to those who were rendered by their society unequal, vulnerable and weak, rather than only to the powerful, *because* within the rites of holy marriage, it is possible to do better by people than if they were cast upon the world without those protections. The claiming of people, their inclusion and the giving of a structured, meaningful and protected place in society is part of what makes the ritual of marriage holy - and this is precisely what gay marriage advocates seek to do.
I should be clear - I do not think that this case is fundamentally necessary. Regardless of our past, we are no longer a homogenous religious society. and we are fundamentally a secular state. The religious origins of our marriage cannot be allowed to define the role of marriage now, if only because we live in a pluralistic society where not everyone shares those assumptions, nor should they. But it is important to note that the origins of marriage, indeed most of the history of religious marriage, provide ample justification for a deep concern with the proper application of economic and legal protections to those who need and deserve them. Marriage was and is an economic institution in its roots - just as it is, in its roots, a theological institution, and just as it is in its oldest accounts, about love. Roots are not all - for many people religion has no place it all in marriage. But there is nothing in the roots of the institution that precludes us making alterations for the protection of those who deserve such care.
What has all this to do with peak oil, climate change and our financial predicament? Well, a great deal. First and foremost, there is an enormous amount of economic pressure facing most marriages - a pressure most of us are wholly unequipped to handle. As long as our marriages have been primarily about the way we feel towards each other, and less about the economic entity our households become when we marry, we are underequipped to adapt to new financial realities. We have been taught to expect a hazy bliss of passion and delight, but live in social realities that simply won't support that future.
One option is to eschew marriage entirely, and this is happening in large segments of the US population - it has been happening among low income households of all kinds, and also in segments of the middle class, and the trend is becoming more pronounced as the economic crisis has exaggerated disparities between men and women. I read a study not long ago (which I can't at the moment find, I'm out of town) that suggested that because they'd seen their parents divorce, and didn't want to subject their children to divorce, more and more young women were choosing simply never to marry the fathers of their children.
It is interesting to me that among the low income population discussed in the study, regardless of race, apparently the message that marriage requires a long commitment and a solid foundation has gotten through - but since they don't think they can provide that, they simply don't marry. This comes, of course, at a heavy price economically and socially, for all the parents and for the kids. But their sense that marriage is unrealistic, something attainable only by other people, seems to be fed by the fact that marriage as we conceive it is perhaps unrealistic.
Here, I think, the salutary example of gay marriage may actually be helpful - by forcing the conversation to focus on the rights and legal protections of marriage, on the ways that marriage is fundamentally an economic and family institution - not to the exclusion of love, as we sometimes postulate it, but as part of love - as the expression in mutual support and dependence of the material realities of what love actually is when lived - they begin to present marriage as an attainable and achievable accomplishment. If love is not just a feeling, but a state in which you preserve and protect one another, merging strengths and assets for the benefit of partners and any children, and for the support of one another and extended family, this is something that might be achievable, rather than a diffuse idea of unending bliss and constant happiness.
The coming changes in our society will require a host of shifts of us - and one of the ones that it may require is that social mobility and its costs become harder to achieve. I think most people haven't fully thought this through - it makes intuitive sense that we'd be less physically mobile in a world with fewer available energy resources. But again, when we track back the increase in divorces and the instability of marriage, we find that in many measures it mimics the history of our physical mobility - the suburbanization of the US began at the end of WWII, when Bob and Henry were first together - and that physical mobility made possible a world in which we merged and parted more freely than we do now. Think about the simple realities of custody arrangements - Mom in one town, Dad in another, visitation on weekends is only possible with an endless flow of cheap energy. Sell one house, get two apartments or houses is only possible in a society where the economy grows and the value of your assets tends to increase - and even then it has high economic costs.
I don't claim to know what the future of marriage is - but what I do know is that we are headed into conditions where the economics of marriage are impossible to ignore. It is possible that reduced physical and social mobility will come together. It is inevitable, however, that we are going to have to deal with marriage as an economic institution - as fundamentally about something besides the love of the participants, and gay marriage as public issue serves both straight and gay couples by drawing our attention to the reality that love is not just an expression of emotion, but the creation of a home economy together. Given our collective predicament, I would argue that the benefits of gay marriage - even beyond the strengthening of gay marriage and the million or so parties that could lighten our collective emotional loads - are so great as to extend to the whole of all of us. And I hope to get to spend many of my future days dancing at weddings, gay and straight.
What do you think? Leave a comment below. See our commenting guidelines.
Sign up for regular Resilience bulletins direct to your email.