Monday, May 28, 2012

Define: Marriage

Gay people want their right to marry.  In their fight for this right, the approach has typically been to focus on the fact that they are being denied civil rights by being denied marriage.  This makes perfect sense, because the inability to marry the person they choose as their romantic partner does deprive them of important civil rights and protections. 

The problem though, is that I think most people who are against gay marriage are not against gay marriage on the basis that gay people should not have civil rights.  There are probably a few sign-carrying crazies who adopt precisely that stance, and there are probably more who subconsciously feel that way though they would never admit it to themselves, but for the most part, I think, these people are just normal, generally loving and accepting human beings who are afraid of change.

And, we have to face it, we are proposing a really big change.  We don't like to discuss this issue from the perspective of the institution or definition of marriage much.  I just got a petition in my inbox the other day asking an online dictionary to change its definition of marriage from 'a union between a man and a woman' to 'a union between two people'.  It's quite reasonable to say that's a change whose time has come.  It's quite reasonable to say that that's how we've thought of marriage all along anyway.

The thing is, though, that isn't how we've, collectively, thought of marriage all along.  Marriage does have a documented, lengthy, international history of being a union between one man and one woman.  We are in fact changing an institution that's been around a long time, and has a lot to do with the fabric of our society (for better or for worse...).  I'm in favor of that change, but if we refuse to recognize and discuss what we are proposing with our opponents, how can we ever have the kind of open debate that has the potential to change hearts and minds?  All we'll be doing is shouting at each other.  And it looks like that's about what's happening.

So, Marriage: the social institution under which a man and woman establish their decision to live as husband and wife by legal commitments, religious ceremonies, etc.

Why was it accepted and defined as being only between members of the opposite sex, anyway?  Let's consider why marriage came to be in the first place.

There was a time in our species when there was no marriage.  There was a lot of sex, a lot of children, a lot of hardship, and some pair bonding that in some cases may have been permanent.  I'm referring to our early hunter-gatherer days.

Then, for various reasons I forget because I'm not an anthropologist, we started growing things.  This required us to stay in the same place, at least for the period of a growing season.  We started building shelters, acquiring objects, having time in which to try new things.  This was the beginning of civilization.  Suddenly, you didn't have just yourself and perhaps a favorite digging stick you carried around with you.  You had: yourself, your perhaps quite sizable, and carefully located hut, all the produce you could grow, and all the cool stuff you were able to trade your produce for: maybe a very pretty pot or two, a nice rug, who knows.  These objects belonged equally to your offspring as well as to yourself, but if you were enjoying the old style of mating, who knew who your children were!  You couldn't share your belongings with a whole primitive city of urchins!   That once somewhat rare practice of pair bonding became a much more practical choice: any children this one woman had were yours, and no one else's were.  The whole ceremony, and official status of the pair bonding came about later, but you get the idea.

Marriage was not founded because two humans loved each other sooooo much they wanted to tell the whole tribe they wanted to be together forever.  And marriage was not founded because two people wanted a secure, permanent place for their children to grow up in.  They had the tribe for that, back in the days when we understood that it takes a village.

Marriage was founded on economics within a society that all too quickly made the shift to patriarchal once men figured out they had something to do with the whole making new humans thing.

And that's how it was for a long, long time.  You (or more likely your father) chose your spouse based on who would make a good alliance from a political standpoint, and increase your holdings from an economic one.  There was a great deal of negotiation, and things like dowries cropped up to help encourage the taking off of one's hands of those pesky second-class-citizens, and the church stepped in to point out that one of the most precious results of marriage, and the reason it was to be a permanent stable union, were the children that resulted.

Now, I don't know when this idea first started.  We see it in shakespear's plays, so obviously a hot second ago, but it's an idea that's still up for debate much much later in the days of Jane Austin: marrying for love.  What a crazy idea!  Basing a lifetime commitment with very real economic consequences on a fickle emotion??  That's a good way to end up both poor, and miserable!  Or so a lot of people still thought at the time.  But, this wacky new fad of marrying for love simply wouldn't die.  All of Jane Austin's heroines managed it, and here we are, two-hundred years later, pretty well set on the idea that marriage is for LOVE, dammit, and not economic or political alliance!

So, why is marriage defined as a union between one man and one woman?  Because, one man and one woman are capable of producing offspring, and we need to know whose offspring are whose, so we know who to pass the purse strings to.  Since a homosexual union does not produce biological offspring, marriage did not include homosexual pairings.

To put it another way: our current definition of marriage, which many people are fighting tooth and nail to defend, is based on marriages of political and economic convenience, not our current standard: marriages based on love, and potentially the mutual desire to raise children in a stable, loving relationship.

When you put it that way, it becomes pretty clear that we are way behind in terms of redefining marriage.  We did it two-hundred years ago, give or take.  We've changed the definition of marriage from something that is inherently hetero because it was instituted to solve an inherently hetero problem, to something that is inherently open to anyone who is capable of love, and making a lifetime commitment: two adults of sound mind and free will.

And one more thing: There are other places to get a definition of marriage besides a dictionary.  Many sacred scriptures explicitly define marriage as between one man and one woman.  Of course, any religious institution has the right to marry or refrain from marrying any couple it pleases in accordance with its beliefs.  This can very simply be kept separate from a couple's legal rights to marry.  In the Catholic Church, for example, a hetero couple consisting of two people who have been divorced from previous marriages may obtain a legal marriage and have access to all the rights and privileges that entails, but they cannot be married within the Catholic Church, and their marriage will not be recognized for religious purposes.  Because we have freedom of religion in this country, and a wide variety of beliefs, we cannot legally define marriage based on one, or even several, religions' definition.

 So, do you think it's about time to update our dictionaries and our laws, and bring them in line with what we think marriage is in the 21st century?

I do.

Live Omily,

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