Andy, at Thoughts ON, wrote about two different sources of opposition to gay marriage on his website. There’s the position that gay marriage is against our traditionally held ideas of marriage and we should oppose it as a violation. This perspective is adopted primarily by those with socially conservative ideals. There is another position, which opposes gay marriage because it opposes all marriage. Arguing that society should not privilege any relationships, or that the privileges should be extended to everyone, gay marriage is a step in the wrong direction because it is reinforcing an oppressive social institution.
I think that legalizing gay marriage is just the right thing to do, and I have written about this elsewhere. I do not believe that heterosexual, cis-gendered marriage should be our ideal, or that it should have additional legal rights. I also think that religions should be free to deal with the matter as they find they can with integrity (and with that said, I am delighted to be UU). I do not think that the criticism that this is a step in the wrong direction has merit.
My life choices probably speak to my opinion of the institution, but I do not see marriage as being inherently oppressive. It is not just because I happen to be married to someone of great integrity, thoughtfulness, and respectfulness. I am not opposed to privileging marital relationships as distinct from friendship, less committed relationships, or other ways we define our relationships. Here is why:
Marriage, as it exists right now, is a very different institution than it once was. People enter and exit with far reduced social and financial costs than they ever have before. So one’s marital partner, ideally, is a consensual coupling. (There are issues with individual relationships that go beyond the ideal type I am discussing here. This model is a basic, two people relationship, egalitarian, of any sex or gender.) It is decoupled from having children, buying homes, so on and so forth. The median age of marriage continues to grow (it’s 26 now for women, 28 for men) and represents a capstone culturally speaking. It’s become the marker of having arrived. OK. That is our culture and it is subject to change.
If healthcare became universal, the insurance benefits of marriage become null. You can write anyone into a will. I argue that hospital visitation rights are important more because of the ability to exclude non-intimates than include people, presuming that the alternative was to open hospital visitation to everyone. Presumably, you could specify that in some sort of living will, but given how few people have wills I think it is safe to presume that it would not be common. Property rights, burial rites, etc. I want my kin or my husband making these choices, and without privileging kin and marital relationships, that wouldn’t happen. Marriage, in many ways, is a way to say, “I am designating this human being as keeper of my life”, in the ways our culture implicitly assumes kin does.
Life is hard and bad things happen. How do we, as a society, figure out who will speak for you? If we do not privilege certain types of relationships, if we do not designate somethings as special, we risk falling into a void of meaninglessness. We give words, titles, rights and responsibilities to these things because that is one way that we, human beings and Americans, experience the world. Perhaps some people would prefer no designations, and prefer that saying, “I love them” is the only title they get. How long until that is considered privileged too? We currently have an option for them. They can remain single outside of long-term relationships. People who do not want the state involved or the state to regulate their relationship also have an option: don’t get married. Non-heterosexual relationships do not have that option. I see no way that giving them this option sets society back.
I agree with Marx’s basic assumption that humans are social beings, driven to seek affinity. Our families have served that role. Our bloodlines, in my mind, are not trivial to our relationships. Neither is our sexual orientation, and neither is our desire to belong and be recognized.
I would argue that perhaps marriage could be expanded to include others if all parties consent to designate legal rights, but I do not believe it should be eliminated. In addition, I would argue, there is a human comfort in understanding that you are committed and someone is committed to you. Beyond that, I do not think anyone who is married (and not staring at divorce) is ready or inclined to give up their unions to their spouse. They chose that person as special, they chose to be in a special union. Arguing for abolishing legal marriage is simply impractical for where our culture is right now.
I guess, like Andy, I’m not radical enough either. Ah, well.
(edit: Thanks Nick for the editor’s eye on this.)