Friday, March 16, 2012

Part Three: What is marriage?

On Wednesday, I discussed the history of same-sex relationships. On Thursday, I discussed my religion-informed perspective on gay rights. Today, I deal with the question of what marriage has meant in the past. Tomorrow, I will finish the series and leave reader comments open.

Is the institution of marriage just about recognizing couples “who have chosen to share one another's lives in an intimate and committed relationship of mutual caring”?

This appears to be the central issue in the recent legal debate over Proposition 8 in California. According to the gay marriage opponents who defended Proposition 8, encouraging procreation in the context of a stable relationship has been a central historical purpose of marriage as an institution. While few in the United States today would challenge the legal right of men or women to pursue romantic relationships with members of the same sex, a procreation-centered definition of marriage makes the idea of “gay marriage” a contradiction in terms. If this definition of marriage is correct and important, there’s also some risk that we’ll redefine a core purpose right out of marriage if we insist its two-gender history is just a matter of prejudice.

But according to Judge Vaughn Walker, two counter-examples prove this thinking wrong:

1) Couples who have no intention to have children are allowed to marry.

2) Couples with no ability to have children are allowed to marry.

The initial court ruling against Proposition 8 (and in favor of gay marriage as a constitutional right) asserts that these examples prove that marriage is fundamentally about mutual caring and therefore not restricted by definition to couples who plan to bear children. Without procreation as a core purpose of marriage, there seems to be little rational basis for the exclusion of same-sex couples, and so the court is simply fulfilling its 14th Amendment obligation to strike down measures that create undue legal burdens for persecuted minorities when it invalidates Proposition 8.

I think Vaughn Walker’s ruling against Proposition 8 is intellectually honest. But I also think that careful consideration of his counter-examples shows his ruling is historically myopic and fairly problematic.

Here’s why:

Up until fifty years ago or so, getting married with no intention to have children was unthinkable. For one thing, contraceptive technology was limited enough that it was logistically difficult to have a lifelong sexual relationship without an extremely high chance of pregnancy and childbirth. For another, social attitudes simply precluded it: if you got married, having children was taken for granted as a next step. So to say that the existence of modern couples who don’t intend to have children sheds light on the social purpose of marriage is misleading.

What about couples who can’t have children? Ample historical evidence reveals that in every culture where marriage had legal status, childlessness was considered an extreme tragedy. A marriage could be started without children, but was not considered complete in cases where no children came. A story like this is the basis of the religious beliefs of the majority of the people in the world to this day: Abraham and Sarah long for children and feel incomplete when children do not come.

Except, of course, that a child does come to Abraham and Sarah in the story. Which reveals, incidentally, another flaw in Walker’s reasoning: it is medical hubris to believe we can tell with absolute certainty which male-female couples won’t be able to have children. I have two nephews, actually, whose mothers had been told by doctors they would be unable to bear children. But doctors do not know everything, and two surprised women in our family each gave birth to a boy.

Let’s call the relationship between two people of the same rough generation “lateral” and the relationship between generations “vertical.” If we go back more than a hundred years in history, I think it’s clear that marriage as an institution was considered primary vertical (that is, designed to protect the relationships between generations) and only secondarily lateral (that is, designed to protect the relationships between individual lovers). That’s why Alexander never would have thought of marrying Hephaestion. Even though the two men’s strongest lateral relationship was with each other, Alexander married at least two different women for the sake of his vertical relationships. Ancient Greeks seem to have valued both types of relationships, but would have considered it ridiculous to assume they were the same.

But you don’t have to look only to the past to see the vertical dimension of marriage. Look at an ethnic wedding in the United States today and you’ll see largely neglected kinds of clothing, music, and traditions rise to prominence. Even assimilated, clean-shaven men from traditionally Sikh families typically grow beards for their weddings as a sort of nod to ancestors. Even very American Jews use the Hebrew “mazel tov” to congratulate a new couple, because there’s an unspoken feeling at a wedding that the new couple is standing in a chain of couples that goes back to days before ancestors ever set foot on English-speaking shores, and that the couple is going to continue that chain of descendents until long after today’s English is dead.

Now, over the past hundred years or so, it’s become increasingly common around the world to give the lateral elements of marriage more weight. Matches that start with love are now the norm rather than arranged marriages where love is a secondary feature the couple can choose to develop. Spouses are expected to be close friends in the personal lives as well as partners in an intergenerational enterprise. And even the most deeply pro-natal faith groups in America seem to support these trends and to feel good about a model of marriage that is equally vertical and lateral.

But those same groups are extremely uncomfortable with a definition of marriage that fully devalues the institution’s vertical elements. Don’t believe me? Go ask orthodox Jewish, LDS, Catholic, Muslim, or Sikh religious figures sometime what they think about couples who plan not to have any children. I think you’ll see quickly that the old idea that marriage is complete only with the arrival of children is very much alive, and not just a pretense for homophobia as some have claimed.

Since few people organize to insist that it’s hateful to disapprove of couples who don’t want to have children, of course, and since it’s easy for couples who don’t want any children to simply change their minds, the erosion of the vertical dimension of marriage in their case hasn’t become a major political issue. But since most gay rights advocates insist that disapproval of same-gender sexual relationships comes from ignorance and hate rather than from different values, and because same-sex marriage is irreversibly distanced from at least biological vertical relationships, the underlying questions about the nature of marriage have become both political and heated.

Continued (and concluded) in Part Four: In Which I Finally Get to Gay Marriage.


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