The Supreme Court's recent decision in Lawrence vs. Texas, which struck down sodomy laws in the United States, is viewed as heralding a new age for gay rights, and may even pave the way for gays and lesbians to marry, which would likely provide additional economic boost to the ceremonial balance sheets. However, the federal government is scripting marriage laws exclusively between a man and woman.
But, hold on a second... define marriage. What is marriage? I can define marriage, although the definition suits me. Certainly marriage legitimizes a relationship --most people marry during their lifetime-- between a man and woman. Why would we not grant the same permission for same sex partners, especially if we have yet to even define the rules of marriage? Gays and lesbians are fighting for a right that isn't even defined appropriately for heterosexuals.
I find activism for social parity laudable and necessary for any civilization to develop in a positive direction. What I do find peculiar, however, is the myth that marriage somehow means "you've made it;" that the couple is now legitimate regardless of gender.
The social expectation to marry, and its corollary prejudice against unmarried cohabitants, reveals the same moral attitude against homosexual relationships. Marriage is, after all, a social institution. My boyfriend and I have been together almost six years. When people learn of our commitment, almost invariably they ask me when we are getting married. It is if marriage was the inexorable and exclusive outcome of any romantic relationship.
Some friends ask me why we're not already married, and their tone depicts disdain for our unblessed relationship. At first, derision was mild enough, like a vague but annoyingly persistent headache, but into our third year together, every time the subject of my union came up I felt an emotional vice (yes, run with the pun) tighten around me. The criticism was this: Since were not married, legally or religiously (or both), our relationship is defective and our emotional commitment doubtful. In short, our relationship is not real unless we are married.
When I still felt the need to explain myself, I said that we were committed to each other, but we each have specific reservations about the marriage institution. I cringe at the idea of marriage as an arrangement that transfers power from woman to man, or from mother to father, vestiges of which exist in contemporary practices and notions of romance. Giving "the bride" away, the dowery, engagement rings, the civilizing effect of marriage upon men, taking "the husband's" name, prove my point.
Early marriage practice in the United States reflected female-to-male transition, based upon Christian concept of uniting the flesh, so that two people became legally one: The man. Such belief is true for the Jewish tradition as well, (read Genesis 2:24). the United States was settled by puritan British colonials, and so much of their Common Law followed Christian practice. As an economic arrangement, marriage is a powerful and effective tool of what we now call "social engineering."
These are merely brief sketches of rather large problems with the institution of marriage. For example, the idea of marriage for the purpose of raising children (as the proposed federal Marriage Law states) has little to do with the emotional bond launching a marriage or monogamy between the two partners. But the practical need to align a child with one parent became a moral issue; children born out of marriage, and the mothers who bore them, suffered the contempt of society as if the infant were somehow less human than a legitimate one.
Unfortunately for my partner and me, our explanations and arguments appeared as mere excuses not to do the right thing. We decided to consider the civil marriage option, but the absurdity of arranging one left me with grave misgivings.
Let's start with the marriage license. You need a license to marry. Is that like getting a license to fish, or to carry a gun? To drive? Is the licensing "condition" suggestive of some sort of perquisite skill involved that prepares you for marriage? What, exactly, is a marriage license meant to accomplish?
In dispensing licenses, the government grants permission to its citizens to participate in an action. Whereas in colonial America parental consent was required for marriage, now that permission is the province of the state. Today, you can certainly sidestep parental permission, but you can't avoid your state's. You may think you've outgrown your parents, but the government will always be your parent. Permission is meant to reflect some sort of official maturity, our country's divorce rates indicate a terrible lack of such. The United States and Sweden shared a rate of 55 divorces to 100 marriages in 2002. (This doesn't mean the divorce rate is 55 percent.) A 1996 US Census Bureau survey found that almost half of all first marriages between couples under 45 years of age end in divorce. I don't think my objection to marriage is "tu quoque," but I had to resolve what marriage indeed means for me. To answer that question I moved past the "permission" rationale and reconsidered the outcomes of requiring a marriage license.
In many states, if not all, marriage licenses granted people permission to copulate. That would make the marriage license like an official sex card. After the sexual revolution in the 1960s it sounds silly to publicly sanction sex, but don't forget, public policy on marriage is founded almost exclusively on the Christian concept of the union. Though marriage law may have allowed for a legal separation of church and state, it did so without abandoning the morals central to religions faith. Christians should be appalled that God's blessing is dependent first upon the state.
Another fun fact of marriage license history is its connection to racial separation. Most states forbade interracial marriages. Even as early as 1665, the Maryland colonial assembly made interracial marriage a crime. When states did relax the ban on interracial marriage, the licenses were used to track the couples. Marriage law has changed over time to accept interracial unions.
Licenses bestow legitimacy, both literally and socially. They tell us, "You're in the club. You've just made it past the velvet rope. You've got the right outfit." But shouldn't we have to do something to get licensed other than show up in a cool ensemble? Given this structure of imposed validation, shouldn't, in fact, the marriage license be the result of accomplishing a test of skill? It's not so far fetched an idea to make couples earn the license.
I propose that people who want to get married would have to pass some sort of relationship test; a multiple choice questionnaire, or spending an hour doing something domestic with their partner under the watchful eye of a man wearing a painfully bad polyester suit who carries a clip board. Each task would have an ascending level of difficulty, and in addition to being judged on successful completion of a chore, you'd be rated on cooperation and a loving attitude. Points would be deducted for frustration with your partner.
If you failed the test you wouldn't be issued a license, plain and simple. Maybe you could come back in an hour or so to try again, but I think rules are rules. If you fail the driver's test, you don't pose for the photo ID.
With my proposal, couples could still option up to receive marriage permits for a year or so before taking the test, just like teenage drivers do before their sixteenth birthday. And there could be government-accredited marriage schools that would teach you all the most up to date "dos and don'ts" of married life.
As ridiculous as my idea may sound, it casts doubt upon the pertinence of marriage. Who is able to decided whether or not the historical concept of marriage has grown obsolete? Couples still buy a marriage license and marry because "that's just what people do when they love each other." The implication is that if you don't get married then you must not really love each other. It further implies that couples who aren't married don't have a "real" relationship, since real relationships are based upon love through marriage. It is arguable at best, however, that marriage follows necessarily from love. No one has convinced me that marrying my boyfriend changes the commitment we already make to each other every day.
There are good reasons to marry. Legal marriage provides benefits to each party. In other words, marriage is a legal contract that is, as such, binding. One spouse may not commit certain acts without the threat of legal repercussions. If we think about legal marriage as a positive sort of parental control, we can appreciate the safety it is meant to provide. The governmental oversight of contracts provides recourse for grievances that would otherwise go without redress.
I do refer to my boyfriend as my life partner. Even if we don't marry, people will one day say, "Well, they did stay together all their lives." How funny, a public vow between man and woman grants instant recognition, whereas time itself proves the success of my relationship and those of, say, a same sex couple. With or without the ceremony, each relationship must pass the test of time.