Let’s be honest, when you work on energy and environmental issues for a living, good news is always welcome. And when it is good news that makes your kids happy, well, even better. President Obama’s coming forward in support of gay marriage didn’t fix all problems, but it made everyone in our home more cheerful.
All the children living in my house have close family members – parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles etc… who are gay. I would say that there is more than passable odds that one of these days one of the little boys in my house will be coming out. All of them know that presidents have historically not stood up for GLBT folk, and that the protections they enjoy in most of the Northeast are not universal. All of them, at various developmental levels get that something important happened yesterday. So we’re celebrating.
Eric and I, of course, have more complicated reasons for being pleased. I’m not always a fan of President Obama, but I’m grateful for this – I can remember the bad old days when my parents worried about what would happen if they got sick, or if a judge found out that they were gay during my parents’ divorce. I remember well that not very long ago it seemed that marriage equality was a pipe dream.
Moreover, as I’ve written before, I think that the gay marriage movement has been hugely important to the larger cultural changes that have to take place in our society. One of the side effects of our cheap energy world has been the erasure of marriage as a fundamentally economic and extended family institution, and its transformation into an institution fundamentally about a private connection between only two people. I believe that that kind of marriage is an artifact of a very temporary stream of resources that is drying up.
By this I do not mean that marriage has no private and purely personal elements, nor do I mean that we should go back to the days of arranged marriages. Instead, I would argue that much of the failure of marriage in the modern era has been its recasting as a narrative in which love conquers everything, no one has to worry about money or extended family, and that the economic and collective components of marriage are unimportant. And yet, marriage after marriage is taken down by economic stress and complicated family problems that the stories we tell ourselves don’t give us the equipment to handle. We did not make marriage less about money and extended family by implying that those things are irrelevant, we only made the stakes of dealing with those issues higher.
I think the late historian John Boswell in his _Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe_ puts it best:
“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, xxi-xxii)
Our narratives about marriage impare our ability to be married – the idea that we must create a separate nuclear household, autonomous, complete, with a full set of appliances and possessions leaves many struggling to meet that ideal. The idea that the ideal involves separation from family into a new, isolated unit that meets its own needs in the formal workforce is hard on everyone. That does not mean being part of an extended family isn’t also difficult at times, but the presumption of separateness places tremendous economic and social pressure on families – pressures they often succumb to. Those pressures only get greater given the economic consequences of our instability, and they play out with costs to everyone.
Enter gay marriage. Gay people partner and marry for love, just like everyone else. They may enter a marriage as a religious institutions, but never only a religious institution (And no conversation about religion and marriage can fail to acknowledge that many gay and lesbian people were married in their churches and synagogues BEFORE they could marry in any state!) because they cannot pretend marriage is an institution purely about their private emotions or their religious choices., Because gay and lesbian couples are denied legal protections the rest of us have the luxury of taking for granted, they must talk about them. The economics and social protections, legal relationships and issues of long term security MUST be on the table for gay and lesbian people. And by bringing this issue to the state and national stage, they’ve put the legal and economic qualities of marriage back into our public conversation. This is a signal service to all of us, gay and straight.
The simple fact is that even the Biblical marital relationship was intensely legal, deeply focused on rights and responsibilities. As I wrote in an essay about gay marriage and why it is good for straight people in 2010, the religious history of marriage is rather different than the rhetoric of most religious folks who oppose gay marriage:
…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 that 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 think reasonable people can disagree on this issue. I dislike the assumption that all religiously motivated people who oppose gay marriage hate gay people. At the same time, I think the rhetoric of many who advocate against gay marriages rests on two fundamentally wrong premises. The first is the assumption that some religious communities should get to set the parameters of the secular law. The second, and I think more important, is that there is something flawed in a rhetoric that has to minimize the legal and economic importance of marriage in society. In some measure, I think the choice of rhetoric has helped doom the movement of failure.
I think the odds are good that by the time that my boys are all grown, gay marriage will be nationally legal. I’m glad for them and for me. Yes, it is still a long road ahead from the days when you can get married in New York to the days when you can get married in Arizona, but we took a giant step yesterday, and we’re partying – because it isn’t just good for our gay family members, it is good for all of us.