Celebrating the Good News

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.

More like this

This weekend in the Washington Post, there's an article about a couple who first met while serving in various capacities during WWII, who just celebrated their marriage in DC this weekend after a "62 year engagement." This would be a romantic story in any context - but it isn't a story of parted…
Ed Brayton has a post showing a series of polls that indicate that a majority of Americans now approve a gay marriage.This is good news for a whole host of reasons, among them that gay marriage is good for straight folk too - particularly in a society struggling with economic and environmental…
In California, the first round of what will almost certainly be a long court battle over gay marriage has just wrapped up the trial phase. After the mayor of San Francisco began performing gay marriages last year (a bad, and politically motivated, idea), opponents of gay marriage appealed…
You probably know that I am quite interested in the history, current state, evolution and future of the institution of marriage, mainly because it is an important indicator of societal attitudes towards sex and towards gender-relations, which is the key to understanding political ideology. Between…

I bet you're going to get some flack for this post, so I wanted to jump and start out the comments with a big THANK YOU for this intelligent and deliciously history-geeky analysis. (John Boswell! *love you*)

As a gay person myself, it's great to see how much progress has been made in terms of people's perceptions of gay folk, the rights of gay people, and so on.

If only government wasn't becoming so overpowering in everything it does regarding controlling the rights and lives of individuals. I said back in 2010 that it would be better if government just got out of the marriage business altogether and I still think that. With this announcement, people in the conversation unfortunately continue the huge (and mistaken) assumption that government has the power to grant rights to people to begin with.

Rights flow to us as a part of natural law and government is to be kept out of the way. By granting government the right to marry people, we tacitly give government the power to not marry people, to recognize or not recognize a great many rights that are ours (meaning all people, gay and straight.)

With this development today, government just got even bigger, extending more controls over our lives. No wonder we then cede the power to government to control our houses and farms, decide what we can and cannot do for a living, transfer power and money from the mainstream citizenry to the Power Elite, even going to war, mainly for the latter.

It's good news that we gay folk are every day closer to being accepted normal citizens and indeed its been rather easy to see it coming over the past 30 years or so, especially for those of us whose work and daily experiences revolve around young people, where the attitude change has been most obvious.

But it's also true that the ideas and attitudes about what government has the right to grant citizens has mushroomed in a very scary way. That is, the younger people I come in contact with (not just kid/clients, but younger, sub-35 yo staff), grant way too much power to government to control their lives, and that remains quite disturbing.

By Stephen B. (not verified) on 10 May 2012 #permalink

Stephen, I don't agree with you - the articulation of rights by governments does not imply that those rights stem FROM government. Indeed, "we hold these truths to be self-evident" implies the contrary - that rights both need state articulation and stem from a greater root than the state alone.

Because marriage historically and in the present, both gay and straight, involves children who cannot speak for themselves as equals before the law, it is impossible to imagine a society without marriage law - either explicit or implicit. The oldest marriage contracts in human history demonstrate an extant marriage law. Even societies with no explicit courts and regulatory bodies generally regulate marriage at some level - tribal, communal, etc...

The implication that the state's claiming of marriage is something new seems incorrect to me - the recognition that there is an interest that extends beyond the two people involve - property interests and interests for disabled and incapacitated partners, post-death intersets, but most of all, the interests of children mean that the state, whatever it is, will always be and has always been involved in marriage. It could be less or more so, and I have no problem with the idea of universal civil unions, separating religious ceremonies from legal ones - that's one answer to the problem.

I do not, however, think I agree with you on what I take to be either of your main points, though - that this state role in government is a modern expression of big government or that a government role in gay marriage necessarily implies that the right to marriage equality stems purely from the government.


I just see government growing impossibly monsterous, taking over everything from relations, to food, to sanctifying births and deaths and I don't think government, especially large, detached, remote, national governments, execute these functions all that well. An old essay of yours comes to mind, in which you discussed people ridiculing people of faith, and who exalt the supremacy of secular institutions:

"And the reality is that there are few secular institutions that are prepared to fill the needs that people have at moments of crisis â this is what religious communities tend to do very well â they offer people access to familiar, structural ways to deal with events that change your world. That is, they are there when you have a baby, and provide some ritual for welcoming that child. They provide a kind of education in faith, even if the parents havenât figured out all that they believe â they can pass it off (Iâm a religious person who thinks that faith starts at home, and I donât love parents who do pass off the big questions to Sunday school or whatever, but I recognize that religious institutions are used this way, and in general, I think some exposure is better than none, though perhaps not much better), they provide ways of dealing with death, places for people with no place, support for the aging, ways to incorporate new family members through marriage. They may be the only place most people get sit down meals with other people who arenât related to them. They may be the only place where people who are socially inept can go and find some kind of community that will tolerate and support them because that is part of their mission. Many communities provide volunteer services for the poor â they run the food pantries, the shelters, the relief organizations. They get people in transitional and crisis moments and they offer formal structures to aid them- and those services get people in the door. Thatâs not why we do it â or all of why we do it, but it is worth asking â what secular institutions can meet the same needs?

"There are some that try. Food Not Bombs does a great job of providing food to the hungry. There are humanist and secular organizations, funeral homes and other groups. But few of them do so many things, so cohesively. And this is one of the things that sometimes drives me crazy about the hostility people have to religion. Iâve no objection to people thinking my faith is a fairy tale â thatâs fine. But when people begin ranting about the evils of religion, but wonder why so many adhere, I ask them â ok, fair enough. But are you burying the dead? Where are the organizations to provide secular burial and rituals for the grieving? Where is your rationale for loving even the really annoying people in our society who still need people who will talk to them and care for them? Are you out there at the secular food pantry? The secular shelter? The justice work, the fundraising for the poor? Where do you provide free counseling for those dealing with personal trauma, help people wed and welcome babies into the world? Iâve no objection to strong secular institutions these things arising â I would welcome them. But I donât see them, and I donât think they will come rapidly into place before the hard times hit â since that would be now."

(I'd stick in the URL, but then Scienceblogs is more likely to hold me for moderation....heck it might anyway on the shear length of my comment.)

You were talking about mainly secular, non-government institutions, but I would say that the government also does a fairly inept job of fixing those things, compared to religious institutions, so I don't trust government moving into these areas especially as government forces other institutions out by its mere overbearing presence and I say that as a person that isn't particularly religious myself.

Thus I worry about government getting overly involved in marriage. I get your point that due to property and child concerns, there will always be a role that government has to play, but I'd be careful to lend its role anymore credence than absolutely necessary.

Anyhow, I am glad Obama took this position, don't get me wrong on that.

By Stephen B. (not verified) on 10 May 2012 #permalink

Stephen B: "I worry about government getting overly involved in marriage."

As a lawyer, all I can say is, when hasn't it been? (I am applying a rather broad definition of "government.")

By Susan in NJ (not verified) on 10 May 2012 #permalink

Stephen B: "so I don't trust government moving into these areas especially as government forces other institutions out by its mere overbearing presence"

Any religious institution with the scale to meet the needs the government does would be scary indeed. By definition it would be a government and a church. You might think about how well the inquisition worked out, and then you have the Ayatollahs in Iran.

Sharon, thanks for posting this. I've been puzzling for awhile how to say what I was thinking, and now you've done it for me. Yay!

As someone who has been through a divorce, the legal and financial aspects of marriage are very much in the forefront of my mind (my second husband and I have a very carefully thought out prenup agreement). Marriage is very much about "what happens if...", I think, and we ignore that at our peril. I married my first husband in blissful ignorance, certain that even if things went badly between us, we'd be civilized about it and all would be well. Then he developed a brain tumour and became an angry and aggressive stranger ... and I got taken to the cleaners. Even though I was still legally married to him, thanks to a lot of family drama I ended up on the outside: I know the torment of being blacklisted at the hospital, unable to find out what was happening, refused permission to visit ... and I would not wish that on anyone.

The stories we tell about marriage and family *used* to include things like "a good provider" or "trustworthy" or "able to take care of me" and now we just talk about romance with starry eyes. We *do* need to be compatible with our partners, definitely - but we also need to choose partners wisely, with an eye towards making a home that we can contentedly live in even if things go sideways a little, even if the rose tint comes off our glasses in a few years, even if someone is injured or becomes ill. The discussion of rights for gay partners has made a lot of people think about the rights of *all* partners, I think, and thatâs very much a good thing. And, I think that everyone should choose their life partner carefully ⦠and I think that society as a whole should make darned sure that partners *of all types of families* are protected.

Kal, that's exactly the kind of stuff I'm thinking about.

By Stephen B. (not verified) on 10 May 2012 #permalink


President Obama has made many promises, few that haven't been broken have been to the detriment of most Americans. Having won the Nobel Peace Prize for his non-confrontational foreign policy (at least, before he became President), he has instead been one of the most militant Presidents in recent times.

Despite his movement on the abhorrent "Don't ask, don't tell" policy in the military, I would hold back on the expectations and celebrations until there is some substantive action taken. Right now all we have is cheap, try-it-out campaign rhetoric.

Blessed be.

The point, as anybody who has read Orwell's 1984 understands, is that once the state can redefine any word, free discussion become that much more difficult. However the overwhelonmg majority of "scienceblogs" runners would doubtless redefine "free discussion" to mean the censorship thay depend on. So they will be happy.

On the other hand there is a lady in Germany who wants to marry a roller coaster & some gentlemen who have sexual relations with their cars. Presumably in due course no spoilsports are going to be allowed to prevent them marrying.

By Neil Craig (not verified) on 11 May 2012 #permalink


You start by saying that a government that can give people the right to marry can prevent people from marrying, and then argue that, in saying the government should not prevent some people from marrying, the government becomes more intrusive. How is it more intrusive for New York to tell me that I may marry either a woman or a man than for Virginia to tell someone that she may only marry a man? Limiting marriage to mixed-sex couples is more of a restriction, more of an intrusion, than not limiting it. (Would you argue that Loving v. Virginia was intrusive in stopping racists from controlling who their neighbors could marry on the basis of skin color?)

"Keep your nose out of your neighbor's business" is not an intrusion on people's person lives and choices. The best reading I can see for your comment is that you are sufficiently worried about government power that you will see any change in government policy, in any direction, as a sign of oppression.

Brad, I'm not Obama's partisan in any deep way (except in the sense that I strongly prefer him to any other extant option, which is not a very powerful affirmation), but I don't think this is a promise, merely a statement - which is why it matters.

Neil, I love your use of quotation marks. I think you need more of them.

Stephen, speaking as a member of a religion that does have its own courts (bet din), its own divorce decrees and legal settlements, I do take your point, but I do think we want one legal situation for all of us. In fact, I think the Jewish model is a really good example of why you do have to have marriage law as well, for reasons too complicated to probably bother with for this discussion.

I do take your point that the legal question is real and has consequences for privacy and in our lives. I may be biased - now even without marriage, most gay people don't have to worry about losing custody of their kids the way my parents did. It may be the traumas of an older era that make me see this as so essential. At the same time, while I don't expect to get SS myself, I do want my mother(s) to get the other's when/if one of them dies. And without marriage, there's something fundamentally discriminatory towards poor gay folk who can't afford lawyers to draw up documents to give each other rights naturally extended by marriage.


In the end, I do pretty much agree with you Sharon and the other commenters on the importance of what the President has come out for here.

I guess I'm just splitting hairs because I've become very cynical about government, especially the national, federal government, and especially over the past 6 to 10 years. I find that as it wages an all out war on ordinary people both here in the US and around the world, on behalf of a very select few, well-connected, wealthy individuals and groups, via economic hegemony and militarism, I am a bit suspect of anything this government now does, even when, on a rare occasion such as this, it all actually seems to be in our interest, for once.

By Stephen B. (not verified) on 11 May 2012 #permalink

Lastly, this *almost* makes me want to vote for Obama, especially compared to the other venture capital, Two-Head, One Party candidate, but then I recall all Obama's own war making, how he also did the biddings of The Powers That Be on the financial crisis (and continues to do so), and how he and Rahm Emanuel will be turning Chicago into a virtual gulag for the upcoming "NATO Summit" just to name the latest travesty.

Sometimes, I just feel we're being thrown bones to placate and distract us while the real, major crimes continue to bring the whole world and country down.

No, I won't be voting for either major party candidate, despite this, not by a long shot.

By Stephen B. (not verified) on 11 May 2012 #permalink

This essay recalls to mind Great Britain where the legally equivalent institution of civil partnership has been created specifically for gay people. Interestingly some straight people ... wanting to shed the religious connotations of marriage altogether ... began to ask if they could be joined in civil partnership.

A case made the news of two elderly sisters who applied for civil partnership. They had lived together in their house all their life but when one died, it was clear the other would lose the house and be forced into a nursing home. A case for partnership based on love and property ... without the element of sex at all.

I would hardly call it "support" from Obama. It was rather wishy washy. Of course when the alternative is raging hatred and homophobia, even that starts to look good.

But since it made a few heads spin from just the shock of that, I suppose i'll be happy with that for now.

The good news is that this is on top of and severely behind an entire generation that are more accepting of everyone and less oppressed by the puritanical nuclear family attitude that plagues the older generations.

By Richard Eis (not verified) on 14 May 2012 #permalink

Sharon if I didn't use quotation marks and referred to "scienceblogs" simply factually as a group of corrupt lying fascist parasites attempting to steal the attribution of science to promote their cargo cultism, with less integrity or humanity than a rabid dog, you would censor me. You have often for far more circumspect remarks.

Of course you don't censor name calling against those you oppose, like saying people are guilty of "raging hatred and homophobia" even when you know, that unlike what I say, it is a total lie that could never be said by anyone with more integrity than a rabid dog.

No offence Richard.

Dear me Sharon, we appear to have been insulted. Fetch the fainting couch!

I didn't realise that it was "name calling" to point out that republicans have long been against gay rights for the simple reason that they are homophobic. A basic google search is enough to remove any such illusions you might be harboring... at least on this one particular subject.

By Richard Eis (not verified) on 15 May 2012 #permalink