I wrote this originally in 2004, upon the passage of an antigay measure in Missouri. With the passage of Prop 8 in California, I thought it would be worth reposting here.
You may have heard. Missouri has become the first state in the union to establish a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. More will follow, of course, but it’s something to be the first.
I live here. This is my state.
Shame on us.
This was not, however, unexpected. Did anyone actually believe Americans, especially in the middle of the country, are ready, en masse, to embrace such a substantial change in attitude toward an institution that extends back to the murkiness of prehistory?
Prehistory. Genesis notwithstanding, I make that claim based on the fact that we have no documentary evidence that at a given moment Marriage was invented. It’s something homo sapiens brought with it into the historical period, which is really only that part of time in which we have had writing. Writing that survived, to be more specific. For all we know there may be a cache of stone tablets or whatever yet undiscovered extending that time backward reliably by a century or millennia or more. For the sake of argument, let’s say that the historical era has lasted (reliably) for ten thousand years. We can quibble over certain dates, but we’ve got evidence suggesting that humans have lived in organized social groups for at least that long, which suggests that we’ve been doing so for a lot longer. Marriage has been with us just as has been agriculture and the domesticated dog. It came with the package.
By marriage I mean a formalized union establishing what we call a Family Unit. For purposes of this discussion, I’m only interested in the Formal part of that. It’s quite self-evident that humans come together in unions of various types quite spontaneously and without the need of an overriding authority to give us permission. All the surface (and most of the deep core) attributes of marriage are manifest in self-selected associations all the time. We have never needed marriage for sex, the Fifties notwithstanding, and since the Seventies we have evolved a line on the Census to cover people with not-formalized arrangements—POSSLQ: Persons of Opposite Sex Sharing Living Quarters.
The fact that we have had the concept of “common-law marriage” for a long, long time proves that such arrangements have also been around for long, long time. Communities recognizing this fact decide at some point that, whether the participants like it or not, the condition constitutes a marriage. This was eminently practical in the days of expanding frontiers, when more often than not the formalizing apparatus was nowhere to be found (because just as often it was intentionally left behind, a lesson most people didn’t quite pick up on).
(I recall a hysterically funny argument in high school—my first ever encounter with a hardcore fundamentalist—over the status of Adam and Eve. Who married them? No priests and it was not stated in Genesis that they were husband and wife, but rather companions. Not only weren’t they married, but obviously they practiced some form of birth control since the kiddies didn’t show up until after they were banished from Eden. Maybe that was the definition of paradise then—lot’s of sex, free food, and no kids. The reply was that God had married them and while in a state of grace, they did not have sex. The older I get, the more I think this is fractured thinking, especially when one recognizes how often fundamentalist groups, regardless of what other purpose they may have, subjugate the women and turn them into sex toys.)
Okay, so we have this Institution called Marriage. Long history. After so much time it has become something other than a solution to a problem. We’ve hardwired it, seemingly, into our culture. Every culture has it. It’s so basic that for the most part no one questions it as a cultural phenomenon, only it’s imposition as a requirement on the individual. I may reject the idea for myself, but I don’t really question it across social landscapes. Marriage is emotionally and financially useful—so much so that all attempts to rid ourselves of it don’t even get off the ground in any meaningful way. I mean, even people like me—who do not live in a formalized union with our significant other—come in time to consider ourselves “married”. (And pleasantly so. It is not, when it works, a Bad Thing. If it were, it would not be so tenaciously part of our cultural identity.)
So we defend it. We protest over the specifics—its implementation, its uses in hiding inequities between men and women, its cultural drawbacks across social lines when questions of economic and educational status arise—but we don’t question the basic idea. We realize, at some times more than others, that we conduct it wrong, that we abuse it, that it doesn’t work the way it should, but we’ve never really questioned it as a desirable practice.
Given which, it should come as no surprise to anyone that groups who are barred from it would wish to eliminate those barriers.
This is not, historically, a Gay issue. But you can see the same arguments cycled over and over again in every instance that a social norm was challenged.
Everyone should know what Miscegenation is. If you don’t, open a dictionary. Then start checking social histories.
Basically, miscegenation is a term applied to the practice of sexual intercourse with an out group. In America, it was against the law for white people to have sex with (not to mention marry) black people. (Yes, I know, a lot of mixed blood Africans found their way to the auction block in the Old South, fetching higher prices for their lighter skins. Racial laws were in place to prevent their existence, but there you have it—and why let a little illegal screwing stop us from making some money?) Go see the movie Showboat for a dramatic example. Not only was the fictional couple unable to travel south because he was white and she a mulatto and because they were married, both could end up in jail—not only that, but the movie studio wouldn’t even allow a black woman to play the part, substituting Ava Gardner for Lena Horne. In fact, laws forbidding interracial marriage were not overturned in the United States until 1967—just in case you thought these things existed only in the Dark Ages of our history.
The LAW was brought to bear to prevent marriage between two groups society had decided shouldn’t come together that way. For a more violent, but no less savage example, look at the Nuremberg Laws of Nazi Germany. Same idea, carried to horrific extremes.
Examples of less formalized restrictions abound—look at Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Class is more often than not the basis of such restrictions. Often religion. Aristocrats have always been barred from various associations on both those bases. The whole awkward debacle of Prince Charles and Princess Di was born out of the religious problem—the woman Charles actually wanted was (gasp) Catholic! Can’t have that. (Diana was not only the right religion, but, ostensibly, a virgin—another holdover from a less enlightened time.)
In every instance over time we have grown out of it and rejected such proscriptions. After three or four generations in this country, what difference does it make if an Italian marries a Russian, or a Protestant marries a Jew? At least, where the law is concerned. What difference does it make if a white marries a black or an Asian? The law no longer concerns itself with enforcing such restrictions because we as a society have gotten to the point of recognizing the stupidity of such laws.
But here’s a new one. People of the same sex wish to marry.
I imagine that for a lot of people who don’t initially react with the distorted horror of some religious objection, the first response is:
In one of the most superficial readings, this is a legitimate question. The basic assumption we grow up with (whether we maintain it into adulthood or not) is that marriage is for the formation of a Family. And “family” means mommy, daddy, and children. It’s a Standard Model image that is very difficult to disregard when questions of social propriety or morality or just plain tradition arise. Basic biology—you need a male and a female to make more of either.
So, the question follows, what would be the point of two men or two women getting married to each other?
I said superficial. For this question to have any real meaning, one has to accept the most basic concept of the purpose of marriage.
But once you put it that way—The Purpose of Marriage–you open the box and let out the genie, because up to that point most people don’t actually regard marriage as having A Purpose. It’s one of those things that simply Is. We marry because we’ve always married. Because in its way, it is Natural. What need to discuss Purpose when considering something Natural? What is the purpose of a flower?
And at that point, if one has a scintilla of intellectual honesty, one realizes that marriage is not natural. Sexual partnering is. Living in a community is. Friendship is. But the formal condition of Marriage is an invention. Like rituals. Like all communal institutions. It’s an artifice imposed upon us, which we impose or embrace ourselves, but it is not Natural. It has Purpose. We do it for certain reasons. We don’t do it to find love—love, it is presumed, is already there before the proposal is made. (We certainly don’t do it to maintain love—it doesn’t work, obviously.)
All the emotional components of a bonded relationship happen between two people whether there is a formal arrangement or not. So what do we do marriage for? Stripped of its romanticized components–which happen outside, in spite of, but certainly independent of marriage—we find a social form that fulfills certain requirements of community.
Rousseau had it pretty right—it’s a contract.
No, really. You might be surprised how many people don’t—or won’t—see it that way, but under all the pretty clothes, big cakes, photographs, champagne, and hoopla, society in fact does see it that way. Fill out these forms, meet these criteria, and you too can enter into a contractual obligation that makes you into a fiscal unit obligated for each others’ debts, with all the rights, responsibilities, and privileges thereto appertaining. The interface between family and society has always rested on one basic question: Who’s going to pay for what?
This may sound cold, but when it works, this has proven to be a very efficient boon to the human condition. Just consider the one aspect of this debate that has everyone so concerned—children. Until the last century, reliable contraception has been, well, not. Hit or miss. Often people with money got better product or could afford to “take care of” the problem by other means. Children are the inevitable by-product of humans indulging in sex without benefit of contraception. (This is a no-brainer, and may be too obvious to even state, but I don’t make assumptions like that anymore: people are dense when it comes to certain topics.) Children require.
Children require Everything. They are, to put it as bluntly as possible, expensive.
So who will pay for them?
My theory is that the institution of marriage evolved over time to by law and custom divide the responsibilities for children in such a way that the community would not be adversely affected by their production. In other words, once you’re married, whatever you produce is your responsibility. You pay for it.
Now, of course, the community will help. The way it’s come down to us today, the community will help a lot. Schools, doctors, daycare, etc etc, in various forms and to different degrees, the community provides support for families. Always has. The inadequacies of that support are legitimate political questions, but underlying it is the assumption that there is a division of labor. You, the parents, will do XYZ, we the community will do ABC, and somewhere between those extremes we will have a working social structure.
But marriage is the legal framework.
Illegitimacy, although not the stigma it once was, still has drawbacks unless the parent that keeps the kids is very careful, very resourceful, and very There. The relationship between community and single parent is somewhat different. We’re working on it.
But because we’re working on it, because it’s becoming less stigmatizing, it is clear that marriage is no more than one possible arrangement of the social contract. It’s not the only thing that will work for us.
However, it’s so old, so well practiced, so ingrained, that it is in many ways the easiest way to handle all these matters. All the benefits accrue to the married couple without their even being aware of it.
It’s that lack of awareness that pushes issues like Gay marriage into the realm of morality as opposed to a logistical problem. Because people who don’t think about it believe marriage is somehow natural, who don’t understand that it is a contractual arrangement that simply helps keep the proverbial boat unrocked, they see this issue as something Unnatural and therefore a religious issue rather than a social issue. (Of course, we have conflated religious and social issues in such a way that it is often difficult to tease them apart.)
By now—after all the debating, the media coverage, the outraged speeches from both sides, and the judicial reactions across the country—it might occur to some people to ask: what rights? I mean, part of the problem of debating this issue is that we in fact live in such an open society, with so few restrictions on personal behavior (yes, I said so few, all you who think we live in an oppressive state take note) that the difference between a married couple and a couple simply cohabiting is hardly noticeable. Those differences only emerge in extreme circumstances.
Representative Henry Hyde (R-Ill), while chair of the House Committee on the Judiciary in 1996, requested that the General Accounting Office make up a list identifying “federal laws in which benefits, rights and privileges are contingent on marital status.” The GAO response ran to 75 pages. You can go look at it online, at www.gao.gov/archive/1997/og97016.pdf
It turns out there are over a 1000 federal benefits. Add to those roughly 400 state benefits, and you can see that this is not a question of just a few “niceties” married people enjoy that make little difference. It makes a huge difference.
The laws break down into 14 groups:
- Social security and related programs
Housing, food stamps
federal civilian and military service benefits
immigration, naturalization, aliens
trade, commerce, intellectual property
financial disclosure and conflict of interest
crimes and family violence
loans, guarantees, payments in agriculture
federal natural resources and related laws
Among those, let’s list a few of the biggies:
- judicial protections and evidentiary immunity
crime victims’ recovery benefits
joint filing of customs claims when traveling
veterans’ discounts on medical care, education, homes loans
joint filing of tax returns
inheritance of jointly-owned real and personal property through the right of survivorship
joint insurance policies for auto, home, and health
next of kin status in cases of illness or accident
joint parenting, joint adoption
wrongful death benefits
inheritance automatically in the absence of a will
Many of these benefits can be arranged by legal instrument, if one takes the time and trouble and spends the money on the paperwork. But many cannot be had, regardless. For instance, outside of marriage there’s no guarantee of joint responsibility to the partner and to third parties (children) in such areas as child support, debts to creditors, taxes, and so on.
A lot of this has to do with money. Please note.
Money money money. Money makes de vorld go round, de vorld go round, de vorld go round…at least in the bromide made famous by Joel Gray. Ahem.
We have a lot of myths about marriage these days. Ask anybody and they will tell you that the divorce rate is at fifty percent. It’s not. The peak was reached in 1980-81 and it was 22.6 divorces per 1000 married women over the age 15. As of 2000 it had declined to 18.9 (Personally, I don’t think divorce as such is a terrible thing. We make mistakes. The idea of living unto death with a mistake just isn’t, well, good. We complicate the issue with children, though, and that is a whole other issue—and again it mainly concerns money. It does. Really. Child support, alimony, custody battles. I suppose in that last other issues enter in, like philosophy, religion, mutual animosity. But the legal structure we’ve built around the question of child custody in divorce overwhelming addresses the money issue.)
Average age of first marriage today is around 27, which is the oldest in the history of the United States.
Cohabitation is way up. That’s why unmarried couples now get a line in the census. There are close to five million unmarried couples now. There was a time you could be arrested and sentenced to prison for that. State laws, mostly, a lot of which are still on the books, but the sheer numbers militate against any kind of law enforcement crack down on what today nearly 70 % of young people take as a right and consider a good idea, at least as a prelude to marriage.
Pregnancy rates have declined, and are still declining, even though as a percentage of population unmarried pregnancy has risen.
That last is important because it directly relates to one of the chief reasons in the past to get married. There are two things to be said about it. The first, and most obvious, is that marriage to start a family is now an elective. People choose to marry, to start families…or not. Because they can. Not only because effective contraception is available, but because the economic opportunities for women have exploded since 1960. Then, a woman would have to be rich or nuts or profoundly unlucky to be stuck raising a child on her own. The job market was closed tight, as a legacy of the post WWII employment adjustment (which kicked a competent, powerful female work force out of jobs for returning veterans to take, and then made every effort possible to instate a single-breadwinner family model according to a stereotype that HAD NEVER EXISTED BEFORE in large enough numbers to merit the attempt) and women simply could not find work that paid sufficiently to raise a family on their own.
The daughters of Rosie the Riveter changed this by the mid-70s. Or at least started to. We’re still fighting over it, and pay equity is still one of the biggest thorns in the social briar patch. But it is changing.
We’re not talking about a small amount of money here. If you are an employer with a payroll of a hundred workers, and you can, by whatever means, pay a significant portion of them less–say by a third–depending on the gender make-up of your staff (which should be roughly two-fifths female, I think), you’re looking at enormous savings. If the bases for that pay disparity disappears, your bottomline just got smaller. Multiply that across the fiscal landscape of society and we’re talking about a chunk of change.
We still, financially at least, prefer that model we erected in the 50s. Male breadwinner, stay-at-home mom. When women charged through the doors into the work force, the economy made adjustments. The buying power of a dollar decreased, the wages of that single breadwinner did not keep pace, requiring two incomes to maintain or do slightly better. The price of women entering the professions, of taking their place as part of the labor force, was the devaluing of the paycheck. Hey, remove the gender question, and just ask what happens when you dump a third to one half more workers into a labor pool and expect the economy to absorb them. You get inflation, you get a value squeeze, and you get a changed social contract.
Where it becomes obvious that there is a bias can be seen in the credit industry. Single women have more difficulty getting loans. When a divorce occurs, despite the contribution she may have made to the marriage—she may have paid the lion’s share of the bills, in fact—the credit benefit goes to the man, not her. She has to rebuild from scratch. Now, what actual monetary benefit comes of this lopsided mind set I’m not sure—but I am sure there is one. All these things conspire, subversively, to drive women to seek a new marriage. It just becomes easier. When you add the fact that if she has majority custody of children (and often even when she doesn’t) and the added burden of expense on that, plus the fact that she is likely earning less at her job (most of the child support will be going into daycare and school expenses, possibly medical expenses, and doubtless there is a shortfall) AND that she has a harder time getting the same kind of credit established as her male counterpart, well, it must seem simply practical to jump once more into the marriage pool—which, if that one goes bad as well, leaves her with exactly the same credit problems she had after the last one.
Why am I harping on all this in an editorial about gay marriage? Well, I’m glad you asked that.
Because if marriage becomes a civil institution legally shorn of all gender qualifications, then none of the aforementioned equity problems can long stand. If the credit industry is suddenly forced to choose between two divorcing males over who “inherits” the credit and who gets penalized; if they are suddenly forced to contend with how to determine who is the dominant breadwinner in a two-female relationship; if employers find that family leave, parental rights, and loss-time due to caretaker duties has no gender basis; if lending institutions find that they can no longer make assumptions about future marital arrangements when considering a loan to a single/divorced/alternately married individual, then the financial (read, book-cooking) bases for inequality disintegrate.
Why? Because by legalizing gay marriage (and, yes, all you terrified neocons who think the end of the world is nigh because of such things, all the other alternative arrangements, like polygamy, line marriages, communes, etc etc) you legally make marriage an institution between two individuals, with all rights accruing thereto, AND THAT’S IT. No other assumptions can be made.
Of course things will change. But things have already changed. And will continue to change.
A word to those who view this as a strictly moral issue. A great deal has been said about how homosexuality is undermining of “traditional values” and that legitimizing it will bring moral ruin. There are two ways to address this.
The first is to point out that the so-called “moral ruin” attaching to homosexuality is a matter of ostracization. The illegality of it in the past set up a circumstance in which gays found themselves entering clandestine lifestyles in order to find fulfillment—which, of course, since the practices involved could not be conducted in the open like “normal” (read “legal”) relationships, fulfillment became virtually unattainable. Certainly, since openness was impossible, guilt accrued to the act, not so much because the impulse was wrong, but because one had to break the law to do it. Most people, quite outside their sexual orientation, desire to be good citizens, and when forced by circumstance to violate the law or custom, a erosion of one’s sense of citizenship is likely. Look at Prohibition. We turned hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of previously law-abiding citizens into criminals by a change in the law, and one result was the solid establishment of a criminal subculture with which we live to this day. Since it has stopped being the actionable issue of days past, and gays live openly, the moral wrack and ruin has failed to transpire—unless you are one so rooted in apocalyptic neuroses that the very fact that gays live openly constitutes that wrack and ruin.
The second, of course, is to draw the venom of Scripture on which much of this moral condemnation is based. The key passage is Leviticus 18:22. When you read the rest of that chapter, you find it is a whole screed about proper sexual conduct. Taboos about incest can be found here as well. Expand your reading throughout Leviticus and you find all kinds of stuff which no one today, with the exception of a few fringe cults, would tolerate for a minute. Just for a sample, check out Leviticus chapter 12—this concerns the rituals of childbirth, with references to “uncleanness”. You will note that giving birth to a male child is less unclean than giving birth to a female. Leviticus 15 deals with “sexual impurities” and, of course, the woman gets the worst end of the rules. The first half concerns men with, essentially, the Clap. But the second half deals with a woman’s menstrual cycle.
But there are others. Leviticus 20 is the penalty chapter. Verse 9 through 17 lists a number of offenses all of which carry the death penalty. Cursing ones parents brings a death sentence. There is somewhere in all this a prescribed “price” for deflowering a man’s daughter. Fine, uplifting family values stuff.
Anyway, the passage I wish to deal with in this context concerns the applicability of Leviticus to our situation. We go back to Leviticus 18, verses 24 and 25, to wit: “Do not make yourselves unclean by any of these practices, for it was by such things that the nations that I have expelled to make way for you made themselves unclean. The land became unclean; I exacted the penalty for its fault and the land had to vomit out its inhabitants.”
Now, this pertains, of course, to the Chosen People moving into Canaan, from which, presumably, the previous residents were expelled. Of course, Joshua had to do battle with some holdouts, but that’s a trifle.
Did the land “vomit out” its inhabitants? Apparently not. The entire region, however, was vacated by the Hittite during a massive catastrophe, the details about which we are still rather fuzzy, but seem to have had something to do with the Trojan War. See, it was around the same time. Troy fell and in the aftermath Something Big happened, remarked in many places around the Mediterranean. I would guess a massive economic collapse. The Trojan War, if Homer is to be believed even a little bit, lasted ten years and involved huge resources. Troy was a crossroads in a vast trading network. Its demise no doubt caused more than a little difficulty.
What does this have to do with Moses and the Tribes? The area into which they moved had been part of the Hittite sphere. A hinterland, really. In the political, economic, and military vacuum following the collapse of the Hittite Empire, the Hebrews moved in against demoralized, unsupported provincials, and kicked them out. Yahweh didn’t do it. Global politics did. Once the Hittite recovered, becoming the Babylonian Empire, they easily swept down, reconquered what had become Israel, and the second Hebrew Exile began.
Between these two events we have the stories of Joshua, Saul, David, and Solomon. And to a large extent, these people lived in a Hellenized world. Greek culture dominated everywhere except Egypt, which took a while to become Hellenized under the Ptolemies. This is important in relation to the story of David and Jonathan. It makes perfect sense in Greek terms, and it was perfectly homoerotic.
And David was the favored of Yahweh.
He also had a man killed so he could take his wife. He remained God’s favorite. He had several hundred wives. Still a favorite. Solomon, his son, had more wives, and lots of concubines, and was one of the principle characters in one of the more erotic love stories in history.
The inconsistency of Yahweh in these matters makes sense when you realize that all these laws, rather than coming down from Sinai, were manmade. No, I don’t expect fundamentalists to be swayed, but I do expect a little perspective from people less radicalized in their religious outlook. If homosexuality makes you uncomfortable, it’s YOUR problem—you may not refer to Scripture to legitimize your prejudice. Live with it. There is not one single passage in the Bible that says anything at all about gay marriage. There are three beautiful love stories that are clearly homosexual. Ruth and Naomi (the word “clave” is used to describe their relationship, which is exactly the same word used in describing husband-wife relationships); David and Jonathan; and Daniel and Ashpenaz (the Hebrew describing their relationship is chesed v’rachimin–chesed translates as “mercy” but v’rachimin, which is used in a plural form suggesting more than one of its usual meanings, which includes “physical love”).
But go ahead, peruse Leviticus, read all the rules and restrictions and requirements. The point I wish you to understand is—we don’t do that stuff anymore. Not for a long time have we considered these rules, most of them, useful, nor have we taken to heart the penalties for noncompliance. We live—and have lived for a long while now—in a post-Levitical world.
And civilization has not come to a halt. In fact, there has been considerable improvement.
So why pick and choose among laws we no longer pay any attention to when we find one that agrees with our prejudices and claim that we’re in violation of God’s law when we ignore it? (The answer is too obvious to state. I hope so, anyway.)
When we hear conservative opposition to same-sex marriage, there is always the claim that marriage is between a man and woman for the purpose of having children. While this is certainly the way a majority of marriages play out, it is ridiculous to assume that this is the only reason to be married. But it does in fact support the contention that marriage is, ultimately, an institution with strong, if not primarily, monetary concerns. The production of children has traditionally been a measure of potential wealth for the community. We have entered a period in which this is no longer the case, but it takes time for custom to catch up to reality. It is nevertheless an imposition of prejudice, seeking to dictate not only to gay couples but to straight couples what they OUGHT to be doing. Perhaps when gay marriage is recognized and legitimate, we heterosexuals might find other, more relevant reasons for marriage across the board.
The bigot will not be swayed. The bigot must be defeated. The bigot hates and then finds justification for hatred. The first thing to do in the fight against bigotry is to learn. If this exegesis has in any way aided that particular quest, well, good. But let me make this final observation: bigotry like this stands only in ignorance, and not simply book ignorance. I have found in my life that it becomes impossible to hate people different from me once I know them (barring, of course, the obvious—ax murderers, rapists, environmental despoilers…but even these people I don’t exactly hate, so much as fail to understand). It’s easy to buy into stereotypes until you have to deal with someone who is supposed to fit that stereotype, and discover that what you thought you knew just isn’t true.
But for now I live in Missouri, which has decided to enact its ignorance into law. I return once more to my theme, that a whole lot of money is being spent on this issue, by those who are more afraid of having to correct the inequities still extant in so-called “normal” relationships than any kind of apocalyptic fall-out from allowing same-sex marriage. They play upon the uninformed fears of those who still believe marriage is—at least as far as society is concerned—a matter of romance and “traditional” family values. Of course, marriage is that. But that doesn’t need defending. I doubt you could hurt it where it truly exists between two people who love and respect each other, enough to make a lifelong commitment.
No, the only thing you could damage is the legal standing to deny humanity to people you don’t care for. Whether they’re gay or straight.
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