When Marriage Makes Sense

Originally posted on Open Salon on November 11, 2012

I don’t believe in marriage—or at least I didn’t. With an oft cited divorce rate of fifty percent in the United States, why would I want to participate? Or anyone else for that matter? To me, it seemed like gambling with fake money. I considered the reasons why people wanted to get married. There is the legal reason—to legitimize the marriage in the eyes of the state, and to sometimes reap the tangible benefits afforded by the law. There were also religious reasons; I recognized that many desired that their relationships be solemnized by a religious authority, but as an atheist this did not appeal to me. On the contrary, marriage was guilty by association. Neither the legal nor the religious reason to marry was particularly compelling. I simply didn’t think it made sense.

Then I started to pay attention to marriage equality. In the last several years, I’ve begun to rethink marriage—not just individually, but as an individual participating in a much broader effort to redefine marriage. I’ve become convinced that while marriage was a failing institution, its current redefinition, represented by same sex marriage, is revitalizing it. One of my most fundamental critiques of marriage was that people did not take it very seriously. Advocates of same sex marriage are working towards the universalization of marriage as a right, and by doing so are most conscious of the need to reinvest its value. “Traditional” marriage had long ago ceased to do this adequately, and it suffers for it. Marriage equality is reinventing the institution in the United States, and that is a good thing.

The odd thing about this redefinition is that it is fundamentally conservative. Recently, Slate published Andrew Sullivan’s classic 1989 article about the conservative argument for same sex marriage. Gay culture in the United States had long disdained marriage as the single greatest representation of heteronormativity. This has altered over the last twenty years, as the marriage equality movement attests. A radical approach to marriage might be the outright rejection of it, and same sex marriage is the opposite of that. While things have changed over the last twenty years what has remained constant is that the commitment that marriage signifies and the desire to raise a family in a dual parent household is the precise definition of conservative, even traditional, marriage.

Of course, radical approaches to marriage exist, but they are generally in opposition to the traditional view of marriage advanced by conservatives and marriage equality proponents alike. Laurie Shrage recently wrote in the New York Times that there is a cadre of political and legal theorists that argue marriage should be completely privatized. That is, what were previously deemed marriages would then be categorized as “civil unions.” People could still get married, but only by a private institution, and the union would not be recognized by the state unless registered as a civil union. While certainly more radical than same sex marriage, such an approach is not as novel as it seems. At least right now, it doesn’t appear to be a viable option. For one, while the proposal appears to further separate church from state, essentially giving private religious institutions total authority over the regulation of marriage would surely result in discrimination, which in turn would necessitate intervention from the state. Additionally, some religious institutions would probably advise congregants to avoid state registration as a “civil union,” again with the likely result of legal and political quagmires, especially in the event of children and divorce. The final reason that such a proposal would prove infeasible is that marriage equality is currently validating and legitimizing marriage in such a way that makes the protection of it more pressing. It certainly is elevating it to the point where if the state abjured marriage, there would be a diverse coalition of voices demanding that it remain an institution legitimized by the state. The argument Schrage writes about is a radical challenge to marriage, while same sex marriage is adaptation. Both forms indicate that the current iteration of marriage has to change with society, because it won’t happen the other way around, and stasis would signal its eventual end.

Everyone knows that marriage is being redefined, but everyone should also realize that it is not the first time, and it certainly won’t be the last. Marriage is not a natural institution, but a constructed one that has changed in the course of history. This does not mean that marriage is without social or personal value, but only that such value cannot be derived from an idealistic form of marriage that never existed. We need to be aware that marriage will evolve in the future, just as it has changed over time. I read and write about marriage almost every single day. Not in the context of the contemporary United States, but historically and in Germany. I’m writing a dissertation on intermarriage among Jews, Catholics, and Protestants in Germany from 1875 until 1935. I start in 1875 because it was the date that obligatory civil marriage was introduced—which meant that all marriages had to first be registered at a local civil office before a religious solemnization could take place (which was optional). Such a law opened up new paths for possible marriages that had previously been regulated by religious authorities and subject to strict conditions. In Germany at the time, inter-religious marriages were problematic unions and were often perceived as morally transgressive. The state, at least insofar as state functionaries could be detached from their religious belonging, did not view the union of two people from different religions as terribly suspect. Nevertheless, myriad arguments were made, mostly by religious authorities, that the intermarriages were fundamentally immoral: spiritual alignment was viewed as the single most important matter in a marriage, and ignoring such a unity condemned the marriage to sure failure, and the family to inevitable discord. The innocent victims of the marriages were, of course, the children, who grew up in divided houses. They observed and internalized conflicting ideals from the parents. They were left hopelessly confused as to the right path to follow, and would most likely end up adhering to no religion at all. This to the detriment of society. Such a line of argument should feel familiar. Religious elites made this argument for a long time; some probably continue to make it today. However, such opinions do not get a lot of press because the problematic marriages they condemned have been normalized. So it happens in the evolution of marriage, and it is happening today. My dissertation ends in 1935, when Nazi Germany introduced the Nuremburg Laws. If anyone thinks that marriage cannot be leveraged for discriminatory purposes, the provision outlawing marriage between Jews and “Germans” should quickly dispel that illusion.

The struggle to define marriage has a different focus today. The movement for equal marriage rights has not only tempered my critique against it, but it has also caused me to want to be a part of the institution. On November, 6, Maryland, Maine, and Washington voted to legalize same sex marriage in their respective states (Minnesota’s vote was less a vote for gay marriage than it was against codified inequality), joining Iowa, Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York, New Hampshire, Vermont, and Washington D.C. as states that recognize marriage equality. The three most recent additions to the list were the first to reach it through popular vote. These states should be commended for voting for equality, but it is not enough to wait for all fifty states to pass measures providing for parity. In order to normalize marriage equality, a constitutional amendment needs to define marriage as the agreed upon partnership between two consenting adults, with all attendant rights and responsibilities that come with a marriage contract in its current form.

My partner and I had discussed waiting to get married until the Constitution extended the right to all U.S. citizens. While we both think that it will happen sooner rather than later, and certainly within our lifetimes, we decided that aging in solidarity with the marriage equality movement would not catalyze constitutional action.  So, we did the next best thing: we got married in a state that recognizes marriage equality. On a recent trip to New York City, we were married at the Marriage Bureau in lower Manhattan on the same day as an array of other couples, both gay and straight. We wouldn’t have had it any other way. While waiting at the marriage bureau, our witness spoke to a family member on the phone. “I’m at the Marriage Bureau,” he said, prompting his relative to exclaim, “are you getting married!?”  He replied nonchalantly, “No, I haven’t met the right person.” I was heartened to know that I was in a place where, if he did meet the right man, he could have gotten married on that day with us.


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