Not long ago, a "marriage defender" who calls himself R.K. asked me what I would like the general cultural understanding of marriage to be, whether "marriage is between any two persons"? Or "marriage is between a man and a woman, unless...."? He recommended I answer after reading this article. I didn't answer in that comment thread, but it's a fair question – one I'll answer here.
I recently read that 4 in 10 children – 40% - are born to unmarried mothers. This is a radical cultural shift from what marriage would have been even 50 years ago, when getting pregnant outside of marriage was stigmatized, and women didn't have the economic equality and opportunity to support themselves effectively. 150 years ago, pioneering feminist Mary Baker Eddy wrote: "… the frequency of divorce shows that the sacredness of this relationship is losing its influence and that fatal mistakes are undermining its foundations." At that time, divorce was relatively rare; today, around 50% of marriages end in divorce. The institution of no-fault divorce is at least partly, and perhaps wholly, responsible, and this represents another profound cultural shift in the perception and understanding of marriage. Today, gay people in four states can get married, just the same as straight people and into the same institution, and hate crimes legislation has been passed to protect them from crimes based on their identity. 50 years ago, they were frequently targeted by police for beatings, harassment, and arrest, and very few people in mainstream, straight society seemed to care.
There's a saying in architecture: "Form follows function." In other words, how a building works is more important than its shape, colors, textures, and so on; instead, the function of the building informs what shape it will (ideally) take.
So already, the cultural understanding of marriage – and its function – is profoundly different than it was 100, or even 50 years ago.
I'm not going to argue what's right or wrong here, or what's best. I've seen enough marriages where children were being hurt by the wars between their parents, where no-fault divorce was a better option than allowing the anger to escalate to violence, where the children were benefited, perhaps even their lives saved, by their parents' separation. At the same time, there is a preponderance of evidence that shows that, overall, children of divorce fare worse than the children of intact families. I don't have the wisdom to even suss out all the variables that influence things like that, much less analyze their effects.
The article cites six "goods" of marriage as an other-sex-only institution: it supports a child's birthright to know and be raised by her biological parents; it maximizes the level of private welfare of children; it is the foundation of the "child-rearing mode" that correlates – "in ways not subject to reasonable dispute" – with a child's well being; it is a bridge that unites men and women; it
is "the only institution that can confer the status of husband and wife, that can transform a male into a husband or a female into a wife …, and thus that can transform males into husband/fathers … and females into wife/mothers …; and last, it constitutes "social and official endorsement of that form of adult intimacy that society may rationally value above all other such forms. It cites these as self-evidently, inarguably the ideal. But I can't help but question some of them.
For instance, do kids have a right to know who their biological parents are? No doubt. Do they have the right to be raised by their biological parents? Maybe. But too often they should have the right to not be raised by their biological parents. I imagine Rusty Yates' kids would have welcomed an opportunity to be raised by someone else. What kids do have, is the right to be raised by people who love them unconditionally and have the emotional, spiritual, and physical resources that will enable them to grow into fulfilled, functioning adults. Indisbutably, that is, in most cases, biological parents. But the exceptions are so common, that can we justify codifying that into law? Thousands of children are worse off with their biological parent or parents than with someone else; thousands of adults have love and resources to bestow on children, yet for one reason or another cannot or will not contribute their genes.
I very much question whether a child's private welfare is better with a man-woman parenting couple than with a same-sex parenting couple. Again, too many variables intrude. We have seen that divorce is not the best platform for a child's well-being; but do we even have any significant data on intact same-sex parents? And even if we did, is it so compelling as to codify it? The children of same-sex couples I know are doing just fine. A child's well-being depends more on her individual relationships than on any particular "mode." Men and women are united by far more than marriage, biology and our common humanity perhaps being the strongest bridge. Inclusion of gay marriage transforms a male into a husband (two of them, in fact), and a woman into a wife. And why should society endorse one form of consensual adult intimacy over another? There is great danger in this assumption – our culture currently endorses one-man, one-woman marriage, but other cultures endorse polygamy, and ours has endorsed the concept of the woman as subservient to the man in the not-so-distant past.
Okay, back to the question:
Answer: I don't know. Theoretically, I think I could live with the cultural understanding of marriage being man-woman only, or including only same-sex couples. Objectively, I don't even know what it should be, or which form is best for children or society.
What I do know, is that regardless of what the cultural understanding of marriage should be, when I see my friends "Ken" and "Tom" together – they've been faithful to each other for 19 years now – I see married. I see two people deeply in love, with the comfortable intimacy that marks happy couples who've been through years and trials together. It's the same when I see Ann & Christine (14 years, 1 child), Angela & Cecily (at least 10 yrs.), Lila & Elaine (28+ yrs.), Annie & Michelle (more than 18 yrs, 2 kids). And last year, when Kelly broke up with her domestic partner, and her eyes were red from crying for a month, I saw the deep grief of divorce. (All names are changed to protect their identities.)
In other words, the cultural understanding of marriage I have is that it's between two people, and sometimes more. What I want doesn't seem to play into it that much, except that I would like a shared understanding. I bet you would, too. On the other hand, I want the cultural understanding of intimate relationships to be that same-sex relationships are just as legitimate and valuable as other-sex relationships. I also strongly believe that gay couples should have access to all the rights, responsibilities, privileges, and obligations that straight married couples have. I'm not set on the idea that those rights be defined as "marriage" – if equality can be obtained through "civil union," fine. In fact, some people have suggested that a two-tier system would be better – you get a license for a civil union from the state, and hold a legal ceremony completely separate from religious affiliation at a courthouse or other state building; then, if you want, you can get married in a sacred ceremony in the religious venue of your choice. Our German friend recently went through just such a pair of ceremonies, and it seems to make sense, separating the legal from the sacred. In such a case, both gay and straight couples would enter into the civil union, while the sacred union would be completely regulated by religious authority. If that system could end the animosity and free the energy of both "marriage defenders" and "marriage reformers," may it happen.
In sum, I think what we have is a culture in upheaval, caught in a radical shift between two visions, two understandings of what this particular social institution is and means, linked to the growing cultural understanding and acceptance of gender variance. I'm part of the new culture, along with, judging from recent votes in California and Maine, probably about 45 to 48% of our population. Judging by history and current trends, it's just a matter of time before that cultural shift is complete. The changes in function will bring about a new form, and the "goods" of marriage will have shifted to a new set. Looking back at history, the cycle is clear: the new (fill in the blank) causes great social upheaval, the old resists stiffly, but gradually fades away, and the new becomes accepted as normal and right. Industrial Revolution vs. Luddites. Feminism vs. patriarchy (or women as people vs. women as servants). Transition of European monarchical political systems to parliamentarian systems following the French Revolution and Napoleon's defeat at Waterloo. This shift in marriage is intrinsically linked to the cultural shift of recognizing homosexuality and transgenderism as normal variations of the human condition. And in some ways things will be better, in some ways worse.
I just pray that that new set of goods more than compensates for the old, and that our families and our children are blessed by it and grow stronger.