Gay Marriage: Good for Marriage
Alarmists cry out that men marrying men and women marrying women is a sign of our declining civilization. There are many signs that our civilization is in decline--among them the fact, more evident every day, that we (in general, gay and straight, all of us) are increasingly less civil in our behavior toward one another. But marriage equality is not driving us into the dark ages. If anything, it’s putting the brakes on our slide toward the brink.
Nor is it threatening the integrity, the sanctity, or the nature of marriage. Laments about "tradition" are deployed as though tradition were reason enough to refuse to allow an institution to grow and develop; if anything, the grand tradition of marriage has been in its constant evolution, as women have gone from being the property of their husbands to true life partners in the marriage bond. Strict social, religious, and legal taboos against the marriage of racially mixed couples, or couples from different faiths, have fallen by the wayside. Most striking of all, what was once a business proposition arranged by third parties to cement relations between families and preserve wealth has become a proposition made freely from one individual to another: marriage today bears little resemblance in many of its particulars to the "traditional" marriage of the last four thousand years.
Last week’s commencement of marriage equality in Washington, D.C. may have been treated like doomsday by anti-gay religious and social conservatives, but given that the sky has yet to fall on Massachusetts (where marriage equality has been legal for six years) or any of the other states, nations, and cities where marriage is now available to gay and lesbian families--Mexico City among them, also as of last week--it seems unlikely that the earth will open up and swallow our nation’s capital simply because of a minor change in the laws of man.
Yes, a minor change. Yes, the laws of man. Natural law is functioning just fine, thanks very much: the speed of light is unchanged, and gravity is as consistent and implacable as ever. So is emotional gravity, felt in the tug of the heart: straight men are still falling in love with women; straight women are still falling in love with men. And gays and lesbians, just as they have always done, are still falling in love, as well--with others of their own gender, as is also natural.
But here’s what is interesting about the minor (yet significant) change to man’s laws in the District of Columbia: it’s not just gays and lesbians who are getting married. It’s straights, too. A March 11 Associated Press article reported that whereas most years around this time there are only about 50 applications made for marriage licenses, more than 450 have been made recently--a huge spike that includes straight couples as well as gays.
So much for the theory that gays marrying will spoil matrimony for everyone else.
I have another theory to advance. Time and again, we’ve seen a rush--a joyous frenzy--of marriages whenever gay and lesbian families have been offered the chance to solemnize their relationships--not with the watery, less-than-fulfilling "civil unions" or "domestic partnerships" that the anti-gay contingent say we should be content with, but real marriage, the gold standard of family connection. Gays and lesbians in love are aching for the chance to say their vows and have them recognized by the state, or even by the city. When those rights, long withheld, are finally granted, there’s a sense of liberation, and of completion--a sense of arrival. When the stopper is pulled and the genie is allowed to escape from the bottle, it’s with an outburst of excitement and elation, propelled by lifetimes of pent-up passion.
When my husband and I married, he--who had been living in Germany in the autumn of 1990--could only compare the atmosphere of hope and happiness to the fall of the Berlin wall. And he was right: there was no better simile for what was happening around us, and for what we were, ourselves, part of. This was our version of taking down a wall that should never have been there; this was, for us, the long-awaited dream of freedom finally arrived. Though we’d returned from Europe years before, the night we (and a few hundred others) filed our intention to marry paperwork in May of 2004 was the night we truly arrived in America--an America promised to us at birth, but then denied when it turned out that we were gay. When we emerged from the city hall at 1:30 in the morning, it was to see a crowd of ten thousand had surrounded the building--to cheer, sing, throw rice, and offer congratulations. This was not a crowd of gays: this was a crowd of straights, who felt our joy and became joyous too.
So it’s no wonder if straights in D.C. are getting married in greater numbers right now, along with the rush of families who have long been shut out of marriage equality. It’s a simple principle that conservatives, of all people, should understand: a rising tide floats all the boats, whether it’s a tide of economic prosperity or domestic freedom. That we can marry too makes marriage a more democratic, and more desirable, institution--not something that straights will flee in disgust.
Gay marriage is good for marriage--all marriage. We can all agree that marriage as an institution has faced extraordinary challenges in recent decades, and research shows that it’s not because of the reasons anti-gay groups claim. It’s not because marriage has been "decoupled" from child-bearing, or "contaminated" by the participation of gays and lesbians. Rather, it’s because women are better educated, and a larger part of the work force: women don’t marry out of economic necessity any longer. And to be frank, if marriage used to be about yoking a work horse to a breed mare, then it’s all for the better than marriage is developing into something different, something enlightened--something more meaningful, for more people, than it once was. Marriage may have hit a rough patch, but it’ll be back--stronger, purer, a more sterling institution than it ever was before. I think that it’s already rebounding, and gay marriage is part of the reason.
Marriage is not doomed. Civilization--well, maybe civilization is doomed, but not because of anything going on with marriage. Civilizations rise and fall according to decisions people make about resources (energy, land, water), not "decisions" about who we fall in love with (which aren’t decisions at all, whatever the anti-gay claims about gays "choosing" their "lifestyle" might be).
But I’ll tell you this: even if civilization falls tomorrow, marriage will survive. Pair-bonding is part of human nature--even for gays and lesbians. That marriage is now starting to allow gays into its hallowed ranks makes the institution more worthy of surviving, and thus better prepared to weather whatever political and social upheavals may come.
The rest is up to us.