On Wednesday I logged into Facebook and found that many of my friends' faces had been replaced by an image which reminded me of Mark Rothko paintings like this one:
At first I was confused--why the sudden surge of interest in Rothko? As I looked at people's posts, however, it quickly became clear that the changing faces weren't about the iconic artist at all; they were political statements about the Prop 8 and DOMA Supreme Court cases. And what initially appeared to me to be two abstract lines were, in fact, equals signs. People had found a way to simply, symbolically show their support for the cause of Marriage Equality. It wasn't a sudden rash of Rothko at all--it was an elegant, clever mass communication technique.
But it was one I could not take part in. Because I would prefer to see the Supreme Court uphold Proposition 8.
By the logic of my friends' profile pictures, I guess that makes me an advocate of Marriage Inequality. And probably an advocate of inequality, backwardness, and hate more generally.
Framed that way, mine sounds like a pretty terrible position to hold.
I don't want to hate anyone. I can't afford to: hate is a corrosive, self-destructive process that eats away at a person's strength on a physical, chemical level. I may be tempted by anger from time to time, but I hope I know better by now than to let anger canker into hate. There's too much to be done to waste my life that way.
But for me, concern about the definition of marriage is not about hate or discrimination. And so I want to try one more time to explain how I feel about the issue now while feelings are running strong. I don't know who I'm writing to--maybe to friends who feel betrayed by my position but still want to understand where I'm coming from, maybe to people who share my position and are feeling a bit isolated because of it.
Or maybe I'm just writing to leave a record of where I stand. A piece of evidence to incriminate myself by if this week's court cases become the landmark of progress so many people hope for. Because it's important to me to be thorough and honest. If I am going to be judged (and as a writer, I probably will be), let me be judged by my own account of what I believe.
Two Views of Marriage
I don't think the current debate over same-sex marriage is just about same-sex marriage. I think it's a political extension of a roughly fifty-year-old cultural debate over what marriage should mean in the modern world. That debate is complicated and I can't do justice to all its ins and outs, all the positions different groups have taken and reversed. But I think it's fair to say that there have been two broad camps in debates over everything from the sexual revolution to no-fault divorce to the question of whether gender roles should exist in any form to the charged debate over same-sex marriage today. On one side of these debates are traditionalists whose primary concerns are social stability and accountability. On the other side are experimenters whose primary concerns are freedom and acceptance. (Clarification on 3/29/13: this is not to say that traditionalists don't value freedom and acceptance or that experimenters have no concern for stability and accountability. The difference is in emphasis--do you raise questions of freedom/acceptance or accountability/stability first?)
Both camps have influenced society, and so many Americans hold a mixture of beliefs about marriage, drawing some on the experimenters and some on the traditionalists. Many Americans, though, do fall quite clearly into one camp or the other when it comes to choosing between the camps' competing views in five key areas:
Origin: when, how, and why should a marriage begin?
Exclusivity: what expectations about sexual exclusivity are part of marriage?
Family: what is the relationship between marriage and family life?
Gender: what role(s) does gender play in marriage?
Accountability: who is involved in the promise of marriage and when should a marriage end?
To understand any marriage-related debate in America today, I think it's
important to first non-judgmentally describe
the "emerging marriage" and "traditionalist marriage" visions on these
five points. After all, if marriage is (so to speak) an apple to some people and an orange to others, we're bound to talk past each other a bit.
Here's how I see the two models operating:
Origin: As adolescents and young adults, individuals go through a period of sexual exploration and self-discovery. It is considered unwise to commit to a long-term relationship before this process is complete or before a couple feels confident about their compatibility. But when two mature, compatible people fall deeply in love and want a deeper commitment, they may choose to use the word "marriage" to formalize their relationship in the eyes of society. The word carries a certain legal and social weight which reflects the value of their commitment.
Exclusivity: Though pre-marital sex is acceptable for exploration or to test compatibility, a marriage is expected to be sexually exclusive. Some couples may choose to practice "open marriage," but such non-exclusivity carries a significant stigma even when both spouses freely consent to the arrangement.
Family: A marriage may be a good place to raise children. Single parents can also do a good job, though, and shouldn't be slighted in any way. And married couples shouldn't be expected to have children just because they're married.
Gender: Because gender difference is not essential to love, it is not an important component of marriage. Any two people who love each other can marry and can define for themselves what their roles within the relationship are.
Accountability: The promise of marriage is primarily a promise between two people. When those people agree that their love has changed or when one partner fails the other partner's expectations, it's OK to move on. Divorce isn't necessarily anyone's fault; it just happens sometimes.
Origin: Marriage is a fundamental unit of society, and at a certain age young people should look for a person they can form a stable marriage with. Not everyone will get married, and that is too bad--though it's better to stay single than to have an unstable marriage.
Exclusivity: Sexual exclusivity applies not only during marriage, but also before. Sex is exclusive to the institution of marriage; consensual premarital sex, while not as bad as adultery, is harmful and should be avoided.
Family: Procreation is a central purpose of marriage. When people get married and are unable to have children, it is viewed as a great tragedy. Getting married without wanting children is virtually unthinkable. What spouses do for each other is important, but the most important work married couples do is provide stability for their children and grandchildren.
Gender: Gender difference is an essential component of marriage. This is partly because of the procreative nature of marriage, but also because fathers and mothers have unique strengths and obligations within a family. How gender roles play out may vary from community to community and family to family, but distinct obligations for each gender do strengthen marriage as an institution.
Accountability: The promise of marriage is a promise to God, society, oneself, one's family, and one's partner. Effort should be invested in a marriage even in moments when love is hard to feel or when a spouse does not seem worthy or appreciative of the efforts. Divorce is a tragedy and a final resort, and should be used in cases where the marriage is so bad that one spouse is unable to live with dignity.
Where do I stand in all this? And what does my view have to do with how society defines marriage?
I realize that every position on this earth comes with certain costs and benefits. And I prefer the costs and benefits of traditionalist marriage on each of the five questions.
Origin: I understand the expectation of marriage becomes a burden for many, but I appreciated being raised with marriage as a challenge to live up to. I was raised with the idea that I had to work a great deal to be the sort of person who can sustain a stable marriage, and I am a better person for having tried to refine myself rather than find myself.
Exclusivity: I know that it's difficult to live in a culture as sexualized as ours with a belief that sex should be exclusive to marriage. But the struggle of staying abstinent before marriage is worth the payoff in trust. My teens and early twenties could have been far more wrenching and volatile if sex-related chemicals had been part of my less stable dating relationships. And it seems much easier for intimacy to nurture strong bonds of trust within my marriage without the obstacles of past disappointments or alternatives to distract me.
Family: I grew up in several strong extended families with deep senses of connection and community, and they've meant the world to me. I'm not entirely convinced it's possible to build big family networks like that when family is an afterthought in relationships and parenthood is an improvised accessory to marriage rather than the central purpose.
At one point during my testicular cancer treatment, some misread data made it seem doubtful that I would be able to father biological children. So I've dealt a little with the weight of disappointed expectations biologically-family-centered norms can create. But I've also experienced firsthand how even the best adoptions don't erase children's hunger for connection with their biological parents. I love my oldest daughter more than I can describe and she loves having me as her adopted father--but she does still wonder about the biological father she hasn't seen since her third birthday. The miracle of adoption is still built on the tragedy of failed or interrupted parent-child relationships. And so I think it's best to think of adoption as an important supplement to biological parenting rather than a replacement ideal.
Gender: Some see gender roles as inherently oppressive, but I've seen how they can offer a sense of place and permission instead of only negative pressure. My wife is a smart, talented woman who could be in a PhD program right now. But our faith's teachings on gender give her permission to focus mostly on children while teaching only one class as an adjunct instead. It's a career sacrifice she can make both because she's allowed and encouraged to value her work in the home and because my obligation as the primary provider relieves her of the full obligation for the family's finances.
While an absence of gender roles can lead to greater flexibility, it can be quite limiting when negotiations over flexibility fail. There's no shortage of families today where one parent (often the father) doesn't carry a fair share of the weight in either the financial or domestic spheres. At their best, gender roles can give the community a language to call such individuals to action and to help them take a more active role in family.
Accountability: This may be the issue I feel most strongly about. As more people have come to view marriage as an interpersonal contract, divorce rates have risen significantly. There's an argument to be made that that's a good thing--one writer I know called a fifty-year marriage a "terrible failure of the imagination" because of the limits it implies on two people's exercise of their freedom. But to me, most divorces are just sad. Too many couples are unable to make it through difficult periods in their relationships because one (or both) lacks a motivation and obligation beyond the love and satisfaction hard times make difficult to feel. And families and societies lose a lot of stability when so many marriages fall apart. As a society, I think we need to find ways to increase individuals' sense of accountability and commitment in marriage and countless other contexts if we are going to effectively face the social, environmental, and economic ills of our time.
Now to the second question: what does all this have to do with how society defines marriage?
And as traditionalists, they couldn't accept the State Supreme Court's discovery of a constitutional right to same-sex marriage. On issues of family and gender, the court's position that marriage was between any two partners clearly came from an emerging marriage view where procreation and gender difference are not core components of marriage norms. On issues of origin and accountability, the court's findings also leaned (albeit more subtly) toward emerging marriage by prioritizing the desires of individuals over the established norms of the institution.
It's important to note that Proposition 8 didn't challenge any of California's domestic partnership rights, which were both available to same-sex couples and equivalent under state law to the rights of marriage. It focused on the word marriage specifically to maintain a potential rhetorical distinction between emergent marriage "partnerships" and traditionalist "marriages."
In other words, Proposition 8 was an attempt to keep separate names for apples and oranges. It wasn't perfect: in the interest of simplicity, it failed to articulate the full social difference between the two views of marriage and drew attention to the bright line of gender difference at the expense of the complicated and multifaceted marriage values proponents wished to defend. But imperfect though it may have been, I have a hard time seeing it as evil: what is so wrong about wanting some sort of distinction in the language to represent a larger net of diverging assumptions?
Well--one important worry about preserving some sort of name difference is that we'd be falling into the old Plessy vs. Ferguson "separate but equal" trap. Having even a difference in a name between unions or partnerships and marriage might inevitably result in gross injustice to the minority group.
But while I respect that concern, I see a vital difference between separate physical facilities and separate words. I don't think we need to feel threatened by meaningful distinctions in our vocabulary. In universities, we divide degrees into Bachelor's of Arts and Bachelor's of Science Degrees. Those names strike me as representing important differences in a net of underlying assumptions. Has the division of degrees into BS and BA created gross inequality? I don't think so. People certainly make distinctions between (and sometimes sweeping assumptions about) each type of degree, but because enough people believe in each underlying set of assumptions, the degrees are able to coexist relatively peacefully. I would go as far as to argue that scientific disciplines and artistic disciplines coexist far more peacefully because of the naming differentiation which helps keep one side from dictating how the other should operate. While there's not a single bright line between arts and sciences, theater classes really are better off without having their norms set directly by science syllabi, and biology classes are better off without being accountable to the educational assumptions of the arts.
On a personal level, I worry about living in a society that implicitly defines emerging marriage as true marriage and traditionalist marriage as a backward, hateful counterfeit. Which is what will probably happen if a historic Supreme Court ruling takes the word "marriage" out of the realm of rational debate and enshrines emerging marriage as a constitutional right. And which may happen anyway as people rally around concepts like "Marriage Equality" and slogans like "Hate is a choice; love isn't." As values of freedom and acceptance become the only acceptable criteria for evaluating relationships, people who speak for traditionalist values--whether by discouraging single-parent adoption (and artificial insemination by single women) or by connecting the value of marriage with premarital abstinence--will be increasingly pushed out of mainstream marriage conversations. We will have an additional burden in communicating our values to our children when they are treated not only as divergent, but also as actively hateful and backward in school curricula.
Isn't there a way to recognize same-sex couples without making pariahs of the 40% or so of Americans who are still quite attached to a more traditionalist view of marriage?
I will be far more comfortable if future schools teach my children and grandchildren that our country has two different but coexisting views of marriage than if they teach that prejudice was the only reason people used to think (and their family and community still think) of marriage as requiring a husband and a wife. I want marriage clarity.
But I don't think a two-word system would only benefit traditionalists. In the worldwide conversation over same-sex relationships, a clear linguistic division between traditionalist views of marriage and an emergent-Western view of marriage would be a far easier path to legal recognition than simply asserting that gender doesn't matter in marriage.
Take India as an example. For the majority of Indians, religion is still the dominant guiding influence in marriage and family life and most religions in the region have wedding ceremonies with very clear gender roles and divisions--in the case of Sikhism, not only for husband and wife but also for a wide range of maternal and paternal relatives. Simply asserting that marriage is between two people without regard to gender makes no sense in most Indian contexts. There would almost certainly be widespread, intense resistance to any attempt by a high court or foreign lobby to impose a gender-neutral definition of marriage on India or many other countries.
That said, most Indians are familiar enough with American media to know that many American relationships are built on radically different assumptions than Indian marriages. A proposal to create a separate category for the Western-style relationships of many urban youth, including same-sex relationships, would likely lead to spirited debate but would at least have some chance of success without tearing the society apart.
A "marriage equality" argument for recognizing same-sex relationships wins significant support in Western Europe, the United States, and other areas where emerging marriage assumptions have filtered deep into the culture. But on a worldwide scale, "marriage equality" is probably a dead end as long as the assumptions of emerging marriage are positioned as a replacement for, rather than an alternative to, traditionalist marriage.
Where would I like to go from here? And where do I think we actually will go?
My ideal solution would be to use a term like "union" as an umbrella for both traditionalist marriages and emerging marriages, to keep "marriage" associated with a more traditionalist view and to come up with a word with more everyday appeal than "domestic partnership" or "civil union" for emerging marriages. After all, who wants to kneel down and ask for a lifetime commitment by saying "will you civil me?" The utter lack of romance in the unwieldy, clinical names California lawyers came up with may have been a significant factor in convincing Prop 8 opponents to hold out for the word "marriage."
That said, the weight of the word "marriage" doesn't come from its syllables. Marriage feels more committed to individuals and society largely because of the sacrifices generations of traditionalists have made for the institution's sake. We pour meaning into words slowly through the collective pattern of our actions, and it strikes me as a significant mistake for people who hold an emerging view of partnership and marriage to seek the old weight of the word at they same time as they strip it of its old assumptions.
I would like to see both forms of union recognized by the law, but in a way that allowed new-paradigm couples to build up a new word with the connotations that gradually collect around their way of approaching partnerships.
But--things are highly unlikely to unfold according to my ideal. So here's what I think will happen:
Probably not right now, but probably before too long, the position of the United States Government and the majority of Americans will be that considering gender difference an essential component of marriage is discriminatory and wrong. Freedom and acceptance will become the core values of our society in regards to marriage.
But a significant minority of Americans, perhaps a third or so, will remain attached to traditionalist views of marriage because our family values are shaped less by government and media than by an alternate conversation, such as the teachings of our faiths or the traditions of our ethnic subgroup. Having lost any claim to the word marriage in public discussions will be a difficult burden for us, and so we will eventually coin a new term or adopt a new symbol of our own to describe the different assumptions we bring to marriage. Maybe traditionalists will take a foreign loan word, maybe we will adopt a certain type of ring, maybe we'll shift to a compound concept like "covenant marriage" to differentiate, but sooner or later we will create a language that gives our position its own place and purpose again.
And then slowly, perhaps over generations, we may achieve some degree of Marriage Clarity. People will have an easier time seeing the differences between the two main views of marriage in our society, and they will have an easier time choosing for themselves whether they prefer a model primarily focused on freedom and acceptance or a model primarily focused on stability and accountability.
And maybe, just maybe, our grandchildren will be able to get along reasonably well in their differences. Maybe they'll stop framing their debates as equality vs. hate or natural vs. deviant and have both the understanding and underlying appreciation of difference we can see today between thoughtful people over the differences in assumption between science and art.
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