Does Same-Sex Marriage Really Redefine the Institution?

Today is Sunday, May 3, 2015.

After reviewing the Supreme Court’s arguments this last week regarding the constitutional questions of marriage equality and state recognition of married same-sex couples, I pondered over one of the statements of a Supreme Court judge suggesting to allow and recognize such marriages would ‘redefine the institution’ that had been between a man and a woman for ‘millennia’. Something didn’t ring true in that statement. I remember in graduate school, I studied medieval culture and epic poetry, which expressed for the first time in the culture something that would be called ‘romantic love’ as the basis of relationship. However, in the literature it was portrayed in conflict with traditional values regarding marriage as a social, political and economic contract between families.

In Gottfried’s 12th century ‘Tristan and Isold’, for example, the romantic love between the two main characters ran afoul of the arranged marriage between King Mark and Isold. The fact that it took a ‘magic potion’ to bring Tristan and Isold together, in part, suggested that this romantic love between people could not be helped. The heart knows what the heart wants and the power of this romantic love trumps the traditional notions of relationship and marriage. The romance between them, however, ultimately led to tragedy in its interaction with the existing rules of social interaction and arranged marriages.

This idea of romance and courtly love had its origins in Eleanor of Aquitaine’s efforts to lessen the brutish behavior of her knights at court by encouraging her Ladies-in-Waiting (who were married) to flirt with the knights and thereby get the knights to fall in love with them, in hopes these feelings of romantic love would ‘civilize’ the brutes. If ‘God is love’, then any man who felt this love for a woman was experiencing God. Love was the divine manifestation of God in the human heart and being in a ‘state of love’ was a spiritual experience that would in itself civilize the brutish, martial behavior of the men. Of course, any sexual unions from such flirtations (called ‘courting’) were severely punished and crazy measures to circumvent any such unions were taken. One such measure was the ‘chastity belt’, usually demanded by a lady’s husband.

The Aquitaine Court became the model throughout Europe and this romantic love became a new cultural value during the High Middle Ages. Yet there was a significant cultural lag between the advent of this romance, experienced equally by men and women, and an improved role for women in society and especially in marriage as a social contract. Courtly love was apparently still a male prerogative. The reality was, women were still property and objects of trade between families and kingdoms. In lower classes, marriages were often arranged for men and women by their local royalty and, in large part, were for the purpose of procreating and establishing alliances. Until the High Middle Ages, marriages, whether among the nobility or in the peasantry, had been strictly a civil matter. It was only after this new ‘courtly love’ appeared that the Church demanded that marriages become an ecclesiastical convention performed by a priest in a church with two witnesses.  This form of marriage continued through the 18th century, but with a growing acceptance of the two involved people to determine for themselves whether to enter into the contract. By the 19th century, although marriages were still often arranged, many people entered into marriage as an act of free will, but it was still not often based on romance. Love and commitment were considered desired developments over time. It is quite clear that there was a very significant shift in cultural values regarding love and marriage in the 11th-13th centuries and it shifted again in the 19th century. So, this idea that marriage has looked the same for ‘millennia’ is, on its face, false and misleading.  Not to mention, marriage in pre-Christian cultures was entirely different and did not look at all like marriages of the medieval period.

Romantic love did not become a standard for the basis of marriage until the 1890s, but even then it was within the social practice called ‘courting’. Prior to the 1920s, people ‘courted’, which was mostly a supervised prelude to marriage. ‘Dating’ was not a social practice until the advent of the automobile, which allowed for unsupervised, private ‘courting’ away from the family. This new ‘dating ritual’ gave young women more autonomy as individuals in their own right and gave us love and romance as the primary impulse for marriage. But emotionally, there is a fine line between love and hate, as the adage goes, and divorce rates began to increase, even if it meant you had to go to Nevada, which for a while was the only state that had legalized divorce. This gave women a modicum of freedom within a marriage, but there was a level of social backlash to this ‘modernism’. By the end of World War II this backlash had become a ‘cult of domesticity’ that forced women through propaganda and advertising to stay barefoot, pregnant and in the kitchen. It peaked in the 1950s when America experienced a frightening degree of conformity in an effort to slow the rate of social change.

The fact is, we cannot separate the definition of marriage from the role of women in society, even if we think of it as primarily love and romance. The changes in women’s roles as a result of a vibrant civil rights movement over the last two centuries led to a complete redefinition of traditional marriage by 1980.  Wives in the 18th and 19th century America had no right to their own property or even their own children. There was no such thing as ‘marital rape’ well into the 20th century. Any property or assets they had prior to marriage transferred to the husband. A married woman could not even get her own credit card until the mid-1970s. These inequities were not corrected until women began using the U.S. Constitution to make their case for equality in marriage, as well as for themselves as autonomous individuals. Although women are still not constitutionally enfranchised by an Equal Rights Amendment, court rulings have placed women on a much more equal footing with men and many of those rulings have to do with the role of women in marriage. As a result of their efforts, marriage now is completely different than it was forty years ago. So marriage has already been redefined many times in Euro-American culture since the Church took over the institution in the High Middle Ages.

Now in the 21st century we still accept that love and romance are the basis of modern marriage but previously prescribed roles for husband and wives no longer exist. There is no longer a requirement to have children, for example. Today people don’t question a couple’s decision not to have children. I can remember a female friend of mine who got married in 1972 and, in a conversation with her, she expressed concern that I might judge her as selfish and ‘unwomanly’ because she and her husband had agreed, at least for the foreseeable future, that they were not interested in having children. I seriously doubt any woman would say anything like that today.  If children are not the overriding reason to get married, then we have already redefined traditional marriage. If married women can own their own property and have their own assets, then we have already redefined traditional marriage. If we no longer need a minister or priest, opting for a civil servant to perform the ceremony, then we have already redefined traditional marriage. If wives have the same rights as their husbands within the marriage contract, then we have already redefined traditional marriage.

Because we have already redefined marriage in ways that loosen the social and legal bonds of the partnership (it’s relatively easy to get a divorce), and extend the same rights to wives and husbands, it has become important for society to find other ways to support these marriages, rather than relying on traditional roles and customs. We have done this through financial and social benefits bestowed upon us by the state and federal governments. It makes financial and social sense to get married and there are supports in place to maintain that relationship. Yet, there have not been any social or financial supports for gay people who fall in love and form a permanent bond. Of course, historically, since the advent of a Christian Euro-American culture, homosexuality has been demonized as a pagan ‘behavior’, a ‘sin of the Greeks and Romans’ and, according to (mis)interpretations of the Bible, is rejected by God and a violation of ‘Natural Law’. The resulting repression and persecution of homosexuals in Christian cultures are well-documented, but like women and racial minorities, gay people have stood up and begun to fight for their rights in a free, pluralistic society by applying constitutional principles to their situation.

Their horrific persecution through forced sterilization, electro-shock treatments, criminalization and imprisonment, and social and economic discrimination and marginalization is finally becoming socially and politically untenable. As we learn more about human sexuality and gender, and as gay people bravely ‘come out’ to reveal to us all that they are everywhere (and always have been), as a society we are gradually becoming uncomfortable with their past treatment and we cannot help but have some level of empathy (that is, if we are not sociopathic). The social, political and cultural changes in America since 1965, one of the most important of which was the redefinition of marriage and the role of women within the institution, and therefore within society, inevitably lead to marriage equality, where, for all people, marriage will be based on love, romance and commitment, and nothing else. Since a spouse can no longer be considered ‘property’ or subordinate in any way, is by all legal standards equal to the other spouse, and procreation is no longer either a social or cultural requirement, there is nothing standing in the way of allowing two people of the same gender to get married.

Marriage equality does not redefine marriage away from ‘traditional marriage’ any further than we already have. It merely expands who can participate. Religious prejudice and bigotry are the only impediments to this equality, when they need not be. There is nothing stopping believers from holding to their anti-gay beliefs. But it is unacceptable, and obviously unconstitutional to force the whole of society to believe as they do, and politically shape policy in America to conform to their religious dogmas.

In reality, creating marriage equality is a very conservative move, if we hold to the idea that marriage is a stabilizing force in society. It expands the definition of family as a basis for social order, reduces promiscuity, and thereby protects us all from disease and increases social stability. It also provides a pathway out of a forced, insular gay subculture and its resulting ghettoization. We saw what can happen in such insular subcultures, and inevitably to society as a whole, when the AIDS epidemic struck. If society had supported and promoted especially committed male-to-male relationships, we could have avoided the deaths of millions. Those who religiously believe that homosexuality, as a ‘sin’, should be suppressed, have nothing behind their views other than outright bigotry. That bigotry proved harmful to society with the unconscionably slow response to AIDS. According to Scripture, all people are ‘sinners’ and as a society and culture, we do not and should not marginalize each other for our sins, unless those sins are hurtful and harmful to others.

In my view, none of this is really about redefining marriage, per se, but rather it is about overcoming prejudice to extend to LGBT their constitutionally guaranteed civil rights and the human right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. To allow John to marry Jane, but not Tom to marry John, or Jane to marry Lucy, seems to me to be outright gender discrimination that impedes Tom and John or Mary and Lucy from living their lives as they are and as they choose, freely and openly.

The Supreme Court , I think, has no choice, therefore, but to judge the cases before them as a form of gender discrimination (and therefore bans on same-sex marriage would be unconstitutional based on current law) and also inconsistent with our traditional constitutional values, especially regarding the Fourteenth Amendment.

1 thought on “Does Same-Sex Marriage Really Redefine the Institution?

  1. RMAU

    Conservatives have long argued that there is no such thing as gay marriage ; to call a same-sex relationship a marriage, they argue, requires redefining the term from its inherent definition as being between a man and a woman. But in his landmark decision bringing marriage equality to all 50 states, Justice Anthony Kennedy explains exactly how it makes sense to define marriage, and that definition does not preclude same-sex couples.


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