Three Myths of Marriage

Today marks the first anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Ruling in the U.S. v Windsor, which struck down the section of DOMA that prevented the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriages. I can easily recall sitting in the same chair I’m sitting in now, waiting for the decision to be announced. It was such a hopeful moment, and with the victories we’ve gained since then, equality seems closer than ever before.

However, there’s a movement within the LGBT community that’s tainting this cause for celebration and making me angry: As equal marriage advances in the country one vote and one verdict at a time, there’s a small but growing number of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender individuals complaining about the heteronormativity of marriage–that is to say, they claim, the institution of marriage is a construct of straight culture.

And therefore, they go on, we should have no part in it.

But this thinking makes me mad. So very, very mad.

The argument generally goes something like this: Straight people get married, so gay people should not. Gay people getting married is assimilationist–instead of joining the dominant culture, we should stand up for our own. And don’t even get started on what marriage signifies–an exchange of property. We’re past that. Ergo: marriage is done.

Except this argument is wrong on many levels.

I’ll start with the fundamental myth: Marriage is a straight institution.

Indeed, marriage for most–in fact, all–of its history has been a union between straight couples, but historically there were a lot of factors that prevented same-sex couples from being recognized–factors that predate the legal institution of marriage at it stands today. Religious bias, psychological misunderstandings of homosexuality, and a plethora of other factors barred same-sex couples from even considering marriage until fairly recently in human history. To say this makes marriage “straight” is simply erroneous.

But don’t let me stop there.

Marriage is intended to be a union formed on mutual love and commitment. Marriage is a partnership, a formal and public announcement of a couple’s intention to love and support each other. These values are not straight values. These values are human values–and last time I checked, gay people are human, too. Implying that same-sex couples cannot share these same values not only invalidates the thousands of married and committed same-sex couples in the world, but also enforces dangerous stereotypes: for example, that same-sex couples aren’t capable of having monogamous, loving relationships, or that same-sex couples are driven by lust, not love.

Here we’re not just being offensive to our own community, we’re being hypocritical: First we argued for equal rights, and now we’re trying to argue that we’re better than the rest? That’s not merely wrong, it’s elitist.

This brings us to the second myth: Marriage is assimilationist.

Just a moment ago I explained how the values that lead to marriage are shared among all couples–regardless of whether they’re straight or gay or otherwise. To then claim that a gay person who gets married is simply trying to be straight is no different than claiming a person of color in an interracial marriage is trying to be white.

Read that again. Tell me how ridiculous it is.

Unfortunately, I’ve met far too many people who say LGBT couples who get married are assimilating into the dominant culture without realizing that, not long ago, interracial marriages were illegal, too. Unfortunately, we humans are wickedly flawed creatures, and it sometimes takes a very long time to realize our own mistakes and move our society as a whole toward a more inclusive and equal culture. We’re in that process every day–building always a better world for ourselves and our children to follow. The fact that same-sex couples don’t have the right to marry today should not and does not suggest that we are not suited for or desiring of marriage–it simply means those who came before us weren’t ready to broaden their minds and accept a new perspective on marriage.

We went through this in Loving v. Virginia and we’re going through this in dozens of court cases and legislative votes today. Widening the scope of equality and bringing more voices and perspectives into the accepted culture is not assimilating; it’s embracing diversity and celebrating the many shapes and sizes divinity shows itself through the human experience.

Some may argue I’m still missing an important piece to the heteronomativity of marriage, so let’s look at the last myth I mentioned: Marriage is merely an exchange of property.

This is only a myth because of a misunderstanding that can ultimately be reduced to a grammatical error because, as we’ll soon see, the following statement is true: Marriage was merely an exchange of property. And it wasn’t long ago when this changed.

In Biblical times, women lacked the power of self-determination–to choose for themselves what to make of their lives. Daughters were essentially sold from their fathers to their husbands, and marriage contracts explicitly outlined the duties of a girl’s “new job” as a wife. This stayed fairly consistent for hundreds of years until the Enlightenment introduced the idea of living for happiness and marriage became somewhat more accommodating to the ideas of love rather than raw utility. However, even into the mid-20th century, marriage law remained woefully unequal toward women, with coverture (a husband’s absorption of his wife’s legal rights to own property and enter into contracts) persisting even into the 1960s in some parts of the United States.

This all changed as multiple waves of the Women’s Rights movement defeated many of these laws and customs, and with the advance of accessible divorce laws, marriages that didn’t support the wellbeing of both parties slipped even further outside the window of what’s normal and expected in marriages today.

So, yes, marriage once was an exchange of property (and, I suppose, in some corners of the world it may still be), but at least in the United States today, marriage is an exchange of vows–a commitment between two people who love each other and support each other and want to celebrate that union publicly and legally.

That’s a gender-neutral, non-sexual-orientation-specific definition of marriage, so forgive me if I get angry when people argue that marriage is heteronormative–because when you really look at it, in today’s world, it simply isn’t.

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