I wanted to wait a bit before commenting on Proposition 8 and the banning of gay marriage in several states in the US. For those who don’t know, a few states now have it written in their constitution that marriage is only possible between one man and one woman. Which is ironic since the California campaign for this was heavily pushed by the Mormon church, in which men often (sometimes?) have multiple wives…
Anyway, that’s besides the point, but it does also state the obvious fact that the organizations supporting this mostly take roots in religious circles (though I imagine not all supporters are religious).
And before I talk about the ban on marriage proper, I just want to say that Florida not only banned gay marriage, but also pre-emptively banned any contract that would try to “emulate” marriage. While the language isn’t crystal clear, this pretty much puts a ban on civil unions too. This is just ridiculous… Marriage is one thing, and I can understand the debate. But this?!… Ok, let’s not derail the post.
So back to marriage. Contrary to what some might think, even a pretty liberal person such as myself was a little bit conflicted about the issue.
The idea many people (me included) went with was this: if religion wants to have their word, then let them have it. We can create a new thing, like civil contract or union, and if gay people have all the same rights it might do the trick, because that’s what’s really important. Right? Putting this in any constitution really seemed overkill so I wasn’t for that, but in principle I thought this would be a reasonable compromise. But the issue did force me to think about it and to try and define exactly where I came down. So here are my thoughts:
First of all, perception is important: we can make buses for black people, they will go to and from the same places. It will be the same thing, so what are they complaining about, right? Well…
Ok, that’s an extreme of an analogy, but you get the idea. So you can’t just say “we have marriage, you have civil unions, so shut up”. It just doesn’t work like that. Even not calling it the same makes it different, or less than, and yes, it does breed bigotry. So no go for me. That’s the first conclusion I came to, but it still didn’t really tell me why the word marriage is so important that gay people want in also.
So, maybe even more important than this, we shift the debate to the definition of the word. I think that the real problem with the term “marriage” means a lot more than we think it does.
I think the word “marriage” covers a concept that is larger than its definition.
The most common definition is that marriage is between a man and a woman, yes. This is what is changing, but for now it’s still the most common image you get.
But the concept that it really covers is different, older, and more universal. Our civilization, human beings, have this innate concept of two people loving and caring for each other. I think it’s pretty safe to say that this idea comes naturally to most of us, and it goes deeper than religion or language. Even if you strip away everything that defines us as a culture you’ll still find that primal desire to form a bond.
It is this dichotomy that makes it really hard to decide on the issue: historically, marriage is between a guy and a girl, but what the word truly appeals to is that core concept of two people committing to one another.
A while ago, the church formalized that idea, gave it a name, and gave it rules and bounds. They essentially trademarked the word “marriage” to make it apply to a certain set of conditions.
The problem is that this word encompasses the larger concept I was talking about. Defining a word is fine, but in the case of “marriage” it’s different, because behind the scenes it refers to that universal concept of love and commitment. And that’s what’s being trademarked here. And this should not belong to anyone…
In effect, when you deny marriage to some people, you’re telling them they can’t get in on that feeling.
So maybe it wasn’t intentional, maybe the church did come up with the word before others, and maybe the intelligent thing to do would be to find a different word for that concept, like “the bond” or “the union” or “the Jedi ceremony of life” or whatever.
But we can’t. For better or worse, “marriage” is now our reference to that core feeling, and that’s just the way it is. When gay people say they want to get married, they’re not trying to take something away from straight or religious people. It’s not an attack on marriage. They are just saying that, like everyone else on the planet, they feel this bond.
So to sum it up: I think marriage isn’t yours or mine to define. it’s a word we stuck on a universal feeling like a sticker, and having stuck the sticker first doesn’t make you the owner… The fact that someone got to it first isn’t relevant, and everyone should be allowed to label themselves with it.