This archived article was written by: Joshua Behn
This November, the citizens of Maine (affectionately known as “Maine-iacs”) will go to the polls to vote to uphold or veto their new gay marriage bill. If the experience of Proposition 8 in California is any indication than it will be a hard and emotional fight, both for those who support the bill and those who oppose it. But what is traditional marriage and does it mean what we think it does?
Marriage can mean several different things, and it can get confusing at times as to what exactly is meant. In its simplest form, marriage is just a contract between two parties who agree to bind their futures together as a formal unit of organization. Since dawn immortal, couples have come together to be united. These ceremonies were sometimes elaborate, and at other times simple.
For most of recorded history, marriage was not a civil act but a religious one. It’s a very recent development in recorded history where governments began to “sanction” or give their approval for a marriage to take place. In our society, there are two parts to the marriage process: the application from the civil authorities for a marriage license, and the actual (civil or religious) ceremony itself.
This provokes the fascinating philosophical questions of “what binds a marriage?” and “what makes it sacred?” Is it in the ceremony, that moment when the minister “pronounces” the happy couple as man and wife? Or is it simply after a government clerk takes a rubber stamp to a piece of paper? (On a side note, does a legally binding “divorce” actually end the marriage of two individuals without the religious or civil authority that bound the two in the first place?).
This seemingly insignificant question is incredibly important to the debate at hand. If it is in the ceremony itself that truly creates the bond of marriage, then gay marriage has always been “legal.” Ministers of many different denominations and civil servants have joined together men and women of the same sex, in the exact same “rites of marriage” as those of straight couples. In contrast, if marriage must be “legally” approved by the government in order to be sacred and binding, then the institution is deeply flawed.
Under British rule, Ireland was subjected to penal laws which explicitly forbid intermarriage between Catholics and Protestants. Similarly, many states in the United States in the early 1900s forbid interracial marriage. Without having state sanction were these marriages as if they had never taken place?
And what about the virtue of the parties who are agreeing to the contract? As far as I know, the requirements covering approval of the marriage by the states are simply demographics (gender, age, familial relations, marital status, and blood test). Nowhere is there any requirement on the reason for the marriage, the love between those being bound, the societal status and integrity of the persons, or the piety of the marriage official. The state doesn’t really care who performs the ceremony, as long as they’re licensed as clergy.
If a man and woman can get a clergy member to marry them, that’s all it takes: it can be the Rev. Clarence Rowe wearing a gorilla suit and holding a blender. Prostitutes and mob hit men can declare vows in the most blasphemous Chapel of Elvis in Vegas. The adulterer and child abuser can marry without the slightest impedance.
In light of the fact that an estimated 46 percent of all marriages involve a remarriage for one or both of the parties, I hardly think that having two men or two women marry will make it any more or less holy in the eyes of the state than Britney Spear’s 55-hour marriage (annulled because she “lacked understanding of her actions to the extent that she was incapable of agreeing to marriage because before entering into the marriage the Plaintiff and Defendant did not know each others’ likes and dislikes, each others’ desires to have or not have children, and each other’s desires as to State of residency”) Homosexuals won’t destroy the sanctity of marriage … Heterosexuals did that long ago.
True marriage is not about a particular rite or tradition. It’s not about who is licensed and who isn’t. It’s about the true intent of the two parties who bring themselves together to unselfishly give of themselves to each other; to formally declare and bind what is felt on the inside and can never be truly discerned; to have and to hold in sickness and in health: This is marriage. In the words of the Swedish philosopher Ellen Key, “Love is moral even without legal marriage, but marriage is immoral without love.”
Joshua Behn is a member of CEU’s Gay-Straight-Alliance and has been active in the last few years in issues affecting the GLBT community including PFLAG and Community HIV/STI awareness.