Aristide Maillol, Three Graces, 1930 - 1938
The San Ildenfonso Group (Orestes and Pylades?), circa 10 BC
Marriage equality in the USA (or anywhere) is astonishing and something I never thought I would live to see. We got to this point because the gay/lesbian rank and file wanted it. For a long time, LGBTQ leaders and the activists were too pre-occupied with emergency response and damage control; with AIDS, violence, discrimination, with one crisis after another. The very idea of marriage wasn't even taken seriously. Some activists from the radical edges wondered whether we really want equality at all, or if equality was enough. They argued that we might want something particular and separate in a heterosexist world. Gay and lesbian relations are indeed different, the radicals said, and that we should embrace what makes them distinct. Why mimic heterosexual marriage and family life? Why not find new and more workable ways of forming relationships? And why would any self-respecting sexual minority want to be part of a conventional society that rewarded greed and predation anyway? Radicals regarded marriage as a an antique, a proprietary patriarchal throwback to be consigned to the dustbin of history (and of course, they have a point; same sex relationships are distinct and that simply aping heterosexual models for living together ignores and diminishes what makes them unique).
History seems to have had other ideas. Radical re-arrangements of living together are fine when you are relatively young and come with the means and education to experiment. A lot of the gay-lesbian rank and file, especially older couples, felt discrimination directly in their attempts to form a life together and create a household, and not so much in matters of sexual expression. Law, society, and business were against them in so many large and small ways. The whole matter for them was less about redefining what it means to live together than about very concrete matters such as joint ownership of property, visitation rights and medical rights when one of them got sick or injured, inheritance rights when a partner died, and especially joint custody when children were part of the household. These were the people who were the real force behind the push for marriage equality. It turns out that contrary to the conventional image of white, male, and affluent couples with kids living in New York or San Francisco, places like Jacksonville Florida have among the highest numbers of same-sex households with children. The majority of same-sex households raising children are women, black, working class, religious, and living in the South.
People like this who did not appear on the party circuit or in gay studies seminars created the demand for marriage equality. The activists eventually figured out that far from a fond fantastical thing, marriage equality was integral to responding to emergencies such as AIDS, violence, and rollbacks of rights, or new penalties. Couples needed access to hospitalized partners and power of attorney in the face of hostile relatives, hospital staff, and a state apparatus stacked against them. Marriage equality involved the very matter that distinguished gays and lesbians from the rest of society, sexual attraction. Couples denied rights and frustrated in their efforts to create lasting homes and families were being punished by society for their mutual sexual attraction. A little late, but better than never, activists and activist organizations began to push for marriage equality.
As far as redefining marriage, or even discarding it entirely, I think the heteros are way out front of the gay marriage equality activists. They rethought and remade the institution long before the gay community got a crack at it. The old Victorian Domestic Ideal disappeared in the 1960s with the Sexual Revolution. Over time, marriage as an equal partnership replaced the Victorian concept of the family as patriarchal hierarchy with the father at the head having absolute authority and domain over women and children. Roles in an equal partnership could be interchangeable -- no longer would women be confined to the role of "angel of the household." Now men could take on the tasks of child-rearing and home maintenance while women could go out and be the bread-winners. The roles of provider and parent became so interchangeable that the genders of those entering into such an equal partnership hardly mattered anymore. While the advent of no-fault divorce is blamed for the decline of traditional family life, the other side of the higher divorce rate is an even more dramatic decline in domestic violence rates. Many couples and families in Europe and increasing numbers in the USA question the need for any legal recognition of their family status.
When Bill Paulsen and I traveled to Oslo last year, we visited a lot of couples and families with children (most of them were Bill's relatives). Out of all of them, the only couple that was legally married was the one gay couple who were our hosts in Oslo.
Right wingers portray marriage as an unchanging timeless institution revealed to Moses on Mount Sinai. Like so many timeless and unchanging institutions, the man-woman-child biological unit as family that they defend began in the 19th century.
Few institutions have been more malleable down through time than marriage. For centuries, marriage was a strictly mercenary institution. Among powerful and wealthy families, marriage was about keeping and expanding wealth and power. Among the poor, marriage was about insurance for old age and labor for the farm or the shop. The more children the better and the greater chances for survival for all. Love was for children, not for spouses. Marriage was most especially about begetting sons to inherit family lineages and fortunes. Polygamy flourished among the great and powerful in the ancient world not just out of luxury and license, but to guarantee the generation of sons. A king could not risk the dynasty on monogamy with an infertile queen. It is no accident that all of the medieval romances (including Dante's infatuation with the sainted Beatrice Portinari) were adulterous. For most of history, marriage was simply too important a business to be left to kids.
As for Christian marriage, Saint Paul only very grudgingly accepted marriage as a concession to those unable to stay celibate for the coming Apocalypse (in other words, most people).
People didn't start marrying because they loved each other in large numbers until the end of the 18th century, and even then, only in the West. It took the three big formative revolutions that made the modern world (American, French, Industrial) to create a space for people to combine their longings and desires with the creation of families and households. From that point on, as circumstances changed and changed rapidly and without precedent, so people's expectations in life changed, and ways of forming a life together began to alter rapidly. That evolution will undoubtedly continue.
Andrew Sullivan once dreamed of a world where the distinction of "gay" no longer existed, that "gay" became part of "normal." It seems at first glance that the assimilationist dream is about to come true. I suspect that the reality of what is happening is much more complex. Some radicals are in a state of inner turmoil now that society is embracing the very thing that makes gays and lesbians distinct from everyone else. But their turmoil is nothing compared to the apoplexy of the homophobic legions at these changes. The homophobes see in a way that the gay radicals maybe can't that in embracing and legitimizing same sex relationships through marriage that the larger conventional society itself is changing rapidly and dramatically, that heterosexuals are discarding the idea of "normal" and all things normative with as much enthusiasm as their homosexual counterparts.
Same sex couples and the recognition of their legitimacy by the rest of society through marriage is a major and unlikely accomplishment, and another victory for Love over the usual greed and fear that drive most of modern enterprise.
The Episcopal Church recently joined the ranks of churches that now recognize gay marriages and perform same-sex weddings as official policy. The Christian understanding of marriage too is evolving into something far from Saint Paul's grudging concessions and from a kind of spiritual rubber-stamp on the old Victorian model. I hope that it will soon become something like the Marriage at Cana where Christ changed the water into wine, into the best wine anyone had ever tasted, and more of it than the party could possibly drink; into Love and Grace unbounded and overflowing.
Paolo Veronese, The Marriage at Cana