Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Same Sex Marriage

Khnumhotep and Niankhkhnum embracing from a relief from their shared tomb. Long known as the "Tomb of the Two Brothers," they may well be history's earliest recorded same sex couple, from Old Kingdom Egypt, the 5th Dynasty. Both of these men are recorded as married with children, yet their physical affection for each other is shown candidly in the tomb's paintings, and is unusual for Egyptian art, especially from this period. They chose to be buried together, and not with their wives.
There is another possible same sex tomb from the Middle Kingdom, from the 12th Dynasty.
Life long committed same sex couples were rare in the ancient world, but they weren't unknown. Same sex households may not be quite such a recent novelty after all.

Relations between men in the ancient Classical world were between a much younger man and much older man. Pederasty was the accepted norm for such relations. The relationship was expected to end when the younger man reached his 20s. Lifelong commitments were exceptional, but not unknown.

Gay marriage is on the march again despite the rightward pitch of establishment politics since the 2010 election. Two states, Maryland and Washington, seem poised to legislate gay marriage with the active support of their governors. New Jersey's legislature is ready, but Governor Christie is not. New Hampshire's governor is determined to stop a repeal effort in the state legislature. Maine is in the beginning phases of an effort to legalize same sex marriage despite well financed opposition. In the 6 states that already have same sex marriage, the sky has yet to fall, even in Iowa the decision still stands even though angry right wing evangelicals successfully removed the state supreme justices who decided for it.

I think it is amazing that we are at this point. I can remember back in 1998 when this issue seemed to be coming to an end. The Defense of Marriage Act had been in force since 1995. Alaska passed a state constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage. Hawaii effectively repealed the 1993 state supreme court ruling that set the whole issue in motion. (The Pew Forum has a good timeline of the gay marriage issue).
I remember in the 1990s that the gay political leadership would not touch this issue. They thought it was impossible pie in the sky and a political loser for them. In 1998 with the murder of Matthew Shepard and a spike in anti-gay violence, their first priority was hate crimes legislation.
Gay radicals and intellectuals (what Joe Jervis dismisses as "the gay studies departments") scoffed at the very idea of marriage, that gays and lesbians would even consider wanting something so bourgeois, proprietary, and patriarchal as marriage was too ridiculous to contemplate.

We have progress on gay marriage now because the rank and file wanted it. I think gay political leaders and gay intellectuals were caught off guard by the size and intensity of the response when gay marriage looked like it might become reality in places like San Francisco and Massachusetts. It appears to me that marriage is something demanded overwhelmingly by older gay and lesbian couples who've been together for years, and who long ago made households together. The younger couples who show up in marriage lines and at marriage rallies usually have already been together for 10 years or more. Older and middle aged couples deal with issues that most younger folk, gay or straight, are simply too young to worry about: health insurance, hospital visitation rights, custody rights, inheritance issues, ownership issues, tax issues, all of those things that couples who've lived together for a long time and have made households together must inevitably deal with. Marriage laws directly affect the health and welfare of those couples. Younger gays and lesbians have their own very serious issues to deal with, first and foremost the ever-present threat of violence (older gays and lesbians are hardly immune, but violence seems disproportionately to affect the young) as well as employment and housing discrimination.

And what about the "sanctity of marriage?"

I think general opinion is turning rapidly in favor of gay marriage because in the states that have it, the sun still rises. There's been no spike in divorce rates. Indeed, any direct threat by two men or two women getting married to anyone's marriage seems to become an ever harder connection to make.

And what is "traditional marriage" anyway? How traditional is it?

The conventional American family as we understand it was the creation of the late Victorian era, the domestic ideal where father was the breadwinner who made all the money while the wife stayed at home to maintain the house and raise the children (the "angel of the household"). The children stayed at home to receive their mother's full attention when they were small, and then spent most of their time in school (alma mater) when they were older. This is a very upper middle class ideal out of the reach of most people in the late 19th century USA. Among both the rural and urban poor of that era, husbands and wives worked and children were a labor source, put to work as soon as they could walk (my grandparents all worked when they were children).
In the USA, "family" means almost exclusively the small unit of parents and their children. Other countries have much larger and broader meanings for "family." In most other countries, "family" extends to grandparents, uncles, aunts, cousins, in-laws, even household servants. In Italy, "family" means a kind of clan or tribe bound together by loyalty as well as kinship, whether that family is the Julio-Claudian dynasty, the Medici, or the mafia. In China, Korea, and Japan, "family" means a very broad institution of mutual obligation that includes the dead, the family ancestors.

And what was "Biblical marriage?" Mostly it was polygamy. The Mormons were right about that.

On one level, the "gay studies department" has a point. Marriage through most of history was about property and inheritance. Love rarely had anything to do with it. During most of history, and in many cultures still, marriages were arranged, the product of extensive negotiations between families. Sons and daughters were expected to do their duty and produce male heirs to continue the line and secure the family fortune. Love was for children, not for spouses. It is no accident that all of the late medieval literary romances (including Dante's love for Beatrice Portinari) were about adulterous affairs. People didn't start getting married because they loved each other in large numbers in the West until the late 18th century. And even after that transformation, family law remained stubbornly archaic reflecting the subordinate and dependent status assigned to women. Wives and children remained a husband's "property" in law until very recently. The idea of marriage as an equal partnership is very recent.

It is commonplace for political and religious leaders to bemoan rising divorce rates. And yet, a little remarked consequence of the introduction of no-fault divorce in the 1960s and 1970s (New York was the last state to enact no fault divorce laws as late as 2010) was a sharp drop in rates of domestic violence. Perhaps marriage really is finally becoming more of an equal partnership with women now, for the first time, in control of whether and when they will have children thanks to reliable and inexpensive contraception (for men and women). Now more than in any previous period in history, marriage is a contract freely entered into by both spouses, and freely dissolved by either. Marriage no longer is exclusively about children. The elderly and the childless now marry more often than before.

Given this reality, why not have two people of the same gender marry, and maybe start a family for that matter?

Should all gay couples marry? No. I don't think so. I would never require it. The same goes for hetero couples. I would still legally privilege marriage as a binding commitment between equal partners for the creation of a household in perpetuity.

As for the demise of things like chastity and virginity before marriage, good! The now commonplace practice of the young of all classes, gay and straight, to play the field and cohabit before marrying is ultimately for the better in my opinion, creating more of a chance for happy families in which everyone, spouses and children are there because they are wanted, not because they "happened" or got stuck together. The young now enter into marriage perhaps a little wiser and with fewer illusions.

My advice to the young gay and pretty is to go out and have fun, but Do No Harm: no violence, no force, no lying, no deceit, no treachery, no degradation. Enjoy being young, healthy, and pretty. Remember that those things aren't forever, and when they're over, you want a place to go home to. As the blues song says, it's a mean old world when you're all alone, and we weren't meant to be alone, or at least lonely.

People will continue to find new ways to live with each other and to make a life together, as they always have in the past. Same sex marriage is something very new, but its novelty in no way disqualifies people in those marriages from happiness.

Same sex marriage in New York, 2011


JCF said...

[To fool everybody who ever thought "JCF is Obsessed by Teh Gay!", I'm not going to talk about that.]

As for the demise of things like chastity and virginity before marriage, good!

I'm honestly just not sure. Not whether it's permissible (duh!), or whether it's even the norm---but whether it's actually a moral and/or social "good."

I think an individual should sexually know him- or herself before marriage. They should have sexual honesty w/ their partner. They should have emotional intimacy.

But is physical intimacy leading to orgasm (and frequently among hets, the possibility of pregnancy) really a "good" w/o commitment? (And if commitment, what sort of commitment? Lifelong, as is stated in marriage?)

Like I said, I Just Don't Know.

[My not knowing, might explain why I {TMI alert!} have never had sex w/ anyone other than my ex-husband. And yes, I love the ladies. How tragic is THAT???? }-(... (This everyone's cue to reassure JCF that I WILL find Ms Right, and SOON!)]

Counterlight said...

My basic attitude toward sex is that it's not a toy, but it's not a sacrament either.

JCF, it's time to play the dating game. You won't find Ms Right or Ms Right Now until you go out there and shake your money maker.
Don't keep your attractiveness at home.

Tristan Alexander said...

Overall this was a good post, but I am not optamistic. Many of the states that have the localized, good only in that stae, same sex marraige) have large efforts to reverse that! And Republicans who are doing all they can to make us second class or non existant in EVERY state!

You mention Maryland...OH PLEASE! Last year it was so bad one of teh peopel who sponsered the same sex marraige bill withdrew her support for her own bill! And voted against it! And it was a Democrate who stood up and said gay marraige was a cancer!!

So I have NO HOPE that the state I live in will allow me and my husband of 27 years, teo be considered legally married (even if it would only be IN the state we live in).

Counterlight said...

The thing that may be even more pie in the sky than gay marriage in all 50 states, but even more necessary, is federal legislation that definitively included lgbts under the protection of the 14th Amendment. As the historian David Carter points out, lgbts depend on a scattered hodge-podge of local and state laws forbidding discrimination of one sort or another. All of those laws are vulnerable, and there are no guarantees on the federal level. Repeal of DOMA and gay marriage everywhere from San Francisco to Mississippi will not fix this and is no substitute.

Leonard said...

(This everyone's cue to reassure JCF that I WILL find Ms Right, and SOON!)...Reassure!

There is an audience for everyone, I didn´t know that until I became ¨older¨...what a surprise, but then the computer made it easy to meet ¨the public¨ and I´d never been older before but by then I had also become SOBER for decades (clearly a challenge to anyone who had sort of alcoholicly/etc. made ¨intimacy¨ easier for themselves by lubricating shyness on sexual ¨matters¨) -- in the early days allowed me to go to specific chatrooms and investigate this breakthrough...fascinating really that variety REALLY DOES EXIST! I got to experience a whole range of emotions too! What a marvel! Who would have known with a very limited Heterosexual model to view what Gay couples were REALLY about (and I was age 18-25 OUT in San Francisco earlier on)?

Dealing with reality makes a huge difference...perhaps that´s our advantange as the general population gets to know us, as we´ve gotten to know oneanother, close up.

As for the youth, Gay and Straight alike, I have great confidence in their ability to move from pretend to real (mostly).