For as long as I have been blogging on gay marriage, I have faulted the great majority of those who advocate extending state definition of this ancient and honorable institution to include same-sex unions. I see all too many as all too eager to dodge a debate on this all too important topic. And see too few willing to talk about why marriage is a good thing — and why changing the institution would benefit gay men and lesbians.
I have repeatedly singled out (e.g. here) Dale Carpenter and Jonathan Rauch for discussing the real issues of marriage, noting particularly the chapter, “What Marriage is For,” in the latter’s book, Gay Marriage : Why It Is Good for Gays, Good for Straights, and Good for America.
Too often, I have said, gay marriage advocates focus on marriage as a right whereas most people see marriage as a social institution with certain benefits as well as certain responsibilities. It seems that all too many of these advocates don’t understand (as do Rauch and Carpenter — and a number of others) what this institution entails. Witness, for example, the comments of Bennett Klein arguing before the Connecticut Supreme Court that that state violates the constitutional rights of eight gay couples by refusing to grant them marriage licenses. He claimed that “the fundamental principles of marriage are not based on gender.”
Obviously this attorney has not spent much time the long history of marriage. Wherever there has been marriage, the institution has served to bring together individuals of differing genders. To be sure, some cultures have allowed same-sex unions, but they either called them something different than marriage or, as, when they were called marriage, as in the case of the so-called “berdache” tradition of Native American Indians, an individual had to live as a member of the opposite sex in order to marry someone of the same-sex. (In some cases, that individual didn’t have a choice in the matter.)
If Mr. Klein wants to understand those fundamental principles of marriage which he defined inaccurately before the highest court in the Nutmeg State, he should start studying the traditions of marriage from any number of cultures. As he begins his study, he will see how fundamental a role gender difference played in every culture’s understanding of the institution — even in the marriage ceremony itself. He could begin by reading the Chapter on “Betrothal and Marriage” in Arnold van Gennep’s classic work, The Rites of Passage.
That said, while marriage has long been a union between individuals of different genders, it has changed over time. And there’s no reason it can’t evolve to include same-sex unions. But, instead of making the case to state courts, as Mr. Klein, is doing, those who wish to promote this change, should be making their case to individuals who form the culture they wish to influence.
I don’t think Mr. Klein’s suit will be all that beneficial to the cause of gay marriage, especially in the state which was the first to recognize same-sex civil unions “without court pressure,” an action which I described (at the time) as “huge” and “significant.”
The elected legislatures in a number of states, including most recently in New Hampshire and Oregon have voted to recognize same-sex civil unions. There is growing state (as well as social) recognition of our relationships. But, many people (including a number favorably disposed to gays) are still unwilling to such unions marriage.
Even I have my doubts, based largely on my studies of religion, mythology, psychology and cultural anthropology. There is a difference between the genders which extends beyond biological differences, a difference which cultures and religions recognize in their rituals and legends. If we are to change the definition of marriage to include same-sex couples, then, instead of sweeping the gender distinction aspect under the rug as Mr. Klein is attempting, we need to confront it directly. We need to explain how a union between two individuals of the same gender can effect the same kind of transformation effected by a marriage between individuals of different genders.
Once again, the issue boils down to a willingness to talk about the meaning of marriage — and to promote its noble ideals, its social (and financial) benefits as well as its responsibilities in conversations both within our own community and to society at large. But, it seems alas that all too many advocates of gay marriage seem all too eager to avoid this all important conversation.
– B. Daniel Blatt (GayPatriotWest@aol.com)
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