Last night, with Andrew Sullivan’s solipsistic 2008 essay and other “rights”/personal validation arguments on gay marriage in my head, I recalled a scene, 3 seconds actually, from the movie Fiddler on the Roof* which defined marriage better than any of the “feel-good” arguments put forward by the gay marriage movement. At 2:51 in the clip below, Motel (Leonard Frey) promises Tevye (Topol) that should he wed his daughter, Tzeitel (Rosalind Harris), she “will not starve.”
To be sure, there’s more to this scene that those telling three seconds. A few moments earlier, the meek tailor had earned the admiration of his beloved when he stood up for himself. How much is said with Tzeitel’s astonished expression as she witnesses the gentle boy she loved becoming a man. Motel has moved from talking about his feelings for Tevye’s daughter to talking about what he’s going to do to take care of her.
Only when he promises to make sure Tevye’s daughter has enough to eat (at a time when starvation was a daily concern) does the father realize that his eldest’s intended is “beginning to talk like a man.”
Now, I don’t mean to suggest by this post that gay marriage advocates ignore this aspect of marriage, of one spouse taking care of another. But, in the current debate, this point takes a back seat to personal validation, equality and “rights” arguments, yet is more central to the notion of marriage than most arguments put forward in defense of extending the institution’s government benefits to same-sex couples.
That said, I would dare say that the better part of gay couples who seek to have their unions recognized as marriage get that aspect of the institution, at least the ones I know do. There is a dichotomy between gay marriage as promoted and same-sex unions as practiced.
The issue is making that argument to gay marriage skeptics and opponents. And maybe some of the couples are making that case in that San Francisco courtroom, but that’s not the place they should be making it. Had they instead made that case to the people of California in 2008, they wouldn’t be pleading their cause to a sympathetic judge today.
*Interestingly, Jonathan Rauch begins, what is perhaps the best book on gay marriage, by recounting a different scene from that movie.