what marriage is.
June 25, 2004 06:19 PM

I was given Jon Rauch's Gay Marriage: Why it's good for gays, good for straights, and good for America by a pal who apparently wanted to make my head fold in upon itself.

We'll leave aside Jon's apparent distaste for all the things I think fondly of where gay culture is concerned, because there are many different queer cultures, and that's a nice thing. We'll leave aside his Log Cabin Republicanness, because the very fact of gay republicans is a testament to how far we've come - that gayness can be a personal identity and not a political one.

We'll just accept Jon for himself, and attack his ideas. Or rather, his ideas as I see them.

See, Jon has a very interesting concept about what marriage is for. His theory is two part. First, marriage is a social structure designed to make young people become "adult" - where "adult" is settled into a normal pattern of working and raising kids and building a little nuclear family. Second, marriage is a guarantee of caretaking for the aged and infirm. To expand Jon's definition, a family is a two-person structure, one that is fixed except for the addition or subtraction (in later life) of children should there be kids involved (kids are, I think rightly, not part of his definition). Only by having that family are people, especially men, officially part of normal, adult society. And only that family will commit to caring for you should you become broken in some way.

I have two problems with that.

No, I have three problems.

First, Jon's concept of adulthood. While he talks about monogamy as his key point about "settling down", there's a strong undercurrent of "be like me" in his notion of adult. Things I think Jon thinks are not adult include: not focusing on providing for a family, being non-monogamous, partying, participation in the wrong political organizations, living with someone, not having a "career", being single, wearing a neon pink muscle tee, voting Green, and having too much fun. Admittedly, I'm reading into things here, but Jon seems to buy into a relatively boring idea of what it means to be a grown up. Well, lots of people do that, and he is a Republican. I can hardly fault him for it.

Second, his assumptions about how family works. A marriage, given the failure rate of marriages these days, hardly looks like a guarantee for your future family. To go into marriage today starry-eyed and certain of growing old together is sweetly optimistic. To look with those starry eyes at marriage as a social institution is just silly.

But - siblings, close friends, roomates, parents, and the network of "urban family" that so many people have today are just as permanent as a spouse might be. The members of my urban family - my best friends, my partner's best friends, our parents, various other relationships - can be counted on to be there for either of us. And if we split up, my half of the family will always be there. They're part of the picture, no matter what. And if anything happens to them, we know we're responsible for helping out. This isn't a modern invention, either - whether family is biologically or legally related or not, extended family is the network people count on. A spouse or partner broadens that family but doesn't eliminate their responsibility for you.

There is a conceit that parents "give up" a child, particularly a daughter, to a new family, but that idea doesn't foot with the reality of urban family life. The things that have changed is biology - we used to have close proximity to our biological extended families, and now we choose family based on proximity (emotional and physical) - and legality - now the subunits of that family may be single, pairs, married folk and unmarried.

Wait, there are four. Four issues!

The third is his general bias against unmarried families ("marriage lite" he calls them) coupled with his insistence on reserving officially sanctioned unions for gay and straight couples. Polyamory he excludes on the grounds that, essentially, they're a very tiny minority of freaks. Why are they scary enough to exclude from marriage rights, if they're so tiny a minority? I felt pretty defensive of the polyamorous folk I know in reading his ready dismissal of the lifestyles they choose and the families they're painstakingly created. He returns to the old argument against polygamy as generally about some men taking up too many of the women, thereby creating a bunch of angry young men - and, oh yeah, polygamy too often occurs in weird religious orders where women are subjugated. The economic danger of men without potential for marriage seems much scarier to Jon (it certainly gets more space in the book) than the possibility that women might get beaten up, but then, I was pretty annoyed before I got to this part of the book. It's quite possible he's not the misogynist I found him to be.

It is entirely possible that the poly families I've encountered are by far the rarity, and that there's a larger group of cultists who would use the legalization of multi-partner marriage to accumulate harems, but I'd like to think that think that people are more sane than that. I think it's highly unlikely that, given as much as feminism and other equality movements have achieved, we're going to see a dramatic swing towards harem-accumulation as a status symbol for anyone other than Trump and Hefner. There's a whole other discussion about polyamory vs. our traditional view of polygamy in this, but suffice to say that I don't think we need to avoid legalizing one thing just because it's sometimes associated with something else that's bad and - by the way - also illegal.

"Marriage lite" he dismisses because... well, just because it's not marriage. It's not. It's also nicely divorced from all the weight that marriage carries - that weight including not only whatever personal meaning you attach to marriage itself, but the traditions of a wife "belonging" to a husband, of obedience, of relatively narrow gender roles that have relatively recently begun to change. As a feminist, marriage's history makes me uncomfortable entering into it. I don't think you can completely disengage marriage from the history of women's oppression, which is precisely why my longstanding cohabitation has remained just that.

To someone denied marriage, it doubtless looks like a more compelling social contract. But in many ways, marriage has been a burden to women for centuries. Other options aren't necessarily "marriage lite" so much as they're simply not marriage.

Which brings me to what bothers me most about Jon's theories - the way he reduces marriage itself.

The reasons people get married and their expectations of marriage are personal, and as numerous as married couples themselves. A thoughtful marriage is a unique contract between people for the way they plan to live their lives. For many people, there's a very specific religious reason. For others, it's about parenting. For others, it's about love (twue wove). Establishing marriage as the "gold standard" of normal adult family, as Jon would have it, reduces it to just a thing you're supposed to do after you grow up.

I know some people think that way today, but I find that really sad. I certainly don't want to be married, if that's what it means.

I think that modern marriage, apart from its history, is about formalizing your family creation, whatever that means to you (and whatever additionally you may think marriage is). I do think that it should be open to any family who wants to do that. And honestly, I'd rather see civil marriage (or civil contracts, unions, whatever) separated entirely from "marriage", with its various religious meanings and history of gender inequity, than see Jon's vision of marriage be a reality.

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your wicked thoughts

This is not scientifically proven, but I would venture to guess that 50% of all marriages that fail are due to one or both in the relationship not behaving as adults. So, there goes the theory that marriage helps turn youth into grown-ups.

these are the thoughts of Kerri on June 28, 2004 09:27 AM

I think the definition of "adult" is too vague to be of use, honestly. But yeah, I see your point - how many marriages fail bc people aren't psychologically "adult", whatever their level of settled-down-ness? A lot, I suspect.

these are the thoughts of april on June 28, 2004 11:39 AM

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