A old colleague of mine wrote a sweet piece about marriage, and what it means to her to be getting married. I’ve been thinking a lot about marriage these days, for a variety of reasons, and that post prompted me to finally get out the one that’s been brewing in my head for weeks.
As some of you know, I’ve been building “Conscious Girlfriend” with my partner, Ruth. Conscious Girlfriend aims to provide resources for lesbian and queer women to have relationships that are full of awareness, joy and compassion. And this endeavor means that I have been thinking and talking about relationships a lot lately.
This country seems to be in the midst of a major sea change in not only attitudes about marriage, and who should get them, but also the laws regarding marriage. Just today, a brand new set of federal policies were enacted, treating married same-sex couples exactly the same as straight ones. And it seems almost every month brings a new state into the fold of states that allow gay marriage.
Clearly, there is something about marriage that has deep significance for people, so I’ve been examining this for myself. What does marriage mean to me?
There are two threads I can follow. The first is personal, the second political and historical.
First, the personal. When I was growing up, I would not say that I saw very many married couples with relationships I wanted to emulate. I remember when I was 10 or 11, telling my mother I didn’t want to get married. I do know that some of that had to do with the fact that I was beginning to understand that I was queer. But I also think it was because I didn’t really see many couples that seemed especially happy. So in my early life, I assumed that I would never get married.
As I got older, and met more people who had relationships I could see myself in, I still never thought much about marriage per se. I had one partnership where the early assumption was that we’d stay together forever (thankfully, we did not,) but it wasn’t couched as a marriage, really. But also, this was in a sense societal. It was before the gay marriage movement got really going, so it wasn’t in our consciousness at the time.
Between my current partnership with Ruth, and the sea change that has occurred around gay marriage, the idea of getting married isn’t so far from my consciousness anymore. I can imagine getting married, which is something I could not have said 10 years ago.
When I think about it, I think a lot about the sacredness of relationships, the deep, intimate connection between two people, the idea of a safe harbor and platform from which one can branch out and do great work in the world. But I also know that there is something in the idea of official and societal recognition of that deep connection with another human being. And even more when that connection is between two people of the same sex – a connection that has been disallowed in society until quite recently.
That’s big, and I can feel it, even though, for me, the institution of marriage is historically problematic, especially for women.
I remember that fateful May, in 2004, I was in Northampton, Massachusetts, along with a lot of other people, celebrating while couples went to city hall to get married, in the first state in which it was fully legal. I remember standing outside, watching couples walk to get their marriage licenses, talking to a friend of mine. We shared a sense of whiplash – it seemed not so long ago that marriage was something lesbians, at least, didn’t need, or want, and the scathing critiques of marriage from feminists was fresh in all of our minds.
Marriage is an institution with a rather interesting history. The idea of romantic love leading to marriage is a fairly recent development. Earlier than the 19th century (and, sadly, still true in some societies today) most marriages were arranged by the parents. Men had more autonomy in their choices, women had nearly none. In many societies, the parents would basically sell off their daughters to the highest bidder (or the bidder with the highest stature in the community.) Marriage was not an institution that served women well, at all.
I sometimes laugh at the critiques of gay marriage. But, there is a dirty secret that gay marriage advocates are not willing to admit. Gay marriage will not damage any individual heterosexual marriage, but it will change the institution. Just like societal changes that moved marriage from an economic transaction to a romantic connection, and the women’s movement of the 60s and 70s changed marriage again, gay marriage will inevitably change what marriage looks like, and what role it has in our society. It has to, and, frankly, it should.
Even as the idea of getting married myself seems more possible to me, my hope is that at the same time as marriage becomes available to everyone who wants one, and is celebrated and embraced by everyone, our society changes such that those who choose to not get married can be as celebrated, honored and respected as those who do.