What does marriage mean to people who support gay marriage?

A middle-aged married father of two, in between his ecstatic praise of Barack Obama and enthusiastic expressions of support of Hillary Clinton, often mentions his passion for gay marriage. Another subject of which this Bay Area dweller is fond is the pernicious influence of Christianity and Judaism on American society. The other day he said that he couldn’t stand conservative Christians for suggesting that Americans were descending into anarchy due to an abandonment of Christian values.

I asked “Without Christian values or similar cultural ones, wouldn’t a man be free to abandon his middle-aged wife and young children in favor of a childless 25-year-old woman?” He replied “If he needs to do that I wouldn’t judge him.” What about the woman who leaves her husband and kids to travel the world in an Eat, Pray, Love-style journey of self-discovery? It turned out that was okay as well.

The conversation reminded me of one that I had recently with a college student (and, of course, therefore at least a moderately outspoken advocate for LGBTQIA rights). His non-working mom, attractive at nearly 50, had sued his high-income father and used the resulting cash to enjoy a sex-and-travel relationship with a man just over 30. The student acknowledged that the divorce had a devastating effect on him and his sibling, ruining their teenage years. However, he said that he thought that his mother was right to break up their home because “people shouldn’t stay married if there is no passion.” I asked “So if a guy is married to a woman who is exhausted from running after kids and thus tends to collapse at night before the question of passion becomes relevant, he should feel free to seek passion with a 22-year-old off craigslist?” The answer turned out to be basically “yes” because in deciding whether or not to stay married there were no important considerations other than the passion currently experienced by one of the married adults.

I’m wondering if the whole gay marriage debate among heterosexuals was the result of the two sides misunderstanding each other’s concept of “marriage.” Marriage under the law of a typical U.S. state is a temporary financial arrangement that can be terminated by either party for any reason (“no fault”; see Real World Divorce). But citizens often invest the term with additional meaning. Perhaps the hetero anti-gay-marriage folks dragged in concepts from religion and ideas that marriage might involve a personal sacrifice? While the hetero pro-gay-marriage folks added in stuff about passion and personal satisfaction? So they ended up talking past each other and, though using the same word, were talking about two different things.


17 thoughts on “What does marriage mean to people who support gay marriage?

  1. What marriage means to supporters of the right of gays to marry is irrelevant. What matters is what marriage means to the gay people who until recently were prevented by the government from marrying, for no reasons other than religiously motivated ones.

  2. “What matters is what marriage means to the gay people who until recently were prevented by the government from marrying, for no reasons other than religiously motivated ones.”

    So let’s endow it with even less meaning.

    Actually, marriage is pretty much meaningless in modern society, but one meaning remains and shall remain. Does Phil’s book have a chapter on gay divorce yet?

  3. Your student friend’s view of marriage seems pretty much that of gay marriage, by the way. Just turn that attitude of convenience up a couple of notches.

  4. I’m strongly in favor of “marriage” equality, but never really thought that gay marriage was the best route to achieve it. It’s just the most tenable option to achieve right now.

    Really, the better route would be to abolish legal recognition of marriage altogether in favor of a “civil union” style contractual arrangement that would subsume the current legal rights & responsibilities that law grants to married couples. Then marriage becomes strictly a religious and/or social arrangement that is clearly distinct and delineated from the legal construct, and could exist alongside or instead of it, while keeping government out of religion and vice versa.

  5. Yes, Philip, I think you’re right. Society gives all kinds of financial benefits to married people (or at least to half of them): health care, inheritance rights, divorce rights, and so on. People marry in order to get these benefits (N=4). Gay people want in on all these goodies as much as anyone else, and that’s fair. The financially dominant party may want some sacrifice in return, but if what you say is true there is currently no mechanism for obtaining or securing such rights.

    If you removed these benefits, I don’t know why there would be any civil marriage, or why it would matter to anyone.

    I agree with Andrew about abolishing civil marriage.

  6. Society has perfectly valid reasons to use the power of the state to define and regulate marriage. You can’t punt and say “get rid of state defined marriage” without understanding why things are the way they are, and why every successful modern society has arrived at roughly the current arrangement. (Well, at least arrived at the arrangement we had before the divorce rate skyrocketed.)

    Are you really going to be A-OK with the polygamist cult compound down the road and the stream of expelled teenage boys? What about incest laws? Cousin marriage is shockingly common in some communities and produces a bunch of invalids and violent morons. Should bigamy be purely a civil matter? Some destitute mother who was dumped will come to the arbitration service and say, “I understand my private marriage contract says I’m owed nothing, but Help!” Do you seriously think society is going to stand by and accept the answer as: Tough luck, your private contract is the law!

    It’s just lazy libertarian fantasy nonsense to think we can achieve separation of marriage and state. It’s always been about imposing consequences on people who won’t adhere to norms, held for good reasons involving the production of the next generation of citizens.

    Homosexuals cannot reproduce, so the whole idea of homo marriage is pure farce. It’s like getting a manufacturing license for an imaginary factory. The fact that sterile heterosexual couples can get married is such a stupid objection. OK, how about we give everyone a full medical exam first to rule out 100% certain infertility.

  7. bobbybobbob – should we let infertile seniors marry? Its farce to think they may procreate.

  8. If it were outright impossible for people over a certain age to reproduce you would have a point, but that’s not the case. The oldest mother to conceive was 71 years old and there’s no theoretical hard limit. Seniors getting married is just “almost certainly” somewhat farcical. With homosexuals we can know with 100% certainty at a glance.

  9. I think it is amazing the Swiss still fly those old fashioned planes. Phil what do the Swiss think of divorce and gay marriage? (how do you like that Paul, it’s on topic now?)

  10. The first man was so against Christian and Jewish values, but unless he is exceptional, I would doubt he has a well thought out and tested system of values to replace it. Saying people should be free of those values is common. But would you like the Roman values? Slavery? Constant conquest? If you don’t have an alternative system, then it is indistinguishable from shirking your duty.

    The college student has learned the lesson his mother taught him. Why not “follow your passion” if you have looks and money. Why indeed should she not use her privilege of being attractive in that way.

    These are exactly anarchy. There is no rule to restrain your behavior, not even your promise to remain faithful to each other. I am struggling to recall which system of values includes having people break promises as acceptable that does not marginalize the old, very young, and disabled.

  11. Andrew: I don’t understand what renaming civil marriage would achieve. “Marriage” already has different meanings and rules under different religious recognitions, so what’s one more variation?

    Bobbybob: the procreative potential requirement is asinine. Society has an interest in encouraging stable relationships between people and families, that’s all. You’re dead wrong if you believe that gay couples do not contribute to that goal. The data is thin for obvious reasons, but some reports show the gay marriage dissolution rate below that of heterosexual marriage. More likely, it’s just about the same. In either case, it’s much more stable than the unmarried committed relationship dissolution rate.

    (Aside to the bitter men in the audience: the lesbian female divorce rate is generally about 2x the gay male divorce rate. So it really was her, not you. Never trust ’em!)

    Some hetero relationships are made more persistent by the shared responsibility of child rearing, but others are not. And don’t forget that adoption by gay couples is totally a thing.

    There’s a historical argument for citizen-taxpayer production, but population growth is not and should not be goal number one of the US today. If it was, the shortcut would be to encourage immigration from fecund cultures.

    Peter Reed: It’s very common hubris to believe that there’s something unique about Christian values that prevents us from descending into anarchy, or worse. Comparative Religion 101 will cure you of that notion, but even that barely grazes the surface.

    More relevantly, all one has to do is take a look at how “the” Church comports itself today and historically, and how its members in good standing do the same. There’s a lot of good, but there’s a lot of bad too.

    You can make the doctrine vs. practice argument, trot out the fallible human claptrap, or discuss babies and bath water, but that’s missing the point. We don’t _need_ the (or any) church to tell us how to be good people, and some of the most visible examples y’all are setting are terrible ones. That’s OK, we forgive your trespasses, etc, but we’re not going to subscribe to your newsletter, either. The sense of belonging just isn’t that important to us.

    Judeo-Christian values fail, just like human values do. Underneath them you have civil law, which is obviously shaped by religion, but — critically — not answerable to it.

  12. “There’s a historical argument for citizen-taxpayer production, but population growth is not and should not be goal number one of the US today. If it was, the shortcut would be to encourage immigration from fecund cultures.”

    Yeah, that will never happen.

  13. “We don’t _need_ the (or any) church to tell us how to be good people, and some of the most visible examples y’all are setting are terrible ones.”

    Well, by the same reasoning neither do you have any standing to tell anyone how to be good people or even whether that has any meaning. Now what? Me, I’ll take the opportunity to stop sorting my trash.

  14. My pro-gay marriage relatives burst out laughing at the idea that married gay men were expected to be monogamous.

  15. “If he needs to do that I wouldn’t judge him.”
    I wonder what his (presumably middle-aged) wife thinks of that?

  16. Andrew, I think you miss my point. I say with hubris that Jesus Is the truth, and has continuity with Jewish morality. You clearly do not like that stance, and I am not presuming to convert you here.

    However, offering comparative religion 101 only reinforces my point. Which of these religions do you advocate? Saying they are all the same while not sticking any of them is no different than just doing what you want or shirking you duties. That was my point. Please do offer up which value system says it is OK to break promises.

    If civil law is the basis for all values, then what made Jim Crow laws bad? If human values means something like the golden rule, then how does breaking a promise or abondoning those in your care fit into that.

  17. Peter: If you are trying to say that a lack of religious belief is equivalent to shirking your duties, then we will probably not find common ground here.

    I fully support whatever system works for you. But I assert that there is no One True Way to attain goodness. And that a person’s failings (and virtues) cannot be usefully measured by their Judeo-Christianity, or lack thereof.

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