The Social Value of Gay Marriage

The standard pseudo-religious argument against same-sex marriage is that “conventional” marriage between a man and a woman offers value to society that same sex marriage does not. Quite the most impressive counter to that argument, written by a straight woman, is “Why Gay Marriage is Good For Everyone” which I found at “Casaubon’s Book “on Science Blogs.

In Wisconsin last week, a court ruled that a lesbian mother who had been a stay-at-home mom to raise two adopted children with her partner, had no status as parent because only the other mother could be recognised in law as an adoptive parent. (“In Wisconsin, Not All Parents Are Equal“). It is to find ways around complicated legal difficulties such as these that so many queer families are forced into complex, sometimes imaginative, legal solutions of their own.

Introducing her piece, Casaubon writes about two Washington men who fell in love during WWII, and finally wed after a “62 -year engagement”. (“Wow, What A Long Engagement That Was“)But this is not just a cosy, feel-good romantic tale – although it is that, too. Along the way, as these two men aged after decades sharing their lives, they realized that in the absence of  the legal protections offered by marriage, they would need a plan of their own – so they settled on adoption!

When Henry was 69, he legally adopted Bob, who was 70. It gave them legal protections, offered an advantageous inheritance tax rate and made the pair into a family.

She also tells of another legal device used by her own mother. Casaubon and her younger sister were themselves raised by two Moms after her biological parents divorced. Her (biological) Mom realised that if anything should happen to her, her partner would have no standing in law to continue in a parental relationship over the children. To get around this, she too used a legal ploy.

My youngest sister, Vicky, is 7 years younger than I am, and because my parents divorced when she was an infant, she remembers no time in her life when Sue, my step-mother didn’t stand in a parental relationship to her. Within a day or two of my turning 18, my mother sat me down to tell me that she was changing legal documents to leave her share of Vicky’s guardianship to me if my mother died.

Realistically, this is bizarre: the law was able to accept a girl of just eighteen as Vicky’s legal guardian, but not the mature woman who had already offered care and co-parenting for the child’s whole life to that point.

These examples illustrate what Casaubon describes as the very real social value that the arrival of same-sex marriage has brought:  recognition that marriage is  not only about romantic love, mushy feelings and living happily ever after. (If it is only about the first two, with no consideration of the mundane practical matters, the chances are there will be no happy ever after.) Gay or lesbian couples, she notes, really do not need marriage only for the symbolism or social approval it supposedly brings, but also, very consciously, for the practical and legal protections it offers. With or without marriage, same sex couples are forced to think hard about the financial and legal foundations of their relationships, in a way that opposite sex couples should do, and used to do, but no longer do. She quotes John Boswell on the changes in “traditional” marriage:

In premodern Europe, marriage usually began as a property arrangement, was in its middle mostly about raising children, and ended about love. Few couples in fact married ‘for love,’ but many grew to love each other in time as they jointly managed their household, reared their offspring, and shared life’s experiences. Nearly all surviving epitaphs to spouses evince profound affection. By contrast, in most of the modern West, marriage begins about love, in its middle is still mostly about raising children (if there are children), and ends – often – about property, by which point love is absent or a distant memory. (Boswell, Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe xxi-xxii)

Far too often, the modern idea of  “traditional” has placed so much emphasis on the romantic fantasy, the movie or fictional version of what it is, and the “perfect wedding”, that there is insufficient emphasis on building secure foundations for the marriage – and with it has come high rates of marital breakdown and divorce. This leads her to a discussion of the record of marital success and failure in her own family. Her own parents, and their parents before them, had seen their “traditional” marriages end in divorce. However, her mother’s lesbian relationship has endured 31 years, and provided a strong example for the children:

There are two generations of divorce in our family to model on – two generations of failed marriages and steps and sundered relationships. And yet my sisters and I are all stably and happily married after some early romantic errors. Eric and I have been married for almost 12 years, my sisters for six and five years respectively, and they look good to last. The single best and most lasting partnership in our immediate family is my mother and step-mother’s, 31 years and counting. It is on this all three of us base our (heterosexual) partnerships, and the model is sturdy and set to last a lifetime (technically Eric and I have the deal that after 75 years of marriage, we can discuss dating other people – he’ll be 103 and I’ll be 101 and we figured by then we might need a change ;-)). In our case, at least, these three traditional, heterosexual, nuclear family models rest firmly on a foundation created by gay marriage. It is a sturdy place to rest.

This is the irony of “traditional” marriage in her family: the theory that opposite-sex marriage alone can provide a suitable context for raising children. Instead, she and her sisters were raised by two moms in a stable, sound relationship – and are now modelling sound relationships for their own offspring. Sound and healthy “traditional” families have been successfully nurtured by an untraditional one. Children are not necessarily better off, or better prepared for their own marriages, when raised by opposite sex parents, or by same sex parents: the test is that they are raised by parents who have understood and successfully negotiated the challenges of  living lives in committed partnership. Some of these will be opposite sex couples in conventional marriage (as my own parents were), some will be same sex couples in unrecognised, but equally committed partnerships – as Casaubon’s were before the law changed.

It is for this reason, she says, that the “happiest day of her life” was not her own wedding, good though that was, but the day when the law changed in Massachusetts, and her two Moms were finally able to marry.

It was the first legal day of weddings in the state of Massachusetts, and the day before, as the news was filled of stories of weddings, my phone rang off the hook. Friends, neighbors, exes – everyone who knew me or had known me wanted to know one thing “were they going to do it?” Everyone I knew was delighted in absentia that my mothers would get to marry. Even people I knew who were ambivalent about gay marriage, or even personally opposed to it in general called me to congratulate me and ask me to extend my congratulations to them.

And so, she says, the day that gay marriage becomes legal across the US will likewise be a day of celebration for all.

In drawing attention to the practical arrangements that should lie behind marriage, she is not in any way decrying the religious or sacramental elements. Instead, she points out quite correctly that   the sacramental value derives in part precisely from the value that religion places on the material protection that marriage gives to wives and children.  Marriage is by no means only about these material protections, but it is equally not only about warm feelings, romance, and perfect June weddings. The great social value of gay marriage, she says, is that it reminds us all to think again about a proper balance of motivations in preparation for marriage:

Here, I think, the salutary example of gay marriage may actually be helpful – by forcing the conversation to focus on the rights and legal protections of marriage, on the ways that marriage is fundamentally an economic and family institution – not to the exclusion of love, as we sometimes postulate it, but as part of love – as the expression in mutual support and dependence of the material realities of what love actually is when lived – they begin to present marriage as an attainable and achievable accomplishment. If love is not just a feeling, but a state in which you preserve and protect one another, merging strengths and assets for the benefit of partners and any children, and for the support of one another and extended family, this is something that might be achievable, rather than a diffuse idea of unending bliss and constant happiness.

Read the full post. It is much longer, and far more thoughtful, than I could possible do justice to here – but definitely worth reading and thinking about – and then re-reading.

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