Thursday, November 20, 2008

In The Stars

In his column this week, Dan Savage advised a gay reader confronting an opponent of same-sex marriage to “continually emphasize that there's a difference between civil marriage rights and religious marriage rites.” There sure is, as I’ve pointed out here before, but I haven’t seen that difference stressed enough by the advocates of same-sex marriage. I suspect that many of them are not very clear about the difference themselves.

What’s at stake in the current controversy is civil marriage, but a lot of people have odd ideas about what comes with that package. As I’ve pointed out before, some of us think that a piece of paper will give them conventional middle-class respectability – that all married couples are nice suburban white people with a “papoose.” And this writer goes further (via Outside the Lines and the writer’s blog):

The campaigns against gay marriage reason that gays already possess civil rights, that we may procure civil unions. (When in history has love been civil?) And so we are relegated to using the technical term, Partner. It is a word with business connotations, and not romantic, certainly not spiritual inference. Husband. Wife. These are words we gay men and women long for because they signify the validity of choice: they are garlands of a ceremony in the interest of a sacred pursuit; they validate and defend a deep intimacy in the public realm; they are shield and banner.

I’d kind of like to put this guy into a cage with Orson Scott Card, and see what happens. He’s certainly not a lot brighter, or better informed, than Card. First, civil unions for same-sex couples have been as controversial in the US as marriage, so where does he get “we may procure civil unions”? As for the “business connotations” of civil unions, those apply also to civil marriage; there’s nothing sacred about it, so “husband” and “wife” can hardly be sacred or spiritual terms. What Miguel Murphy wants, he won’t get from a marriage license issued by the State and finalized at City Hall. Nor should he – the State has no business interfering in the spiritual or the sacred, and in this country it is forbidden by the Constitution to do so. (And just to be bitchy, I think he means something like “implication,” not “inference.” A poet who's so concerned about language should pay attention to such trivia.)

What Murphy wants, he’ll have to get from a religious ceremony of some kind, and as I’ve pointed out before, there is nothing to stop him from having one if he wants. For that matter, as I’ve pointed out to bigots who said they were willing to give us civil unions but not marriage, there is nothing to stop the partners in a civil union from calling each other “husband” or “wife” if they want to. Someone who wants a wedding doesn’t need a church, or even a minister, though he can probably have either if he isn’t picky about the denomination. Many churches won’t recognize a marriage between two men or two women, but that’s their right: they don’t have to recognize even heterosexual marriages that don’t conform to their doctrines. The State cannot and should not interfere to change this, though it can and should protect the freedom to have a religious wedding ceremony.

It’s hard for me to see what’s romantic or spiritual about arranged marriage, bride price, dowry, the virginity fetish (showing blood on the sheets after the nuptial defloration, for example), and other traditional features of heterosexual marriage. But people can and do sacralize all sorts of things – in the New Testament, for example, slavery is spiritualized as the relationship between the believer and Christ; that doesn’t make slavery a holy thing, let alone require that the State guarantee everyone a legal slaveowner.

I’m becoming increasingly uneasy about the whole marriage business anyhow. (And a business it is! But of course, Homo-Americans should have the right to spend $20,000 and up on their weddings, just like heterosexuals. Some of us are already spending that much on union ceremonies and the like, even without the blessing of government.) Sometimes I encounter gay people who say that the government should simply get out of the marriage business, but it always turns out that they still want the State to give special privileges to cohabiting couples – they just don’t want to call them “marriage.” I mean it seriously, though I’m not delusional enough to suppose that it could ever happen – marriage has too much prestige. I figure that once same-sex marriage has been legalized, most of its advocates will lose all interest in social justice issues. (The racist outbreaks by angry white gays after the victory of Proposition 8 support my view, I think. So much for the notion that belonging to a persecuted minority makes one more sensitive to the concerns of other persecuted minorities!) Health care, say, for people who aren’t married, or for the children of people who aren’t married, will not be their concern. As IOZ wrote, if these rights are human rights, why should you have to marry to get them?

Murphy concludes his sermon by quoting from Adrienne Rich’s poem “Origins and History of Consciousness”:

Of course, this can’t happen until our private choice, our relationship, is free to announce itself in public: “But we can’t call it life until we start to move / beyond this secret circle of fire”.

Given Rich’s critique of patriarchy in general and of the patriarchal State in particular, I wouldn’t assume that she was writing about state-sanctioned marriage in that poem. Nor do I believe that we can only announce our relationships in public if they are recognized by the state, or by religion; or that only marriage constitutes a public relationship. I’m out of step with most people on this point, I suppose, as on so many. I think that the state should be just and equitable, but I don’t think that my public and social – and private – life should depend on its scrutiny and recognition.

(Image from