Ten years ago, I published a long essay about how marriage can equal perks. With the discussion raging on, the issues haven't really changed. I'd like to make some of these points again:
When the American Revolution separated church and state, it also separated marriage from church control. Marriage became basically a civil arrangement. Today, many American nuptials still start with church bells. But the "sanctity" of civil marriage is arguable, since it boils down to a list of heterosexual legalities and perks that judges can rule on. These include inheritance rights, tax breaks, hospital visitation, pensions, joint custody -- all things that homosexuals want too, and are told they can't have, in the name of "sanctity." Since when do the arbiters of "holiness" include probate courts, hospital receptionists, company pension plans and the IRS?
Americans also rely on marriage for certain perkish conveniences. For minors, getting married is a way of evading parental custody. For embarrassed parents of a pregnant teen, shotgun marriage (hopefully) preserves the family honor. Marriage can get you free airline travel, a dental plan, diplomatic privileges, free housing on military bases, U.S. citizenship, the boss's daughter, and slave labor in the form of lots of kids. Marriage routinely enhances a celebrity career, even serves as cover for some CIA intelligence work. Repeated marriage-and-divorce allows some folks to cloak sexual adventure in legality. Years of living together in "common law" can add up to marital status, or at least get you a nasty palimony lawsuit. To the man or woman who marries for nice things, marriage may equal prostitution.
Are these profane perks protected by state and federal law? Yes. Are they sacred? Hardly.
It is amusing to think how many heterosexual Americans would scream bloody murder if they lost their "right" to this array of conveniences. Yet they would turn around and deny those same perks to gay people.
Marriage has no global agreement about what makes it "sacred." It's social silly-putty, squished into a thousand shapes by bias and blind belief. To the Israelites of the Ten Commandments, "sanctity" of marriage included polygamy, and a man's right to kill his wife and children if they got out of line. To the American colonists, a woman could work her way into marriage through contract labor or being an indentured servant. To my Irish Catholic forebears, the marriage knot required a priest's "authority". To my Protestant forebears, Catholic sacraments were "evil popery," so only a preacher's words could authorize the knot. But to bride and groom on the high seas, a ship captain's authority was "sacred" enough.
Some of my native American forebears had more sensible views. A couple stood before Creation and married each other on their own authority as human beings. Lucky for them, they were not hobbled by a concept that they had to be married by the power of some other person's religion or legal authority. "Nobody tells a Cheyenne what to do," my tribal cousins used to say. If things went bad, all the aggrieved person had to do was put the partner's moccasins outside the teepee door...with the toes pointing away.
Can today's American marriage overcome its sorry history as a list of perks? Can a person today make it sacred and wonderful? Yes, I believe so. Real sacredness is infused into any relationship only by the two people themselves, be they straight or gay. They build a balance between their own self-respect and their respect for each other -- and for their children, if they have them. If this sacredness is not deeply felt on the personal level, no law or sermon or tax break can ever put it there.
Copyright 1996, 2008 by Patricia Nell Warren. All rights reserved.