I just read a really excellent piece on marriage by Melissa Harris-Lacewell over at The Nation. The entire blog entry is wonderful and if you’re interested in marriage, marriage equality, civil rights, and/or feminism, you should read the whole thing. What particularly stood out for me was this section:
Typically advocates of marriage equality try to reassure the voting public the same-sex marriage will not change the institution itself. “Don’t worry,” we say, “allowing gay men and lesbians to marry will not threaten the established norms; it will simply assimilate new groups into old practices.”
This is a pragmatic, political strategy, but I hope it is not true. I hope same-sex marriage changes marriage itself. I hope it changes marriage the way that no-fault divorce changed it. I hope it changes marriage the way that allowing women to own their own property and seek their own credit changed marriage. I hope it changes marriage the way laws against spousal abuse and child neglect changed marriage. I hope marriage equality results more equal marriages. I also hope it offers more opportunities for building meaningful adult lives outside of marriage.I know from personal experience that a bad marriage is enough to rid you of the fear of death. But this experience allows me suspect that a good marriage must be among the most powerful, life-affirming, emotionally fulfilling experiences available to human beings. I support marriage equality not only because it is unfair, in a legal sense, to deny people the privileges of marriage based on their identity; but also because it also seems immoral to forbid some human beings from opting into this emotional experience.
We must do more than simply integrate new groups into an old system. Let’s use this moment to re-imagine marriage and marriage-free options for building families, rearing children, crafting communities, and distributing public goods.
Here I must first confess that I have been one of those people who has said that gay marriage doesn’t change my straight one. That it doesn’t matter to me what my neighbors are doing in their homes, with their families. That two people in love committing to each other has no bearing on my love or my commitment.
But the truth is, it does. And it should. And I want it to.
From my hetero, married, feminist perspective, even being aware of and trying to avoid tired gender roles remains a challenge. Trying to imagine a marriage of equals, even though most of the time I’m proud to have one, can be just plain hard, because there are just so few examples. Questioning routines that come so easy can become something I’d rather just not do, because it’s easier just to fall into the pattern.
Harris-Lacewell suggests that gay marriages could be a model for a more equal type of marriage. I hope so. I’d love to be able to sort of spy on and learn from relationships of true equals, where gender roles aren’t automatically assigned, where negotiation is something that must take place, because stereotypes can’t be relied upon.
Of course, the part about a good marriage as a life-affirming, emotionally fulfilling, and I would say spiritual-formational and character-building experience is also very true of what I’ve found in my marriage, and that aspect of my experience forms the major basis of why I support marriage equality. It DOES seem cruel to me to deny others the opportunity to have this experience. I have just sort of realized that straight-supporters of marriage equality can sort of act like they’re doing their gay brothers and sisters a favor with their solidarity, when really, we all have something to gain by widening the scope of equality, both for those who choose to marry, and those who don’t.