The sanctity of marriage

Just what is ‘traditional marriage,’ anyway? My lesbian sister and her wife want to know

Photo Illustration by Tina Flynn

In May of 1995, my sister, Peggy, and her fiancàe, Chris, asked me to perform the vows at their wedding. Though not licensed to wed a couple in the state of California, I was qualified to marry Peggy and Chris: Their union was illegal anyway, their marriage only symbolic.

When I asked Peggy what marriage meant to her, she wrote:

A couple who chooses a wedding is wanting more than just a private commitment between each other. They are asking for acknowledgement and support of their union. In the case of a heterosexual couple, there is a cultural understanding that simply by the legality of their union, they are expected to stay together “for better or for worse"—that their friends and families will come to their aid in time of need and think of them as partners. There is, conversely, a cultural understanding that homosexual unions are fragile and temporary—not based in commitment and partnership. To upend those myths we must publicly declare our unions, not in mimicry of the heterosexual ideal of marriage, but in a way in which we each redefine marriage for ourselves.

On Nov. 2, 11 of the United States of America voted to ban same-sex marriages—largely in response to San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom’s issuing marriage licenses to 4,000 gay couples last spring and to the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts’ recent ruling that same-sex marriage was legal in that state.

Nine of those 11 states—Oregon and Michigan were the exceptions—also voted to “re"-elect George W. Bush, who says, frequently and smugly, that he believes in the “sanctity of marriage” and supports a Constitutional amendment to define marriage as strictly between a man and a woman.

Analysts say that it could very well be Bush’s stand on gay marriage that gave him the edge in the election, providing his “mandate” for his second term.

As of Nov. 10, 1,145 members of the United States military had died in Iraq, and Bush was using that “mandate” to liberate Fallujah, where 10 U.S. troops and countless Iraqi civilians were killed in the first few days of fighting. While liberating Fallujah—and the Iraqi people in general—might indeed be a noble idea, the fact is that it has clearly become an exercise in futility. The more “good” we try to do, the more violence explodes, there and throughout the Middle East—and the more much of the rest of the world thinks the U.S. has its priorities mixed up.

In fact, pre-election polls showed that a majority of Americans believed that the war in Iraq was not going well. Yet apparently a majority also seems to think that W’s concern for preserving “traditional” marriage is more important than his foreign policy.

Truth be told, I’m not sure exactly what people mean when they say “traditional” anyway. My sense is that they’re referring to a fairly recent incarnation or definition of marriage—in which case they’re being awfully shortsighted.

The first weddings, of course, were by capture. Thag had been checking out a babe in another cave and, enlisting the help of a buddy, or best man, cruised over and bonked her on the head with a hunk of mastodon femur. Now there’s a tradition for you—legal, by the way, in England into the 1400s.

Soon after, marriage by purchase became the tradition. Diane Ackerman writes in A Natural History of Love:

Even when it wasn’t the overt sale of the bride for cash, everyone understood that she was being bartered for land, holdings, political alliance, or social advancement. A girl was a useful pair of hands in the father’s household, but she was invaluable to the groom’s, where she could work equally hard and also bear offspring. The Anglo-Saxon word “wedd” referred to the groom’s pledge to marry, but also to the purchase money or its equivalent in horses, cattle, or other property that the groom paid the bride’s father. So a “wedding” was literally the purchase of a woman for breeding purposes.

Ah, tradition.

Or consider the traditions of ancient Greece and Rome, where same-sex unions were not only recognized and accepted but often seen as ideal. In fact, Gibbon writes in The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire that of the first 15 Roman emperors, “Claudius was the only one whose taste in love was correct,” meaning, of course, heterosexual. And, no, he’s not suggesting that’s why Rome declined and fell.

Naturally, little survives in ancient writings of women’s love for women. For one reason, it was men who wrote the texts of the day, so when writing about love, they wrote only about their own experiences and lovers, either male or female. Besides, women would have been considered adulterous had they taken lovers, of either sex. Still, historians agree that public homosexual relationships were at least not uncommon in Rome until they were prohibited by law in the sixth century.

Additionally, the Middle Ages in Europe are generally considered to have been a time of openness and tolerance. Catholics apparently lived rather harmoniously with other religious groups and were quite tolerant of what we might today call “alternative lifestyles,” and the Church originally made no attempt to regulate or legislate morality, sexuality or marriage.

In fact, Yale historian John Boswell claims that the late-11th and early-12th centuries was a time of great tolerance, and that personal freedom and experimentation were encouraged in both the intellectual and everyday areas of people’s lives. It wasn’t until the 14th century and the rise of absolute governments and the monstrous amount of codification and consolidation of power that same-sex unions fell out of favor.

Or perhaps the opponents of same-sex marriage mean American traditions. Like the traditional lesbian weddings of the Mojave, Crow, Blackfoot, Navajo, Yuma, Eskimo, Klamath, and Lakota Indians.

Boswell writes:

It is obviously very much to a gay person’s advantage in hostile environments not to be part of a permanent relationship: the longer lasting and more intimate the relationship between two persons of the same gender, the more likely it is to incur suspicion where homosexuality is oppressed. Canny gay people may circumvent this, but the most effective defense against oppression will lie in fleeting and clandestine relationships which do not attract attention or provoke suspicion. Where there is public admiration for gay people and their love, on the other hand, one would not expect any such syndrome to evolve for protection.

And that, of course, is because they wouldn’t need the protection. Peggy and Chris asked their friends and family to acknowledge and support their love for each other. But there’s something more they needed, or at least something more that we must offer committed gay couples. And that is in fact a form of “protection.” This we offer by our support, our love and also by our promise to oppose any hostility we encounter, so that they need not be “canny,” so that there’s no suspicion to incur, and so that they can freely and openly give to and be with each other and never feel the need to be fleeting or clandestine.

At the risk of preaching to the choir here, I want to tell you how Peggy and Chris’ marriage threatens the sanctity of my own “traditional” marriage. On a scale of one to 10? Zero. How it threatens yours? Zero. How it threatens the sanctity of marriage in general? In theory? Zero. Peggy and Chris go to work, own a home, manage a theater, mow their lawn, drive a minivan. Sometimes they go out to dinner. They hope someday to marry legally.

And for those concerned about their two young sons, research shows that Matt’s and Alex’s sexual identities were established well before they were welcomed into the world by their father and their two mothers—and even that they will somehow survive being shamelessly spoiled by their six doting grandparents, one of whom, my father, a dyed-the-wool Republican, voted on Nov. 2, for the first time in his life, for a Democrat.