Friday, June 26, 2015

Marriage Is Meaningless. Yay!

Today's SCOTUS decision confirming marriage equality across the US has brought out the predictable chorus of conservative opposition. The conservative argument that resonates most with me is the claim that marriage equality is the first step toward stripping marriage of all meaning. To some extent, I agree with this claim -- the difference is, I think this is a good thing -- but I also think it's overlooking a more fundamental reality:

Marriage is already meaningless.

Seriously, even before today's ruling, even 25 years ago when same-sex marriage wasn't a major issue in the public eye, what is marriage? As far as I can tell, marriage is a conflation of at least three different things, none of which need to coexist anymore:

  • a legal kinship contract
  • a religious rite
  • a sexual relationship 
There is no logical reason for these three to coincide, and, in a pluralistic society like the 21st-century United States, there's no legal or moral way to ensure they do.

A lot of people get terrible upset about the relationship between the legal and religious sides of marriage, but it seems pretty clear to me. Constitutionally, the legal and religious sides have to remain separate. Look at other religious rites: there is no religious monopoly or mandate with respect to birth or naming or death. These are legal matters in civil society, and you have the option to involve your religion if that's your jam.

Truth be told, this is how marriage already operates. I got married in a courthouse. So did plenty of heterosexual couples. You sign a contract in a little room that is nominally a chapel, but there's nothing inherently religious or spiritual about it (other than the civil religion of US law and politics, but that's a different conversation I won't get into here). Non-religious straight people have been getting married forever. From a legal perspective, religion is an optional add-on to legal matters of birth, marriage, death, etc. In the course of human history, the religious meaning of these rites of passage arguably preexists the legal meaning, but this is 2015 CE, not 8000 BCE.

As to the sexual component of marriage, my general feeling is that it's nobody's business outside of the members of the marriage (assuming consent and legality and all that good stuff). In practice, mandating the sexuality of a marriage has always been deeply misogynistic, whether it's contemporary purity culture's obsession with female virginity, or the centuries of men's control over women's sexual and reproductive rights.

But even just ideologically, the sexual component of marriage is plain incoherent. In the conservative imagination, marriage involves a sexual initiation. This demands an arbitrary declaration of a singular sexual act as uniquely constitutive of sexual and marital union, and/or an asinine blanket ban on all extramarital sexuality, as though sexuality were wholly separable from friendship, romance, and other forms of relationship. Even if you don't buy the initiation thing, the assumption of sexuality within marriage is both creepy and unnecessary. Not all couples want sex; not all couples have sex; and telling an asexual couple that their marriage is incomplete is both rude and factually inaccurate. Mandating (or even normalizing) sexuality of any kind within marriage is as incoherent as insisting that all married couples have to, I don't know, share an umbrella.

What frustrates me the most about the whole same-sex marriage argument, though, is that it's a public debate where both sides rely on an adherence to the legal enshrinement of the gender binary. In New York, even before today's ruling, the "gender" fields on a marriage license application are optional, and we left ours blank. I'm pretty sure that my ungendered marriage is therefore neither "same-sex" nor "opposite-sex" -- an all-too-rare instance in which the legal paperwork accurately reflects reality.

Once you recognize that the religious, sexual, and gendered aspects of marriage are and have always been irrelevant to the legal side, there's only one logical course of action: create a legal framework for kinship contracts among partners and families of all configurations. Phase out "marriage," with its archaic focus on the monogamous pair-bond with an assumed reproductive capability. Make life easier for the genderqueers, the polyamorous, the three-parent families, the siblings who live together, the consenting adults and the children they may or may not take responsibility for.

We're here. We've always been here. We're not going away. It's time the legal system caught up to that reality.

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