May 22, 2011

Why Marriage? Or the Right to Marry?

Opponents to legalizing same-sex marriage often argue that marriage is rooted in religion. That it is intended for procreation and child rearing. Some fret about slippery slope scenarios if we were to legalize same-sex marriage.

But consider what marriage historian Stephanie Coontz has to say to this. As she writes in Marriage, a History: from Obedience to Intimacy or How Love Conquered Marriage (2005),
The demand for gay and lesbian marriage was an inevitable result of the previous revolution in heterosexual marriage. It was heterosexuals who had already created many alternative structures for organizing sexual relationships or raising children and broken down the primacy of two-parent families based on a strict division of labor between men and women. (274)

Moreover, for most of our history, marriage has done –
the work that markets and governments do today. It organized the production and distribution of goods and people. It set up political, economic, and military alliances. It coordinated the division of labor by gender and age. (9).
And true; producing children, acquiring in-laws, and sorting out inheritance rights were key factors to this market economy; at least in Europe and the United States. But, as Coontz points out based on evidence from other cultures:

Marriage is not the only way to impose an incest taboo, organize child rearing, pool resources, care for elders, coordinate household production, or pass on property to the next generation. (33)
For example, in one ancient culture, marriage played no role: women had sexual relationship but lived and raised their children with their siblings (32). And there have been societies, which allowed for same-sex marriages where sex has mattered less than gender; where either women or men would take on the “female” or “male” role (27).

Cut to today where –
divorce, single parenthood, and cohabitation among heterosexuals have already reshaped the role of marriage in society and its meaning in people’s lives … The reproductive revolution has shaken up all the relationships once taken for granted between sex, marriage, conception, childbirth, and parenting. People who could not become parents before can now do so in such bewildering combinations that a child can potentially have five different parents: a sperm donor, an egg donor, a birth mother, and the social father and mother who raise the child. On the other hand, some married couples use new reproductive technologies to avoid having children altogether … Seen in this light, a childless marriage is just as much a challenge to the tradition that children are the central purpose and glue of a wedded relationship as is a gay union. (275)
The fastest growing segment of the population today is in fact singles (276). And the boundaries of the "family" are changing to include those who are in our expanding social networks.

So why seek the right to marry?

Because most places marriage comes with significant privileges only available to those who marry. – As Coontz points out:
In the United States, for example, it confers more than a thousand legal and tax benefits unavailable to single people. And for most Americans, marriage is the highest expression of commitment they can imagine. Americans are more likely than Europeans or Japanese to tell pollsters they value marriage highly, and they still marry at higher rates than most other industrial countries. (278)
– Now more than ever is the time to support the freedom to marry.


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