Redefining Marriage

Politics isn't always personal, but sometimes it is. For years, I've watched the gay-marriage saga unfold, reporting on the Proposition 8 vote in California and the lawsuits that followed; the failed gay-marriage push in New York; and the successful enactment of marriage rights in New Hampshire, Vermont, Iowa, and Washington, D.C. Legislators in Maryland are expected to make the state the sixth to enact marriage equality sometime this year, and state Sen. Tom Duane plans to give it another go in New York in the next month or so.

And on Feb. 5, I'm getting married here in the District.

This has made me look at the gay-marriage debate in a slightly different way. Sure, whenever National Organization for Marriage president Brian Brown talked about "protecting marriage" in the abstract, I knew he was protecting it from me. When the Maryland Catholic Conference said it would fight tooth and nail to "uphold the traditional definition of marriage," I knew conference members meant I was the one corrupting the term, which right-wing publications won't print without scare quotes—i.e., gay "marriage." Though the debate has affected me, it has often seemed like an odd linguistic dispute over the definition of the word "marriage"—a Scrabble fight where no one has a dictionary on hand.

Of course, gay-marriage opponents would probably say they don't mean these things so literally or personally. But as I've planned my wedding—making lists, updating them, and re-updating them; deciding whether we're doing a first dance (we are, though our dads aren't included); and whether we want to change our names (we don't)—I've been confronted by the numerous ways in which we are, in fact, redefining "marriage."

During a meeting with a wedding planner at a hotel we scouted, the planner stopped us at the door of the ceremony space. "Before we go in, you should know that the space has just been redecorated; we're still making changes," she said as she held the double-leaf door handles.

She opened the door, and at the end of the narrow hall hung a 10-foot-tall painting of a bride. We chuckled. "My biggest problem with it is actually that it's ugly," my partner said.

To their credit, all of the vendors we've dealt with have been welcoming and extra cautious—almost to a fault—about offending us, but the assumption that marriage is for a man and a woman pops up anyway. After months of calls and negotiations, the staff at the place we chose has only recently learned not to ask for my future wife's name. Our gift registry has a photo of a WASP-y bride and groom in the website's top banner. Every brochure we're given is invariably adorned with pink bows and doilies.

Finding good wedding vows has been especially difficult. Before I read any of the vows I found by searching the Internet—"nonreligious marriage vows," "marriage vows modern"—I did a preemptive search-and-replace to change all the instances of she, her, wife, and woman. But I was still left with phrases like "Who gives this man to be married to this man?" which, of course, hints at the very patriarchal history of marriage.

In the end, we decided to write the ceremony ourselves. But once I was faced with a blank Word document, I realized that while I have written numerous political articles about why same-sex couples should be allowed to marry, I had never thought through what exactly it meant on a personal level. From a legal standpoint, the meaning is quite clear: Civil marriage confers a number of concrete privileges—tax breaks, adoption rights, hospital visitation—that are desirable and, in the interest of equality, shouldn't be withheld from gay couples. Socially, extending marriage rights validates gay partnerships. None of these, though, seems to touch on the real substance.

Opponents of marriage equality have definitive answers about what "marriage" means, and in the story they tell, it's an institution that had persisted unchanged throughout history until liberals got a hold of it in the 1960s. In The Meaning of Marriage, a book with an author list that is a basic who's who of marriage-equality opponents, Louisiana State University law professor Katherine Spaht makes just that point. She argues that the three central components of "marriage"—sexual "complementarity" (as defined by the ability to produce offspring), permanence, and mutual fidelity—have one by one been stripped from the legal and social definition, and that's why she thinks marriage is in trouble.

In historical terms, though, the "meaning" of marriage was not static before the sexual revolution; the designation has at various times been restricted to members of the same race or expanded to include polygamous relationships. If the "traditional" definition offered by Spaht were applied today, it would invalidate quite a few American marriages: the 20 percent of married couples who have been married before; the 10 percent of couples who are infertile; and the 18 percent without kids.

In fact, it is the adaptability of marriage that has ensured its survival. Not only has "marriage" not remained static across time and in different cultures, it is defined and redefined by couples every day. Sometimes it's beautiful, and sometimes it's not, and some people marry for richer but not poorer, and some marriages last while others don't. Couples make "marriage" in their own image; it's that basic freedom and responsibility that make it frightening and worthwhile.

Last week, when the Supreme Court announced it would decide whether to review a lower-court decision upholding the D.C. Board of Elections' decision to prohibit a public referendum on the city's 2009 gay-marriage law, I had the sudden urge—irrational because even if they took the case, a decision and public referendum would be months away—to run down to D.C. Superior Court and get married immediately. The court declined to hear the case Tuesday. But it made the fight over the right to marry, which the Massachusetts Supreme Court called "among life's momentous acts of self-definition," painfully concrete. I can imagine the sense of betrayal and violation that gay couples in California must have felt when their wedding plans were cut short by the passage of Proposition 8. Thankfully, I can concentrate on worrying about the height of the centerpieces and whether the scent of the flowers will interfere with the taste of the food. Ultimately, I'm still not sure what marriage "means," but Michael and I can make it up as we go along.

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