473 · 19 February 04
History will look no more fondly on the "defenders" of our current marriage laws than it does on the straggler adherents to any other once-entrenched social inequity. Grasp this before you take a side. The arguments formed today will be studied in tomorrow's schools by the smallest children, as elementary examples of how people used to be terrified by the most harmless personal differences, and how even the most fundamental freedoms are only won through heroic dedication and preserved through thankless vigilance and systemic foresight. Your civil rights are not determined by your skin color. Your civil rights are not determined by your gender. Your public rights are not determined by your anatomy or your beliefs. Our moral code aspires to generality. Those who seek to enforce their arbitrarily limited conceptions of marriage on others violate the basic social covenant of modern human society: all people are equal. You are not special. If you fight this premise, you will have to answer to your children and your grandchildren and the historical record for the privileges you tried to hoard, and you will still lose. You will be numbered among the oppressors and fools.
We are going to re-write the marriage laws in Massachusetts and California and the rest of this country, now or eventually, and before much longer in the free world at large. The new laws will begin from the simple premise that marriage is a legal expression of shared lives. The private terms under which people enter into their legal contracts are of no public consequence. Not only is sexual preference irrelevant, sex itself is irrelevant. It should be perfectly obvious that this is already true. The current law already has no power to dictate the personal terms under which consenting married people live. There is no such thing as common-law divorce; a legal marriage cannot be dissolved against its participants' wishes. The current laws can insist that the betrothed are of different sexes, but not that they are of complementary genders, so calling the new idea "gay marriage" mistakes a constituency for an institution. The new idea will still and simply be called "marriage".
What those who cling to the obsolete status quo fear, however, they are actually correct to anticipate. They warn ominously that this is just the beginning, and that much is right. The first change is that any two consenting adults may marry. The next change, just as inevitable as the first even if it takes longer, is that any number of consenting adults may marry. What two people can promise each other, so can three. In system design we know that the only magic numbers are zero, one and many. So it will be in marriage. It may be more precise, if less romantic and thus ultimately less accurate, to think of marriage as a social form of incorporation. Many people, perhaps most, will continue to incorporate in groups of two, for religious or personal or whatever other reasons, but some will try other arrangements, simple or complex. Some will be excellent innovations, some disastrous. Those innovations and disasters are our inextricable rights, and these changes will occur the same way the others have, by the disenfranchised demanding the freedoms they are due, and somewhere a judge whose job it is to differentiate between the foundation of a law and its encrustations having the courage to do their job correctly. Opponents will panic, and rally, and change will sweep them away.
And yes, the more complicated we allow marriages to become, the more prenuptials and divorces and meltdowns and abuses we will probably get, at least statistically. But these are problems created by the old rules of marriage, not the new ones. Or, more accurately, these are contingencies created in the old rules of marriage for problems that marriage didn't create, and isn't in the position to prevent. Defending the premise of marriage against its failed cases or its excluded participants is nursing a symbolic symptom of a far more virulent disease. The problem is that our public system for moral reasoning is profoundly inoperative. We publish telephone-book-thick brides' magazines about placecard vendors and chafing-dish-registry etiquette, and then wonder why people are better prepared for brief ceremonies than for long lives together. We hand over our health-care system to capitalists and actuaries and then fret that roommates might "marry" for health benefits they shouldn't be relying on "insurance" for in the first place. We sanction corporate advertising's culturally pervasive reliance on the anonymous repression of sexuality to try to profit from the unnecessary sale of exploitative crap, and then quail at the idea that the wrong two people might fall in love. We elect bozos and drop bombs by dice-roll, and then still presume to dictate the terms of other countries' political processes. We condescend to most of the rest of the world for their retrograde closed-mindednesses, and then we lapse into voluble apoplexy at the unscheduled momentary half-time appearance of the bare skin of a body part we're already staring at. We don't even have the guts to eliminate field goals, never mind the tobacco industry, never mind our own other weapons of mass destruction. We can't even entirely commit to the idea that it's appropriate to teach science in schools, so of course we raise children who don't know how to think. We surround ourselves with absurd and unconscionable fake examples of how to live, and then wonder at our superficiality and dysfunctions. This country is a self-poisoning moral pollutant with no remotely acceptable excuse for its behavior, and revising one of our tattered, nominally central social institutions to invite the new participation of marginalized people who actually care about it can only help. We shouldn't be afraid of who will now marry, we should be grateful that anybody is still willing to try to help make marriage meaningful.
Belle and I are getting married in August. We are no more immune to the pollution than anybody else, but we do what we can. We are asking no church to sanctify our union, our commitments to each other are made for their own sake. Recognizing them by marrying legally, anyway, is a gesture of hope. It should be possible for marriage to mean what it's supposed to mean. We are going to share our lives. Anyone willing to try this should be celebrated and supported. Marriage isn't an imperialist's treasury, to be safeguarded by gates and sentries and clauses, it is an act of humanity. Humanity doesn't need more walls, more weapons, more religions to organize away our responsibilities, or more defenders of our limitations. We need excuses for union, not codification of disjunction. We need more faith in ourselves and each other, and more love and art in our actions. We need to be more human, not fewer.