Proposals of "Marriage"

06/13/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

The gay marriage initiative has been gathering an increasing head of steam, striking, respectively, hope and fear into the hearts of Americans. The arguments favoring marriage between members of the same sex (or gender) have generally invoked the principle of equal rights. Those opposed have maintained that gay marriage would destroy one of the major foundations of our culture.

The fact is, however, that gay marriage will be accepted not just because it reflects basic beliefs about individual rights, but because it is in harmony with the dominant cultural definition of marriage in America.

Marriage in American society involves both a set of legal arrangements and a cluster of cultural beliefs. One approach to providing most or all of the legal aspects of marriage to gay couples is to approve same-sex civil unions while withholding the "m" word. In the state of New Jersey, for example, there is no difference between the rights conferred in same-sex civil unions and the rights conferred by marriage, which in that state is currently restricted to cross-sex couples. More commonly, there are differences in the scope of rights between marriages and civil unions.

But what, aside from legal rights (which could be made identical for marriages and civil unions), is at issue with "marriage"? For some, it is a sacred bond linked to religious belief. But no one is arguing that there should be an end to religious weddings, and those wishing to have their unions blessed in this way would presumably continue to do so regardless of how secular, state-sanctioned "marriage" evolves.

We Americans, whatever our differences, generally view marriage as a relationship brought into being by "love" -- more specifically, sexual love. Indeed, this is the very reason that the term "gay marriage" is used, as opposed to the more accurately descriptive term "same-sex (or same-gender) marriage". As it happens, we do not inquire too closely into how many gay men and lesbians may be closeted in so-called "heterosexual" marriages, as long as their gender bona fides has been determined. "Gay marriage" is a more reliable term, since it is unlikely that large numbers of secret heterosexuals are hidden away in same-sex marriages. How many of these married folks -- straight or gay -- are still active sexual partners is another matter, and one that has provided continuing material to stand-up comics.

Whatever the trajectory of the sexual bond in a marriage, the "love" is expected to provide the groundwork for a relationship of mutual commitment and responsibility that ideally persists until death do the couple part (or at least for a respectably long period of time). Insofar as this is the sentimental foundation for marriage -- in fact, for American kinship more generally -- it makes as much sense for the partners -- or, for that matter, the co-parents -- to be of the same sex as to be of opposite sexes.

We can bring the question of gay marriage into even sharper cultural focus by looking at another case of same-sex marriage from the other side of the world, in a very different time and place. Anthropologists have long studied a practice, found in a number of traditional African societies, in which a woman marries another woman. What made this possible was that the roles of "husband" and "father" were based not on sexual and biological ties, but on property exchange -- that is, on "bridewealth" paid by the family of the "groom" to the family of the "bride". In cases where women were able to get access to the kinds of property generally held by men -- notably, cattle -- they could occupy the kinship statuses generally reserved to men. Thus, the female husband had rights to the domestic services of her "wife" and was the legitimate "father" of the wife's offspring, regardless of who the genitor might be. And it was the father who got to claim the child as a member of his (her) lineage.

Clearly, these woman-woman marriages followed a completely different cultural logic from marriage between lesbians in contemporary American society. The important point, however, is that each case of same-sex marriage makes sense within the cultural meaning of marriage in their respective societies. This also explains why marriage between two men would make the same cultural sense as marriage between two women in the American case, but not in the African cases, where it is, in fact, not found.

The timing of a successful gay marriage initiative in our society is clearly tied to the history of activism around the issue and the varying political responses to it. But the cultural backdrop against which these actions are playing out, which lends an air of inexorability to the process, is not only an ideal of transcending the forms of discrimination we find intolerable, but also our deepest hopes and dreams of what a marriage should be.