How Gays Marrying “Threatens” the Institution of Marriage

It has been often claimed, and the claim often ridiculed, that gays marrying threatens the institution of marriage. Proponents of marriage equality seem mystified by this: how could a marriage between two people constitute an attack on somebody else’s marriage? The usual interpretation is that the claim is merely repeated uncritically by bigots seeking to rationalise their bigotry, and this may often be the case. Gay marriage does, however, threaten the concept of marriage which some of its opponents hold, not because of the particular unions between any particular homosexuals, but rather because it represents and reinforces a change that has already taken place. By marrying, gays make it apparent what straight people are already doing, but which many traditionalists never approved of, seek to reject, and have until recently been able to mostly successfully ignore.

Gay couple

Many epistemic shifts have occurred in recent history, radically changing the way in which we conceive of society and relate to one another. Marriage we have come to view as the ratification of a love bond (“I love you, let’s get married!”), instead of as a contractual agreement geared toward the production of families. However it is conceived of, a particular marriage may or may not involve romantic love, and may or may not lead to the production of a “family,” and this remains true no matter what gender(s) the participants usually find sexually attractive: the transition has been in the perceived purpose of marriage. This transition has already taken place, but incompletely: one married couple I know chose each other largely arbitrarily, believing that marriage ought not to be predicated on a prior love relationship which is likely to change over time: a shaky foundation to be sure, absolute and eternal as it may feel. Indeed, many Christians (and others) were never part of the (mostly big city) culture in which the shift largely took place, or else have chosen to resist it. These are people who would balk at the notion that a couple would divorce because they don’t love each other anymore. The way we date and have sex (for pleasure!?) is shocking to them… but they don’t have to see it, and can go on mostly pretending it isn’t happening, that their way is the official, proper way.

Of course, once we began to see marriage as the recognition of love between two people, gay marriage became a logical necessity. If marriage is about love, then anyone who loves should be able to marry (unless lack of consent or other factors should intervene). But by legally recognising same sex unions, we entrench in law what was previously subtle: just as gay marriage follows naturally from the transition, so recognition of the transition follows naturally from legal gay marriage. No longer does the movement toward romantic love as the basis of marriage merely inhere in the practices and beliefs of some or even most couples; now it’s official, and part of the same legal framework that purports to grant legitimacy also to the marriages of the traditionalists. It has become obvious: the majority of contemporary marriages, hetero or otherwise, are radically removed from the “traditional” conception of marriage. This revelation has devastating consequences for the symbol systems of those who still hold to a different tradition, and until now thought that the legal system was an extension of their values. It is not. They do not control our ideas, or our definitions, or our behaviours. And they never really did, but now they can’t even pretend anymore.

Ignorance-is-Bliss

This is almost the same reason why some parents are uncomfortable with their children’s friends dating someone of the same sex. So long as their child is dating someone of the opposite sex, they can play a “don’t ask, don’t tell” game where they secretly know they’re having sex, and that they probably won’t marry, but the possibility remains that they might be working toward the production of a new reproductive marital unit. With a gay couple that isn’t seen as a possibility, so the same strategy of wilful ignorance no longer applies, and the fact that they’re really in it for something other than reproduction is revealed not just for the gay couple, but for all couples within the cultural group, some of whom may jump to the defence of the gay couple, proving what their parents feared. Thus, the gay couples are threatening, not because they’re different, but because they’re the same as the rest of us.

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