Thursday, June 30, 2011

Why I'm anti-marriage

So in the wake of the passage of gay marriage in New York, I’ve been thinking a lot about the institution of marriage. And I’m sure I’m not the only person in the country who thinks that the notion of marriage itself has become out-of-date.

We had a very cerebral discussion at Tuesday’s Open Love NY meeting about how polyamory should be regarded as just another avenue of self-determination, like the way we generally have the legal freedom to pursue whatever career we want, to wear what clothes we want, to modify our bodies how we want (although that is a right that must constantly be upheld; e.g. abortion). The argument is that if people support these basic rights to live the way we want to live, then why draw lines at who or how many people we love? It’s basically the “this is a free country last time I checked” argument.

And now we have a national debate, or war even, on equal rights when it comes to access to the institution of marriage. On one side are all the people who are excluded (GLBTs, polys, close family members) and allies for equal rights, and on the other side are the conservatives, traditionalists and the religious right. And I would say that most of the arguments for the latter group stem from a religious viewpoint, because the argument of “that’s the way it’s always been” is a pretty weak position when it comes to civil rights.

But what gets me is that this has become a religious issue in the first place. Separation of church and state has always been one of this country’s central tenets, so the church should really have no say in the secular rights of marriage, which are conferred on couples by the state, not by any church.

For example, a gay or lesbian couple could be married anywhere in a pagan or Unitarian ceremony, but it doesn’t mean dick when it comes to getting a marriage license or being recognized as a legal couple in the eyes of the law. So logically, the support of the Catholics shouldn’t mean anything either, outside the fact that there are more Catholics than pagans (as evidenced by the capital “C”).

Since we all agree that secular marriage rights have nothing to do with religion, as evidenced by the fact that Jews, pagans, Christians, Muslims, etc. all get the same legal rights when they get married, I think it’s time that we ask the question – why does the state need to acknowledge marriage at all? Why create that inequity in the first place, between people with the “right” to marry and those without? Why not let individuals self-determine how to build the family they want to live with, even if it falls outside the singular, opposite-sex partner model? Why can’t our government just treat everybody over the age of 21 as an adult, period?

The answer of course is that those with the “right to marry” want to preserve those rights for themselves, to create an artificial privilege that has nothing to do with anything other than the fact they are heterosexual. GLBT partners do everything that straight partners do – buy houses, pay taxes, take vacations, and care for each other when they fall ill. There are many more impassioned arguments out there about how gay marriage is an issue of fairness, and I agree with all of them.

What interesting to me is that in this debate, the idea of “civil unions” has been demonized by the pro-marriage equality forces, and I believe that is shortsighted. I think there is merit in looking at civil unions as a legal replacement for marriage.

Wouldn’t it be nice to create your own version of a domestic union, rather than just taking the one-size-fits-all legal definition of marriage that we have now? Basically, we already have a version of this model with the use of prenuptial agreements, so it’s not a big stretch to just apply this across the board and say that “marriage” is a religious ceremony that is an option if you so choose (atheists will probably choose to pass on this), and getting a license means you are in a civil union together (which of course is open to any two adults who freely choose to do so), conferring all rights and obligations spelled out in that document that you both agree to live by. You make up your own rules, file the document at the courthouse, and you’re done.

The freedom to love whom we want to love is a relatively modern idea, but it has grown to become one of our most prized cultural beliefs (for Americans), and the government has no business telling us who, how or why two (or more) adults express their love for each other. Civil unions should be exactly what the name says – the government’s one and only avenue for all people who have chosen to make a commitment to each other freely and publicly to prove that commitment to the world.