"I grew up being taught that marriage was sacred... Then I would look over at a relative with a black eye meted out by her husband in the privacy of their sacred matrimonial chamber and the bruises on her child, and I knew that was bullshit. There was nothing holy there."
So said Lucy Lawless during the recent anti-Proposition 8 rally in California. She is one of those campaigning in favour of gay marriage, although with some reservations: 'I can't think why gay people should necessarily want it, but if they want it with all its strictures and ownership over one another, then let 'em have it.' Lawless has called marriage a feudal institution which ought to be phased out.
Some feminist or other once made a point that got me thinking. She argued that, in the political movement advocating that gays should have an equal right to marry, a more radical critique of marriage has been lost. Only thirty years ago, feminists subjected the institution to stringent scrutiny - particularly the unequal relationship of financial dependence that tends to be part of marriage.
Feminist criticisms of marriage go something like this. Marriages often produce babies, and the need for a whole lot of unpaid work. This work tends to fall to women. There are a bunch of reasons for this, ranging from inconsiderate individual husbands through to a workforce which doesn't do much to accommodate pregnant and breastfeeding women - but the net result is that women tend to become financially dependent on men.
Once you're dependent on your husband in this way, you're reliant on him to be nice to you. If he stops being nice - if he can't or won't support you adequately - you're in trouble. Your only option is to leave the marriage, and if you're taking the kids with you, you face doing the work of two parents by yourself and a high likelihood of poverty. These structural problems of marriage don't go away simply because spouses are the same sex. If there are kids involved, someone still has to take care of them, risking financial dependence in the process. Lawmakers in the US are explicitly aware that marriage is in large part an economic arrangement. Tax incentives for married couples aim to encourage solo mums to get hitched, because once they're married, they become the financial problem of their husbands. Whether or not their husbands meet their financial needs is a whole different matter, and no concern of the state.
All this being said, it's hard not to empathise with gay and lesbian couples who want the right to get hitched. I'm not gay. I don't know what it's like to feel anxious about holding my partner's hand in public. I don't know what it's like to get quizzical looks when I introduce the person I love to friends or family. I don't know what it's like reading hateful letters to the editor about the kind of person I am and the kind of moral decay I supposedly cause. But I can understand the symbolic appeal of marriage, especially for those who have been denied it. Marriage is an institution thousands of years old. As its proponents laimc, it is integral to the fabric of society.
To get married is to make others see and acknowledge the validity and the worth of your love for your partner.
In my ideal world, gay people wouldn't need to claim the right to marry in order to have their relationships or sexuality accepted - no one would. In this ideal world, getting married would not entail signing up for the possibility of dependence or mistreatment which can be incredibly difficult to escape. If the right to enter into the sacred union of marriage is to be extended to gay couples, we ought to ensure that it is a right worth the having. In the words of Lucy Lawless, 'Only love is sacred, and heterosexuals don't own that'.