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More marriage stuff

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Today was heavily mixed. Continued problems with my project at work, plus continued stress about the new commute stuff (thanks very much for all the supportive comments!), plus some very distressing personal email right in the middle of all that. On the other hand, also had some good email, including a note from an old high school friend who recently got married in San Francisco (yay!). Somehow it keeps not occurring to me to contact friends in same-sex couples and ask if they're getting married. (The one friend who I did think to ask noted that (I'm paraphrasing) given the current federal government's predilection for lists of names of wrongdoers, she doesn't want to be registered with the state as being one of them pervert types.)

Anyway, I have a bunch of items and thoughts relating to same-sex marriages.

First, Matt points to an interesting list of rights accorded to married couples. It's not clear to me which governments provide those rights (I'm guessing it's a mix of state and federal, but I don't know), but it's a useful and interesting list.

And just as I was moving on to the next item, Pete Seeger came up on my iPod rotation, and here's what he said:

If you would like to get out of a pessimistic mood yourself, I've got one sure remedy for you: Go help those people down in Birmingham—Mississippi—Alabama. There are many ways to do it; you don't have to go there yourself.... There's all kinds of jobs that need to be done. Takes hands and hearts and heads to do it. Human beings to do it. And then we'll see this song come true.

And then he began to sing "We Shall Overcome," backed by a lovely audience singing along. <snif> "We'll walk in hand in hand, some day. . . ." I still don't think that the analogy between the civil rights movement in the South and the current situation is entirely accurate, but I think the message works anyway.


Okay, onward. Mary Anne and I were talking about some of this marriage stuff, and I was trying to get into a mindset that can make sense out of the notion that same-sex marriage threatens "real" marriage, because I think it's important to understand opposing viewpoints on their own terms. With abortion, I can see that the pro-life stance follows naturally from one basic premise; but with the same-sex marriage debate, I'm having a harder time getting into the heads of the people opposed to it. Sometimes I can slip into almost seeing what they're saying, and then it slips through my mental fingers.

Mary Anne noted that there are a lot of things about traditional notions of weddings (and the steps leading up to them) in the US that are heavily gendered, and that part of the problem some people may be having is feeling that two people of the same sex can't fit into these gendered roles without distorting those roles to the breaking point. We brainstormed some examples of asymmetries (leaving aside things where there are equivalent items on both sides):

  • It's widely expected that she wants to get married (as a life goal), and that he's gun-shy/resistant/unwilling to commit. (And in fact, though I do know men who have marriage as a life goal, I know many more women who feel that way.)
  • After she finally wears him down to the point where he decides to propose, he goes down on bended knee and proposes (possibly the only time he'll ever kneel down before her); he's supposed to make it a romantic occasion (and often to make it a surprise), and she's supposed to be receptive (and accept the proposal).
  • She gets a flashy engagement ring; he pays for it, but doesn't wear one of his own.
  • She gets a bridal shower.
  • Her family pays for the wedding; his pays for the rehearsal dinner and sometimes the honeymoon.
  • In the old-fashioned version, she's supposed to be a virgin, but nobody cares if he is.
  • It's "her day"—often referred to as "the most important day of your life" (which, incidentally, may suggest that every subsequent day will be something of a letdown). It's not about him, it's about her.
  • She wears an iconic white dress that she will wear only once. He wears a (possibly rented) tuxedo that, if owned, can be worn on other occasions as desired.
  • She takes his name.
  • She gets given away by her father.
  • It's widely expected that she'll bear children at some point, and will probably have to take some time off work for that.

Obviously, it's not that all opposite-sex marriages must conform to the above gender dichotomies (many don't), or that same-sex marriages can't adapt (they can, in a variety of ways). We're just talking about the immediate gut reactions when most Americans think or talk about marriage. And a lot of otherwise liberal/freethinking/feminist/progressive people do go with those gender roles when they get married (often without thinking much about them), which suggests to me that these items are deeply imbedded in our culture.


The other exercise I was trying was thinking about other redefinitions of terms. After some floundering with trying to find other real-world examples, I settled on a thought experiment:

The Parable of the Chairs

I make chairs for a living. I do it the old-fashioned way, the way my father and his father before him did: I carve and shape the wood myself, and I create beautiful, sturdy pieces of furniture.

One day, I arrived at my chair shop and found a new shop next door. It said "Chairs" above the door. I looked in the window, but all I could see was couches. Big padded leather-covered couches.

I went in and talked to the guy who worked there. He was nice, and friendly, but I was appalled by what he told me. I asked, "So where are your chairs?" He said, "You're looking at them."

"But those aren't chairs," I said.

"Sure they are," he said. "By any reasonable definition. Why would you define chairs in such a way as to exclude things that are so obviously chairs?"

"But they can't be chairs," I protested. "They're not made of wood."

"Surely you've seen padded upholstered armchairs. Those aren't made of wood."

"But these things you've made are wider than a chair."

"So you're saying you wouldn't count chairs made for fat people as real chairs?"

"Look," I finally said. "There may be no one single characteristic that defines chair nature, but I know a chair when I see one. These just plain aren't chairs."

"You're clearly prejudiced and close-minded," he said. "How can it possibly hurt you to let me call these items chairs? I'm not stopping you from calling what you make a chair; why should you care what I call what I make?"

I stormed out and went to call some elected officials. Chairs are central to my life; there's a traditional way to make chairs, and that's the right way. There are also some modern mass-manufactured chairs; I'm not thrilled about those, but there's no denying that they're chairs. But for something that clearly isn't a chair, calling it a chair doesn't make it a chair; it's misleading, it's confusing, and it may devalue the word "chair" to the point that people won't value the real chairs I make.

Not only that, but if you can call a couch a chair, what's to stop someone else from calling a rock a chair? Next they'll be calling birds chairs. Once you stop having a clear definition, the word can mean anything, and it'll stop having the value it's always had. When people see the sign over my shop, "Pederson's Fine Chairs," they won't know what it means; they won't know that I make high-quality traditional chairs. They might think I make couches, or rocks, or birds. The reputation that my family has built up for our chairs for decades will be ruined. This must be stopped.

Okay, I'm not sure that was entirely successful, but I think it was a valuable exercise anyway. The analogy, like all analogies, is imperfect, but I think it gets at some of the important things.

I still don't agree that same-sex marriage is bad, of course. But I think I may have a slightly better idea than I did of some reasons why someone else might think it is.


I'll sign off with some more lyrics from songs that came up on my iPod while I was writing the above:

If we only have love, to embrace without fears,

we will kiss with our eyes; we will sleep without tears.

If we only have love, with our arms open wide,

then the young and the old will stand at our side.

If we only have love, love that's falling like rain,

then the parched desert earth will grow green again.

...

If we only have love, we can reach those in pain;

we can heal all our wounds; we can use our own names....

—from Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris (can also be found in Rise Up Singing)

And:

...Heavy are the satchels full of anger and false promises;

May we have the strength to put them down.

Chorus:

May the light of love be shining deep within your spirit;

May the torch of mercy clear the path and show the way.

May the horn of plenty sound so everyone can hear it;

May the light of love be with you every day.

May we wish the best for everyone that we encounter;

May we swallow pride and may we do away with fear,

For it's only what we do not know that we have grown afraid of,

And only what we do not choose to hear.

—from "May the Light," by David Roth (as found in Rise Up Singing)

I'll close with a request: I suspect that some of what I've written here will be controversial. Please try to be gentle with me in your responses; I'm having a rough week, and I'm very tired. If you think I'm being wrongheaded, let me know, but do it in a friendly way, and in the same spirit of exploration of difficult territory in which I'm posting this.

11 Comments

It really is the threat to oppositeness that bothers a lot of these people. For a horrible example, check out Orson Scott Card's thoughts on the subject.


Jed -- There's nothing wrong-headed about your thought process. I'm in 95%+ agreement with you, maybe 100%, but I'd like to think that even if I weren't I would be able to recognize the thoughtful way you've explored your position.

Good work, sir.


Jed, sweetheart, you know that you're one of my bestest friends and I love and respect you, but I have to tell you that it took me three or four read-throughs of that "gendered aspects" list because I could stop visibly cringing enough to actually figure out what your point was. I'm still not sure I entirely got it--Middle America has trouble with gay weddings because they can't figure out which bride gets to be a diva about the big white dress? I guess it follows--the problem with gay marriage, then, is that you don't know which wife is going to be a dustrag-wielding dinner-cooking shrew and which wife is going to be sitting like a lump on the couch in her bra drinking cheap beer and watching college football.

I really like what you're trying to get at with the chair parable, though.


I wonder how many straight couples persist in all of those asymmetries of marriage these days. Thinking about my own hypothetical future wedding, I think I'd want to avoid all of them except maybe the last (and then only due to biological necessity). I totally think we should both have engagement rings, for example. (Probably not big flashy ones though. :^)

One place where the chair analogy breaks down is that if "the public" starts thinking of chairs as big leather couches, they may start to think that your plain wooden chairs aren't as good, or aren't real chairs, or something; and this is going to have a significant negative effect on you personally, if no one wants to buy your chairs any more. That doesn't seem to carry over to marriage, where no one is going to forget that straight people get married too, and even if people think that old-fashioned quaint weddings are silly, it doesn't impair your ability to get (or be) married however you like.


As to the reason people oppose same-sex unions of any kind, I think it's a lot more basic. The single principle it follows from is that homosexuality is not a valid option. That's why you get people talking about "because then you have to let them marry their dogs if they want to". The good news is that this position isn't as prevalent as it sometimes seems, and that it's been consistently weakening over time.

The middle ground are the people who oppose gay marriage but would allow civil unions. This is where we might make progress by pitching it as a civil rights issue, and that's where the MA courts pitched their tent, the whole separate-but-equal thing.


Jed, as always, I admire your guts for thinking things through publicly without the safety of a conclusion. [further fannish fawning deleted]

In a way, I think you're making it harder on yourself when you take the "gay marriage threatens heterosexual marriage" argument at face value. In the statements I've heard or read that use that tactic, it's exactly that -- a tactic, an assertion that is difficult to conclusively refute. I think that some people do mean it sincerely and in something like the sense that you get at with the "Parable of the Chairs", if chairs were not simply functional but also sacred objects; even then, it's a secondary argument, a position derived to explain why same-sex marriage is wrong.

As far as I can tell, opposition to same-sex marriage isn't very nuanced or different in source from reactions against homosexuality in general. Some people believe that it's wrong; believing, also, that the law should reflect right and wrong, they would require the law to reflect their own beliefs.

Removing punitive laws against homosexuality may be acceptable to these people in a framework of live-and-let-live or "private sin is a matter between God and the sinner", but extending legal recognition to same-sex couples is hard to gloss over. Add in the idea of marriage as a religious contract, and it's not hard to see why some people would take same-sex marriage to be a personal assault on their faith. As much as civil marriage is not legally the same as religious marriage, it's hard to argue that they're not culturally intertwined at this point.


I think your chairs analogy was perfect.

It illustrates very well the idea of traditional limited properties of a chair, versus expanded super-properties. Excellent work!


I think you're totally right about same-sex marriages being seen as a threat to traditional gender roles being key to the anti-marriage viewpoint, but not so much wedding-specifically as just in general.
I read a couple pieces at the "Traditional Values Coalition" (which I will not link to because I felt icky after reading them) that tried hard to work the "gays are transgender-friendly/your children won't even know what sex they are!" angle, presumably since gayness per se is losing force as a self-evident menace. And the core of that awful OSC essay Arthur mentioned seemed to be the "men and women are inherently essentially *different*, each with their own separate vital role to play" angle, even if he didn't use the phrase "God-given sexes" as much as the TVC. Elliot Reed made a persuasive case to me that gay marriage *does* threaten (traditional, conservative) marriage by demonstrating a viable alternate model that works outside of the "God-given" roles... the threat is not that gay marriages won't be stable and successful, but that they will be (leading to heterosexual couples realizing families don't have to have a male "head of the family" and other civilization-destroying things). You might argue that this has already to a large extent happened and that the anti-marriage camp is trying to slam the door on an empty barn, which might explain their desperation...

(On another note entirely, if the wedding is many women's one opportunity to wear a truly over-the-top extravagent dress and own an excessively expensive piece of jewelry in the form of the engagement ring, it's kind of interesting that I can't think off the top of my head of a similar "guy gets to indulge" ritual, like the 40th-birthday parade in which men get to drive a ridiculously luxurious car or something. Is it just me, or are mengetting shortchanged here?)


Well, they do traditionally get the mid-life crisis, when they get to trade in their used tired wife for a younger model trophy wife. Pretty, expensive, and useless. It's sort of like an engagement ring. :-)


[Ah. Okay, so when I post a reply to you on your LiveJournal syndicated feed, it doesn't show up here. Got it.

Well, here's what I wrote a few days ago; I was wondering why I was the only person responding. :)= ]

You wrong-headed wanker! :)=

I like your chair analogy, but I'm not sure it helps me understand the anti-gay-marriage mindset any better. The way I see it, there are lots of people making shoddy wooden chairs that are going to break in two weeks; there are people holding contests in which any schmuck off the street can make a chair for $1,000,000, and then saying the results are just as good as your chairs; many of the people suggesting that we shouldn't be able to make couches and call them "chairs" have already demonstrated that they make crappy chairs themselves, since they're on their third or fourth chair business.

Point being, the chair-making industry is not one I would hold up as an exemplar of craftsmanship right now. If people really think making chairs in the traditional way is so special that it shouldn't be challenged, then they should visit some other traditional chair businesses and see whether or not the industry has termites.

Me, I think some people just really hate leather couches. It's more like your traditional chair-maker is a vegan and can't stand the idea of animal products being part of his industry.

Great post, btw.


I know it's ever so late to comment, but I agree with Susan above that it's in large part about homosexuality itself. And not just about that. As I blog about today, it seems obvious to me that same-sex marriages mean more and better same-sex sex. That may seem ok to you (whoo! WHOOOOOOOO! er, excuse me) but it isn't OK to lots of people.

Particularly since for many people marriage is what makes sex OK; even opposite-sex sex is only made OK by the ring. No chuppie, no shtuppie, you know? And if you let 'them' have a chuppah, well, aren't you telling them it's OK, to, well, er, (whoo!), never mind.

Redintegro Iraq,
-V.