I want to be married. I want to make a vow. I want to go where someone else goes, to dwell where they dwell, to have my bones buried, finally, where their bones are buried. When Ruth said these words to Naomi 3,000 years ago, they meant essentially the same thing they do today, when Ruth’s utterly unconventional, daring vows are used in many Jewish and Christian wedding ceremonies. Her vows were socially outrageous then not because they were made by one woman to another but because the promise was extended by a person of a relatively privileged ethnicity and nation, who proposed taking on dire poverty and stateless status to be with the other. But in fact, there’s a sense in which all marriages, gay and straight, partake of this radical proposition. Marriage is about making a beloved alien one of mine, flesh of my flesh. Marriage means taking someone unrelated by blood into our family, for good.
The paradox, both for Ruth in 1000 BC and for me, a lesbian who would dearly love to get married, is that family itself is a profoundly atavistic concept. In fact, socialists and feminists through the centuries have had simply terrific reasons for wanting to get rid of it. (1) It’s brutal. All over the world, families are violent and abusive–at least an extraordinary percentage of them are–and family status is used from Manhattan to Montevideo as permission for violence. (2) Throughout history, family has been the linchpin of a pervasive social view that encourages favoring one’s own bloodline, tribe, race and nation above all others. There’s clearly something muddle-headed about apportioning rights, wealth and the promise of care for children, sick people and elders based on shared genetic heritage alone. (3) Family, even today, tethers women to childcare, and in some places to sexual slavery.
Family sucks, in loads of ways. No question. But fortunately or unfortunately, we have never found anything to take its place. Nothing has ever been tried as an alternative that has caused less misery than the family. Many of the alternatives–for raising children at least–seem to have caused substantially more. (Consider the history of most orphanages, institutions for physically or mentally disabled children and group homes for New Jersey foster care or Cultural Revolution-transplanted children in China.) We seem to be stuck with the family, at least for a long while. And granted this, I want to invite somebody I love into mine.
But I don’t want to be used as part of someone’s picture of respectability, responsibility or “maturity” just because I want to marry. I’m still angry at forces on the left that use “family” as a synonym for legitimate, proper, worthy, even working class (like New York’s influential Working Families Party). In fact, the enshrinement of family and marriage oppresses singles, childless people and the happily promiscuous (or poly-amorous) with a moralistic and ridiculously unitary vision of the way people ought to live.
Thankfully, gay marriage is part of a world-historical change in the social meaning of marriage and family, one that will likely make it easier and easier for people to stay single. Beginning with wage income for women and picking up steam with accessible contraception and abortion, more equitable divorce laws and daycare, the family has gotten freer. More recently, step-families, adoption, unmarried committed partners, even families made up of platonic, unrelated friends (wasn’t there a recent TV series about this?) have been socially normalized. Family is at once more open to definition by individuals and, except economically, better supported by the government (through child abuse laws and laws against marital rape, divorce and child custody reform, domestic partnership and now gay marriage). Even more important, family has become elective, at least for people at most income levels.
So why do I want to marry? For love. I believe that, in this world where all we have is our own mind, groping toward something good, two minds together–committed to each other’s happiness and passionate about wanting to continue their relation–add up to something holy.
So take away my card as a good materialist. I don’t care.
I once believed, with certain left historians, that romantic love was invented by troubadours in thirteenth-century France. Either that or by capitalism. I no longer believe this. Capitalism has almost certainly enabled more people to marry for love than ever before, but romantic love has been with us since Sappho wrote “I have not had one word from her./Frankly I wish I were dead,” since Jonathan loved David with a love David thought “surpassed the love of women.”
Sure, capitalism, with its movies and advertising, and its need to create at least imagined havens from its depredations, has made us all want love, not to mention wild, constant sex. But romantic love, like sexual desire, may be an essential human trait.
As Bronski Beat sang, I feel love. So why would that make me want to marry? Today more than ever, marriage is an imaginative, hopeful, self-directed act of family-creation, ex nihilo. For both gays and straights, it is a bold assertion of vision against the odds, to try to stay together, to attempt to deal with all the difficulties that people in relationships confront, because of a subjective bond that two people feel.
Why make it legal? I want to have an unquestioned right, in all fifty states, to visit my partner in the hospital, to make medical decisions if she is incapacitated, to have equal rights to raise our children, if we have any and then split up. I want not to have to testify against her in a court of law, and to rest secure in the knowledge that I can inherit from her or she from me (heterosexual family members frequently, and successfully, challenge the wills of gay relatives in court, forcing surviving partners to leave homes they’ve lived in for thirty years).
If I take the risk and marry, I need and want recognition by society that this person is part of my family, in fact the closest part. That we have become, by our own election, and with nobody else’s input, a tribe.
This is the way to have our family, and smash it too.