Monday, November 26, 2007

Wedding Bell Blues-Same Sex Edition

If you really want to go back to "traditional marriage" based on "biblical precepts" there is going to something of a problem. As Jesus did say that marriage was "until death do us part" that would mean that divorce would have to be outlawed. Really protecting marriage would mean massive interference with personal decisions made by private persons. A truly "protected" institution of marriage would be a hard to get into, hard to get out of arrangement.

Truth is that for most of our time on earth we have no real idea of how our forebears managed their sleeping arrangements. We can guess because modern science tell us that majority of humans are exclusively heterosexual while minority are not. Sexology infers that recreational sex, sex for love, sex for pleasure, is a lot more complex than Adam and Eve in the missionary position. How those hunter-gatherers dealt with those facts is anybody’s guess. Those “traditions” are lost to us. Other traditions are much better documented, human sacrifice is long and well documented tradition in both the written record and in pre-historical archeology. Strangely no one is agitating for the return of that tradition. Neither is anyone calling for a return to the tradition of slavery, even though the Bible is very supportive of bondage. The US had a very long tradition of lynching that has fallen by the wayside why isn’t that being addressed? It seems that some traditions are more equal than others.

If we were truly honest about such things we would recognize the real 'tradition," the real default setting for reproductive sex among humans is cohabitation. For most of our 150,000 years as a species we cohabitated. Cohabitation and the extended family provided the means for us to be fruitful and multiply. Remember, before the Victorian age it was rare for a child to be raised to adulthood by both sets of parents.

Most relationships while monogamous were short lived. Both men and women died, leaving their partners looking for their next mate. It was not uncommon for a child to end up being raise by Aunts and Uncles or other members of the extended family.

The need for marriage did not even occur until the agricultural revolution. Before that hunter-gatherer societies did not have enough excess production to worry about. Property, such as it was, limited and highly portable. Staying put on a piece of land was not an option; inheritance of land was a non-starter. Only with agriculture did the passing down of a piece of land become an option. Only with a staid, settled existence could one build a permanent shelter where excess goods could be stored.

As the agricultural revolution transformed culture into civilization the old egalitarianism gave way to hierarchical structures of the ancient peoples. Power and land became concentrated in the hands of the elite. Institutions were created to perpetuate the power of those elites; one of which was marriage.

Striped of its romantic halo, marriage was a way to transfer money and power from one generation of elites to the next. As both money and power were tied to the land, marriage became a way of getting and protecting landed estates. Marriage also became a way to perpetuate or advance political dynastic rule. Marriage was for the rich and powerful; it was neither commonly known nor used among the vast peasant masses. This was especially true for the vast slave conscripts who helped the ancient world run smoothly. But freeman or slave rural or urban, the masses of poor had very little contact with the institution of marriage. Even as late as the Victorian age the urban and rural poor still adhered to the pre-historical “tradition” of shacking up. Unwed motherhood was the norm for most of Europe right up to WWI. It was the great Victorian reformers who brought marriage and chastity to the heathen masses of the late 1800’s. The good and godly middle-classes of the Victorian age finally brought both cleanliness and probity to what had been a very dirty and randy working class. Traditional marriage, marriage as a right that all “proper” people participated in is very new idea.

Even newer is the idea of marriage for romantic love. For a practical peasant, one’s choice for a mate rested on more mundane matters than cupids’ whimsies. Romantic love played a small to non-existent role in his choice for a partner. For the middle classes and elites marriage was all about getting the right connections to further your families aims. What was once was a lucky bonus to a match has been moved center stage. Odder still is the addition came just at a time when modern medicine changed the life expectancy of the couple.

Before the great Victorian clean up most marriages were short. Disease and the general hazards of life meant that one or both partners died sooner rather than later. The public health revolution of the 1800’s changed that equation. Before the revolution cities only grew thanks to a population explosion in the country-side. Without fresh recruits, the cities population would shrink, their citizens died at a greater pace then they reproduced. Thanks to modern sanitation that changed in the 1800’s, Cholera, Malaria, Dysentery, and other plagues were stopped or slowed down via efforts to provide clean water. Lives were saved by the simple measure of cleaning up and removing garbage. Inoculation programs put an end to childhood killers while food purity programs improved the health of all. For the first time major cities had natural internal growth and were self-sustaining, all thanks to the rapid decrease in illness and death brought about by public sanitation reforms.

Every sliver lining has a cloud though; longer life spans meant longer relationships. Marriages that could have survived a standard 7-14 year shelf live of the pre-Victorian era now had to go the distance of 30 to 60 years. This state of affairs lasted about 50 to 60 years. In the last half of the 20th century, the overdue correction occurred: Divorce laws were reformed. The “Tradition” of a romantic union destined to last from the participants 20’s to perhaps their 80’s ran straight into the reality of far too many miserable folks who were looking for an escape hatch. Jesus’ injunction of “until death do you part” became the state’s less rigorous “as long as you can put up with each other.”

This is the state of marriage that same-sex couples found it in. It is a highly touted state of being deeply entwined in the idea of romantic love. The mythos is of finding that one special someone who you will complete you and support you until the end of your days. You and your special someone are supposed to grow together ever deepening in your love as time passes by. It is the idea of the house with a white-picket fence and the two adorable children. It is a powerful myth, so powerful that some very odd folk are trying to push back the gate of that picket fence. There are more than a few same-sex partners who want the whole Ward-and-June Cleaver package: kids, dog, PTA meetings, min-van in garage, etc. Others just want the same goodies their heterosexual colleges get from their long-term monogamous relationship. They are not into the 2.5 children and prefer sportier transportation than their more staid fellows. Other than who they hop in to bed with they are just like other DINKs (double income no kids) in the population.

The rub really is who these people are, or more to the point who they have sex with. Take away the issue of bedmates and there is no issue. It is just another long-term monogamist relationship based on the ideal of romantic love. It has about as much chance of working or not working as a heterosexual relationship. It isn’t about kids, there are married folks who never have kids, never mind the post-menopausal women, and tottering seniors we allow to get hitched. It is a little late to get finicky about who meets the marriage criterion. If we bar people from marriage because we find their sex-lives icky that leads to a place we really don’t want to go. Can we then ban marriage between morbidly obese people? Don’t people find the idea of obese people getting jiggy icky? How long before we go back to the idea of miscegenation? If marriage is about monogamous love, commitment, and companionship, then everybody gets to play. Equal protection is for everyone.

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