If a group of people lined up to board the Titanic as it were sinking, you would say they were irrational. If these people were denied admission to the sinking Titanic because of race, creed, or sexual orientation, and then became angry over this discrimination, you would not even know what to say. “Of course,” you might say, “it’s irrational to deny admission for these reasons. But why would anyone want to embark on a sinking ship in the first place?”
The issue of “gay marriage” has erupted into the leading post-election issue. This is incredible when one considers our continuing struggle against terrorism and the imminent collapse of entitlement programs such as Social Security. The dispute we are witnessing is not really about homosexuality, nor even about the nature of romantic love. Although some who oppose gay marriage are anti-gay, not all are. Some who support President Bush’s constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage, including President Bush himself, simultaneously support legal civil unions for homosexual couples.
President Bush and people who agree with him don’t care if gay people get married. They just don’t want to call it marriage. This proves that the dispute is over “the institution of marriage.” This institution of marriage, according to religious conservatives, is what must be preserved at all cost. This, according to gay rights and other liberal activists, is what must be granted to everyone, at all costs.
My question is this: why does anyone even want to defend the “institution of marriage” as we presently know it? I understand that romantic love is a profoundly important thing for human beings. I understand that voluntarily entered, non-coercive arrangements surrounding long-term love relationships must also be treated with respect by a just government. But one would hope that these legal arrangements can be implemented through much more rational means than the current “institution of marriage” has so far delivered.
Marriage, as we know it, leads to a fifty percent or higher divorce rate; a sense of emotional baggage when one or both partners realize they made a mistake and now must make some attorney rich to get out of it; a feeling of obligation to act by vaguely defined, traditionally held roles that might or might not be rational to fulfill yet somehow must be fulfilled if one is to be a “good” person. Marriage, as we know it, is based on the ancient as well as modern idea that the essence of love is self-sacrifice, instead of mutual satisfaction delivered to two people simply by being who they are.
It seems to me that clinging to the “institution of marriage” is an attempt to escape responsibility. Escape from what? From the obligation of two people who come together to define their specific expectations of each other and, as necessary, codify them in writing from the beginning of the long-range relationship. Instead of determining what one wants and taking responsibility for communicating this to one’s partner early on in the relationship, too many married people look to “the marital institution” to define for them what they should have taken on themselves in the first place. They are disappointed more often than not, and too often marriage becomes a source of strife and unhappiness. The ethics of unstated, unanalyzed and never discussed “tradition” replaces the ethics of clear thinking, honesty, and communication. Check out the results.
If intelligent aliens landed on earth tomorrow, not to attack us but simply to understand the human species, what would you tell them about marriage? Would you call it a successful, fabulous institution that brings happiness to most people who engage in it? If so, how would you explain the divorce rate and the majorities of people who say they are unhappy with their spouses?
I am certainly not against the idea of committed, genuinely loving relationships between two people who love each other and want to provide a legal basis for their relationship. But let’s get real: marriage as we know it is a sinking ship. The current struggle over whether or not gay people should also be allowed onto that ship evades the fact that the ship is sinking. Look around you. More than half of married people are overtly unhappy. This is why they divorce. Many more are quietly so, only not yet ready to acknowledge it to themselves or others.
“Institutions” refer to prisons, courthouses and psychiatric hospitals. Love is not a building or an abstract duty to some undefined, unarticulated notion of tradition for tradition’s sake, as President Bush seems to view it. Love is the personal and mutual enjoyment of two people. Their sense of commitment flows from this love. Commitment is a consequence, not a cause. Gay couples should be happy to create their own civil unions without the baggage of existing notions of marriage. Heterosexual couples would do well to follow them.