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What Is Marriage Anyway?
by Richard D. Mohr
© 1996, Richard D. Mohr


Many more people are talking about marriage than seem to know what it means.

The Republican presidential candidates kicked off this year’s primary season with a nationally televised anti-gay marriage rally in Des Moines. Before an audience of three thousand, one candidate after the other strode to the podium to sign a pledge to save marriage from gay rights. President Clinton used the rally as occasion to reaffirm his own opposition to gay marriage.

Legislatures in twenty-three states are currently at various stages in advancing bills that if passed would bar the recognition of out-of-state same-sex marriages. This legislative ground-swell comes in response to a 1993 decision of Hawaii’s Supreme Court which broadly hinted that it will eventually legalize gay marriage in the Aloha State.

Both the Iowa candidates’ so-called “Marriage Protection Resolution” and these anti-gay marriage bills follow the traditional legal definition of marriage, which holds that marriage is "the union of one man and one woman as husband and wife."

But this definition (as the Hawaii Court noted) is vacuous and circular. It defines marriage in terms of husband and wife, but husbands and wives are simply opposite-sex people who are joined in marriage. No explanation is given of what constitutes the union that is marriage, and so no explanation is given for why a marriage’s partners must be of different sexes.

Sometimes judges and legislators have tried to give marriage a functional definition by claiming that its defining purpose is childbearing and rearing. But any definition that tethers marriage to procreation is at once too narrow and too wide. On the one hand, we let people over sixty marry, though their unions will be childless. And on the other, we deny legal marital status to certain extremely fertile unions — polygamous ones. The Hawaii Court also noted this definitional failing, but then punted. It offered no definition of marriage of its own.

If you ask people on the street what marriage is, they just get tongue-tied. And our litigative and political leaders too have not been very forthcoming on what they think marriage is. They treat the issue of gay marriage simply as one of equal access: if the government is handing out widgets or thingamajigs to heterosexuals, then we had better get some too — or so it goes. Surprisingly little public discourse has gone into figuring out what marriage is and why government should have a role in it.

What then is marriage after all? To put it somewhat poetically, marriage is intimacy given substance in the medium of everyday life, the day-to-day. Marriage is the fused intersection of love’s sanctity and necessity’s demand.

We do not count as marriages great loves, like Antony and Cleopatra or Catherine and Heathcliff, whose loves burn gloriously but too intensely ever to be manifest in a medium of breakfasts and tire-changes. Neither do we count roommates, even "domestic partners," as married if all that they do is share the common necessities of life (food, housing, and the like). Marriage requires the presence and blending of both necessity and intimacy.

Now, life’s necessities are a mixed fortune: they are frequently drag, dross, and cussedness, yet they can constitute opportunity, abidingness, and the prospect of nurture. They are the field across which, the medium through which, and the ground from which the intimacies which we consider marital flourish, blossom, and come to fruition.

This required blending of intimacy and the everyday explains much of the legal content of marriage — including its various privacy rights, like the spousal immunity against compelled testimony, and a vast array of protections against the occasions when necessity is cussed rather than opportune, especially when life is marked by changed circumstance — crisis, illness, and destruction.

Currently society and its discriminatory impulse make gay coupling very difficult. Still, even against oppressive odds, gays have shown an amazing tendency to nest. The portraits of gay and lesbian committed relationships that emerge from ethnographic studies, like Kath Weston’s Families We Choose (1991), suggest that in the ways gay and lesbian couples arrange their lives, they fulfill the definition of marriage in an exemplary manner. Both the development of intimacy through choice and the proper valuing of love are interwoven in the day-to-day activities of gay couples. Choice improves intimacy. It makes sacrifices meaningful. It gives love its proper weight.

Those lesbian and gay males couples who have survived the odds show that the structure of more usual couplings is not a matter of destiny, but of personal responsibility. The so-called basic unit of society turns out not to be a unique atom, but can adopt different parts and be adapted to different needs. Given, then, the nature of marriage and the nature of gay relations, it is time for the law to let them merge.


© 1996, Richard D. Mohr
Richard D. Mohr is Professor of Philosophy at the
University of Illinois - Urbana, and the author of
A More Perfect Union: Why straight America must stand up for gay rights.


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