by the stormy present
Mon Nov 26th, 2007 at 04:28:48 AM EST
NY Times op-ed: Taking Marriage Private
WHY do people -- gay or straight -- need the state's permission to marry? For most of Western history, they didn't, because marriage was a private contract between two families. The parents' agreement to the match, not the approval of church or state, was what confirmed its validity.
Hmmm. Good question.
Let's think about it -- the right wing marketistas want privatization of everything, right? Well, not really. Turns out less regulation of business is good, but more regulation of personal lives.
I have some personal issues with this whole idea that we have to be married anyway. What difference does a piece of paper make?
But that's been the way it's done. Come on, you know the old song by Mr. Fourth-Time's-the-Charm, right?
Love and Marriage
Love and marriage
Go together like a horse and carriage
This I'll tell you, brother
You can't have one without the other....
Truth is, for most of history even in the so-called "West," marriage was a contract, a matter of convenience and utility, not a matter of love anyway. This was true even for my own grandparents. It's still true for many people in most of the world, including where I now live.
Back to the NYT:
Not until the 16th century did European states begin to require that marriages be performed under legal auspices. In part, this was an attempt to prevent unions between young adults whose parents opposed their match.
The American colonies officially required marriages to be registered, but until the mid-19th century, state supreme courts routinely ruled that public cohabitation was sufficient evidence of a valid marriage. By the later part of that century, however, the United States began to nullify common-law marriages and exert more control over who was allowed to marry.
Well, why on Earth would they do that?
By the 1920s, 38 states prohibited whites from marrying blacks, "mulattos," Japanese, Chinese, Indians, "Mongolians," "Malays" or Filipinos. Twelve states would not issue a marriage license if one partner was a drunk, an addict or a "mental defect." Eighteen states set barriers to remarriage after divorce.
In the mid-20th century, governments began to get out of the business of deciding which couples were "fit" to marry. Courts invalidated laws against interracial marriage, struck down other barriers and even extended marriage rights to prisoners.
Of course! To keep all those brown people from contaminating their oh-so-pure "white" bloodlines. Nothing inspires the Right into legislation better than naked racism.
At the same time, the state started using marriage "as a way of distributing resources to dependents," to prove who has a "right" to what.
In the 1950s, using the marriage license as a shorthand way to distribute benefits and legal privileges made some sense because almost all adults were married. Cohabitation and single parenthood by choice were very rare.
Today, however, possession of a marriage license tells us little about people's interpersonal responsibilities.
Even in the conservative USA, many private companies already realize this, and provide health insurance to "domestic partners."
Possession of a marriage license is no longer the chief determinant of which obligations a couple must keep, either to their children or to each other. But it still determines which obligations a couple can keep -- who gets hospital visitation rights, family leave, health care and survivor's benefits. This may serve the purpose of some moralists. But it doesn't serve the public interest of helping individuals meet their care-giving commitments.
Perhaps it's time to revert to a much older marital tradition. Let churches decide which marriages they deem "licit." But let couples -- gay or straight -- decide if they want the legal protections and obligations of a committed relationship.
A fine idea, as far as I'm concerned, but somehow I don't envision the moralizing right-wingers -- for all their rhetoric about individual responsibility and reducing the "burden" of the State -- buying into the idea that who we choose to share our lives (and benefits) with is just nobody's business but our own.