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wedding rings

photo by Rodrigo Valladares

Marriage in current popular understanding is nothing more – or less – than two people making a public commitment to “share their lives” for the foreseeable future. That is, to share some degree of some or all of the following categories: time; living space; reproduction/adoption, custody, and care of children; income and expenses; financial assets and liabilities; the rights and responsibilities of next-of-kinship; and oh, right, sex and romance. And that little thing called love . . .

Which of these categories are shared and to what degree they are shared is, in this pop culture understanding of marriage, up to the individuals involved.

So if two people love each other enough to want to live together for the foreseeable future, sharing living expenses, responsibility for replacing empty toilet paper rolls, trips to the ER, holidays with each others’ exasperating relatives, and wrenching end-of-life decisions, why is there a big hullabaloo over whether or not to give them the legal recognition of a marriage license if that’s what they want?

Because marriage has never been for them.

It’s always been for their kids.

We just happen to have forgotten that over the last few decades, thanks largely to contraception, no-fault divorce, abortion, and a lack of oversight for reproductive innovation, all of which have helped reduce sex to a sort of crave-able gymnastics in which babies and even bonding can be set neatly aside when not wanted . . . except when one or both show up on one side or the other, uninvited. Or fail to show up when they’re finally sought.

Meanwhile, marriage has been reduced to something that exists for personal fulfillment.

Marriage. Established so that when a man and a woman have sex, any baby conceived (“intended” or otherwise) will grow up knowing Dad as well as Mom (the mother having historically been something of a foregone conclusion). So that, barring death, there will be a stable two-adult environment for the feeding, clothing, nurturing, disciplining, and educating of this child from infancy through full maturation. So that this child will have both a stable, long-term male and a stable, long-term female model for how to relate to each gender, and for how each gender relates to the other in what is likely to remain a hetero-normative society.

Yes, more same-sex couples are increasingly parents, too – adopting, conceiving through IVF, hiring surrogates, etc. But this doesn’t resolve issues – it just raises more.

The argument for same-sex marriage hinges on the distinctiveness of gender – that this man is barred from marrying because he is a man who is only attracted to and loves other men with the type of attraction and love that marriage seems to call for. Or this woman is barred from marrying because those she loves and is attracted to are other women.

And it has to be an argument based on gender. If the argument is simply, “I love this person and no other,” and the gender of the other is incidental, then discrimination based on sexual orientation is not really the issue.

But somehow the distinct, irreplaceable nature of gender has become central when it comes to the argument for marriage – that gays and lesbians are barred from marriage simply because they are attracted only to those of their own gender – but completely written off when it comes to children.

On the one hand: If a woman is only attracted to women, not to men, the argument is that she should be free to marry a woman. Gender and its distinguishing features – the ways in which women are different from men – is central.

On the other hand: A mom and a dad; two daddies; two mommies – the important thing, the argument goes, is two people who love each other. Gender and its distinguishing features – the ways in which men are different from women – is irrelevant.

Gender: central or irrelevant?

Marriage isn’t for us. It’s for our kids.