I wrote an essay for this space five years ago regarding gay marriage, asking Oregon to extend domestic partnerships to heterosexual couples. I argued that the stigma of “separate but equal” was real and that the state could end its contribution cleanly. I wrote, “As long as the domestic partnership license is ‘in all ways legally equivalent’ to marriage, then the state’s needs are met. Government can step aside and let the churches, synagogues, and mosques sort out who can be married and who can’t.”
Much has changed in five years.
Gay marriage is now allowed in nine states. Public opinion points toward increasing acceptance. TIME Magazine’s cover this week displayed two men close up for a kiss, with a headline that claims the battle is already won. The Supreme Court literally held court on the topic last week. Attitudes are shifting quickly and our language is not quite keeping up, making the judges’ work extremely difficult.
Society is held together by laws, but laws rely on language. In the span of two generations, the word “gay” has shifted from favorable (meaning happy) to unfavorable (homosexual) to neutral (homosexual).
While gay pride parades were deliberately remaking the word “gay,” we failed to notice that “marriage” transforming itself in equally radical ways.
When America’s economy was mostly agrarian, marriage conveyed property. Property and economic security were inseparable. Every partner was a business partner. Divorce was rare, at least in the working classes, because the specter of destitution was real.
Families worked their land for sustenance. Children were raised to provide more hands. Families were large out of economic necessity. Children — the ones who survived — cared for their family’s elders. When the children were unwilling or unable to care for the exiting generation, outcomes sometimes became gruesome.
After the Great Depression, our nation mobilized its resources to form a bulwark against the horror of elders literally starving to death. President Franklin Roosevelt promised social security to America. We agreed, and those two words became capitalized. With it, the nation began collectivizing elder care.
A quarter century later, Medicare completed the pact. These two changes in society completely reinvented marriage in less than a generation. It’s no longer a societal pact that sanctions procreation, puts children to work on the family farm, shares in the breadwinner’s company pension, or draws on progeny’s resources as life nears its end.
Our parents or grandparents knew for themselves and counseled those who would listen that marriage was meant to keep you safe — from exhaustion, starvation or disrepute.
Industrialization ended exhaustion. Social Security ended starvation. Disrepute still remains in some circles, but not for much longer.
The state’s interest in marriage was clear when it was the mechanism used to convey property, wealth and security. It’s difficult to grasp that only a little more than a century ago, children and wives were considered property themselves! Today, property is controlled or conveyed in other ways. Marriage often has nothing to do with it.
What had been an institution promoting economic stability has become something else altogether. It’s taken another generation to begin to say what marriage is becoming.
We were raised in households where marriage was considered the most reliable instrument for economic security. Our grandparents weathered hard times in their marriages by silently reminding themselves, “I’m not happy, but at least I’m not hungry.” When we eliminated the second half of that sentence, marriage lost its historical imperative.
Is it any wonder that divorce is so common? The ground beneath us began shifting in the 1960s, but nobody told us. Marriage was seen as important enough that it should be preserved and promoted, but not for its original reasons. “Till death do us part” became “until further notice.”
Fidelity hasn’t changed — marriage has.
Right or wrong, it’s now seen as a reliable vehicle to achieve personal happiness and fulfillment. Divorce rates cause some to question that perception, but we’re in a cultural maelstrom. It’s too soon to know what new social good marriage might help promote.
It’s not too soon to say that homosexuals have every right to share that hope with conventional couples.
Don Kahle (firstname.lastname@example.org) writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard.