The other day I was listening to yet another Christian conservative parrot the tired mantra about how liberals are trying to change the definition of marriage. My first thought was that if marriage equality changes your definition of marriage, you’ve been using a bad definition of marriage. And that got me thinking about the various definitions of marriage, and how they compare with one another.
If you think about it, marriage is first and foremost a relationship between individuals. Nowadays, we tend to think of it as a relationship specifically between two individuals, but in some cultural contexts—e.g. Mormonism, Islam, and Old Testament Judaism—it could be more than two. But primarily, essentially, it’s a relationship between individuals.
It makes sense, therefore, to define marriage in terms of what the relationship between those individuals is and/or should be. You can have a strict definition of marriage, in which the individuals are obligated to remain married to one another so long as they both shall live, and are forbidden from marrying or having sexual/romantic relationships with anyone else. Or you can have a less strict definition that allows for the possibility of divorce under certain conditions, and those conditions can vary from very stringent to very loose, resulting in a range of definitions of marriage. You can even have an “open” marriage, where all parties are officially married, but are nonetheless free to participate in sexual/romantic relationships outside of the marriage.
The point is, these are all definitions of marriage that focus on the true nature of what marriage is. Marriage is a relationship between individuals, and therefore these definitions of marriage delineate what the boundaries and obligations and benefits of that relationship ought to be. That makes sense. The definition of a thing ought to be a description of what the thing is.
The homophobic definition, however, is not just a different description of a relationship between individuals. The homophobic definition of marriage is about dividing society. In the homophobic definition, society is to be divided into two groups: the heterosexuals, who are to be praised as being “normal” and rewarded with the opportunity to experience the benefits and privileges of marrying the ones they love, versus the homosexuals, who are to be spurned as sinful and immoral, and denied the opportunity to experience the benefits and privileges of marrying the ones they love. Hence, the “defense” of marriage is defined in terms of maintaining the repression instead of in terms of addressing things that actually threaten the relationships of married people.
That’s just a twisted definition of marriage. It’s not about relationships at all, but rather about the separation of privileged classes from unprivileged classes. Marriage should be defined in terms of who it unites, not who it divides. It should specify the relationship between individuals who love, not the discrimination and oppression practiced by those who hate. A good definition of marriage should be about the marriage itself, not about divisive political agendas designed to entrench the domination of the majority.
So like I said, if marriage equality changes your definition of marriage, you’re using a bad definition. Use a definition that describes the relationship itself, rather than obsessing over who’s privileged enough to be allowed access to it, and you won’t have to change your definition when bigotry goes out of style.