By now, you’ve probably seen a certain political cartoon. It comes in several variants, but the basic premise is always the same. Basically, it juxtaposes a straight person’s adamance in “protecting” his or her marriage from same-sex marriage with obliviousness or willful laziness in regard to those more realistic and immediate threats of their own making, such as adultery, drinking, abusiveness, emotional distance, poor sexual intimacy or compatibility, getting married far too soon or too young, or just the overall rate of divorce amongst straight couples. One version contrasts the “threat” of same-sex marriage against the supposed threat presented by quickie celebrity marriages, such as those of our sacrificial pop culture whipping girls like Kim Kardashian or Britney Spears.
Funny how they’re always mocked for this, but not their husbands. Slut-shaming writ large.
You may have also seen a witty political outreach campaign asserting the message “same-sex marriage does not threaten our marriage” alongside images of happy, committed, loving straight couples. Stephanie and Ben Zvan contributed a particularly adorable image in this series.
The message being conveyed in these cartoons, jokes, and campaigns is that it’s simply absurd and silly for anyone to believe that allowing men to marry men, or women to marry women, poses any kind of threat to a straight person’s marriage, especially when held in contrast to the much more direct threats that are born of their own flaws and vices. This is often followed, in the easy, self-congratulatory tone of the mainstream Whole Foods and NPR liberal, that we’re smart enough to recognize this. We’re much less clueless than those homophobic right-wingers who rally together under the banner of “protecting” the institution or “sanctity” of marriage. We’re smart enough to recognize an actual threat to our marriage, and thus we won’t mistakenly invest our energies in the wrong places and will consequently have much happier, and ultimately more successful, unions. They’re just taking their own miseries out on a vulnerable minority because they can’t accept responsibility for themselves. We’re better than that.
This is to make a fundamental misunderstanding in what is meant by threat.
Honestly, not once have I ever seen an organization like NOM (National Organization for Marriage), or supporters of DOMA (Defense Of Marriage Act), or even your everyday, ground-level homophobe ever once advance the opinion that same-sex marriage is a threat to their marriage in the direct sense of potentially contributing to a divorce. The idea that this is the argument being advanced by opponents of same-sex marriage is a ridiculous, groundless, and dangerous straw-man, that leads us away from where the actual ideological battle is taking place. The idea that would substantiate a campaign like “same-sex marriage does not threaten our marriage” would be that this is meant as an informative, educational tactic, designed to help spread the message that heterosexual couples have nothing to fear from same-sex unions threatening their own, with the image of healthy, “normal” straight couples accompanying the message to help drive it home. But it’s trying to address a belief that no one actually holds, and is thereby wasted effort. Misdirected energy.
No one needs convincing that same-sex marriage won’t lead to a divorce because as a general thing, no one is actually worried about that.
The concept of “sanctity of marriage” gets us much closer to the heart of what it is they mean by “threat” and what exactly it is to they intend to protect or defend, as well as on what field the battle is actually taking place. It’s not the literal aspects of the marriage that are at stake, such as two people who love each other cohabitating and sharing certain legal and fiscal rights and responsibilities. If that were the issue, the term “defense of relationships” could just as easily be swapped in. What’s at stake is the concept of marriage as apart from “mere” relationship. What’s threatened is what marriage means to many of these people. And that meaning is that their union has been explicitly approved, sanctified, blessed, and lifted up above others in the eyes of God and The State. Any two people can fuck each other and share a pad, but we’re married. Our fucking each other and sharing a pad is special.
The institution of marriage in this sense, at least, as it has more or less existed in our culture since it stopped being primarily about kinship and property law, is fundamentally kyriarchal in nature, and deeply intertwined with a whole bundle of social privilege. It’s directly about the normalization of a given union, the conference of an inherently discriminatory institutional blessing (that is defined in these blessings and rights denied to others), and privileging these particular unions above others, as proper, moral, normal, real, just, sacred. Therefore, same-sex marriage, or indeed any step in the direction of granting institutional equity in how intimate relationships are treated or perceived, or even just spreading the privilege around a bit, is a threat to marriage. This particular concept and model of marriage, anyway. The privileged are always threatened, always have something to lose, by that privilege being conferred on others.
This is a big part of why arguments on behalf of protecting traditional marriage inevitably fall back on religion. Religion is one of the only things that can adequately provide a justification for social stratification and institutionally blessing one class of human beings (or, in this case, human relationships) over another. It can’t be ethically justified in the secular sense of ethics, wherein demonstratable and intentional (or conspicuously negligent) harm must be connected to that which is perceived as immoral or wrong. Secularly speaking, social equality is almost inevitably less harmful than stratification, and institutionalized inequality is often considered definitively selfish and unethical. But the Will of God trumps all.
If all intimate relationships were to be perceived as potentially healthy, moral, normal, worthy, valid, and deserving of equitable institutional treatment, the meaning of marriage would fundamentally shift. It would suddenly become exactly what we’ve been pretending it is for ages: a simple symbolic ritual of love and commitment. But in so far as that is all that marriage “really” is, campaigning for marriage equality wouldn’t be necessary in the first place. It’s generally very frowned upon to say so openly, but that’s not really the reason most people get married, and if that were what marriage were to be, many, many people wouldn’t even bother. Many people would be happy to say “Pssh. We don’t particularly need a big ceremony and the blessing of God to prove that we’re in love and are committed to one another”. But in so far as marriage is about the inequal distribution of rights and privileges, it has an actual purpose. Hence the existence of civil ceremonies for some, and big, grand rituals under the eyes of God for others. Asking God, the community, family and The State to sanctify your relationship as ABOVE others. Above what it was before the wedding. Kyriarchally privileged.
Equalizing the distribution of those rights and privileges threatens that purpose. “If any ol’ fags can get married, what’s the damn point? It’s like marriage ain’t even special no more. We need to protect the sanctity of our marriage!”
Where on relationship is held to be sacred, another is held to be profane. When no relationships are seen as profane, none shall be sacred.
Of course homophobia does play a role. Absolutely. That is a large motivation in determining why THIS was where the line was to be drawn, beyond which this iteration of marriage was not to be so symbolically compromised. That THIS was where the battle would be fought. But the homophobia is only gasoline thrown on the fire. It’s not the actual fuel log.
So yes. Same-sex marriage does threaten marriage. It does threaten its sanctity. And it does threaten the current incarnation of what marriage means to us as a culture. Trying to claim otherwise, especially by misdirecting your attentions at a straw-man that never willingly stepped a foot on the battlefield, is not going to mullify anyone or do much of anything to calm the “culture war” brewing around this issue (a war that is, thankfully, temporarily winding down as same-sex marriage equality becomes a legal inevitability… but will most certainly crop back up again the next time a step forward needs to be made in dismantling the inequality inherent to the institution of marriage).
It just so happens that the thing being threatened is something that very much needs to be threatened. The thing they seek to protect and defend is something that needs to done away with.
Privilege and kyriarchy.