Definitions: Gay Marriage Can't be Real?

The Definition of Marriage Can't be Changed for Gay Couples

Gay Marriage
Gay Marriage. Justin Sullivan, Getty Images News

Some argue that marriage is defined narrowly as only being between a man and a woman, so gays can’t possibly marry. The fact is, though, that the nature of marriage has changed in definition and make-up many times over the centuries. Marriage today isn’t at all like what it was two millennia or even two centuries ago. The changes in marriage have been broad and fundamental, so what are traditionalists trying to defend? What is “traditional” about modern marriage?

Most of these changes have moved power in marriage away from the families and to the couples, as well as making women more equal. Let’s look at just a few of the most significant changes in marriage in the West over the past centuries:

  • Legalization of divorce
  • Criminalization of marital rape (and recognition that the concept even exists)
  • Legalization of contraception
  • Legalization of interracial marriage
  • Recognition of women’s right to own property in a marriage
  • Elimination of dowries
  • Elimination of parents’ right to choose or reject their children’s mates
  • Elimination of childhood marriages and betrothals
  • Elimination of polygamy
  • Existence of large numbers of unmarried people
  • Women not taking the last names of their husbands
  • Changing emphasis from money and property to love and personal fulfillment

It is worth noting just how many of these reforms directly benefited women. For a long time, marriage was not in any way a real “partnership” between men and women. Men were in control and women were often little more than property. It’s only very, very recently that people in the West began to treat marriage as a partnership between equals where both men and women had the same status in the relationship — and there continue to be many in America who object to even this idea.

Why was it acceptable in the past to make so many reforms in the nature of marriage that ultimately benefitted heterosexuals and women, but not acceptable now to make one reform that benefits gays? Is there any reason to think that all of these other reforms were somehow more “minor” or “superficial” than legalizing gay marriage? No — making women equal in marriage rather than property, eliminating polygamy, and allowing people to marry for love are all at least as significant as allowing gay couples to marry, especially since ​gay marriage is not unheard of in human history.

The last change in the list above is the most important: throughout of Western history, marriage has been primarily about unions which made good economic sense. Rich people married other rich people in order to solidify political alliances and economic futures. Poor people married other poor people with whom they thought they could create a livable future — someone who was a hard worker, reliable, strong, etc. Love existed, but it was a minor consideration next to simply surviving.

Today, the relative positions of the two have switched. Economic issues aren’t totally irrelevant, and few people rush to marry someone who appears unreliable and with no economic future. At the same time, though, romantic love has been made the most important basis for marriage. When was the last time you saw someone praised for marrying for economic considerations? People marry for love and personal fulfillment — and that’s what’s driving divorce, because when love disappears and/or one no longer feels personally fulfilled, they see little reason to continue the marriage. In the past, such changes would have been irrelevant given the importance of economic survival and familial pressures.

In 1886, a Judge Valentine ruled that two free-love activists, Lillian Harman and Edwin Walker, did not have a valid marriage even under common-law rules because their union did not fulfill the traditional characteristics. The “essentials” of marriage which Valentine listed included: life-long commitment, a wife’s obedience to the husband, the husband’s absolute control over all property, the wife taking the husband’s last name, the right of the husband to force sexual intercourse on an unwilling wife (that would be rape, by the way), and the right of the husband to control and have custody of any children.

Valentine's decision mirrors the arguments made by opponents of gay marriage today. His sincerity and conviction were no less than the sincerity and conviction of those who claim that a valid marriage, by definition, cannot exist for same-sex couples. The things which Valentine regarded as absolutely essential and indispensable to marriage are today unnecessary for most who marry. Thus it's not enough for opponents of gay marriage to simply assert that it would be contrary to the definition of marriage. Instead, they must explain why it is essential to the definition of marriage that a couple must consist of different sexes, and moreover why a change to include gay couples would be any less valid (or any more of a danger) than the changes we've experienced since Valentine's day.