I've heard a lot of rumours about 'the gays'. Haven't you? You know the ones about how promiscuous they are, out at the clubs all the time or in the park committing lewd acts with strangers and the like.* I mean, gosh, it's just all about the sex with these people. Isn't it?
Imagine my surprise then, to find out just how many loving, devoted same-sex couples there are out there wanting to stand before their family, friends and all the world, and marry. They want to make a beautiful and binding commitment that ties them together romantically and legally. What could these crazy folk be thinking? Why it's just like they're really in love or something...**
I've been reading a lot lately on Proposition 8. Basically Proposition 8 will, if passed, define 'marriage' in California law as being 'between a man and woman'. I've heard various opinions on the whole same-sex marriage subject. Some people claim that civil unions afford gay couples all the same rights under the law. I've certainly heard much to the contrary.
I've also read that marriage is sacred and that any redefinition of the law will besmirch the sanctity of the union. This to me is an ugly claim. Did it hurt marriage when the law was changed so that people of the same race could marry? Did you know that the original suffragettes wanted the vote (and other things that represented independence and equality for women) because they felt it would improve the institution of marriage. They argued that if women were independent ~ able for example to work and own property in their own name ~ they would marry by choice and not because they were dependent on marrying in order to survive. Prior to these developments marriage was like a union between a man and his property (in terms of how it played out in law. Obviously there would have been good marriages, too). Does that sound sacred to you? Do you think we lost something when a husband ceased to 'own' his wife? Both of these legal redefinitions fundamentally changed the perception of what marriage could and couldn't be and caused an uproar among conservatives during their time.
Now you have to understand that this issue is a difficult one for me. I've been a member of the Mormon church for most of my life (my parents joined when I was six years old) and for most of that time I was willing to accept what I was told at face value. Although this fundamentally changed for me about a year ago, I'm still attending church and still feel strongly about many of the values I learned there. But the Church's stance on Proposition 8 makes me angry. And on reflection I'm angry about the history preceding it, too. The history of institutionalised preservation of prejudice and unfair denial of equality where equality should or does already exist.***
I was shocked several years ago to find out that the Church (and some of the women in it) had actively worked against the Equal Rights Amendment. The 'wisdom' there was that giving women equal rights (including equal pay for equal work) would encourage women to work outside the home and 'abandon' their families. The myriad insulting implications of that thinking I do not want to delve into, but the one that I will point out is the idea that a woman's decision in relation to her marriage/work/life should not be determined by her own choice, but rather by a legalised dependence on her husband's good will.
Even after 1978, when the status of black people changed dramatically in the Church, marriage between people of different races was openly discouraged. When I heard about this, sometime in the 80s at an Institute class, it was explained to me in terms of culture, and by a man who was himself married to a woman of a different race. He explained that their bishop had told them it was not advisable for them to marry (though he did in the end support their decision and perform the ceremony) because marriage was hard enough even when you were starting on the same page culturally. Because there really were some huge hurdles for them to overcome in their very different perspectives on marriage and raising kids, this had come to sound like reasonable advice to him. And to me at the time as he explained it. Now I look back and think 'wtf?' That was a crock of shit and the fact that a man in a mixed-race marriage was feeding it to me shouldn't have made it smell any sweeter. Race and the POSSIBLE cultural differences it implies is just one of a LOT of things that can cause chasms of misunderstanding to be overcome in a marriage (different views on how to handle money immediately springs to mind).
And what of marriage itself? In a world where morality seems to be disintegrating and many people (with the obvious exceptions we all know who did all they could) seem to prefer divorce to any kind of work or sacrifice or compromise in order to help a relationship function effectively and lovingly, it is perhaps those who have been denied marriage who show a deeper commitment to it. I'm not referring to the straight people out there who value and work at their marriage. I'm talking about the growing percentage of straight society that don't bother with marriage, who feel that they 'don't need a piece of paper to prove their love' and those who do marry but never really respect that marriage tie ~ whether by failing to do the hard work it takes to maintain a successful marriage or by refusing to stay faithful to their spouse even though they entered marriage with that promise and intent.
My point is not that 'everyone must marry' or even that everyone should value it the same way. But think it's true to say that marriage as an institution does not have the same value in our society any more. For those of us who still think it is a beautiful and valuable thing, this seems like a shame, this diminishing of marriage. Yet here are the lawmakers in California and other places, trying to discourage and hinder those to whom it means a great deal ~ people who want to both bear and enjoy that commitment and who prefer for their children to grow up in families where there is a clear and unequivocable symbol of their parents devotion to each other and to the family as a whole.
These are not the people, in my opinion, who are threatening the institution of marriage. They look a lot to me like part of a small group ~ gay, straight or otherwise ~ who want to preserve the ideal of marriage as being more than just a common law arrangement or civil union, and being rather a symbol of a deep and lasting bond that requires the fullness of the law to express. And the fact that Latter-day Saints have contributed, at the request of the First Presidency, a significant amount of their time and money to supporting Proposition 8, is something I find both saddening and disturbing.
A couple of times I've been struck by the similarity of the sound of 'Proposition 8' and 'Preparation H'. And I'm okay with connecting the two. Because I can tell you right now that if I lived in California and attended church only to have a bishop read me a letter telling me that I've been instructed by the prophet, despite whatever might be my own feelings on this legal and not religious matter, to vote against the court-established civil rights of others, I would certainly be telling him to stick it up his ass.
*Re lewd behaviour in parks, ironically many of the men doing this are married men who don't want anyone to know they are not quite as straight as they pretend to be. Dishonest men like that also help spread HIV because carrying and using a condom makes it look like you planned to be there, and then you can't pretend you 'just got drunk and didn't know what you were doing' when someone finds out.
**The couple pictured here are Phyllis Lyon (then 79) and Del Martin (then 83), the first same-sex couple to receive a marriage licence in San Francisco. At that time (2004) they had been together 51 years.
***Yes, the LDS church is not the only church with a jaded, bigoted or mysogynistic past ~ in some cases, the LDS church pales in comparison with churches whose history stretches back into more barbaric times. But this is my church, and it is its history that I feel I have the right to comment on the most.