This is my third attempt to write an orderly essay about contemporary marriage. I expect to fail this time, too. But here are some scattered thoughts.
1. For ten years I served Unitarian Universalist congregations and performed weddings. I never refused any gays, nor would I have, but none asked me. My congregations were mostly on the Western prairies where even the UU’s were relatively conservative and the defiant ones were libertarian enough that they didn’t want marriage anyway, considering it an intrusion of the state. I did turn away a couple in which the young man was abusing his lover. I wish I’d been more proactive and tried to break up the relationship. If they had been part of my congregation, I would have but they were walk-ins who thought the building was pretty.
2. UU’s have formally declared that they accept gay & lesbian marriage and gay & lesbian clergy and, in fact, many of our most effective and revered leaders are GLTBX. As it turns out, many of our “best” men of the past were promiscuous, which has been harder for me to -- oh, I don’t want to say swallow. These latter were closeted -- they thought. Some of the best ministers have died of AIDS. Others who are openly gay are undiminished by whatever HIV status they are, including non-infected. We tend to accumulate lesbians who were formerly married so now have a collection of children to raise in two-mommy families. It seems practical and happy to me. Except when it comes time to pledge: they don’t make as much money as “standard” married couples and nowhere near as much money as gay couples, married or not.
2. I was the third wife of four wives of a sculptor who was a dominant man ultimately leaving a valuable estate. We were in a ten year relationship that sort of wrapped around the marriage. I was in my twenties, he in his fifties. His fourth wife, aged and alcoholic, could not defend his estate against predators. I was totally excluded as were his grandchildren. (His children were dead.) Our legal system (which includes both the courts and lawyers) wants clarity and finality. (At least the courts do.) Divorce used to mean that the cause was so reprehensible that you never wanted to see that person again and alimony was meant to be both reparative and punitive. You were erased. I am not erased and have made it a point to demonstrate otherwise.
3. The same thing was true of children outside of wedlock. If a child were given up for adoption, he or she was erased. Now women who give up their children are as possessive of the family that takes the baby as they might have been if there were a legally married wed-LOCK. The sperm donors who thought they had been erased may be sued for inheritance. The adoptees are arriving on their mothers' doorsteps, unerased.
4. Technological miracles (quite similarly to all the confusion and crashing of publishing) like the pill (which offends the Pope) and viagra (which does not offend the Pope), the overcoming of barriers to fertility like in vitro fertilization, restoration after tubal ligation, fertility drugs, surrogate mothers, artificial insemination with donor sperm (none of which offends the Pope), have completely changed the terms of parenthood. People who once paid dearly and risked their lives for illegal abortions now pay and risk for fertility treatment. (In spite of an abundance of children who desperately need parents.) And now that so many premature and drug-damaged babies are saved, though they will need millions of dollars in care, people are confused and daunted.
5. I never remarried. Never got pregnant. I’ve earned my own way except for two long periods of unemployment during which I was saved by my mother, not a husband. I’ve been very lucky not to get sick and to have been perfectly content not to have a fancy house or children. I had the romantic notion that being published was more important than being married. I was published. It had less impact than being married. (Is writing without publication like intimacy without marriage?)
So now consider, against this background, the current President of the United States, whose former (and conflated) girl friends have just revealed him as a young man in Vanity Fair. He is not and was not a man to simply accept conventions, but he was a careful and thoughtful man who did not make decisions lightly. He parted friends with these women, none of whom saved samples of his sperm so as to have bragging rights. I expect he has not been running up and down the halls of the White House, nakedly pursuing willing women. I do not think he has a devoted jeep driver or secretary who provides special benefits in addition to his wife. But he will probably take a beating from all the Republicans who are not so careful about their intimate arrangements. Not even classy. (Airport men’s rooms??) Or legal. (Paying off pregnant mistresses with campaign funds.)
Margaret Mead, who is partly to blame for the idea that free sex is a good thing, a happy event, a learning opportunity, as it was in the Samoa in her mind (not necessarily the real Samoa), also proposed that we re-organize actual marriage which is as much a legal and economic event as a romantic and spiritual principle. She thought it would be good for people to pledge loyalty and trust, maybe for a year at a time. Then if the partnership proved worthy and viable, there would be a second step to parenthood, accompanied by a certain commitment on the part of the state to protect, support and guide the children. She never went on to the next steps which might have included the right to part once parenthood had been fulfilled, and some kind of relationship definition for old folks.
The Civil Union idea, which is a legal status in some states, was meant to address something like this, except not children. With people moving in and out of each other’s lives, increasingly encumbered with valuable goods to sort, and shared mortgages which used to be a way to store wealth, the unresolved status of property and bills is as confused as that of a fractionated trust Indian on a reservation. What this represents is a LOSS of community wealth because wealth is not based on hoarding -- the idea of capital is to keep it moving. Divorce is expensive, not just to the individuals but also the community. People move away, children are raised in confusion, everyone has a full-time job so is unavailable for volunteering. But at least in a Civil Union responsibility for property is spelled out, partners can make decisions for each other during a health crisis or even in the case of death, and things have to be discussed.
Against this background, I don’t see how gay marriage is the least bit shocking or irreligious or dysfunctional. It hardly even seems newfangled. More like inevitable. Against the background of Sharia Law, which solves these little problems by simply murdering the nonconformists (almost always female) it seems as exalted as some of these newlyweds believe it to be.