Fighting for Same-Sex Marriage, Divorcing State-Sanctioned Marriage
While we await the results of the US Supreme Court’s consideration of “same-sex marriage,” I find myself wondering why, in order for a marriage to be considered legitimate, it has to be sanctioned by a government. Why should a private relationship between people be subject to a political thumbs up or down?
Since the US is a basically a culturally Christian society, it’s worth looking back at how it all happened. Christian European societies did not require marriage to be sanctioned by or registered with the state until the 16th century Protestant Reformation. Before this, marriage was a more private matter not requiring formal recognition by anyone but the newly married and their community. It is significant that in England the state began tracking marriages at the same time it was upending its own society, harnessing it to the Industrial Revolution and nascent global capitalism—fencing and privatizing the commons, reducing people to their raw, individual labor power and the resources they personally own.
Knowing who each person is, what resources they have, and who they’re married to (the combination of resources) allows for easier calculation of how to most efficiently use labor and raw materials in a given society. This is when the science of statistics emerges. State-sanctioned marriage formalizes some gender roles and relations and criminalizes all others, which the state later exports and imposes on the indigenous inhabitants of its new colonies. It formalizes patrilineal inheritance. It endows privileges to a certain kind of marriage. It presents an ideal against which all are measured, and allows the state and ruling classes to wag a moral finger at the undisciplined masses. The state develops institutions and mechanisms with which to keep the masses in line with the new normal, or to belittle those who don’t fall in line.
Many scholars have contributed to this type of critical analysis of marriage, ranging from feminists and marxists to post-structural, post-colonial, and queer thinkers.
As far as I know, Buddhism does not explicitly insist on any particular form of marriage, though the suttas describe unethical situations to be avoided that are likely to cause harm. Many different forms of marriage have existed within Buddhist cultures. I don’t know enough to say if there exist forms of marriage institutionalized and justified by state interpretations of Buddhism. I do know legalization of marriage for Zen monks was used by Imperial Japan to weaken their status and power. States can wield great power and control through monopolization and manipulation of marriage.
None of this is to say that getting married is wrong. I love the idea of commitment, being witnessed by friends and family, and having a big party to celebrate. But why should the state have anything to do with it? In present times we are accustomed to asking the state to recognize our human and civil rights, which despite being a very important struggle to undertake, is a bit like asking the wolf to safeguard the hen house. It’s understandable though—recognition of our rights is important so that we will be treated equally, or at least have a legal basis for being treated equally. We also want our love to be recognized as legitimate.
But being given the right to marry by the state, though an important right, too easily becomes about being included in the status quo club. It’s about being recognized as part of the definition of normal, through which the outsiders get to join the insiders, leaving others still out. It’s about being able to access the privileges unique to marriage, the economic, political, medical, and propertied privileges attached to it by the state, which will continue to leave others out. We should not have to be married to access these privileges. In fact, they should not be privileges at all, but available to everyone.
Otherwise, we are getting into a serious, committed relationship with the mercurial state, whose enduring love for minority groups is certainly never guaranteed. We can support many different arrangements of families and relationships without preference or penalty—not through state recognition, but by divorcing human relationships from the state, and its troubling in-law, capitalism.
For other perspectives on same-sex marriage, consider the following:
- Why I Support Same Sex Marriage as a Civil Right, But Not as a Strategy to Achieve Structural Change