Sunday, September 12, 2010

Why Marriage? Why Now? – Introduction

At 11:15 a.m., Friday, August 13, 2010, I stood with my life partner of 36 years on the first row of steps sweeping up to the U.S. Supreme Court. With the inscription on the court portico “Equal Justice Under Law” looming over our heads and marriage license in hand, we listened attentively as the following words were spoken:

            By the power vested in me by the District of Columbia and
            the Catholic Apostolic Church in North America, I now
            pronounce you legally married.

With those words and the signature of our celebrant on the marriage license duly filed with the D.C. clerk later that day, our long term relationship was transformed into a legal marriage. We had officially become old married men.

In many ways this was an unlikely event. Our road to the altar or, in our case, the steps of the Supreme Court, has had many twists and unexpected turns, much like the Celtic knot pattern which adorned the cover of our marriage rite booklets. In many ways, the fact our relationship had endured to this final fruition has been little short of miraculous. And yet, there we were.

As the day of our marriage approached, I found myself pondering the questions in the title above: Why marriage? Why now? This post is an attempt to articulate some of the many thoughts that have come in response to those questions. 

 As recently as last year, both of us would have scoffed at the idea of marriage. After so many years together, it seemed rather anticlimactic. Don’t marriages usually precede the life together for most couples? What does a marriage rite 36 years after its actual inception suggest about the life together which preceded it?

Moreover, why buy into an institution as laden with baggage as marriage in the first place? Marriage has historically been more about property rights and patriarchal privilege than anything remotely concerned with loving and cherishing another human being, much less a partner of equal stature. Indeed, the institution of marriage has been the very locus of inequality historically with women viewed as property exchanged from one male patriarch to another (“Who gives this woman to be married?”). And they came as a part of a larger package including an accoutrement of property called a dowry. 

 In our own lifetimes, marriage has been the locus of very pointed inequality. I well remember the 1967 Loving v. Virginia case which struck down miscegenation laws prohibiting interracial marriage then remaining in 16 states including Florida. I remember thinking at the time how stupid it was that laws prevented people from marrying whomever they wished regardless of their race. And I thought so even in the face of the local wisdom of my small Central Florida hometown which warned that children of interracial marriages would be polka dotted or possibly striped but in any event they’d be ugly, hence the reasons white people should never marry negroes. (G-d forbid we would have seen them as actual human beings who happened to be black.) Today, that inequality is focused in the struggle for same-sex marriages. And by deciding to marry, we also decided to enter that struggle. 

But why marriage at all? There is almost a parent/child sense in most current practices of marriage in which couples in loving relationship, like children anxious to please a parent society, seek its permission and affirmation through marriage. Why do adult human beings need permission to love other adult human beings? Why would such permission be desirable, much less needed, to form lasting, stable relationships flowing from that love? How does the official societal stamp of approval make a relationship any better than it was without the same?

Of course, I recognize that a social support system is often key to the health of any relationship. The role of communal support is reflected by the line in the Episcopal marriage rite which asks the community assembled for the wedding “Will all of you witnessing these promises do all in your power to uphold these two persons in their marriage?” to which the assembled hopefully responds, “We will.” When I celebrate weddings, I am always struck by the similarity of this exchange to the portion of the baptismal rite in which the assembled community is asked “Will you who witness these vows do all in your power to support these persons in their life in Christ?” again to which the people hopefully respond, “We will.” Clearly, we human beings are social animals; we flourish only in supportive community.

t’s also not that either of us had a particular onus against marriage. Indeed, the examples in our immediate families have been rather positive. My partner’s parents in Georgia have been married over 50 years now, his brother and his wife married about as long as we have been together. My parents were married 53 years before my mother’s death and between my two siblings, one has been married nearly 30 years the other divorced but then only after 20 years of marriage.

Moreover, my own parents offered a very healthy picture of partnership. My father was very clear he had married his equal, a woman as intelligent and talented as himself, a woman whose judgment he trusted and whose counsel he sought. My mother trusted my father implicitly and she never hesitated to challenge his pronouncements about everything from politics to the daily menu. If ever a marriage offered a relationship of equal partners, they were that marriage, an example worthy of emulation by anyone.

One of my fondest memories of my parents is going shopping with them just before my mother’s death. Mom had sent me to the back of the grocery store to get something she had forgotten. As I came up the long aisle to the checkouts I was moved by the sight of an elderly couple pushing a cart, the elderly man with his arm around the woman. She was having some trouble with the cart and he was helping push it to the register. Their affection for each other was obvious. As the woman turned for a second, I realized it was my own parents I was observing. Tears welled in my eyes. Even as their marriage and their lives together were drawing to an end, it was clear they still adored each other.

But, why would two gay men choose to marry? Marriage as an institution historically has been strongly connected to another social institution - this one pathological - called heterosexism and its more virulent offspring, homophobia. Thus marriage as practiced has been a privilege of heterosexual couples denied gay couples for most of human history.

Indeed, one of the more pernicious aspects of this troubled history has been the tendency of the beneficiaries of that privilege to use religion to attempt to legitimate it. It’s common for societies to attempt to root socially constructed practices in the will of G-d or the gods (or in watered down versions such as tradition, Nature or rather vague references to “the way things are”) to gain some sense of authority. Of course, the fact that historically only opposite sex relationships have been seen as blessed by G-d while ignoring – if not demonizing – all other relationships says little about G-d but a lot about the people and societies who invoke the divine to place their socially constructed understandings beyond question. As Annie Lamott says, “We know that we have constructed G-d in our own image when he hates the same people we do.”

The weddings of heterosexuals often feature some of the worst examples of human behaviors. They are smarmy, sentimental, with excessive attentiveness to superficial, ultimately insignificant details such as cakes, flowers, tailoring, gifts and catering. They are often inordinately expensive, often beyond the means of the family footing the bill. Correspondingly, far too little attention is paid to important aspects such as the actual readiness of the couple to spend lives together as they promise and the availability of a social support system once married.

As an Episcopal priest, I have performed a number of marriages for both heterosexual and same sex couples. I observe that marriage is at least as often a result of social and familial pressures and the couple’s perceived need for social affirmation than the validation of healthy relationships capable of withstanding the years and the pressures of life together. I have married a number of couples whose love has stood the test of time. And I celebrate that with them. But I have also observed many very healthy long term relationships in which marriage has never been a serious consideration. And as an attorney, I have seen the sadness, the sense of failure and often some of the most vicious behaviors human beings can conceive (including the manipulation of children) that attended the divorces I processed.

On a good day, marriage is a mixed bag. For gay men, it has often been a burden, an obstacle to healthy lives together. So why would my partner and I change our minds, arrange for the priest who conducted the blessing of our union 11 years ago to come to Washington, D.C., become registered with the District to conduct weddings, write up a marriage rite, begin the rite in our hotel room and then transport ourselves by Metro to the U.S. Supreme Court to complete the rite pronouncing us legally married on the courthouse steps quite literally?

Why marriage? Why now?

The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., Ph.D.
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Instructor: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
University of Central Florida, Orlando

 If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.

Most things of value do not lend themselves to production in sound bytes.

1 comment:

JD said...



And I know I won't have any problem remembering your anniversary ;)