Defining and Protecting Marriage

by GARY LEUPP



So President Bush has announced support for an amendment to the U.S. Constitution to "define and protect" the institution of marriage by requiring that, at least in official usage, the word apply only to "a union between a man and a woman." This move, while predictable, strikes me as unusual in being at once so petty and so malicious.

Last November, when the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court justice ruled in favor of gay marriage, Justice Martha Sossman, in her dissenting opinion, called the argument over marriage versus same-sex civil unions merely "a squabble over the names to be used." She quoted the famous line from Shakespeare’s "Romeo and Juliet:" "What’s in a name? That which we call a rose, by any other name would smell as sweet." But fellow justices argued that separate is seldom equal, and gays argued that civil unions (as recognized in Vermont) do not provide gay couples with all the same rights as married heterosexuals.

Still, it’s at least conceivable that partners in "civil unions" could be accorded all such rights, and I imagine that some dead-set against the rose of "gay marriage," and holding their noses while tolerating the notion of civil unions, might want to sweeten up the latter simply to preserve the sanctity, less of an institution, than of a word. This magic word, this fetished word: marriage.

The Guardians of the Word might not care so much if Bill and Joe just shacked up unobtrusively and did wicked stuff in their bedroom. But they can’t abide the idea that some day soon straight parents might be telling their kids, "Wow. That was Uncle Joe on the phone. He and Bill have decided to get married!" with the same pleasure and matter of factness they might express should Joe have married Jane. They can’t bear to imagine a near future in which little Sandy tells her friends she has to miss soccer practice Sunday because she’s a bridesmaid at Peggy and Wendy’s marriage ceremony. Use of the term itself would suggest to kids that all this is okay, and normal, indeed a happy thing.

Now, quite possibly, whatever the fate of the proposed constitutional amendment, "marriage" in connection with same-sex unions will enter into common parlance, anyway. Popular speech can’t really be regulated, not at least until we become way more fascist. The word, that is to say, is ultimately unprotectable, and even if Bill and Joe are just shacking up their friends might refer to them as "married." But how does Bush suppose that mere legal definition will protect heterosexual unions anyway? From whom and what? I imagine he’s thinking that if society indeed comes to regard same-sex marriage as a valid institution, it will encourage more people to experience homosexual desire and engage in homosexual activity than would otherwise be the case. (This all in accordance with a supposedly militant "homosexual agenda" whose advocates possess frightening potential, explicable largely by their receipt of Satan’s support, to seduce straight people into their sinful "lifestyle.") If the law makes emphatically clear that marriage is not an option for same-sex couples, it will discourage such desire and activity, thereby encouraging the heterosexual alternatives. Thus the state should promote, in self-defense, the "sanctity" of heterosexual marriage. (One doubts, though, that the religious term "sanctity" would be used in a Constitutional amendment.)

I’ve seen bizarre letters to editors warning of population decline and other foul results of officially recognized gay marriages. I’m inclined to dismiss them as paranoid, but on the other hand, as a student of the history of sexuality, I observe that homosexual behavior seems far more prevalent in some societies than others. In ancient Athens and in seventeenth-century Japan, male bisexuality, openly celebrated in art and literature, may have been the norm. Forms of homosexuality (often very specifically constructed and surrounded, like heterosexual sex, with various taboos) have occurred in all societies, in all eras. This requires no specific explanation; people are, among other things, just good at figuring out what gives their bodies pleasure, and exhausting all the possibilities available.

But stern prohibitions of homosexual behavior, especially if backed up by bloody punishments, may indeed have in some societies reduced not only its social profile but even its private incidence. Today’s opponents of gay marriage may fear that its arrival (and with it, the lifting of the religiously-rooted anti-"sodomy" onus) will somehow encourage people’s libidos and affections to stray into territory they would otherwise avoid. Conversely, its explicit rejection, occurring in the fundamental legal text of the American republic, signals that the onus continues, and those experiencing same-sex attraction should just stifle it (in part to protect themselves). The protection of marriage is thus the protection of the people from their own (socially threatening) feelings, and from the results of tolerance. So while the issue of constitutional definitions, calling roses roses or something else, might seem a trite "squabble" to Justice Sossman, it’s really quite serious.

And absurd. Let us say the state does, in fact, pontificate that "marriage is the union of a man and a woman." That’s imprecise, inviting many questions. What is a "union"? We unite with all kinds of people in all kinds of situations that have nothing to do with marriage. Does the union have to be sexual? Traditional religious definitions of marriage, and religious arguments for its dissolution, have emphasized its procreative function. But few would exclude from the heterosexual marriage category unions contracted between infertile or post-menopausal women and male partners. Or between infertile men and nubile women. And what is a "man," for that matter? Shouldn’t the Constitution define him, too, in terms of ejaculate quantity and quality, armpit hairs or emotional maturity (which requires further definition)? When does a girl become a woman? Puberty is a process, not an instantaneous event. And what about the one percent born hermaphrodites or pseudo-hermaphrodites? Are they men, women, or both, and if they haven’t undergone operations to clarify this issue, what are their marital rights? If we’re talking law, and require definitions provided up till now by evolving common sense, we need precision, detail.

The above formulation really means this:

Marriage, as recognized and promoted by the state, is the contracted and legally registered union between two adults, as defined specifically in terms of ages and biological features by state legislatures, ideally but not necessarily involving cohabitation, sexual intercourse, and child-rearing, subject to dissolution through established legal processes and involving all rights and responsibilities established by law to date, and involving one man and one woman.

We could add, although it wouldn’t be good legalese (not that the above is):

and not involving, lest it was ever unclear, or should be thought an issue for state legislatures to determine, same-sex unions, including cohabitive, sexual, child-rearing ones, from which the Homeland must protect man-woman unions.

Changing the subject: recall that Bush attacked Iraq in order to "protect" America, although anyone with a brain now knows the threat was contrived. (Question for discussion: is the threat to America from same-sex marriages similarly invented?) Bush defines the Iraqi battlefield (where the U.S. occupation produces mounting and understandable anger throughout the Muslim world, and the world in general, because–defining it precisely–it’s an instance of imperialist aggression and clear violation of international law), as the central battlefield in his "War on Terrorism," itself a hopelessly ill-defined phenomenon rooted in simplistic, religious-fundamentalist thinking. Skeptics of the Iraqi WMD threat used to hoodwink the U.S. public prior to the war? "Revisionist historians I like to call ’em," defines Bush (New Jersey, June 16, 2003).

Oh, and before I end, a few more Bushite definitions, just for reference. Africa? "Africa is a nation that suffers from incredible disease" (Gothenburg, Sweden, June 14, 2001). Natural gas? It "is hemispheric. I like to call it hemispheric in nature because it is a product that we can find in our neighborhoods" (Austin, Texas, Dec. 20, 2000). Astronauts? "Courageous spacial entrepreneurs who set such a wonderful example for the young of our country." (Washington, D.C., Jan. 14, 2004). My conclusion: Bush’s definitions don’t make any sense. And his efforts to "protect" us in fact assault our security, well-being, and intelligence–and all kinds of marriages.

GARY LEUPP is Professor of History at Tufts University, and Adjunct Professor of Comparative Religion. He is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa, Japan; Male Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa, Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900.

He can be reached at: gleupp@granite.tufts.edu

 

Like What You’ve Read? Support CounterPunch
September 03, 2015
Sal Rodriguez
How California Prison Hunger Strikes Sparked Solitary Confinement Reforms
Lawrence Ware
Leave Michael Vick Alone: the Racism and Misogyny of Football Fans
Dave Lindorff
Is Obama the Worst President Ever?
Vijay Prashad
The Return of Social Democracy?
Ellen Brown
Quantitative Easing for People: Jeremy Corbyn’s Radical Proposal
Paul Craig Roberts
The Rise of the Inhumanes: Barron, Bybee, Yoo and Bradford
Binoy Kampmark
Inside Emailgate: Hillary’s Latest Problem
Lynn Holland
For the Love of Water: El Salvador’s Mining Ban
Geoff Dutton
Time for Some Anger Management
Jack Rasmus
The New Colonialism: Greece and Ukraine
Norman Pollack
American Jews and the Iran Accord: The Politics of Fear
John Grant
Sorting Through the Bullshit in America
David Macaray
The Unbearable Lightness of Treaties
Chad Nelson
Lessig Uses a Scalpel Where a Machete is Needed
September 02, 2015
Paul Street
Strange Words From St. Bernard and the Sandernistas
Jose Martinez
Houston, We Have a Problem: False Equivalencies on Police Violence
Henry Giroux
Global Capitalism and the Culture of Mad Violence
Ajamu Baraka
Making Black Lives Matter in Riohacha, Colombia
William Edstrom
Wall Street and the Military are Draining Americans High and Dry
David Altheide
The Media Syndrome Between a Glock and a GoPro
Yves Engler
Canada vs. Africa
Ron Jacobs
The League of Empire
Andrew Smolski
Democracy and Privatization in Neoliberal Mexico
Stephen Lendman
Gaza: a Socioeconomic Dead Zone
Norman Pollack
Obama, Flim-Flam Artist: Alaska Offshore Drilling
Binoy Kampmark
Australian Border Force Gore
Ruth Fowler
Ask Not: Lost in the Crowd with Amanda Palmer
Kim Nicolini
Remembering Wes Craven’s The Hills Have Eyes
September 01, 2015
Mike Whitney
Return to Crisis: Things Keep Getting Worse
Michael Schwalbe
The Moral Hazards of Capitalism
Eric Mann
Inside the Civil Rights Movement: a Conversation With Julian Bond
Pam Martens
How Wall Street Parasites Have Devoured Their Hosts, Your Retirement Plan and the U.S. Economy
Jonathan Latham
Growing Doubt: a Scientist’s Experience of GMOs
Fran Shor
Occupy Wall Street and the Sanders Campaign: a Case of Historical Amnesia?
Joe Paff
The Big Trees: Cockburn, Marx and Shostakovich
Randy Blazak
University Administrators Allow Fraternities to Turn Colleges Into Rape Factories
Robert Hunziker
The IPCC Caught in a Pressure Cooker
George Wuerthner
Myths of the Anthropocene Boosters: Truthout’s Misguided Attack on Wilderness and National Park Ideals
Robert Koehler
Sending Your Children Off to Safe Spaces in College
Jesse Jackson
Season of the Insurgents: From Trump to Sanders
August 31, 2015
Michael Hudson
Whitewashing the IMF’s Destructive Role in Greece
Conn Hallinan
Europe’s New Barbarians
Lawrence Ware
George Bush (Still) Doesn’t Care About Black People
Joseph Natoli
Plutocracy, Gentrification and Racial Violence
Franklin Spinney
One Presidential Debate You Won’t Hear: Why It is Time to Adopt a Sensible Grand Strategy