What Changed the Meaning of Marriage

LGBTQ: Language and Justice, part 2

Take the word “marriage.” In monogamous cultures – where official recognition extended only to couples -- marriage involved these five tightly-linked features:
  1. the creation of a household of two adults,
  2. sexual exclusivity to within that household,
  3. the production of babies,
  4. the raising of the children,
  5. and the perpetuation of the parents’ genetic lines.
According to this traditional marriage paradigm, wherever you find any one of those features, you will also find the other four – most of the time. Marriage was our name for the package of those five features.

Critics of same-sex marriage objected to the re-defining of marriage. But the meaning of marriage has been evolving for some time. The previously inextricable features of marriage have been coming apart since long before the 2015 Supreme Court Obergefell v. Hodges decision required all states to recognize same-sex marriages -- long before 2003, when Massachusetts became the first state to recognize same-sex marriage – and long before 2000 when Vermont created civil unions with the same rights as marriage.

Adults can form a household together without producing or raising babies, and they can both produce and raise children without making a household together. You can have marriage without sex, and sex without marriage (which has always been fairly common but in recent decades has lost much of the stigma it used to have). You can have sex without babies – thanks to birth control, and babies without sex – thanks to in vitro fertilization. By adopting, you can raise children without propagating your genes, and by giving up for adoption, you can propagate your genes without raising children.

Divorce rates, birth control within wedlock, birth rates out of wedlock, adoption, sexless marriages of convenience, marriages of couples beyond child-bearing years, married couples that don’t live together, living-together couples that aren't married, surrogate motherhood and artificial insemination all serve to weaken the once-presumed-to-be-iron-clad connection between marriage and creating a household for the purpose of making and raising genetic children.

Those developments profoundly shifted the meaning of marriage. Once those changes had happened, the additional adjustment of recognizing same-sex marriages was practically nothing, as far as changing the word meaning.

We did have to refine the meaning of "husband" and "wife," and we faced a choice about how to do so. When only opposite-sex marriage was recognized, "husband" meant both "the male partner" AND "the spouse of a woman." "Wife" meant both "the female partner" AND "the spouse of a man." We could have decided that the more central meanings were "spouse of a woman" and "spouse of a man," but for most same-sex couples that felt odd. For the most part, same-sex couples intuited that the person's own gender was a more central meaning of "husband" or "wife" than the spouse's gender. As a result, two married men are both husbands and two married women are both wives -- though a few couples choose to use those labels differently. Some terms we need objective standards for defining -- e.g., "potable water," "Ebola virus," or "income inequality." Other terms don't require objectivity and we can allow individuals or couples to define them for themselves -- e.g., "baseball fan," "happy," "Republican" (or "Democrat") and, now, "husband" and "wife."

We have certainly seen changes in our understanding of the sense of the words lesbian, gay, homosexual. The brilliant French philosopher and social theorist Michel Foucault, pioneered new ways to think about and understand ourselves. His three volume History of Sexuality revealed how sexuality has been culturally constructed in Western civilization.

In Britain, and much of Europe, prior to the 1880s, Foucault points out, “sodomy” meant any form of sexuality that did not have procreation as its aim. Using birth control – if that had been much of an option in 1880 – would have counted as sodomy. Analysis of the time reveals that the laws were directed against acts, not against a particular type of person. There was no understanding of sexual orientation as an identity – any more than we have an understanding of adulterer as an identity -- or, say, “person who parks in a no parking zone.” It was something some people did, but it wasn’t an identity.

It wasn’t until the later 1800s that “particular acts came to be seen as an expression of an individual’s psyche, or as evidence of inclinations of a certain type of subject” (Sullivan 3). Certain forms of sexuality moved from being seen as horrible acts to which anyone might succumb, to being seen as the expression of a particular type of person. As Sigmund Freud expressed and magnified the new way of thinking, sex was at the root of everything about us. Thus, “the homosexual” became a personage – a life form, a certain type of – Freud said -- degenerate whose entire character, everything about him, was corrupted by his sexuality. That hardly seems to us like progress. Yet, as traumatic and disastrous as that cultural phase was for many, it paved the way for our later attitudes. Once we saw sexual orientation as an identity – subject to treatment rather than criminal or moral judgment -- the ground was laid for the next step. Only then could culture move to seeing that this identity as not harming anyone else. From there to: not harming themselves either. And then: to being tolerated, to being accepted, to being welcomed, to being celebrated as a worthy and beautiful part of the diverse spectrum of human expression. That’s a huge change – a series of huge changes – all within the last 130 years or so.

Sometimes I hear the suggestion that we shouldn’t label people. They’re all people – why do they need to be labeled lesbian or gay or bisexual or transgender or queer? Because people want to be recognized for who they are. Some, perhaps, indeed, don’t want any such label, and if that’s their request, then let’s honor it. For many, however, being lesbian, gay, trans, or bi or queer is a part of their identity, and they don’t want their identity erased. They want to be seen as who they are, and don’t want this crucial aspect of their identity to be treated as irrelevant.

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This is part 2 of 3 of "LBGTQ: Language and Justice"
See also
Part 1: Words and LGBTQ Justice: Introduction
Part 3: Gender Identities: Continua and Ambiguities

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