SCOTUS’s decision to make gay marriage a constitutional right in all states is a landmark victory for the gay rights movement. But could it also be a victory for the institution of marriage in and of itself? Justice Ruth Ginsberg repeatedly argued that gay marriage is part of a civil rights continuum. But could it also be part of a continuum that improves what it means to be in a committed relationship?
“Marriage today is not what it was under the common law tradition, under the civil law tradition,” said Ginsburg. “Marriage was a relationship of a dominant male to a subordinate female that ended as a result of this court’s decision in 1982 when Louisiana’s Head and Master Rule was struck down.”
“Head and Master” laws permitted a husband to have final say regarding all household decisions and jointly owned property without his wife’s knowledge or consent, until 1979 when Louisiana became the final state to repeal them.
Ginsberg repeatedly rejected the notion that extending marriage rights would somehow weaken the institution or deprive straight couples. “All of the incentives, all of the benefits that marriage affords would still be available,” said Ginsburg. “So you’re not taking away anything from heterosexual couples.”
Ginsberg is a hero in the struggle for civil and sexual rights. But hearing her arguments my friends and I would quietly chuckle over what wasn’t being said — the possibility that gay marriage could have an positive effect on heterosexual unions. Marriage between straight people comes with a long list of rigid status quo rules and assumptions. Whereas the LGBT community have more personal equality and freedom in their partnerships but no legal equality and freedom. Heterosexual marriages have been entangled in laws that give males far more privilege and rights, with wives treated like property. Whereas gay unions historically been formed from a more equal standing.
What ultimately forced me to crawl out of my status quo, hetero marriage box was one of its primary tenets: monogamy. After 20 years of being happily married, I found myself in love with my husband and also another man. My gay friends were the only people in my life who offered empathy — and, more important, saluted my creativity when I opened my marriage. We created a newfangled Brady Bunch of chosen family — my husband, his new girlfriend, my new lover, and all our kids — my gay friends applauded my innovation and gumption. They weren’t terrified, judgmental or confused — as many of my straight married friends were — they were congratulatory.
Being creative in your relationship, having to set up your own “rules” and agreements, is somewhat banal among gay people. Not having the luxury of clear-cut rights mandated by the courts, many of my gay friends have sat down with lawyers to create legal documents to protect their property and loved ones. They wanted to have a definitive say in various what-if scenarios that hetero couples in traditional marriages are automatically awarded by the simple act of signing a piece of legal paper. That act in itself — having to secure your own liberties — raises your consciousness around your values and your relationships. Drawing up legal documents — or even just jotting down notes on a legal pad from your couch like I did — forces you to really define who you love and what your relationship philosophy is.
It took me several years before I sat down with my husband and asked him if we could open our marriage. When I finally did, I was startled by the fact that I had been following and even hypnotized by a societal set of rules that were not even a part of my authentic value system. I had been asleep, dutifully engaging in society’s presumption of what a “proper” marriage is, as if in a trance. Much of my identity, worldview, and lifestyle have origins in thinking outside of cultural norms and traditions. Why had the institution of marriage seemed so untouchable?
I guess you could say I’m bisexual, but I prefer to just think of myself as sexual. I love the ambiguity of being queer — a term which encompasses several aspects of sexuality — but I honestly don’t feel hip enough to sport the term. But when I created the above-mentioned situation in which I got to have both men in my life, I felt wholly aligned with my queer collective of friends.
They were the only group of people who really understood my decisions and thinking. Even after divorcing my first husband, they understood that he is still someone I dearly love and who will always be chosen family to me. Because homophobia is so wretched and life-threatening, many gay people remain family to former lovers. They don’t chuck them on the pile of what straight people call “failed relationships.” In the gay community, longevity is not the only measurement of a relationship’s success. And in gay culture (at least of my generation, and I’m in my 50s) there is a loyalty and understanding that love is enduring and supersedes a marriage license, or lack thereof.
Not every gay relationship exemplifies nirvana — they too are afflicted with conflicts, hurt, and even domestic violence. But, quite frankly, gay people have been thinking out of the marriage box for centuries. Although they lacked the heterosexual privileges, tax write-offs, basic rights of parenthood, and medical visits, they did have one advantage: an opportunity to create their own relationship doctrines. Ginsberg argued that gay marriage would not change straight marriage — but in my progressive enclave of friends, we all hope that it does.