The Definition of Marriage has Changed—Again
Why all the fuss from conservatives about the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) being struck down? Someone recently asked me how this Supreme Court decision made me feel. Tears welled up and my heart pounded. Though my thorough answer is a bit complicated, I’ll share with you one of the more stunning stories I have ever witnessed.
Marriage is and has always been a social contract that reflects the values of a society. The fundamental purpose of marriage has always been to foster stability and structure within societies, and just a quick skim of the bible will show you it’s been a constantly changing institution from the beginning of time.
Signed by President Clinton, DOMA defined marriage as a union between one man and one woman. Of course, within its simplistic definition is an implicit attempt to bar same-sex couples from legally marrying and receiving over 1,000 legal and social benefits.
Buy why? Unless we are a theocracy, our agreed upon separation of church and state requires that the state not mandate church-based doctrine, and clearly this feels like church-based doctrine. What is it that traditional marriage enthusiasts are fighting against in the “war” against gay marriage?
The most vocal will piously affirm that it goes against the “law of God.” Hmm. Slavery and segregation were justified under the same arguments many are now using to justify their abject fear of same-sex unions. Presumably, these pundits are aware of a law greater than love that governs the universe and has something against the love of same-sex couples.
The very energy that is expelled to foster such hostile environments for people like me is the same energy that tears at the fabric of society. The bitter irony is that so many of those who say they love their lord turn and hate their neighbor. If they are Christian, their litmus test has clearly failed. It has been said that when hate is spoken by any who claim to be religious, their words are not anointed.
The “law of God” argument falls short when one observes same-sex unions in all sorts of other creatures on God’s good earth. I remember reading about a scientific study in Santa Barbara, California, of two lesbian pigeons. When I read it, I giggled, felt a bit less alone in the universe, and wondered how they got so lucky as to live in Santa Barbara. Smart lesbians. As science has looked to nature, God’s “law” quite naturally includes a wide diversity of experiences.
Did you know that the Bible details that King Solomon had 700 wives, and 300 concubines? Can you imagine Mother’s Day? Polygamy, clearly detailed and supported in the bible, is still practiced in many countries (and apparently in some Mormon subcultures in the US as well), but is considered morally abhorrent to Westerners as a whole. So marriage has not always been about one man and one woman.
In Deuteronomy, if you “lie” with an unmarried woman (a virgin), whether in rape or lust, you simply pay the father 50 shekels and she is then your property. You must take her, and you must keep her for life. Seriously, if I were writing a fiction piece I’d have to edit this part out. I’d figure: “Nah, no one’s gonna believe that!” But societies change, and what was once considered an affront to God and man (women’s rights, for example) is now the norm.
It seems abundantly clear that we are each of us making it up as we go along. All of it: religions, social norms, and the perceived benefits of personal values. So it’s no wonder that the definition of marriage has veen constantly changing to reflect societal norms.
Is same-sex marriage good for society as a whole? Studies have come out to demonstrate that gay parenting has often proved as good as, or, in some cases even better than, heterosexual parenting. Success in this arena seems less about gender and more about having two responsible adults who care for each other and are able to care for their children.
So here’s the story I promised: My two good friends, women in a loving relationship but denied the legal right to get married, adopted two young girls. These young girls had been so mentally and physically abused that they had been found in cages and taken away by a child protection agency. The amount of love and focus it took to re-socialize these two adorable, sweet little girls was painstaking and all-consuming. I know of few people who would have wanted, or been willing, to take on this herculean endeavor.
Now, the girls are approaching their teens. They look gorgeous and happy and radiant. They have found stability and love. They have traveled to Disneyland and to Paris. I have seen pictures of this remarkable family as the girls have grown, and almost every time, tears well up from the miracle that is love.
How does DOMA’s demise make me feel? A bit more dignified. In the case of my two friends, the legal protections are essential for creating a stable family. When I reflect on all the vitriol from the right, I think of those two women who have proven to be remarkable parents. My heart fills with joy and I wonder what on Earth the fuss is all about.
Will Donnelly is a writer and yoga instructor located in Maui.