14 thoughts on “The Meaning of Same-Sex Marriage

  1. Oh, bravo, Ralph. It’s beyond my poor powers to add or detract. Score one for philosophy!

    And how incredible that the comments to Ralph’s piece are free of crazy, hateful bigotry! (At least when I read them.)

  2. reading through the negative comments on Ralph’s piece provides some confirmation (usual nods towards possibility of confirmation bias here) of something I’ve long thought– one of the cold steel hearts of anti-same sex marriage sentiments is plain old sexism. yes, a good number of the negative comments go all ‘biblical’ and freak about ‘teh gay’. But any number of them obsess instead about the purported ‘need’ for exactly two genders in a marriage (I’m reasonably confident that none of those commentators have contemplated the possibility of more than two genders…) One said so explicitly, various others fob off their sexism on ‘the poor children’ ‘oh no! children need a mother and a father!’ (as one of them puts it, “the right of any child comes before any other, primarily, that of having a female mother and male father”) Because, why? ‘Men and women are different!” say the objectors. Oh? In what relevant sense, exactly? crickets chirping… (at least a few of the commentators seem to share my sense that sexism is in this way an important part of what’s in fact underwriting this dialogue)

  3. I appreciate that Wedgwood takes seriously the point that opponents of same-sex marriage think about the social meaning, rather than the legal meaning or implications, of marriage. He’s right about that, and proponents of same-sex marriage would do well to keep it in mind. I also like that Wedgwood defends the positive social implications of same-sex marriage.

    But Wedgwood’s picture of marriage is rather cheery. There are lots of other social implications that marriage once held and, in some places and communities, still does. Marriage once (and still does, in some places/communities) carried the implication that the man was in charge and was to be obeyed. It once, of course, legally justified rape. Marriage also still generally carries the implication of monogamy, and monogamy, at least in the United States, is stultifying to relationships (platonic, sexual, and everything around and in-between) to relationships outside of the marriage. Simply put, many people stop making friends once they get married, and certainly friends among the gender to which they’re attracted. Marriage will also likely have a chilling effect on some of the creative non-marital relationship arrangements and styles that have originated from non-heterosexual people (as pointed out by people like Claudia Card, Paula Ettelbrick).

    It’s not that I think Wedgwood should have addressed all these points in such a short article for the New York Times. That would be silly. It’s just that I think the social implications of same-sex marriage aren’t as obviously and universally positive as Wedgwood suggests. And I think the Christian Right is not the place to look when you’re looking for interesting challenges and dissenting views to same-sex marriage.

  4. Jamie, I share your attitude, though I’m goimg to register a worry. RW says seems to thinks that a central good of marriage is effective communication about the couple’s relationship. I wonder. For people who don’t share one name a lot of that effective communication is made much less effective. I do know people who say they ended up with one name because they wanted to avoid all the hassle that at least there used to be. But that’s different.

    I think we should question whether many people have a desire for others to know they are committed. That’s not to deny one might have a further reason for having people know it. E.g., “she’s mine” or “we’re the parents”.

  5. Anne, I really don’t see a serious problem here. My wife and I do not share a name, but I believe we communicated in an effective, institutional way, how we think of our relationship. In Belgium (where my wife lived much of her childhood) women do not typically change their names to their husbands’ names, and I don’t think married Belgians have any problem partaking of the social meaning of marriage.

    By the way, Ralph didn’t say that a huge proportion of married couples have a desire for others to know that they are committed in a certain way. That’s not a necessary ingredient of his argument, either; social meanings abide in the absence of desire or intention in specific tokens.

    Katy, good point about the relation between sexism and homophobia. And, you know, I wasn’t optimistic about the comments at The Opinionator :-(.

  6. Matt makes some good points about marriage.

    The people whom I know who have flourished in marriage would have flourished in any setting because they know how to form decent human relationships. Those who did not flourish in marriage sometimes flourish out of marriage (after marriages fail); sometimes not. That is, marriage does not enable human flourishing.

    One more point is that marriage makes relationships respectable and part of the family. Unfortunately, most families are fairly oppressive and dishonest. So by getting married, people tend to integrate themselves into an oppressive system of relationships, with fixed (and unrealistic) expectations of how to behave and how to be. That does not help flourishing either.

    The key (in my opinion) to a good life is to form decent relationships with other people and that takes a lot of work, empathy, honesty, humility and negotiation, and getting married has nothing at all to do with that.

    It’s hard enough to find good friends (or lovers) and it’s ridiculous to expect that the families of those few good friends whom one finds (and cherishes) will also have some affinity with oneself. Yet marriage forces one to interact with all the cousins, uncles and aunts.

  7. In some ways I like Wedgwood’s piece. I agree that for strategic reasons the pro-marriage-equality movement probably ought to discuss the social meanings of marriage. But at the same time I’m also concerned about trying to hang (part of?) the case for SSM on the idea that it would be unjust for the state to not offer same-sex couples the same way of communicating social meanings about their relationship as heterosexuals have.

    But for me this just raises the question–why should the state be concerned about facilitating people’s communication about their relationship at all? I can see perfectly general reasons why the state should offer many of the typical legal rights that go along with marriage, whether in a package deal or through piece-meal contractual agreements as I believe some advocates of “minimal marriage” advocate–but not so much when it comes to communicating that a relationship is sexually intimate or that there it involves a long-term commitment.

    In addition, I’m a little confused by Wedgwood’s argument that because it is known before a couple marries what sex each member is, marriage doesn’t communicate anything about the sex of the members and so being of the opposite sex isn’t an important social meaning attached to marriage. But isn’t it also the case that much of the rest of the world also knows about a couple’s level of commitment and their sexual intimacy before they get married (if they ever do)?

    For instance, I am in a same-sex marriage as are a good number of close friends. Some of us are legally married and some are not; some of us live in states where our legal marriages are recognized and some don’t. The couple that has been married the longest of the group I am thinking of is not legally married at all–they were married in a religious ceremony in a state that does not recognize same-sex marriage. Most people who know them as wife and wife have no idea of their legal status. And their non-legal wedding ceremony communicated the usual social meanings just as well as other couples’ legal ceremonies did.

    Finally, I tend to get very worried whenever anyone suggests that there are essential aspects to marriage (other than the very idea that one is legally contracted with another through the state and so one receives just whatever legal rights are associated with marriage in that state) or that marriage should mean certain things. Now technically I don’t think Wedgwood says this, but by suggesting that the state must provide same-sex couples an opportunity to communicate these meanings isn’t it implied that that these meanings are in fact good (or proper or legitimate, etc.)?

    That I am concerned about. I would describe my attitudes and politics regarding marriage as being both extremely pro legalizing same-sex marriage throughout the country and also very pro disassociating legal marriage from many of the current social meanings. For instance, one of the things that has always annoyed me greatly is the way that others responded to the idea of my wife and I getting married. We thought of this as a way of getting *legal* rights and, also, an excuse to get our close friends and families together for a party. Absolutely nothing changed about our relationship, yet others certainly took our marriage to mean that we were now more committed or more serious somehow. So certainly I think Wedgwood is right that the social meaning about long-term commitment is there, I just wonder–is that really a good thing? And why should the state be involved in this at all?

  8. “For instance, one of the things that has always annoyed me greatly is the way that others responded to the idea of my wife and I getting married. We thought of this as a way of getting *legal* rights…. Absolutely nothing changed about our relationship, yet others certainly took our marriage to mean that we were now more committed or more serious somehow. So certainly I think Wedgwood is right that the social meaning about long-term commitment is there, I just wonder–is that really a good thing? And why should the state be involved in this at all?”

    Thank you for this.

    I would like to add the following question: given the failure rate of marriage (~50%), and the unbundling of marriage from sexual expectations prior and during (other than exclusivity for its elective life), how are the ostensible social meanings of marriage still warranted in general?

  9. my thanks as well, anon. I share your concerns. I mean, I think that there are good liberalist reasons for affirming the rights of people to make contracts for legal rights with whomever they wish. but the extension of the state’s interest in social meaning squicks me out, along the lines laid out by Michael Warner, in his book, The Trouble with Normal. I don’t want the state to put its seal of approval on the kind of sex that I have, or that it presumes that I have, by virtue of being married. and I surely don’t want the state to use its approval of the kind of sex it presumes I have to deny legal rights to other folks because of the sex it presumes they have. and in a time when fewer working-class folks are getting married, can we say with such certainty that marriage’s social meaning is so distant from its older meaning as a means of consolidating wealth (echoing friend anon sr philosopher above)? which, again, fine, we should be able to require liberalism to do what it claims it does. but it seems to me that queer liberation used to be – and in some places still is – about something other than that.

    again, thanks for your comments. off to read Mattilda Sycamore Bernstein’s new anthology, Against Equality!

  10. Jamie: RW says

    Which elements of this social meaning are most important? To answer this question, we need to see what benefits are created by institutions that possess a social meaning of this kind. I propose that the crucial benefit is roughly this: by marrying, a couple can give a signal to their community that they wish their relationship to be viewed in the light of these generally shared assumptions about what married life is like. The rest of the community is not obligated to interpret the couple’s relationship in the light of these assumptions; but because marriage is such a familiar and generally understood institution, virtually the whole community will be able to understand the signal that the couple is sending.

    it is true that social meanings needn’t require majority consent, but his descrption here goes beyond mere social meaning and onto most important benefit and what virtually the whole community will be able to understand can understand as communicated. So it looks more psychologically active than I suspect it is. It’s hardly the most important benefit if most are indifferent to it.

    I should have said explicitly that the problems I referred to occurred in communities where the tradition assumed a woman would take her husband’s name.

  11. Anonymous, thanks for your enlightening examination of what legal mariiage does or does not communicate.

Comments are closed.