The advance of marriage equality may be less a product of political strategy or moral evolution (or devolution) than of the lessening objective importance of marriage itself.
The detachment of sexuality from sexual reproduction had to entail a relative devaluation of “holy matrimony” – i.e., procreative monogamy. There have been, of course, multiple and mutually reinforcing conditions at play in this process. The least that can be suspected is that the decline of traditional marriage and its declining material usefulness or necessity are bi-conditional. If as fundamental a social-cultural institution as marriage is in substantial decline, thus allowing the rise of marriage equality as a political project, the phenomenon must reflect objective alterations in human circumstances generally, at least within the wealthier societies of the West, and may foreshadow even greater changes to come.
Marriage, to the traditionalists, cannot be reduced to elective affinity – “lifestyle choice,” “personal commitment,” even “love relationship” – because to them it is a matter of a higher or the highest seriousness: Not a matter of imaginary and sentimental, implicitly random and contingent relationships, as easily revocable as they are freely chosen, but a matter of life and death, and more of the latter than beneficiaries of historically recent advances in medicine and public health tend to recall. The cultures in which marriage equality is advancing are the ones in which complications of childbirth have not for a very long time been a leading cause of death among women; in which births per family in the politically relevant sectors have fallen below replacement rate; in which lifespans beyond the child-bearing years, and the child-bearing years themselves, have been extended. The accompanying developments, including the broad participation of women in the workforce and civil society, have tended to equalize men and women as citizens, and a parallel equalization of rights and expectations has occurred within marriages, alongside a lessening of social distinctions privileging or stigmatizing married versus divorced or never-married individuals.
These processes were well under way before a de-gendered marriage form was widely envisioned. The result, somewhat suggestive of a side effect or afterthought, followed as though by mathematical logic: “if a = b, a + a = a + b.” In other words, social, economic, and technological progress may have weakened the case for tradition, but it also means that same sex couples are seeking and gaining access to a property under re-assessment. Political conflict may have made marriage seem more like something worth fighting over, but the same underlying erosive and devaluing trends that make the fight even conceivable, and which appear unstoppable short of civilization-level cataclysms, may eventually make engaging on the issue of little interest to anyone.
The two-sidedness of this development tends to be dismissed out of hand by those who see, as the phrase goes, “history on their side,” but all aspects of such a change qualify as eminently worthy of consideration. It is interesting to note, for instance, that society’s upper “.01%” have no trouble with and can happily support marriage equality. In this connection, we can recall that the “traditional family” has been a focus of compromise with and support for the bourgeois social model, but has also provided a durable last resort for social self-defense against money power. Its replacement under late capitalist relations with a new and relatively untested family form, the construction via legal, administrative, and social innovation of a perfectly transactional, gender-neutralized individual subject (a = b), a pure self-consumer, may entail more risk than progressives typically take into account.
Such possibilities do not make marriage equality as a new norm wrong or undesirable, but the tendency to pretend that the “argument against” was never even conceivably tenable – purely a product of “bigotry” – reflects a certain naivete or lack of diligence or realism, almost a determination to be victimized by one’s own best intentions.
We are generally more familiar with fictional rather than actual alternatives to “blood ties,” social organizations in which biological connections between all parents and all children are suppressed or erased. We do not live in Plato’s “best city” or Huxley’s “Brave New World,” and it still disturbs us to think of children informing on their parents under actual police state systems, but the reason that utopians have considered such extreme measures is their recognition that bonds of blood tend to supersede all other relations, undermine all other loyalties, and dominate the imaginations of grown men and women confronting their own mortality.
It was the same recognition that, for example, justified celibacy among Catholic priests and the institution of eunuchry in diverse cultures: Not, as today seems generally, and tellingly, to be presumed, a fear of disruptive sexual desire, but the recognition that “family values” – preferment, inheritance, legacy – posed a powerful and, in the end, highly effective threat to institutions based on other norms. The story of political decay in diverse historical settings, especially the decay of republics, is a story of nepotism, family preference in property, appointments, and succession supplanting decisions based on merit or on some other form of equal justice. Whatever the usefulness or staying power of exceptional institutions like the Catholic priesthood and other religious orders, or like professionalized and democratized bureaucracies, the larger settings in which they subsist, the modes of social organization that both precede and survive the rise and fall of religions, states, and civilizations, have been those based on organic kinship relations, which in turn can always be traced to one and another Adam and Eve.
These observations are meant to point to the potential significance of, but also the resistance to, the transformation under way. Yet for now as for the foreseeable future, the vast majority of babies are still being made and raised “the old-fashioned way,” not in cloning vats and nurseries. There may be plenty of time for the organic primacy of “the relationship between a man and a woman” simply to re-assert itself after the passions and possibilities of this moment and this epoch have faded away. There is also no inherent reason why both marriage ideals – heteronormative and de-gendered – could not be recognized, under observation of both the distinction and overlap between them.
On the other hand, the insistence on absolute equality of marriage forms, non-distinction, implies an equivalence that even the previously mentioned Dr. Harris-Perry cannot believe in. Such an insistence threatens to turn the finding of a home in custom and the law for same sex couples into the forced evacuation of traditionalists rather than a productive union, the erasure of procreation from the marriage formula as negation and exclusion. One alternative course of development could discover a place for the relatively small number of “gay marriages” within the heteronormative or hetero-centric institution, similar to the place of marriages between the elderly or other couples who never intend to produce new offspring. The marriage traditionalists may learn simply to wink at the pretensions of the more ardent progressives. The progressives, for their part, rather than pressing their vision beyond sustainability, may re-imagine the non-gendered life-union as a multi-leveled – ideal and practical – adjunct to the organic institution, rather than its absolute expression.
The civilization-level question may point toward a technologically enabled defeat of organic kinship or, alternatively, its resurgence amidst the collapse of the Western or liberal-progressive model at its practical limits, but it may take a very long time for such a deep-going process – a matter of “generations” in more ways than one – to work itself out. At our moment, marriage equality remains a peculiar twilight phenomenon, both revision and eclipse.