Marriage: What Is It?

Speaker: Rev. Carolyn R. Brown

“Marriage is one of the most remarkable and most courageous of human acts, the promise of two human beings to share life together on all levels—physical, economic, spiritual—a promise made in the face of the uncertainty of death, the certainty of change, and the uncertainty of everything else. There is nothing else quite like this act, nothing so foolish, nothing so profound.” These words are from the wedding of two men performed in San Francisco City Hall on March 10 by my friends, UU ministers, Barbara and Bill Hamilton-Holway, the day before the California Supreme Court halted the same-sex weddings Mayor Gavin Newsom had authorized four weeks earlier.

As I prepared for this sermon, I was moved by the question of why people want to marry for it is true that “There is nothing else quite like this act, nothing so foolish, nothing so profound.” Today marriage is an impulse of the heart more than at any time in history. E. J. Graff’s book, What is Marriage For? is an extensive study of the history of marriage and the political and social purposes marriage has performed over thousands of years. Her sections are entitled in this order: money, sex, babies, kin, order and heart. This movement from money to heart reflects the history of marriage. Marriage has been for many things but today it is for the heart.

In the early 1970s, the hearts of many Unitarian Universalist ministers were moved by requests for religious ceremonies recognizing the commitments of same-sex couples. We created rituals of union for gay and lesbian couples. Our headquarters in Boston developed a lovely certificate of union to give the honored couples, but it’s only a “spiritual” piece of paper, recognized by the community of friends around them. In a few cities they will receive some benefits extended to domestic partners. If one of them is sick this certificate will not get their partner into the hospital. Currently, The American Civil Liberties Union is collecting stories from gay and lesbian couples that reflect problems faced by life partners and how their rights were denied. Rights of a life partner to be in the emergency room, rights to visit comatose partners, rights to make end of life decisions. The ACLU wants to humanize same-sex relationships in order to fight for marriage equality and a better future for same-sex couples.

These are two of the groups who are working today to envision the next change in the ever-changing “time honored institution” of marriage. Unitarian Universalist principles and purposes affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person. We began our Welcoming Congregation program several decades ago to learn to truly welcome gay people, to learn how our actions might affect newcomers, what we must do to put our first principle into action. “We affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person.” Our second principle promotes justice, equity and compassion in human relations, and this is where our faith is challenged to support our brothers and sisters who stand at the city and county offices seeking a license to receive that justice, equity and compassion. Many are seeking the possibility of choosing to be legally wed. We must look at this development from a justice seeking peoples’ point of view by reconsidering traditional views about marriage.

In the May/June 2004 issue of the UU World, Neil Miller wrote an article entitled “We Do” about trends concerning marriage. One section gave a short history of the how LGBT people have both been influenced and made their voices heard in the struggle for acceptance and recognition and the one that affects me most strongly, safety. The early gay rights movement evolved from sexual liberation to basic issues like equal housing and job opportunities. The generation of gay men who grew up in the 1960’s found themselves with “radically changing needs” in the 1980’s as a result of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Miller writes that rather than sexual liberation, gay men began focusing on long-term relationships. Lesbians were influenced by the women’s movement of the 1960s and worked to create their own communities. Miller writes: “Among lesbians in the late 1980s, as the separatist ideology lost much of its power and women felt they had more personal and economic choices—and, in many cases, were approaching the end of their child-bearing years—a ‘baby-boom’ emerged. More and more, gays and lesbians were living lives very much like their heterosexual neighbors. Truth be told, many had always been doing so.”

Miller continues: “The public at large became more aware as gay men and lesbians came out of the closet, organizing community-based AIDS service organizations and agitating for greater government action. The AIDS Quilt was first displayed at the second gay and lesbian march on Washington, DC in 1987 and generated tremendous sympathy and support.” WORLD May/June 2004.
Of course millions of people still held the opinion that gays got what they deserved, but finally some churches got into the act and provided help for AIDS patients. This crisis helped humanize men and women who had been demonized for their sexuality alone.

Today we are in the midst of a nationwide conflict concerning extending marriage rights to same-sex couples. Same-sex couples seek recognition of their commitments. Same-sex couples and their families seek equal protection under the law. Same-sex families seek an end to second-class citizenship. In the meantime, heterosexual marriage continues to promote gender hierarchy, regardless of how much progress was made in the 20th century. “Love honor and obey” may have been edited out of wedding vows, but is practiced by many groups in subtle and not so subtle ways. Gender hierarchy, male over female is the ground upon which many of our institutions are built. Control of property and money is another theme that remains even with reforms in marriage law.

These powerful patriarchic and controlling impulses are practiced around the world, in addition to our own country. Women are still considered property and denied rights, whether legally or psychologically. Women suffer physical and mental abuse from men who are ill-prepared for marriage. The jokes about the women behind the great men are nullified by the millions of men who divorce and do not provide financial care for their families. All of us know single mothers who have struggled to raise their families alone. Holy matrimony has led both men and women into some extremely unholy situations.

Marriage. “There is nothing else quite like this act, nothing so foolish, nothing so profound.” Why would anyone want to be married? When 19th century courts were trying to decide whether women could own property, one Maryland judge refused to recognize his state’s laws which gave property to a wife. He wrote: “What incentive would there be for such a wife ever to reconcile differences with her husband, to act in submission to his wishes, and perform the many onerous duties pertaining to her sphere? Would not every wife…abandon her husband and her home?” WIMF p 33.

The Married Women’s Property Acts were seen as a threat to families. Step by step women gained some control over their families assets so that if a man were a drunk or a gambler, the family wouldn’t lose everything. This led to women owning property without being overseen by a trustee. The outcry over these developments heralded the break up of the family. It would lead to “infidelity in the marriage bed, a high rate of divorce and increased female criminality” while turning marriage from “its high and holy purposes” into something arranged for “convenience and sensuality.” The Times of London wrote that reform would “abolish families in the old sense” and break up society again into men and women while creating “discomfort, ill-feeling, and distrust where hitherto harmony and concord prevailed.” Nineteenth century women were living in harmony because they were grouped with others incompetent to manage property: criminals, idiots and minors. WIMF p 31-32.

E. J. Graff writes that you could tell the anti-reformers were losing when they started insisting that any change if ownership of property would bring down God, Nature, and civilization. The proposed reforms were not contrary to the laws of man, but to the law of God.” They “set at defiance the experience of every country in Christendom and the common sense of mankind.” All these arguments are today being used against same-sex marriage. Graff writes: “Those who fear change are not particularly inventive from one age to the next: they’re always predicting an uprush of infidelity, vice, divorce; the breakup of families and society; a change in marriage from something holy to something merely sensual; and of course the death of marriage and civilization itself.” WIMF p 32.

And so it is today in America. But change is happening here and there.
Belgium has joined the Netherlands in granting full and equal marriage rights to same-sex couples. In June last year, an Ontario appeals court ruled that Canada’s ban on lesbian and gay marriage is unconstitutional. State supreme court rulings in Massachusetts and Vermont have led to same-sex marriage and civil unions respectively. Maverick mayors and clerks, moved I believe by a sense of injustice, have issued marriage licenses to people in California, Oregon and New Mexico.

In his book, Same-Sex Marriage? A Christian Ethical Analysis, Marvin Ellison takes a “progressive religious perspective…[placing] justice making at the heart of spirituality and views marriage, sexuality, and family through a justice lens, asking how to set wrongs right and establish a fairer distribution of power, authority and goods within diverse communities.” SSM p 3.

Ellison writes that marriage is controversial because it includes economics, property, reproduction and childrearing, caregiving and extended family and community relations. Second, it requires talking about sex, which tends to be tucked away out of sight, but rarely out of mind. Marriage is thirdly about the regulation of sex, as well as love and intimacy. It brings up the question what kind of sex is good and holy and blessed by the community. Finally marriage is controversial because while it “has served some people well, it has fostered gender and sexual oppression, including the oppression of women and LGBT people.” SSM p 4.

The “reigning marriage model is a Protestant Christian paradigm of lifelong, monogamous heterosexual relationships with a provider-husband and nurturer-wife, preferably at home caring for their dependent children…Heterosexuality is privileged in federal and state laws, from immigration to taxation to healthcare.” SSM p 109.

The history of the Western church is full of sex-negativity. Sexuality has been treated as a problem and eroticism as both good – leading to procreation; and bad-threatening to overwhelm and harm if unconstrained. The early Christian church upheld celibacy over marriage. This changed with the Reformation but good sex remained exclusively marital and procreative. Pleasure is dangerous. SSM p 135 “The Christian moral legacy about sexuality has been…fear-driven, punitive, and controlling, in short, oppressive.” SSM p 129.

This is a frame of mind that will stand in the way of contemporary marriage reform. The backlash against same-sex marriage has been consuming for state legislatures all over the nation. One response from the LGBT community has been an attempt to normalize homosexuality (we’re just like everyone else.)
Ellison writes that the “problem with this strategy is that normality is “won” only by desexualizing homosexuality and downplaying the very difference that caused the ruckus in the first place.” SSM p 95. An effort to sanitize gay sex is an attempt to make queerness invisible. We must rather develop a sexual ethic that would make gay sex more understood as another expression of love. We must overcome the Western Christian traditional view of sexuality and defend the goodness of all sexuality.

Many critics of same-sex marriage suggest that gays settle for a civil union or a domestic partnership, which would extend the 1,049 benefits under the law to these couples. Separate but equal, they contend. I confess that I originally thought this was a good compromise until I read these books and remembered the effects of separate but equal in the education of minority children in the 20th century. Civil union is a “pseudo-institution,” as the New Republic dubs it, an institution that works to “erase inequality and at the same time perpetuate it.” SSM p 91. Marvin Ellison writes that “civil unions and domestic partnerships have been purposefully established as parallel institutions to keep gay people permanent outsiders.” Tolerance is not enough. It maintains the hierarchy of a normative insider and non-normative outsider, and these will be viewed as superior and inferior.

Critics of same-sex marriage argue that marriage is for procreation. We know that it is no longer the main purpose. Will and I married even though we were physically unable to procreate. Another argument is that opposites attract.
Male-female is the only opposite that has been a thread in traditional marriage.
In fact, many people look for a life partner who shares values and goals.
Nevertheless, our culture sees these concepts as “the way we’ve always done it.”

Another big issue is the concern over the effects on children. Forty years ago, many gay men who wanted to have children married because that was their only option. Today gay men are adopting children and recently formed couples are sharing children and grandchildren. E. J. Graff writes about the efforts of researchers to find a difference in the parenting of moms and dads.
The result of all this research is that “very little about the gender of the parent seems to be distinctly important.” WIMF p 124. Ellison cites a 1995 review of research literature which reported that beliefs about lesbians and gay men as unfit parents have no empirical foundation.” SSM p. 71.

It is not surprising to me that some gay couples are not totally anxious to be married. Critics contend that the current model is no longer relevant to how many people, gay and non-gay alike, live their lives. “They find the conventional, historically patriarchal model of marriage as a hierarchical power relationship based on ownership and control.” Gay critics of marriage insist “that basic economic and social benefits customarily attached to marriage should be made available to all persons regardless of their marital status.” SSM p 117-118

In answer to these criticisms, Ellison would replace procreative heterosexual marriage with justice-love, understood as mutual respect and care and a fair sharing of power. A reconstructed Christian ethic of intimacy would include not fear, ownership, and control, but rather responsible freedom, respect for difference, and commitment to end exploitation and the abuse of power. SSM p 141. A contemporary marriage reform movement acknowledging the full humanity of all people “might better support adult intimate partnerships and promote stable families in a world in which the composition of families is dramatically changing.” SSM p 154.

I believe this is another choice issue. Same-sex couples must have the right to choose marriage as an option for their lives. Until this is achieved, they continue to live under the oppression of outsider status, denied equal protection under the law, kept in an inferior social position which continues to lead to discrimination and in many cases violence to person and property. Ellison quotes lesbian writer Mary Hunt: “We have much to teach: our strong reliance on one another for survival, not simply on our partner, if we have one, but on our community; life with dignity and fun even if we are not partnered; endless variety in how we make our lives work in the face of oppression. These are valuable contributions that, when taken seriously, will reshape the ethical norms of our [Western] society.” SSM p 116.

We are a justice-seeking people. We promote and affirm the inherent worth and dignity of all people, young and old, gay and straight, whatever color or ability.
We promote justice, equity and compassion in human relations. The Rev. William Sinkford, Unitarian Universalist Association President has formed a Freedom to Marry Fund for nationwide public witness and social justice work in support of same-sex marriage. May our work together lead to the day a truly comprehensive justice is more fully realized. May it be so.