Friday, April 10, 2009

Cornerstone of Tradition

Today, my twitter alter ego argued for a few hours with a "libertarian" concerning redefining traditional marriage. He stated the onus of proving the argument rests on those wishing to change the definition, not on those wishing against change. Apparently, the defense only has to smile and nod. While I, believing same-sex couples should be entitled to the same rights and privileges as mixed-sex couples, must argue (endlessly) why the system ought to be expanded. Not changed, in my opinion, but expanded.

Typically, the argument against expanding the legal definition of marriage hinges on tradition. It's always been this way, it always will be. After all, the legal union of a man and a woman along with their legitimate children form the cornerstone of society. As an American, I find this particularly insulting.

Cornerstones and tradition shape our beliefs and understanding, the way we interact with the world around us. As people, we can take the same set of events and interpret them very differently from the person standing next to us.

150-odd years ago, slavery formed the foundation of Southern life. The entire economy relied on slavery to function. Free states viewed slave ownership as an uncivilized while not believing blacks equal to whites. Slave states viewed it as tradition. It is here that Federal rights versus State rights really come to a head. Slave states determined they could secede from the United States while the United States believed they could not.

Following former Confederacy states acceptance of Federal sovereignty, they had to release the people they formerly owned. In addition to the devastation wrought from the war, their economy imploded because there was no one left to work their plantations. And when there were people, they had to pay them for their work. Blacks having rights, including the right to vote and to hold office, further harmed southern states. National Guard units were brought in to protect blacks at the polls and to protect black elected officials. Tradition was destroyed; the cornerstone of southern society gone.

But does tradition and cornerstones justify continuing the practice of slavery? Today, this question is almost universally answered as "no". Black people deserve the protections of America as much as white people (Hispanic people is still questionable). To this day, the south has not completely recovered from the Civil War and its outcomes. Yet who would actually suggest a return to this previous way of life?

This belief of freedom and rights and equality and justice form, in my opinion, the foundation of our society, our combined culture. The cornerstone is the system we created to help ensure everyone can participate in this. Marriage is not a cornerstone any more than slavery. It exists as a system to provide benefits to those who participate. Though not everyone is allowed to participate how they believe they should.

In slavery, slave-owners and the southern economy as a whole benefited. In order to keep the system functioning, it must be accepted that some people could be owned. White people were not the only ones who participated; Indian tribes owned slaves, usually black people, as well. Those born into slavery, even if they escaped to Free States, were not allowed to participate in American society. Laws existed to guarantee escaped slaves could be returned to their owners. So even if one had managed to enjoy, for a while, some of the rights and privileges afforded to those not born into slavery, it could be whisked away. Save for the few fortunate enough to sit before juries sympathetic who, knowing the law and knowing the defendant guilty of a crime, nullified the law and let escape slaves see some taste of another life. And yet, participation in this life was incomplete. Nearly 100 years after the passage of the 14th amendment, blacks and whites received different educations. They could still not participate how they believed they should.

The same can be said for same-sex marriage. Anti-marriage fairness folk say gay people still have the right to marry whomever they want. Of course, the stipulation is to marry someone of a different sex. They can sleep with whomever they want, make legal arrangements however they want, there's nothing to stop them. Theoretically, this may be true. I am free to marry, so long as I marry a man. I'm free to live with a woman and share a life and home, but I can't be married. I am not a cornerstone.

What I really want to understand is why this institution has such a bungled application. I cannot marry a woman, but I can marry a man the moment I meet him. I can divorce him and repeat the process ad nausum until I die. I can have numerous children with all of these men, and all of them would have to support me. So long as I marry a man who is not an immediate relation or married to someone else, I can. There is nothing to stop me. We don't have to live together. We don't have to share a life. We don't have to have children. We don't have to like each other. We don't even have to sleep together. At some point, if we desire, we can pretend it never happened. Or we can dissolve it. Questions are asked but it's granted.

Yet with a woman? Even if we are together for 50 years, making a positive statistic on the divorce rate in this country; even if we provide for each other, our children, our community; even if we pay all of our taxes, no questions asked; even if we tutor school children; even if we are in the Rotary Club; even if we are executives or janitors ... We cannot.

"Marriage" has never had a consistent definition, throughout history or even in this country. For a long time, marriage was not a contract between two consenting adults but, rather, the exchange of ownership rights of a woman from her father to her mother. Marriage is used to provide benefits to children so that they are not bastards and then have the right to inherit property from their fathers. It provided for women who had few options to provide for themselves. It had nothing to do with love or tradition or even the Bible. In the legal sense, the one being "defined," it had to do with money and ownership, either of people or of property.

Expanding the legal application of marriage does not mean destroying it or redefining it. Changing "a man and a woman" to "two consenting adults" does not destroy a cornerstone: it builds upon it. It is the just application of a law. Limiting it to one man and one woman only proves the intention to limit one's rights. Keeping it so narrow cuts deep at America, our foundation, our very core. That we are all created equal and have unalienable rights. We are a nation of law, and this law is inequitable, it is not justly applied, and it keeps some Americans intentionally at the edge of society.

Even if the majority want to keep women from marrying each other, men from having husbands, our nation believes those removed from the system still deserve participation equally. It is the right of every American to participate in the institutions of this nation. It is the duty of every American to apply this and to strive for full and equal participation.

This is not a slippery slope. This does not mean we must let people have multiple spouses. This does not mean adults can marry children. This means adults, not otherwise barred, may completely participate. It does not lessen the importance of the institution or the importance of your relationship.

The only one who can destroy your marriage is yourself. Holding onto it too tightly will break it in the end. Keeping marriage between one man and one woman lessens marriage. And it lessens America.

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