Marriage: Where Are We Now?

With November’s poll results, marriage equality continues to fail when put on the ballot. We can’t ignore the progress that’s been made, but the American people remain an easy mark for those who claim protecting marriage involves denying it to LGBT people.

If we use marriage as the measure of what’s happening for LGBT people in the country, we’ve chosen the wrong measure. It’s a sensational issue, for sure. On both sides, national organizations have bet donation asks on it. But expect more disappointments ahead.

A better measure of progress is the success of non-discrimination ordinances particularly on the local level. Here’s where everyday people are.

As in Kalamazoo and Salt Lake City, these changes aren’t confined to gay havens on the coasts and our largest cities. And the Mormon Church supporting a non-discrimination ordinance in Salt Lake after buying anti-marriage votes around the country, is a telling sign of the symbolic place of marriage in American politics and consciousness.

In addition, the reaffirmation of legal civil union rights in Washington state, tells us that there is something about the idea of marriage that keeps us stuck. It’s beyond any homophobia, the politics of wedge issues, its success in money-raising for anti-gay organizations, and all the religious justifications for anti-gay prejudice.

LGBT people are the scapegoats, and the ballot measures extending marriage equality are lightening rods, for what marriage really means to people in the US. Marriage is itself the problem.

Those who have fought tirelessly in Maine, California, and the forty other states where it’s illegal, with thirty also banning it constitutionally, should not be scorned. The battle is an up-hill one because of what “marriage” deeply says to most people.

Marriage is not just a legal concept here. If it were, it would already be as successful as civil unions.

It’s a symbol, like motherhood, Santa Claus, and the flag. It not only symbolizes an ideal people go on about and LGBT people would like to get in on, but a guilt-inducing reality that’s doing very poorly for most people.

LGBT people hold the ideal itself in their hopes. In terms of human rights, they have the right to every sick, failing institution straight people have.

But it’s the actual reality in the light of the ideal that marriage symbolizes that keeps it an issue for those who would deny it to LGBT people.

Marriage for many symbolizes dashed hopes. Fifty percent fail. That doesn’t mean the other fifty percent are personally living in the bliss that marriage is supposed to bring them.

We’re not just talking about people who stay together with abusive spouses because the exiting is scary, or those who feel that they could never do better. Living as if one has compromised one’s life, done the best they could, settled for inevitable disappointment, and just agreed to make it through, is what marriage has become for many.

It wouldn’t have been so bad if marriage hadn’t promised so much more. It wouldn’t be so disappointing if it hadn’t been idealized and pushed by our social, economic, and religious institutions, and most media.

Its expectations are so high that when they don’t materialize, it becomes more a symbol that highlights the personal failings to meet the ideal for those who embrace it. Something about them – their character, their personality, their bad choices, their inadequacies – the symbol reminds them, is to blame for their disappointment.

The symbol is full of mythology represented in that ideal, commercially lucrative marriage ceremony followed by a honeymoon that lasts forever, the intertwining of the two in harmony, and the sex that will become better and better as they grow emotionally closer.

Marriage, the symbol, is supposed to involve happily-ever-after-ness, or, at least, personal fulfillment. It’s supposed to save us from our loneliness and provide a companion who always accepts us just the way we are, warts and all.

Why, then, the joke: that scientists have found a food that stifles peoples’ sex drives – wedding cake? Why, then, the wives who report being lonely in their marriages, or the men who have decided they’d rather be workaholics than find their fulfillment at home?

Why, then, the complaints that the romance is gone, “the honeymoon is over,” and the incessant justifications that all this is normal? Why, then, the feeling that this person has not fulfilled the needs they were supposed to fill in marriage? Why does the grass start looking greener elsewhere even when one has committed to always keep it mown here?

As long as the symbol claims to represent ideals that are probably unrealistic or seldom realizable, marriage is more likely to symbolize one’s personal failure to have attained these ideals. It will remind us we have failed.

There might be some who have the ideal. They’re out there somewhere, but they’re not us.

When asked, many married people are in denial. Facing its failings for those who have not divorced would enforce the sense of one’s personal failure.

Denial is rife. Evidence those who are totally surprised that there is anything wrong with their marriage when a spouse announces they’re unhappy and want a divorce.

It’s not that all the fifty-percent that are still together are unhappy. But we see again the principle that those who are the least secure are more likely to project their problems on others.

To the extent that marriage really symbolizes disappointment, failure, and insecurity, to that extent I must “protect” it all the more and project my emotional problems on others, like LGBT people. I overreact by denying it to others.

The future of marriage is not bright in itself. Our broader culture would rather blame than take a deep look at what we are expecting from a very sick institution.

It would be nice to believe sooner than later that LGBT people will be allowed to participate legally in this symbol. Less likely is the fact that the institution will become a more successful one.

If marriage were now, though, LGBT people wouldn’t be its scapegoats.