Will Marriage Equality Matter to the Community?

Watching the marriages of lesbians and gay men take place this past year ought to be warming the heart of anyone who values equality and fairness. Government recognition – with responsibilities and benefits tied to the official status of a relationship – so long denied them, is becoming a reality federally and state by state.

There are those radical right-wingers who wish none of it were happening and see same-sex marriages as disgustingly evil. Their reactions are, if nothing else, sad commentaries on their inability to be moved by what marriage — so hard fought for and so often assumed to be a hopeless dream — means to real human beings beyond just winning equal rights.

It’s as if the right-wing lacks some natural feelings for celebrating love wherever it’s found. And hiding in their trumped-up religious arguments only saves them from being moved out of some common humanity that knows real empathy for the feelings of fellow human beings.

While right-wing religious people go on and on about Divine love, they seem to have lost the capability of finding it beyond their sects. Their ideas of love are self-centered and insular.

And right-wingers prefer to think of all lesbian and gay male partnerships as less than their own true relationships. They’d rather paint them as just about sex and lust so as not to admit in their own minds that these relationships involve a level of commitment that expresses all that love could mean between two people.

Rather than facing all that LGBT people have gone through to just love someone, and that this is certainly a religious parable of what love is meant to be, the naysayers cling to their dogmas. In reality, LGBT people have been beaten, tortured and killed, have been kicked out of their families and lost their jobs, have been ridiculed and condemned from platforms and pulpits, because they fought to love someone.

So many of those taking advantage of marriage equality had already been living in love and commitment to each other for decades. These older generations seem to be flocking to the legal marriage protections given by the government more than the young who’ve lived through years marked by a bit more tolerance and often don’t feel what this breakthrough means in the light of lifetimes of oppression that older generations came to take as second nature.

Yes, yes. There is much about the institution of marriage in our culture to question. There are many of us both outside and inside the LGBT community who do so, and some who criticize those who choose it, assuming the worst intentions of anyone who’d want to marry.

And it’s true. On the whole marriage isn’t doing well. It’s been a patriarchal institution. Culturally, it comes with role expectations that are often stifling, straight-acting and undemocratic.

Society over-promises that marriage gives so much more than any institution could ever deliver. And in America it’s defined, as most things are, by consumerism.

But putting all that aside, for so many, to partake in marriage seems to legitimize, solemnize, and express relationships that are deep and meaningful. And it provides protection not only for their relationship but for both partners in it.

Then, again, marriage isn’t an end in itself. We get married for reasons other than just to be married.

The right-wing keeps saying that its purpose is to have children. Paul, the first-century Christian apostle wrote that it’s to take care of sexual lust: “It’s better to marry than to burn.”

But there’s something bigger. Merely huddling together in a protected status afraid of what loneliness, uncertainty, and danger might otherwise come would be fear, not love.

The test of marriage is how the love it expresses spills over into a community. That includes the friends we love but also the larger communities with which we identify.

Social commentator, conservationist, farmer, essayist, novelist, professor of English, and poet Wendell Barry put it this way: “Lovers must not, like usurers, live for themselves alone. They must finally turn from their gaze at one another back toward the community.

“If they had only themselves to consider, lovers would not need to marry, but they must think of others and of other things. They say their vows to the community as much as to one another, and the community gathers around them to hear and to wish them well, on their behalf and its own. It gathers around them because it understands how necessary, how joyful, and how fearful this joining is…. And so here, at the very heart of community life, we find not something to sell as in the public market but this momentous giving. If the community cannot protect this giving, it can protect nothing…” (Sex, Economy, Freedom and Community, 1993)

To abandon the realization that we’re always in a community by getting married is to abandon the very acts of love that two, three or more can accomplish in the world. It’s to ask for something from the community without giving back what that community also needs from the combined strength, energy and love of lovers.

For LGBT people, one question is: will becoming married mean forsaking any LGBT community with the shared interests, problems, and concerns of all of us that it had in the past? If so, how will we be reminded that we are all in this together till death us do part?

Who will then take care of our widows and widowers if not our community? Where will they go to live out their days after saying the inevitable goodbye to the one they committed to for life?

Who will be healthy community elders for LGBT youth at the times they need them? Who will model for our youth, who can get so caught up in other things, what long-term, grow-old-together relationships look like, or even the fact that they can exist?

Who, then, out of their love together will love so much that it will spill over in community?