Over the past year, a furious opposition to gay marriage has been voiced by many who claim to know how God feels about this issue. President Bush even went so far as to propose an amendment to the Constitution to make same-sex marriage a federal offense. According to recent polls, a majority of Americans believe that marriage should remain a union that is strictly between a man and a woman. We hear that same-sex unions would threaten and undermine holy matrimony, although not a single concrete example of how that would happen has been offered. Gay marriage is legal in Belgium, the Netherlands, and Ontario, Canada, and thus far it has neither impaired traditional marriage nor subverted civil society in those places.
Putting gay marriage aside, what do we have to say about heterosexual marriage. In all the recent controversy, no one seems to have noticed how heterosexuals have devalued and defiled the sanctity of this purportedly God-given institution. Consider the following:
For millennia, straight-sex marriage consisted of a bond not between a man and a woman but between a man and any number of women. Polygamy is a recognized practice in the Holy Bible itself. King Solomon had 700 wives (not to mention 300 concubines) yet suffered not the mildest rebuke from either God or man. Other estimable figures in Scripture and throughout history have had large retinues of wives. Women in these kinds of overpopulated unions have been treated as little better than concubines, usually facing a dismal existence of enforced confinement.
In some parts of the world today, polygamy is still practiced by those men who have the money to buy additional wives. Buy? Exactly. Too often marriage is not a mutual bonding but a one-sided bondage. The entrapped women have no say in the matter. In various countries around the world, warlords, tribal chieftains, mullahs, or other prestigious or prosperous males lock away as many wives as they can get their hands on. The women often find themselves railroaded into a loveless lifelong captivity. They are subjected to constant control, periodic violence and abuse, prolonged isolation, enforced illiteracy, unattended illnesses, and other degrading conditions.
Another heterosexual abuse of holy matrimony comes when marriage is used to cement political alliances, shore up family fortunes, or advance careers. From ancient Rome to the latter-day European aristocracy, females of the best families of one nation or political faction were treated like so many gaming pieces, married off to well placed males of another nation or faction. And not only among aristocrats. Throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, in respectable bourgeois society the suitability of a perspective spouse was just as often determined by purse and pedigree as by any genuine emotional attachment.
Marriage has historically been more closely linked to property than to love, and the property arrangements tended to benefit the male spouse. For generations in the United States and other western countries a married woman usually could not even own property. She had to forfeit all her family inheritance to her husband, thereby being reduced to an appendage of the paterfamilias. And rarely could a married woman pursue an advanced education or professional career.
Arranged straight-sex marriages continue to this day in many parts of the world, with little regard for the feelings of the young women and men involved but with much concern for the dowry, social status, and financial condition of the respective families. Even in our own country we know there are heterosexuals who marry for money or social standing or some other reason having little to do with personal regard and affection. Do not such opportunistic calculations devalue the institution? Yet we hear no clamor about it, certainly not from the President or other homophobic guardians of nuptial heterosexuality.
These days, arraigned marriages are relatively rare in the United States except on Reality TV, where young and attractive women-â€”selected by television producers—openly vie for the opportunity to marry a millionaire whom they have never before met. They put themselves on display, usually a dozen at a time, while some wealthy hunk takes torturous weeks to eliminate all but one. Then he and his final selection are married on screen before millions of viewers. Here surely is a heartwarming benediction of a sacred institution.
Among the affluent class in ancient Rome, almost half the brides were under the age of fourteen, many as young as twelve, with consummation coming on the wedding night even if before menarche. This raises another longstanding unsavory practice of straight-sex marriage: underage brides. Child brides as young as 11 and 12 (or younger) are still bartered in various parts of the world, with a nuptial night that amounts to little more than child rape, often followed by years of mistreatment by the groom and his family. Yet the present defenders of straight marriage say little about how their sanctified institution is used in some places as an instrument of child sexual abuse.
Another dismal chapter in the history of heterosexual marriage is the way it has been used to bolster racism. In some seventeen states in the USA, holy matrimony was an unholy racist institution, with laws forbidding wedlock between persons of different races. For generations we had no same-sex marriage to worry about but we lived with legally mandated same-race marriage. The last of these miscegenation laws remained on the books until 1967.
In the United States today, heterosexual wedlock is not a particularly uplifting or even safe institution for millions of women. Consider some statistics: An estimated two million females are repeatedly battered. Most of these victims are married to their attackers. Domestic violence is the single largest cause of injury and second largest cause of death to U.S. women. An uncounted number of wives are raped by abusive husbands. Every year, upwards of a million women seek medical treatment for serious domestic abuse injuries. Almost three million children reportedly are subjected to serious neglect or physical or sexual abuse. Each year tens of thousands of kids run away from home to escape mistreatment.
There is the additional problem of abandonment. Millions of spouses—including many white middle-class professionals—desert their families and fail to provide sustenance for their own children. Often they do not even acknowledge or stay in contact with their offspring. If heterosexual matrimony is so sacred, you would think it might produce less horrific results.
Speaking of results, the phenomenon of divorce comes to mind. To be sure, millions of heterosexual couples find lifelong happiness in marriage; still, the most predictable outcome of straight marriage is divorce: 51 percent to be exact. That is an extraordinary statistic not matched by too many others. If we said there was a 51 percent murder rate or suicide rate or student drop-out rate, a 51 percent vehicular accident rate, a 51 percent rate for alcoholism or deaths from drug abuse, this would be great cause for alarm. In fact, society would probably be uninhabitable with such rates. Perhaps, then, marriage is not all that important. Fifty-one percent of all marriages fall apart, yet society has not fallen apart. If anything, in the more abusive households, divorce is actually a blessing.
Nor do the more traditional marriages that take place in conservative circles show any greater rate of happiness or survival than those that deviate from the conventional norm. The man may be the head of the household and the primary breadwinner, and the wife may be the dutiful homemaker, and the entire family may pray together—but they do not stay together at any greater rate than the more secular unions. A 2001 study found that born-again Christians are just as likely to get divorced as non-born-again adults and other less confirmed believers, with 90 percent of these divorces happening “after they accepted Christ, not before.” So those who claim that marriage is best fortified by religion have yet to prove their case.
Of course, fundamentalist keepers of the public morals do bemoan the high divorce rate, but they donâ€™t get exercised about it the way they do about gay wedlock. The point is, if millions of heterosexual divorces every year have not hopelessly denigrated the institution of marriage, why would some thousands of same-sex marriages do so? If straights like reactionary radio commentator and drug-head Rush Limbaugh can get married again and again without undermining the institution, what is so threatening about a gay union? Does Limbaugh feel that gay marriage makes a mockery of all three of his past marriages—and his pending fourth? If anything, happy gays wanting to get into the institution might help make up for all those unhappy straights wanting to get out.
If same-sex unions do violate church teachings, then the church (or synagogue or mosque) should refuse to perform gay marriages, and most do refuse. The gays I saw getting married in San Franciscoâ€™s City Hall were engaged in civil marriages, with no clergy presiding over the ceremonies. And what I saw opened my heart. Here were people, many in longstanding relationships, who were experiencing their humanity, happy at last to have a right to marry the one they loved, happy at last to exercise their full citizenship and be treated as persons equal under the law.
To sum up, here are some of the things that straight-sex marriage has wrought through the ages: polygamy, child-brides, loveless arrangements, trafficked women, bartered wives, battered wives, raped wives, sexual slavery, child abuse and abandonment, racist miscegenation laws, and astronomical divorce rates. If gays are unqualified for marriage, what can we say about straights? If George Bush and his homophobic worshippers really want to defend the institution of marriage, they can begin by taking an honest look at the ugly situations within so many heterosexual unions in this country and throughout the world.
Michael Parentiâ€™s most recent books are The Assassination of Julius Caesar (New Press) and Superpatriotism (City Lights). Heâ€™s been married and divorced only twice.