Marriage is not solely about loving attachment.
It is also about state recognition and a specific bundle of rights and privileges. But these rights are not enough to explain why people choose marriage. The desire to express love, to commit, and to consent is more deeply human than that.
Take black American slaves who were legally barred from marrying, but who created their own ceremonies and adhered to their own commitments. By choosing whom to love, how to love, what to sacrifice, and how long to stay committed, they carved out space for their human selves in a system that attempted to reduce them to beasts of burden. Enslaved people desired marriage and understood themselves as married, but without the protection of government, their marriages could be disrupted. Their spouses sold. Their families separated. They could love each other, but they were vulnerable.
To be gay in America today is not the same as being a slave in the 19th century. Little in human history compares to intergenerational, chattel slavery. But there are important connections on the issue of marriage.
Many same-sex couples in the United States live in a fraught, contingent space of loving attachment, unprotected by state recognition. They too are vulnerable.
But even as they fight for equal access to marriage, marriage as an institution declines. Fewer people who can marry are choosing to do so. More people who do marry are choosing to divorce.
Contemporary heterosexual marriage is a bit of a mess. The current state of straight marriage is a reminder that simply having the right to marry is not sufficient to generate social equality, create economic stability, or ensure personal fulfillment.
Even as we move toward marriage equality for same-sex couples, we need to reflect on marriage as an institution in itself. Our work is not just about marriage equality, it should also be about equal marriages, and about equal rights and security for those who opt out of marriage altogether. Advocates of marriage equality reassure the voting public that same-sex marriage will not change the institution itself.
This is a pragmatic strategy, but I hope it is not true. I hope same-sex marriage changes marriage itself. I hope it changes marriage the way that no-fault divorce changed it. I hope it changes marriage the way that allowing women to own their own property and seek their own credit changed marriage. I hope it changes marriage the way laws against spousal abuse and child neglect changed marriage. I hope marriage equality results in more equal marriages. I also hope it offers more opportunities for building meaningful adult lives outside of marriage. We must do more than simply integrate new groups into an old system. Let's use this moment to re-imagine marriage and marriage-free options for building families, rearing children, crafting communities, and distributing public goods.