Gay Marriage

How Changes in Straight Marriage Paved the Way for Legal Gay Marriage


It's fun to mock Andrew Sullivan's silly essay in Newsweek/The Daily Beast declaring Barack Obama the first gay president. But I'll give the outlet credit for also publishing a much better article by the historian Stephanie Coontz, arguing that the rise of gay unions is an outgrowth of a radical shift in straight unions:

For millennia, marriage was about property and power rather than mutual attraction. It was a way of forging political alliances, sealing business deals, and expanding the family labor force. For many people, marriage was an unavoidable duty. For others, it was a privilege, not a right. Servants, slaves, and paupers were often forbidden to wed, and even among the rich, families sometimes sent a younger child to a nunnery or monastery rather than allow them to marry and break up the family's landholding.

Why can't a spiderman marry another spiderman?

The redefinition of traditional marriage began about 250 years ago, when Westerners began to allow young people to choose their partners on the basis of love rather than having their marriages arranged to suit the interests of their parents. Then, just 100 years ago, courts and public opinion began to extend that right even to marriages that parents and society disapproved.

In the 1940s and 1950s, many states repealed laws that prevented particular classes of people -- including those with tuberculosis and "the feeble-minded" -- from marrying. In 1967 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional for states to prohibit interracial marriage. In 1987 it upheld the right of prison inmates to marry….

But the most important cultural change that has increased support for same-sex marriage is the equality revolution within heterosexual marriage.

Now your Reggie/Jughead slash fiction can end with wedding bells.

For most of history, the subordination of wives to husbands was enforced by law and custom. As late as the 1960s, American legal codes assigned differing marital rights and obligations by gender….Between the 1970s and 1990s, however, most Americans came to view marriage as a relationship between two individuals who were free to organize their partnership on the basis of personal inclination rather than preassigned gender roles. Legal codes were rewritten to be gender neutral, and men's and women's activities both at home and work began to converge….The collapse of rigid gender expectations and norms has fostered the expectation that marriage should be an individually negotiated relationship between equals, replacing the older notion of marriage as a prefabricated institution where traditional roles and rules must be obeyed.

Add the growing acceptance of childless heterosexual unions -- and a growing assortment of ways for gays to raise children -- and it becomes much harder to argue against allowing couples of the same sex to marry. The more historically aware social conservatives understand this, which is why some of them write essays with titles like "Why Homosexuals Want What Marriage Has Now Become."

What has modern marriage become? Here's Coontz again:

Marriage is now more optional than in the past, and people are far less willing to remain in a marriage that doesn't feel fair, loving, and mutually respectful. On the other hand, as a result of these changes, many marriages have become more fulfilling and mutually beneficial than ever before.

Domestic violence rates have plummeted over the past 30 years, dropping by 50 percent since 1980. The divorce rate, which rose sharply in the 1960s and 1970s, has been falling since its peak in 1981, and it has fallen the most for educated couples, who are the most likely to mix and match traditional gender behaviors.

Elsewhere in Reason: More marital history from Thaddeus Russell and from yours truly. I commented on that "Why Homosexuals Want…" essay here.

Elsewhere not in Reason: Roderick Long reminds us: "In the traditional meaning of 'marriage,' then, there are no married couples in the United States today."

NEXT: Steve Chapman on the Implausibility of Nuclear Terrorism

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  1. Gay marriage? I've never heard of such a thing!

    1. Yeah usually within the first 6 months things turn downright miserable

      1. just as Michelle replied I didnt even know that people able to get paid $8169 in one month on the internet. have you read this site link..FaceBookJob.Notlong.CoM

  2. the bible references 8 types of marrage including marrying ur brother's wife (while remaining married urself if applicable) if ur brother died before conceiving a male heir.

  3. After that night, they called him "Webslinger" for a completely different reason than before.

    1. Talk about about being caught in a web of intrigue...

      1. I'm not sure it was just his spidey-sense that was tingling...

        1. That's how you know it's working.

  4. that profam article is a long slog. Of course it does not recognize the realities of marriage tradition as this post does, the family arrangements, chattel, subservience, the fun parts!

    So they must control all of society. Why can't these traditionalists take a page from the Amish and form the communities they want to live in? Its hard work and would not be easy to implement, but if their traditions are more than just a basis to point fingers at others it would have to be worth it.

  5. "But the most important cultural change that has increased support for same-sex marriage is the equality revolution within heterosexual marriage."

    GOP translation: The feminists are to blame!

  6. I'll be deep in the cold, cold ground before I recognize childless heterosexual unions.

    1. the lack of a child is a solid hint.

  7. Don't forget the contributions by medical science like the pill, in vitro fertilization, and the pill.
    It used to be that women had to be careful about sex because they could get knocked up. Now they can go on the pill and take home a different dude from the bar every night!
    You're no longer expected to marry her if you knock her up. Either she gets an abortion or becomes a ward of the state. Marriage? Ha! That's for chumps!
    And now a same sex couple can go to a sperm bank or find a female host body, and make a kid that's half one of them!
    Hooray for science! You're rendered marriage pointless!

    Now that it's pointless, why do the homos want it so bad?

    1. sum kinda long radio entertainment trail leading headlong into ur ass

  8. One can only hope that family law as it pertains to custody, alimony, and child support will undergo a similar evolution to reflect the increased parenting role that men are taking these days. The default rule in favor of the mother mentality is one of the things that most frightens men away from the very institution of marriage to begin with.

    1. that's changing. i was granted full custody of my kids 10 yrs ago fm my ex who's a musician even tho her mom said she'd raise em when my ex was on tour.

      1. You're a parent? That's scary.

  9. Between the 1970s and 1990s, however, most Americans came to view marriage as a relationship between two individuals who were free to organize their partnership on the basis of personal inclination rather than preassigned gender roles.

    Now, divorce, alimony, and child support, on the other hand...

  10. From Coontz's article:

    "Today, the majority of American children grow up in homes where their parents share breadwinning, housework, and child care."

    Yes, 250 years ago wives played no economic role, certainly not on farms. They just stayed in the house reading *Poor Richard's Celebrity Hairstyles* while hubby did all the work. And the father never saw his children because they certainly never worked with him on the farm. Sheesh!

    1. They just stayed in the house reading *Poor Richard's Celebrity Hairstyles* while hubby did all the work.

      250 year ago, without modern appliances, and particularly lacking refrigeration to safely store food (which necessitated constantly gathering food), and no processed products from food to sanitary napkins to light sources to store-bought clothes or even store-bought cloth and thread (which necessitated making all of them), and with more children, and with no conveniences like running water/trash disposal/sewage systems, and with wives spending a large portion of their adult life pregnant or nursing, running the house was more than a full-time job.

      "Man works from sun to sun, but woman's work is never done."

      1. Agreed that 250 years ago, women were working long, hard days."Laundry day" used to mean more than the day when you spend a couple of minutes changing the washer and dryer loads. It meant that you spent the entire day physically hand-washing clothes. A stove wasn't something you turned on and off; you had to continually maintain the coal hopper and dispose of the ash over the course of the day.

        All that changed in the first half of the 20th century. Automatic washers and dryers. Gas and electric stoves. Refrigerators. Vacuum cleaners. All of a sudden, we still had stay-home wives, so, farm-households excepted, with the exception of child care, women's housework was heavily automated to the point where it really tipped the balance of labor between the husband working outside the home and the wife keeping the house. Does a childless wife really do 8 hours of housework a day? The notion of the middle-class "bored housewife" with idle hands only really came about in the 1940s. Before then they were working too hard to be bored.

        So the notion of equality in marriage can be at least partially attributed to the automation of housekeeping. If a marriage is a partnership, then it is a bit much to shoehorn all married couples into an arrangement where one spouse works at full capacity while the other lives a life of relative leisure. It's no wonder that the institution of marriage changed as the labor requirements of the wife dramatically diminished.

  11. This article conflates "definition" and "meaning" with "practice". All the restriction-lifting did not change the definition of marriage, any more than changes in who could ride the bus redefined "bus".

  12. This is a much too short history.

    One, a continual body of liturgical documents concerning the marriage of two men exists in the Catholic and Orthodox churches from at least the 9th well into the 17th centuries.

    Two, our notions of marriage here in the US are dominated by the Cavalier class of the mid-Atlantic region whose ceremonies descended from the Church of England heavy on State and Church involvement. However, the devout and conservative Puritans, for example, who preceded them here held marriage to be an earthly union requiring only a registration at the village office, with the reverse of that good enough to produce a divorce if the marriage was not producing "harmony."

    Three, marriage, traditionally, is not primarily state or church level but community level, a way of saying these two are now devoted to each other and please respect that according to the beliefs of the community.

  13. Four, the turning point was the Lawrence decision because as soon as sex between same-sex individuals is no longer illegal, freedom of association kicks in. Marriage is a form of, a subset of, that freedom.

    Five, with that, the Pursuit of Happiness kicks in (it would be a hollow concept indeed if it did not include, at a minimum, the ability to determine the major milestones of your own life, such as choice of life partner) and equality under the law (if we want to form a union, we are entitled to all the benefits of the law afforded others in a union).

    Because same-sex marriage is thus a civil rights issue, the proper course is for same-sex couples to proceed with their ceremonies (no law can stop them) and cohabit (no law can stop them) while mounting concerted legal drive and using whatever tools they can (eg, powers of attorney) to wrest the benefits until states find it easier to provide those benefits and recognitions freely.

    Instead, what it appears we have is a situation in which Progressives are conducting a kabuki to make it appear, one, that your rights are granted by government officials rather than by your Creator, and, two, that, damn, we lost again, proving that Republicans are mean old ogres.

  14. So then, obviously marriage isn't a fundamental, constitutional right. Some classes of people will still be unable to marry even after gay marriage wins approval.
    Why are we abandoning our worries about who can marrry but create a library of laws for divorces? Should it as easy to exit as to enter?
    Why not just have going steady be the end game, then?

  15. On the first Feminian Sandstones we were promised the Fuller Life
    (Which started by loving our neighbour and ended by loving his wife)
    Till our women had no more children and the men lost reason and faith,
    And the Gods of the Copybook Headings said: "The Wages of Sin is Death."


    As it will be in the future, it was at the birth of Man --
    There are only four things certain since Social Progress began --
    That the Dog returns to his Vomit and the Sow returns to her Mire,
    And the burnt Fool's bandaged finger goes wabbling back to the Fire --
    And that after this is accomplished, and the brave new world begins
    When all men are paid for existing and no man must pay for his sins
    As surely as Water will wet us, as surely as Fire will burn
    The Gods of the Copybook Headings with terror and slaughter return!

    We are seeing exactly this now. It cannot continue, so it won't.

  16. I'm not gay, (not that there's anything wrong with that),but,I think I could make it work for me as long as I could have the sex life of my grandparents.

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