Just what is the real purpose of marriage?

The two same-sex marriage cases before the Supreme Court show that marriage equality is our present, not our future.

California same-sex marriage
"In the US, we don’t recognise marriage rights based on fertility or fecundity," writes author [EPA]

Ron Jolly is the local right-wing talk-show radio host here in Traverse City, Michigan. His show airs weekday mornings on WTCM. This week, he was holding forth on gay marriage, and he received some colourful callers. One woman said that homosexuality brought down the Roman Empire. When people accept homosexuality, they naturally become less responsible about everything, including the duties of citizenship.   

Another caller volunteered an alternative definition of marriage. It was not a right, he said, but an obligation. According to him, marriage was created to force couples to stay together. Which couples should the state compel to marry? Couples who must be ordered to remain a family: couples who can have children they do not want. 

Marriage, in other words, is like having to get a licence when you get a dog.   

The Supreme Court seems poised to rule in favour of gay marriage – in a limited way, perhaps, but towards the idea that marriage equality is equality under the law. But this case has forced people like Ron Jolly to state their rationale openly, and that means that I have to hear people alive today blaming the gays for the Dark Ages.   

Charles Cooper argued the case for Prop 8 – and against gay marriage – before the Supreme Court. He agreed with this second caller, arguing that marriage was about procreation above all else

“Redefining marriage as a genderless institution will sever its abiding connection to its historic traditional procreative purposes, and it will refocus the purpose of marriage and the definition of marriage away from the raising of children and to the emotional needs and desires of adults, of adult couples.” 

Under questioning, he insisted that this was still true of couples who could under no circumstances have children together, so long as they were heterosexual.   

In times like these, I try to remember Anne Boleyn.  

 US Supreme Court hears same-sex marriage cases

She was Henry VIII’s second wife. He married her after he put aside Catherine of Aragon, who did not go gently, insisting until the end of her life that she was the only true Queen and the only wife Henry would ever have. Anne lasted three years, and ended up accused of witchcraft and executed for adultery. For the rest of Henry’s reign and long afterward, she was known as the “Great Whore”.   

Both women had trouble giving Henry the heir he desperately wanted.   

Catherine’s inability to bear sons had been offered by Henry as proof that God saw their marriage as invalid: their union was an abomination, so they could not have any male babies. If Catherine were truly Henry’s wife in the sight of Heaven, then Catherine would not have such trouble giving Henry an heir.   

Anne was just as much of a disappointment. Late in her term as royal helpmeet, Anne miscarried, giving birth to a stillborn son. According to some historians, the lost child was taken as evidence that she had consorted with Satan and her brother; it was certainly proof to her husband that she was worthless to him.   

Anne Boleyn was judged a monster, an unnatural woman, because she gave birth to a dead child. Catherine of Aragon was judged a failure, a useless woman, because she could not give birth to live sons.   

It has been nearly four centuries since then, and we have come far. It has been four decades since the US agreed to legislate against marital rape, and generations since we arrested women for dancing with the devil. I am a luckier woman than Anne.   

It’s the babies, silly 

It was darkly amusing to watch Elena Kagan asking Charles Cooper if he really knows where babies come from, but it was disturbing to see Cooper argue that the purpose – no, excuse me, the defining ethos – of marriage is procreation. 

He’s making an argument that has a chance of slipping past Kagan’s admirable grasp of human biology. He’s not saying that the marriage is for procreation. He’s saying that marriage is a kind of poetic homage to procreation. It is important for us to dignify not parenting, but making babies. Making babies is beautiful and holy under certain crucial circumstances, and it is important for the law to cherish this sacred purpose within marriage. 

Gay people obviously cannot make babies – with each other – so they cannot be allowed to marry, because they would corrupt this holy understanding of marriage. When you think about a man and a woman who really love each other, even if they are in their 70s, even if you are not in kindergarten, the idea of babies will be there, somewhere, in the back of your mind.   

When you see a man professing his love for another man, there are no babies. We must see babies and marriage together at all times, or we will forget that we must have babies, but only when we have marriage. 

This is so much worse than the idea that we as a society must protect and encourage heterosexuals in their earnest attempts to raise children.   

As Alex Pareene put it, we are “long since past the point” where we could say that marriage in this country exists solely or even primarily in service of babies. There are one or two historical precedents, regimes that formally privileged fertile over infertile marriage, but they tended to be more dastardly than the Bluebeard of “Merrie Olde England”. In the US, we don’t recognise marriage rights based on fertility or fecundity. We simply don’t. We never have.   

Yet we seem unhappy about that, and I can’t understand why.   

I can understand the argument that caller was making, about marriage as a threat, but I don’t understand why he thought it was ever a good idea.  

Some Americans seem to want to be cruel about this. They seem to think that there is some genuine social value in an outworn idea of love, marriage and children. That we are better served by a vision of marriage that not only cannot accommodate same-sex couples, but also does not have much respect for a 70-year-old woman and her 70-year-old fiancé. As though there is something suspect about loving marriage when it does not include children.   

Maybe it is too strong to say they are calling these marriages unnatural. But it is even worse to call them counterintuitive. It is worse to say that they have no worth in a cultural storehouse of faithful love, that that they can inspire no one to love their children or value love itself.   

“Better to keep marriage under glass, and admire it from a distance, than allow real people to get married.”

Shotgun weddings 

That limitation is what Cooper defended. As he went on to say, marriage exists to restrict sex, “To make it less likely that either party to that marriage will engage in irresponsible procreative conduct outside of that marriage”. According to Cooper, all men would be Henry VIII if they did not have the law to contend with.  

Better for us to ignore a great many marriages (not to mention babies) than lose the reductive lesson that marriage is babies is marriage. Better for us to assign an occult virtue to love than to acknowledge the forms it takes. Better to keep marriage under glass, and admire it from a distance, than allow real people to get married. Pretend marriage is more precious than actual marriages.   

It is a perverse standard that prefers to moon over Diana and Charles than put up with Charles and Camilla.   

As Anne and Catherine could tell you, this bigotry that Cooper’s clients cling to like an outgrown blankie is not just creepy. It is damaging. Fertility in marriage has never been gender-neutral. The burden of family has never fallen on both partners. The woman is supposed to serve this purpose. The woman is a failed woman if she can’t manage to bear children and a perverse woman if she does not want them.   

Cooper made a vacuous comment that turned into a coarse joke, about old men and young women. But there is a poisonous idea behind that, that women are marriageable -that they love and deserve love – while they are nubile. It does not protect women to conflate marriage with fertility. It devalues them, condemns them.   

We already are doing better than Cooper thinks. Most people do not believe in this picture of marriage, even on the most casual, unexamined level. They understand that marriage is a matter of romance, a partnership above all things. 

This is why arguments against marriage equality seem increasingly senseless. They rest on assumptions we no longer make.  

Those of us who see nostalgia as an end in itself should remember the “Great Whore”, and stop finding so much beauty in traditions that were rotten alive. It was not a more innocent time, just an uglier one.   

Jessica White is a journalist, translator, and playwright who has lived and worked in Asia, South America, and the US. She currently makes her home in Chicago.