Marriage is a tradition loaded with nostalgia, hope and symbols of belonging – to each other, to family, and to the community at large. This September, Australians will be asked to participate in a national windsock poll to help irresolute politicians decide whether to allow the institution of marriage to encompass gay unions. Critics can’t have it both ways, writes Rachael Bolton. Either marriage is an historically sexist property exchange between two men or it’s a modern, secular, legal arrangement entered into willingly by two adults.
There she is: a vision swathed in white taffeta and satin. Her hair is coiffed and veiled in a gauzy halo of lace. She smiles down at her hand and its sparkling diamond adornment. She glances up at her father, teary-eyed, as he offers her his arm and they begin the slow procession down the aisle to a handsome, waiting prince.
This is the tradition that Australia’s “no” voters imagine when they wax nostalgic over “the institution of marriage” and lament the downfall of “good Christian values”. They think of mothers and daughters planning that special day. They think about nuclear families with 2.5 kids and picket fences.
This nostalgia might mist the eyes of some, form the clay of dreams for others, but it is – and I hate to say it – a nostalgia for a ceremony designed with the sole purpose of exchanging a woman as property.
That white dress she wears? That is the symbol of her unbroken hymen, because a woman’s value is in her unspoiled virginity and future fertility.
Does the prospective husband ask the father for his daughter’s hand? A vestige of a time when these decisions were only the province of men discussing the exchange of the high-value commodity. Daddy walks her down the aisle to her new owner. Men passing the commodity from one to the other. Does she take her husband’s name? Now she’s his and not her father’s.
And that sparkly ring? A runaway marketing campaign first designed for the diamond merchant De Beers in the 1900s as a way to pressure men into forking out months of their salary on a single high-priced object that you wear to symbolize that his future wife is spoken for. It’s a down-payment, honey.
These are all traditions that exist solely as a perpetuation of centuries old symbols of the commodification of women. Marriage exists in many forms across many cultures all over the world. Rather than an expression of love (the idea of marrying for love didn’t really come into play until the 19th century) or religious conviction (the Christian church didn’t start to play a role in marriage until the 1200s), going back 4,000 years marriage has been about power and the production of “legitimate heirs”.
It kind of stinks.
Now many of you will say “that’s not what it means today”, and you may be right, and you may be wrong. You don’t mean for your marriage to be a representation of the conversion of the bride into the husband’s property. I mean, you probably don’t. But you may also still participate in one or all of the above-mentioned ceremonial affects, too. And each of these can be directly tied to a symbolic commodification of the bride. So how far has it really come?
You may well say: “Well I want to be legally bound to my spouse. I want to stand in front of my family and friends and God (if I have one) and say, ‘I choose this person, right here.’” Marriage is the cultural artefact that we accept as the process for doing this now. It’s important to my family, it’s important to my partner, it’s important to my faith.
And here we have come to the crux of the marriage equality debate. Many people in the LGBTQI community don’t really love the idea of marriage. It is a ceremony in service to a patriarchal hierarchy that has for centuries rejected and persecuted people like them. But marriage is an important cultural artefact for many communities. It is accepted process by which we stand before our families, our friends and our gods and say: “I choose this person.”
Yes, marriage is an archaic patriarchal tradition that commodifies women. But I still support marriage equality. Because today it is a secular legal contract that we each choose to enter into with the person of our choosing.
You can’t have it both ways. It’s either an historically sexist property exchange between two men or it’s a modern, secular, legal arrangement entered into willingly by two adults.
And to be clear, marriage is not about religion. Christians get married, Muslims get married, Hindus and Buddhists and Jews get married. Atheists get married. People marry interfaith.
Finally, despite my obvious objections, I am married. Life is complicated. We should all have the right to make our weird and complicated decisions regarding our own legal status as we see fit.