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Sunday, November 30, 2003

Spouse and spouse?

I support legal recognition of committed same-sex couples, and I am proud of my own denomination's practice of performing commitment ceremonies and services of union for same-sex partners.

I am having a hard time, however, wrapping my head around at least one aspect of the gay marriage debate: I don't understand why some people are downplaying any meaningful distinction between male-female marriage and same-sex marriage. Case in point: In today's Boston Globe, Michael Paulson describes efforts by Protestant denominations in Massachusetts to prepare for the likely flurry of gay weddings next summer. My colleage, the Rev. Keith Kron of the UUA's Office of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender Concerns, is quoted in the story.

Kron said that most Unitarian Universalist ministers use the words "spouse and spouse" rather than "husband and wife," and that few other changes to the traditional wedding rites are necessary.

Really? How did I miss this? I'm sorry to say that the weddings I've performed included the dread words "husband" and "wife." (I also signed the wedding licenses, by the way, which makes me less holy than some UU ministers but at least as honorable as a justice of the peace.) My wife and I actually do talk about each other as "husband" and "wife." Are we anachronisms? Or are we simply being candid about the cultural baggage that we have taken on, for better and for worse, as a man and a woman who signed up for the "institution of marriage"?

I see a significant analogy between male-female marriage and same-sex marriage, but I don't see an equivalency between them. Gay marriages strike me as a good thing — and as a new thing. Straight couples may now enjoy a "marriage of equals" more than ever before, but marriage is hardly gender-neutral even for the most progressive couples. Our species is sexually dimorphous — the symbolism of "male" and "female" as sexually generative is rather primordially a part of the idea of marriage, don't you think? This symbolism isn't accidental or incidental, even though having children isn't a necessary part of marriage. My hunch is that a lot of the difference in public support for civil unions versus gay marriage is due to most people's sense that, while a lot of things are the same for same-sex and male-female couples, the reality of gender difference within a marriage is a fundamental aspect of what we have meant by marriage. Liberal that I am, I'm stumbling over this symbol when I consider redefining marriage.

I would like to see the development of appropriate symbolism for the distinctive virtues of same-gender couples. I would like to see liturgical language that celebrates those virtues. I would like to see religious communities and civic communities identify the qualities that make same-gender as well as male-female marriages vital to civic health. But I don't think we're going to get very far by taking gender out of marriage entirely, or by discounting the differences between one form of partnership and another.

I'd like to hear your thoughts, naturally. Is it "spouse and spouse" for everyone? Or can we celebrate and encourage committed gay and straight couples in distinctive ways without also setting up a "separate but equal" institution for same-sex couples?

Copyright © 2003 by Philocrites | Posted 30 November 2003 at 3:32 PM

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November 30, 2003 04:58 PM | Permalink for this comment


Gay marriages will never be gender-neutral, either, which is the point of the whole controversy, n'est pas?


November 30, 2003 05:42 PM | Permalink for this comment

I'm puzzled by this--by your insistence that my marriage is somehow different than yours--and by the obvious passion you feel about it. I really don't understand what you're trying to get at.

My partner and I have been married for five and a half years. We weren't pronounced "spouse and spouse" or even "husband and husband." But the rabbi who married us did talk about love, commitment, faith, and faithfulness. It's taken all those and more (patience and a sense of humor come to mind) to keep our marriage going.

I've been in heterosexual relationships and now I'm in a same-sex one. Overall, I have to say they are far more alike than different. It's not so much some mysterious, categorical gender difference that's at work, but very real, very tender human differences.

Of course, I have a unique take on gender, but I don't think that's what's going on here. I wonder if there is something I'm missing in what you're saying. Because otherwise, what I see here the last vestiges of keeping gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people "out there" as some kind of "other."

What would it mean if gay marriages and straight marriages were exactly alike? What would be lost? What would be threatened?

I just don't see it.


November 30, 2003 06:02 PM | Permalink for this comment

Perhaps a better way to look at it is to say that the bare minimum of what all marriages share, and what makes them "marriage" instead of "friendship" or "business partnership" or whatever is gender-neutral. (I think of this essence of marraige as being about turning two people into "one flesh," a family or household that operates as a social unit.) However, some marriages serve additional purposes for the people involved. One popular such purpose is the sort of gender complementarity that you describe. It so happens that the English language has a pair of words that can be used to signal the presence of this additional side to a marriage -- "husband" and "wife." I can a couple shifting back and forth between husband-wife and spouse in different circumstances, depending on how relevant the gendered aspect of their relationship is.


November 30, 2003 10:18 PM | Permalink for this comment


Your analysis is usually so insightful. But you are making no sense whatsoever to me on this bit of commentary. What exactly does a gay men in a partnered relationship with another man or a lesbian in a partnered relationship with another woman lack that your relationship has just because you are of opposite gender? I'd like to hear you specify something exactly rather than generalize about some nebulous thing you imagine would be missing. You seem to be arguing that some aspects of personality are restricted/determined by gender. Is this the case.

I don't think Keith Kron was trying to take away your right to choose the language of husband and wife. It is your right (and Mrs. P's) to determine the language and culture of your marriage. How many straight couples get married in the conservative church of their upbringings whose weddings include language about the wife obeying the husband, and they just mouth the words, thinking "hell no"? Ultimately, each couple defines their own marriage and I don't think every definition is (or should be) the same thing for each person. I would wager that there are straight couples who define their marriage differently than you and Mrs. P define yours, and same-sex couples whose definition is most similar to yours.


November 30, 2003 10:52 PM | Permalink for this comment

Thanks for all the comments! I have two brief clarifications to add between finishing my Christmas tree decorating and going to bed:

Here are my goals: I want to see our society extend greater respect to people with a broader range of sexual orientations and gender identities than we have in the past. I also believe that dignifying the committed relationships of same-sex couples is good for society as well as the individuals involved. I don't have any reasons to believe that the committed partnership — marriage, even — of two men or two women lacks anything that a straight marriage might have.

My second clarification is about what puzzles me: Mrs Philocrites and I are intrigued by what it means to be "husband and wife." We wonder if these names are simply labels, archaic and incidental to our egalitarian marriage, or whether they also point to something deep and meaningful in our marriage. And so I am wondering whether discarding such names — not just personally, Thom, but at the cultural level so that they're no longer part of what it means to be married — is really part of the program for extending the dignity that same-sex couples deserve.

More tomorrow! Thanks for all your comments.

Tom Schade:

December 1, 2003 10:00 AM | Permalink for this comment

As long as 5-6 years ago, I have been pointedly corrected by UU ministerial colleagues for using the word "wife" to refer to my wife. The argument is made that extending equal marriage rights to gays and lesbians in no way changes, alters, diminishes, or lessens heterosexual marriage. But problematizing the very words by which heterosexual spouses refer to each other is exactly that sort of diminishment, and one which will be deeply resented in the general public.


December 1, 2003 10:46 AM | Permalink for this comment

Congratulations, Chris, you finally got a vigorous commentary going!

I wonder if Keith was incompletely or somewhat misleadingly quoted here:

Kron said that most Unitarian Universalist ministers use the words "spouse and spouse" rather than "husband and wife,". . .

What I'm wonderintg is if he was refering just to same-gender marriage ceremonies. But then, I'm often somewhat taken aback by the positions of professional minorities, so it may be that the super p.c. view is to settle on a single, gender neutral phrase. If so, ick.

As far as I can tell in the (nonprofessional) gay community, terminology remains in a state of great flux--husband, partner, spouse, lover are still all used, with a similar variety of phrases for the relationship itself. For Pete's sake, one of my friends has said he's perfectly happy with parallel marriage/civil unions, and I don't think it's because of a sophisticated critique of marriage as a patriarchal, oppressive institution. I suspect he simply believes marriage to be between a man and a woman.


December 1, 2003 04:25 PM | Permalink for this comment

My wife and I used to look around among our friends in Bloomington, Indiana, and say, There are a hundred different relationships, all called marriage.

C. A. Tripp in his book THE HOMOSEXUAL MATRIX suggested that all unions need difference, some barrier to break through. In straight couples, gender difference may be the main difference. In gay relationships, the difference is often ethnic, cultural, or generational. In a Pride parade, note how many Anglo-Latino, Latino-Asian, etc. couples you see. I'm pure Yank from Oklahoma, my partner is Franco-American from Maine: I'm also 27 years older.

Marriage used to be an economic or cultural convention -- society was so organized, farms and small businesses were family affairs. Now we're all employed by differnent corporations, and we function as individual consumers in a marketplace. Marriage is down to working as a personal relationship, not a melding of clans or a way to pass on property.

People hook up personally in all sorts of ways. Is the physical attraction that makes my partner and me one, different from the attraction between you and your wife? Maybe, but is the function that different? And it may have been culture or other considerations that drew you together, rather than lust (lust in the good sense).

So I'm back to the start. There are thousands of different arrangements, all called marriage. Some gays now want to give that name to theirs. (After 20 years together, not sure what the word would add to our us. Security of inheritance, I guess.)


December 2, 2003 02:39 PM | Permalink for this comment

If my mom's relationship with my dad was exactly what mine is with my own lawfully wedded, was exactly what my grandma's is with my grandpa, was exactly what my aunt's is with my uncle...then I might think that the word "wife" held something more specific than "spouse" in terms of what the relationship means.

As it is, sometimes Mother's relationship with Daddy is more like Grandpa's relationship with Grandma, and sometimes more like Grandma's relationship with Grandpa. They relate as people, not as categories. That being the case, I think a wife is a girl-spouse and a husband is a boy-spouse. And pronouncing gay people "spouse and spouse" instead of "husbands" or "wives" (or, in a formulation that seems more logical to me than "I now pronounce you man/husband and wife," "I now pronounce you married/wedded")...that seems silly. If your spouse is a female, you have a wife; if your spouse is a male, you have a husband, and I don't see how your own bits and pieces -- or anything else in heaven or earth -- can really change that.

Joe Perez:

December 15, 2003 01:13 AM | Permalink for this comment

As an unpartnered gay man, I must admit that the question of whether to call a partner "spouse", "husband", or something else is entirely hypothetical. Nevertheless, my heart tells me that when the time comes (and I do see myself typing the knot someday, when the right man comes along) probably both words will slip from my tongue at different times. I think Christopher's point is a good one: same-sex relationships are not the same as opposite-sex pairings. Developing appropriate symbolism and liturgical language specifically for same-gender couples seems quite appropriate. I believe it will be found that the tastes in symbolism and language are as diverse among gay couples and straight couples. No cookie cutter solutions will do.

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