LAST SUMMER my family and I stood in a sun-dappled bower as two women of our acquaintance clutched hands and radiantly pledged their troth.
“So,” my teenage daughter summarized over wedding cake. “They got married but they aren’t married.”
“Uh, yup,” I said, the same dumb expression on my face as when I tried to explain about Warren Buffett’s secretary’s taxes or why homeopathy works. Same-sex marriage wasn’t legal yet, so their wedding was merely ceremonial. Since that time, of course, everything has changed and nothing has.
Our state’s legislature and governor legalized gay marriage the day before Valentine’s Day this year, a move that immediately unleashed a skyful of champagne corks—and two challenges. Opponents of the law are working hard to scare up enough signatures to get an initiative and a referendum on the November ballot so the people can decide. One—provided it gets to the ballot—has the power to stop the law from going active next month. And both are trying to do versions of the same thing: Define marriage.
Initiative 1192 wants to do that literally, by rewriting the state constitution to define marriage as the union of one man and one woman. The other, Referendum 74, seeks to undo the February law, by way of language that declared the law would “redefine marriage.” The use of that phrase freaked out same-sex marriage advocates who saw it as a loaded, prejudicial sound bite meant to suggest something much more radical than they had in mind. Nobody wants to redefine marriage! they insisted. We simply want to make it available to all loving couples. A judge agreed, and the phrase was dumped from the referendum.
Sigh. I know it’s politics. But I’m not sure I get what’s so wrong with redefining marriage. I’m a married woman—the Initiative 1192 kind of married—and even I think marriage could benefit from a definition do-over.
After all, the dictionaries did it years ago. Fully 12 years have passed since the Oxford English and American Heritage dictionaries quietly added “the union between partners of the same sex” to their entries for marriage. Since then, Black’s Law Dictionary and Webster’s have done the same. Seems like the definition of redefinition to me.
But broadening the definition of marriage to include same-sex marriages isn’t the only kind of redefinition I’m talking about. I’m talking about the whole-new-meaning kind.
It would be one thing if marriage, plain old vanilla heterosexual marriage, were in great shape. In fact, its popularity is plunging. The last census revealed that marriage rates in the United States have never been lower—now 51 percent of Americans 18 and older are married, compared to 72 percent 50 years ago. The “it’s just a piece of paper” mind set from the free-love era appears to have trickled down to the present day in the form of a creeping indifference toward the institution. Not much reason to get married when you can just move in together, young people increasingly reason. It’ll just make it harder to break up. A Pew study released in 2010 found that nearly 40 percent of Americans believe marriage is becoming obsolete.
When I contrast this increasingly blase attitude with the fervent longing my friends the brides brought to their “wedding,” it makes me misty. And then it makes me cynical. Can we really be trying to withhold marriage from the one constituency that’s exhibiting the most public enthusiasm for it at the moment? Really?
Marriage—stabilizing, uplifting, completing—is at the same time arduous and frequently painful, requiring the daily practice of that unnatural act known as selfless love. Oh yeah—and all of that till you die. The fact that someone wants in on the rigors of that —and not just someone, but a group still stereotyped in opposition quarters as unsteady and promiscuous—is a bona fide family-values triumph for conservatism. It’s also pretty inspiring for all us old married people.
My friends the brides wanted in on it so bad, they went ahead and threw themselves a “wedding” when they were denied what they really wanted: a wedding. It makes the most wholesome billboard I’ve seen for marriage in ages; one that invests the hoary old institution with genuine new meaning. Yeah, my friends the brides are redefining marriage: as something worth fighting for.
Updated May 15, 2012. The original article published in May 2012 incorrectly stated that both Initiative 1192 and Referendum 74 have the power to put the marriage equality law on hold as of June. In fact, only R-74 has the power to delay the law from going into effect that month.