Our ancestors, and theirs, and theirs, and so on in a rather long line back would have identified a few things as being key to the definition of marriage: it involved the union between a man and a woman whose biological compatibility often, if not always, led to children; it was meant to be a lifelong commitment; and it was intended to be a union centered around the idea of total fidelity--that is, that the sexual union between husband and wife was exclusive, and that violation that exclusivity was a grave sin and even, at some times, a crime.
Of these three pillars of the definition of marriage, the first to be toppled was the notion that marriage was meant to be a lifelong commitment. Sure, in wedding vows people still pay a kind of rhetorical homage to that idea, but it's an empty gesture of speech, since both husband and wife know that the union may be dissolved by either of them, at any time, for any reason--for such is the reality in an era of permissive divorce laws. That this part of the definition of marriage has fallen so far is a terrible scandal, and its reality has caused pain and tragedy to generations of children raised in the aftermath of a marriage's so-called "failure."
The next pillar to be challenged is the one which says that a marriage must necessarily involve a man and a woman. That is the fight of our times over the definition of marriage, and it is by no means certain at this point that those who wish to rewrite the part of the definition which says "a man and a woman" so that it says "any two or more people of either gender" will prevail. Nevertheless, it is worth considering whether that last pillar, the idea that marriage is a mutually faithful relationship, will endure in a hypothetical post-gay marriage world.
This NY Times article from last week strongly suggests that it will not:
When Rio and Ray married in 2008, the Bay Area women omitted two words from their wedding vows: fidelity and monogamy.
“I take it as a gift that someone will be that open and honest and sharing with me,” said Rio, using the word “open” to describe their marriage.
Love brought the middle-age couple together — they wed during California’s brief legal window for same-sex marriage. But they knew from the beginning that their bond would be forged on their own terms, including what they call “play” with other women. [...]
New research at San Francisco State University reveals just how common open relationships are among gay men and lesbians in the Bay Area. The Gay Couples Study has followed 556 male couples for three years — about 50 percent of those surveyed have sex outside their relationships, with the knowledge and approval of their partners.
That consent is key. “With straight people, it’s called affairs or cheating,” said Colleen Hoff, the study’s principal investigator, “but with gay people it does not have such negative connotations.” [...]
None of this is news in the gay community, but few will speak publicly about it. Of the dozen people in open relationships contacted for this column, no one would agree to use his or her full name, citing privacy concerns. They also worried that discussing the subject could undermine the legal fight for same-sex marriage. [Emphasis added--E.M.]
It is true that even for heterosexual married couples, fidelity is a challenge, and infidelity a common problem. But there has never been, in modern times, a widespread social movement to de-link the notion of fidelity from the concept of marriage. What possible social consequences an ever-widening acceptance of "open" marriages or similar concepts could have on the family, on children, and on society at large has never been adequately explored.
But the arguments advanced in favor of "open" gay marriages will be just like those advanced for gay marriage in the first place: we will be told that it's the nature of gay relationships for the couple to remain sexually active outside the partnership, that it's an antiquated, stuffy, heterosexual notion that fidelity or monogamy are even anything to aspire to (let alone to achieve, as 77% of married men and 88% of married women say they have done), and that for a gay man or woman to have sexual relations with people outside of their "gay marriage" is a normal, natural, positive thing for them to do.
And at that point, we have to face the blindingly obvious: "gay marriage" and marriage do not, in fact, mean the same thing. Without the male/female pair, there is no possibility that the couple will be able to have children as a couple, as a natural and expected part of the relationship, as I've said before--which makes becoming parents merely an optional lifestyle choice for a few married couples, instead of an expected reality for most of them. Without the notion that fidelity is an important component of an ideal marriage, fidelity and monogamy become, instead, merely the sexual preference of choice for the timorous or unadventurous. But with the loss of these two components of the definition of marriage, the word really has ceased in any way to be a real or meaningful word at all--for what does it express, besides the notion that "marriage" is a temporary legal contract involving two or more people in which the disposition of any shared property is spelled out for the purpose of making the eventual, expected, and approved-of dissolution of this temporary and rather meaningless partnership or grouping less legally messy?
I'm finding myself reaching an Inigo Montoya moment when it comes to gay rights activists and their use of the word "marriage."