[saymaListserv] Marriage & Kinship

Michael Austin Shell bright_crow at mindspring.com
Thu Feb 17 22:36:13 JEST 2005


I just read a book review which has given me new insight into the current 
debate about same-sex marriage.  The book is THE FRIEND, by Alan Bray 
(University of Chicago Press, 2003), reviewed by Russell A. Jackson in THE 
GAY & LESBIAN REVIEW (Mar-Apr 2004, pp.38-39).

My partner Jim and I were married under the care of Columbia (SC) Monthly 
Meeting in December of 1994, and we have considered each other to be a 
couple since May of 1985.  I am an unhesitant advocate of equitable civil 
marriage for gay and straight couples.  I believe that civil marriage is a 
legal contract conferring rights, privileges and benefits to married 
couples, and that religious doctrines which argue against same-sex marriage 
are not constitutional grounds for denying one class of citizens equal 
benefit of the law.  Religious groups may choose not to sacramentalize 
same-sex marriages, but the state has no legitimate grounds for denying 
them legal status.

I nevertheless am uncomfortable with the argument of some advocates that 
there is no difference between gay and straight couples except the sexual 
orientation of the partners.  I believe this argument actually weakens our 
case.  In biological terms, the two kinds of coupling are clearly 
asymmetrical: both involve sexual attraction and the sharing of sexual 
pleasure, yet only one directly involves the possibility of 
procreation.  This is a profound difference, and I believe we err when we 
trivialize it or when we ignore how deeply grounded both the spiritual and 
the animal reverence for procreative coupling is.  We do not need to argue 
for a false symmetry in order to legitimize the genuine loving 
relationships of same-sex couples.

In Jackson's discussion of Bray's work, I think I have found better grounds 
for arguing the equivalence of gay and straight marriages.  Bray's research 
was inspired by his seeing the 1684 tomb of John Finch and Thomas Baines at 
Christ's College, Cambridge.  As Bray writes, "the helmets of the two men 
seem as if about to kiss....  The arrangement given to the arms of these 
two men [in the engraved monument] is that of a married couple."  Bray's 
central argument is that, from 1000 through the 19th century, "there were 
forms of kinship outside of traditional marriage and family that shaped 
English [and European] culture–and that these family-like bonds were base 
on the teachings of the Church and were, in fact, blessed by its 
officials."  Here is the key passage in Jackson's review:

"Unlike modern friendship, Bray contends, traditional 'friendship was 
significant in a public sphere.  In modern civil society, friendship has 
not been perceived to be a public matter, or more precisely ought not to be 
so.'  Moreover, we moderns have lost the ability to conceive of intimate 
relations between two unrelated people, especially where physical contact 
is involved, as other than motivated primarily by sex.  It is Bray's 
contention that the sexual aspect of these bonds, if any, was incidental to 
their purpose of cementing loyalty between two individuals and their larger 
social network.  In other words, medieval Englishmen kissed, slept 
together, and shared graves as a way to link their families for political 
and economic advantage.

"Bray concedes that this type of relationship 'included the potential for 
the erotic, as it included much else, with a potential for good and ill 
alike: self-advancement, the equivocal love for the familiar and the same; 
but also a capacity to love, and a desire to give, and above all a 
traditional Christian faith that took as its axiom that the point of 
religion–what it did for a living–was that it was an instrument by which 
neighbors, kin and friends could succeed in living in peace with each 
other.'  The kisses, the vows, the joint burials, then, were simply 
cultural traditions that allowed mortals to find their way together in a 
crazy mixed-up world–a way of living out one's belief that the Christian 
God is the embodiment of friendship."

This is remarkable information.  What it tells me is that on both sides of 
the marriage argument we may be missing the point.  At least we have been 
distracted–on both sides–by the sexual dimension of coupling.  What we all 
tend to forget in the midst of our struggle is that marriage is more about 
KINSHIP than about sexuality.  No one, straight or gay, needs to be married 
in order to have sex.  Yet anyone who wishes for a kinship relationship to 
be publicly recognized and legally protected needs to have it named as such 
and certified publicly.

For me, when I advocate for equity in civil marriage, I am insisting upon 
public and legal acknowledgment of and protection for the kinship bond 
which Jim and I recognized almost twenty years ago, vowed to each other 
before our Quaker Meeting ten years ago, and have declared and lived out in 
the presence of both our families and of those who know us personally or 
professionally.  Kinship is the issue.

Blessed Be,

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