Thursday, March 28, 2013

Dear Justice Scalia: "Tradition" is a Social Construction. Love, Everybody

I so badly want to be done with this whole mess of the marriage rights business because there are approximately eighty bazillion things that I care more about, but some of the stuff people have said this week gets under my skin so much that I can't shut up about it.  Supreme Court Justice Scalia wants to know when exactly it became unconstitutional to discriminate against same-sex couples in terms of the right to marry.  I'm personally curious as to when exactly the "traditional marriage" Scalia is so fond of referring to became in fact "tradition."  I think Scalia himself estimated the figure at two thousand years.  Others have thrown out the casual "thousands of years."  Still others simply go with "time immemorial."  Many of these folks are learned individuals who have studied scripture and history and thus must be aware that there has been no single definition of or purpose for marriage since "time immemorial," or even for the measly past thousand years.  Marriage meant many different things during biblical times (including polygamy, violence, rape, and slavery) for instance, and almost never reflected notions of romance, consent, or monogamy that many folks value today.  In ancient Egypt, members of the royal family married their siblings to keep bloodlines "pure," a practice surely anathema to most of us today.  In ancient Greece, it was acceptable for men married to women to also engage in sexual relationships with other men.  In Europe, up until about a century ago, marriages among wealthy families, nobles, and monarchs were used as economic transactions or to bolster political alliances.  Very romantic.  There are a few societies in Asia in which it has been historically accepted for women to marry multiple men.  There are instances in pre-colonial southern African history of women marrying women.  In some cultures, wealth, property, and family names are passed down through the father.  In others, these things pass down through the mother.  In all of this mess, I'm having difficulty discerning how it is that we know what "traditional marriage" is and how, if such a thing does exist, do we point to an origin that is thousands of years old?        

Social norms evolve.  Marriage has evolved rapidly in the United States in just the past fifty years, with most changes having relatively little to do with queer folks wanting to get hitched to each other.  Fifty years ago, marriage meant that men went to work and women were denied career opportunities.  That is increasingly less the case.  It also meant that husbands could sexually assault their wives and it would not be considered rape.  Legally, at least, this is no longer the case.  Prior to 1967, it was illegal for blacks and whites to marry each other in some states.  That is no longer the case.  Prior to the 1970s, divorce was akin to a social and economic death sentence for many women.  This very different today.  For the generations before mine, there was still significant stigma attached to the notion of unmarried people starting a family.  Now such arrangements are common.  Fifty years before that, things had also changed a lot.  And fifty years before that, and fifty years before that, and so on ad nauseum.  So, Justice Scalia, I'll ask again.  Exactly when did the notion that marriage is between one man and one woman, 'til death do us part, become such an undeniable "tradition?"


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