The definition of marriage has changed drastically over time. While I obviously do not have space to write the entire history of the institution of marriage (you can read plenty of books that do, though), I’ll try to provide a brief summary.
Marriage used to allow for different kingdoms and lands to be joined under one ruler. Marriage used to be a contract between a father and a husband-to-be (hence why a father still “gives away” his daughter to her groom). Marriage used to be a husband taking control over his wife’s assets and identity (hence why a wife still changes her last name to her husband’s). While some remnants of past definitions of marriage still exist, it has clearly changed a lot over the past millennia.
There have also been a variety of restrictions placed on and lifted from marriage. Marriage is still only between two heterosexual people. Marriage is now permitted for people of different races or ethnicities. Marriage is also permitted for people who are not in love, who are not religious, and who are not able to have children.
Given that marriage has changed so much over time since government has become involved, that various restrictions have been added, lifted, and altered, and that some people are still unable to marry, one has to wonder: why is the government involved at all? If religion is anywhere in your answer, I’ll show you the First Amendment, and tell you that couples who want to can marry within their religion. If your answer includes anything about “healthy, long-term relationships”, I’ll ask you why the government in no way checks that the couple’s relationship is “healthy”, or will last a particular amount of time and permits divorce (see: Kim Kardashian or Britney Spears). If your answer is that the government has an interest in helping children, I’ll ask you why government spends so little on childhood education, housing, or hunger, and why couples who cannot, or do not want to, have children are allowed to marry. There really is no good reason to have the government involved in marriage.
I do not think that government should be involved in marriage at all. Nevertheless, some might say that government-recognized marriages can uniquely provide benefits to couples who have committed themselves to each other. Without marriage, patients can decide who they want to visit them or make life-determining decisions. Without marriage, the government can give tax breaks for those who have children as dependents. Without marriage, adoption agencies can allow any people in any relationship to adopt children and bring them into a home where they are wanted and cared for. Without marriage, banks can permit joint accounts between consenting people. Without marriage, the government can improve immigration laws to make it easier for people to become citizens. Without marriage, people can commit themselves to each other in whatever way they want. The government does not need marriage to grant the benefits it presently does via the institution of marriage.
When the government creates an institution, it should allow anyone to participate. If it opens a public park or swimming pool, everyone has to be able to enjoy the benefits thereof, or else it is discriminatory. However, those public provisions are inherently beneficial, whereas marriage is not. Marriage is only beneficial if it advantages certain people over others, because it is the government’s way of saying that only those people deserve these benefits (and, as shown above, historically oppressing people, like women, by giving more power to men).
Currently, marriage benefits two heterosexual people (in most parts of the country), at the expense of those in queer, homosexual, trans*, open, and/or polyamorous relationships. If marriage were to be extended to all these communities, they would be able to receive the same benefits. But then, why does marriage need to be there at all? As discussed above, these benefits can still be granted to those who need and want them — without marriage.
Instead of asking for participation in the oppressive institution of marriage, the gay rights movement needs to shift its attention toward ending the higher prevalence of hunger, bullying, suicide, homelessness, violence, harassment, and sexual assault, among other issues, within the queer community (as compared to the straight cisgender community). In the end, I propose that the government get out of the marriage business entirely, and that the gay rights movement prioritize matters of higher concern.
Cory Hernandez is a member of the class of 2014