Living in Maine for much of the successful recent campaign to overturn the state’s legalization of same-sex marriage, I grew increasingly confused about what people mean when they refer to traditional marriage. I’m a historian, so usually I pretend to understand the concept of “tradition,” but in this case I could not figure it out. So I decided to visit my friend Oscar Wilde and ask for his help. Oscar’s very good with words and he’s also very smart, so I thought I could count on him.
“Oscar, I’m confused. Opponents of same-sex marriage extol the virtues of traditional marriage, but what do they mean by traditional marriage?”
Oscar paused for a moment and then declared, “Well, if they’re Old Testament traditionalists, they obviously are referring to polygamous marriages. Those old patriarchs really knew how to uphold traditional marriage. I also really like those old rules that oblige a man to marry his dead brother’s widow. I can’t wait to tell my wife, my brother, and my sister-in-law about the revival of traditional marriage!”
“I don’t think that’s what they mean, Oscar,” I replied. “Maine is overwhelmingly Christian and I don’t think the Old Testament is their point of reference. For the same reason, I don’t think they’re referring to the marriage traditions of Africa, Asia, Latin America, or Native America. Mainers, like other people in the United States, might celebrate the history of immigration, champion ethnic diversity, and express regret for the treatment of Native Americans, but that doesn’t mean they want the United States to treat other traditions with equal respect.”
“Oh, well then it’s obvious they must mean the type of traditional marriage most Christians enjoyed in the first millennium after Jesus Christ: marriages performed by religious officials without any involvement by the state. I can’t wait to tell my priest about how much more autonomy he’s going to have when the Church is freed from government control. And imagine how much shorter the standard wedding ceremony is going to be when they don’t have to say, ‘By the power vested in me by the state.’”
“No, I can’t imagine that’s what they mean,” I demurred. “Traditional marriage supporters seem to favor big government involvement in personal relationships. They like it when governments tell people who can marry and who can’t. I know some of them go on and on about reducing the size of government, but have you noticed how much they favor a big military and fight for increases in spending on immigration control, prison construction, corporate bailouts, and drug law enforcement? I don’t think they want a reduced role for the state in marriage.”
“Hmmm. I’m beginning to see why you’re confused. But I bet we can figure this out. Maybe traditional marriage refers to marriage in the early days of the U.S. republic: marriages with highly restricted access to divorce, marriages that frequently followed premarital sex and pregnancy, frontier marriages not sanctioned by church or state, marriages that produced an average of seven children. And of course traditional marriage was mostly for whites, since most African Americans were enslaved and slave marriages were not recognized by the state.”
“Somehow I don’t think you’ve captured what traditional marriage proponents mean by traditional marriage, Oscar. Most traditional marriage proponents I know wouldn’t endorse most of these things. They must mean something different; I just can’t figure out what they mean.”
“I see your problem. Maybe these traditional marriage activists are referring to more recent traditions. What about traditional marriages through much of the nineteenth century, when women surrendered most of their property rights when they married and when marital rape was not a recognized crime?”
“No, no, no, Oscar. Some of these traditional marriage proponents seem pretty conservative about women’s roles, but most of them don’t seem to favor that kind of traditional marriage. Maybe we’re going to have to give up.”
“Now that would be no fun,” Oscar replied. He always enjoys the pleasures of a good mystery. “Hmmmm. What could they mean? I’m sure they know that traditional marriage in many parts of the United States did not allow for interracial marriages involving whites until the last decades of the twentieth century. Could that be what they mean?”
I didn’t think so and I was just about ready to abandon my quest when Oscar shouted, “Wait: I’ve got it! I can’t believe it took us this long to figure this out! They mean heterosexual marriage! That’s what they mean by traditional marriage.”
“But Oscar, the word ‘heterosexuality’ didn’t even exist until the late nineteenth century, so how could that be what they mean? How traditional could heterosexual marriage be if there was no word for heterosexuality through most of recorded history. And besides, if they mean heterosexual marriage why don’t they just say so instead of calling it traditional marriage?”
Oscar laughed. “Why of course they can’t call it heterosexual marriage! That would make them appear like bigots. They would sound as if they endorse discrimination. They would seem prejudiced. They would be saying openly that they think heterosexuality is superior to homosexuality. And besides, if they called it ‘heterosexual’ marriage it would be too easy to ask questions about why the state has to confer so many special rights and privileges on heterosexual marriages in order to get people to marry heterosexually. Better to call it ‘traditional’ marriage and avoid those salacious allegations and dangerous implications.”
I had to admit that Oscar, as usual, had a point.
Marc Stein is an associate professor of history at York University in Toronto. He is the author of City of Sisterly and Brotherly Loves: Lesbian and Gay Philadelphia (2000), the editor of the Encyclopedia of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender History in America (2003), and the author of the forthcoming University of North Carolina Press book The Supreme Court and the Sexual Revolution: Sex, Marriage, and Reproduction from Griswold to Roe (2010).
Reprinted with permission from the History News Network.