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What's The Point of Marriage, Gay or Straight?

Marriage, Kinship, and Social Obligations

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One of the fundamental questions underlying the debate over gay marriage is, quite simply, what the point is for gays to marry. Aside from certain property and legal issues which could, in theory, be solved by other laws, what point are gays trying to make in attempting to get married? Why is it so important to be able to hold up a marriage certificate and say “we’re married” instead of simply saying “we’re a couple” without a certificate?

Chris Burgwald asks this question on his blog:

    Gay marriage advocates argue that this is an equal rights issue. But what is it that a married hetero couple can “do” that an unmarried gay couple cannot “do”? Under current law, gays can commit themselves to one another... they can live together... what can’t they do that married people can do? Nothing, as far as I can tell.
    So why is it so important for these gay (and lesbian) couples flocking to San Francisco to be able to hold up an “official” marriage certificate after their one-minute wedding? I surmise that it’s about validation: gay and lesbian marriage is about their relationship being recognized precisely as a marriage.
    But my question is this: why am I being forced to acknowledge gay relationship as marriage? That is, after all, what marriage is: a political (i.e. public, on behalf of the people) stamp of recognition. Hence, my conclusion: in many ways (albeit not for all those involved), gay marriage is about forcing the body-politic to recognize homosexual unions as legitimate.

Burgwald is right — and he is wrong, and all on the very same point. He is right that being married is about achieving a sort of validation for gay couple; he is wrong that there is nothing that a married heterosexual couple can “do” that an unmarried gay couple cannot do — and it is precisely this point of asserting social validation for their relationship. Finally, he is further wrong that he is being forced to acknowledge a gay relationship on a personal level.

It is worth noting that there is nothing in these questions about gay marriage which could not be asked about marriage generally. What is it that a married heterosexual couple can do that any couple living together can’t do — especially if we imagine changing a few contract laws to allow for things like property sharing? What is so important about a marriage certificate that any couple, gay or straight, would want to hold it up? What do they hope to gain by having society acknowledge their relationship as a marriage?

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