“Definition(s)”

In my introductory post (which Chris has told me sounded “kind of bitter,” so: I apologize? Because I’m totally not! Seriously!), I left off on the thought that what he and I feel for and about each other and the life that we’ve made with each other seems to be in the spirit of our society’s norms and well within its mores – we’re a committed, heterosexual, long-term, monogamous couple who own property and a giant television (seriously, it’s kind of like a wall and we love it, because Game of Thrones is amazing on it). Pretty much all of Society implicitly condones as ideal* the manner in which we live our lives. But somehow, we’re still viewed (and somewhat treated) as deviants.

Because social norms aren’t just implied. Whether prescriptive or proscriptive, lots and lots of them are codified as laws and related regulations. And while a lot of laws in the US and other developed countries are proscriptive in nature, telling us what not to do (“No Parking,” “No Loitering,” no stealing real property or someone’s ideas, don’t bludgeon that person no matter how much you want to, etc), laws about marriage are both proscriptive and prescriptive. They tell us who we can marry and who we can’t. They tell us when we’re allowed to marry and when we aren’t. They tell us where we’re allowed to marry, who’s allowed to perform the ritual that makes us married, and how many people have to be there to provide witness that we actually are married. They tell us what’s allowed in a legal marriage and what isn’t. They tell us that if we want to put provisions or protections in place around one or both of the parties in a marriage, other legal contracts are required. They tell us how we can and cannot end a marriage. And they tell us what a marriage does and does not entitle each person to, both in personal protections and in public acknowledgements.

There’s a whole lot more to the legal institution of marriage than the emotional and personal recognizing of two peoples’ commitment to and partnership with one another. And I think that’s one of the reasons that it’s often such a difficult concept to wrap our heads, hearts, and words around.

So what is “marriage”?

That’s a really, really, seriously dementedly huge question, isn’t it?

When I’m teaching, I always like to start out with lexical definitions of important terminology. They’re never going to be the end of the discussion, and sometimes they don’t even add any substantive value to any deeper-level analysis. But at least they provide a starting point.

I know we’re going to keep coming back to this construct over the course of this project. And if we do this right, the definition we’re using and discussing will expand and change. But we’ve got to start somewhere, right?

So what do dictionaries give as the definition of marriage?

In 2004, the Washington Times ran a brief article that talked about a planned change to the definition provided by Boston-based publisher Houghton Mifflin as well as a modifying clause added to the definition in the absolute authority on the English language: the Oxford English Dictionary. And in 2009, Slate ran a similar article that once again pointed to the OED and the American Heritage Dictionary (published by Houghton Mifflin) and included a mention of Black’s Law Dictionary in the pool of resources that had altered their definitions. In all of these cases, the definitions were modified to include language regarding same-sex marriages (which: YAY!). Yet these changes seemed to be predominantly addendums, not modifications of the entirety of the definition. Also, they were several years apart. We aren’t exactly seeing evidence of sweeping changes to our overall social understanding of marriage.

Now, part of the whole debate about what is and what isn’t a marriage in the United States stems from the lexical definitions, rather than the practical definitions. In fact, for years, many opponents of marriage equality and freedoms relied on the lexical definitions of marriage as an irreligious means to justify their religious ends. This is a theme that I have a feeling we’re going to come back to a lot: people trying to camouflage their religious sensibilities behind a blind of secular understanding.

Maybe I’m naïve, but I don’t think that everyone who does this means to do it. Sometimes (as is the case with some of our own friends and family), people don’t even know they’re doing it at all. No one’s looking to actively cause harm or to negatively label or categorize people they otherwise care about. (… Or don’t care about, because how many of us can say that we truly care about everyone on the planet?) But that doesn’t make it okay. (And it’s certainly not helping.) Honestly, I think a good portion of categorization and labeling happens subconsciously, even by the most progressive amongst us. But still: not okay and not helping.

For the purposes of this post (and if I’m diligent, there will be others), I just want to look at one definition.

According to the American Heritage Dictionary (2011), marriage is: “The legal union of a man and woman as husband and wife, and in some jurisdictions, between two persons of the same sex, usually entailing legal obligations of each person to the other.” It goes on to provide subsequent definitions, including, “[a] similar union of more than two people; a polygamous marriage” and “[a] union between persons that is recognized by custom or religious tradition as a marriage.” Interestingly, there are a handful of additional definitions to ponder in the American Heritage dictionary. But let’s leave aside the definition that includes the wedding itself (as the ceremony can also be called a “marriage,”).

I want to narrow my focus to those definitions that describe a seemingly informal long-term arrangement: in addition to the legal union, American Heritage also describes marriage as both “common-law marriage,” and a “close union.”

Since many states (and the Federal Government) don’t have official standards for common-law marriage (other than a heterosexual couple living together and describing themselves as such or jointly filing their taxes ), let’s conflate the two for a minute, shall we? Because, really, what’s a common-law marriage other than two heteronormative, cis-gendered people trying to come up with a secular way to think of themselves, their “close union”, and the protections the latter should afford the former?

And this brings us to a different set of questions … not the least of which is why gender makes it “easy” for one couple to avoid some of the pre- and proscriptive laws about marriage and claim some legal rights based on their close union, but why it’s impossible for another.

*I realize the fact I’ve said “ideal” is kind of in flagrant contradiction with the fact that I lamented the fact that we (and by “we,” I mean I) catch a lot of shit for not having/wanting/making kids … Since we’re relatively youthful, society (and my Lady-Parts Doctor) insist we have “plenty of time” for changing our minds on the whole child-free thing and the makin’ of the young’uns. So: we still conform pretty damned well.

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