Sunday, May 08, 2011

On what ‘marriage’ is and whether it can be ‘gay’

Much debate, often fiery,  on “gay marriage” is being waged on various fronts – in courts, the media and of course on the ubiquitous ‘internet’. It is a surprisingly emotive issue for parties on either side of the debate and for many the very concept of marriage is at stake – and that is indeed a very grave matter. Personally, my views on the matter have tended to be ambivalent. However a dispassionate un-emotive analysis of the issue and its wider implications are essential before any reasoned stand can be arrived at. And one of the most useful techniques of doing so is to touch base with the first principles – what is a marriage – what is the purpose of a marriage? One can then look to conceptualise what a ‘gay marriage’ would constitute – and try to answer how it would differ from a ‘traditional marriage’, and whether a ‘gay marriage’ can serve and enhance, or at least, not impede, any useful purpose that ‘traditional marriage’ serves.

So then to start – what is a marriage?

The description as provided by the Encyclopaedia Britannica is quoted in the following paragraph. I have underlined some of the key attributes which need to be looked at closely. Highlighted in red is the qualifier which we are trying to examine. The description also enumerates some of the basic functions of marriage which will be useful for our evaluation.

“a legally and socially sanctioned union, usually between a man and a woman, that is regulated by laws, rules, customs, beliefs, and attitudes that prescribe the rights and duties of the partners and accords status to their offspring (if any). The universality of marriage within different societies and cultures is attributed to the many basic social and personal functions for which it provides structure, such as sexual gratification and regulation, division of labour between the sexes, economic production and consumption, and satisfaction of personal needs for affection, status, and companionship; perhaps its strongest function concerns procreation, the care of children and their education and socialization, and regulation of lines of descent.”

marriage." Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopaedia Britannica Ultimate Reference Suite.  Chicago: Encyclopædia Britannica, 2010.

To look at the attributes of marriage then.

It is a legally and socially sanctioned union –  In most modern jurisdictions, marriage has definite legal articulation as a consensual ‘contract’ between two adult individuals which imparts them certain legal rights with regards to each other and with regards to their off-spring. Typically the marriage contract is can only be dissolved through a legal procedure – divorce. The legal sanction of marriage crucially extends into a legal basis for inheritance – for the partners as well as for their off-spring. The social sanction for marriage is wider in scope. Traditionally in human communities where ‘family’ has been the basic unit – a marriage constitutes the creation of a new family unit as well as an extension of the existing extended family unit. Often the social sanction of a marriage derives from the kinship ties within and without the extended family. The legal and social elements than translate into regulations and prescriptions.

  1. regulated by laws, rules, customs, beliefs and attitudes – the contractual nature of marriage is touched upon above. The rules, customs, beliefs and attitudes are spectacularly diverse – but often the absolute core consists of rules concerning incest taboo. Then there are rules concerning endogamy – the social, economic and / or ethnic ‘in-group’ within which it is ‘permissible’ to marry, and exogamy – the marrying outside a specified group – often a kinship group, and thus in many ways an extension of the incest taboo. Attitudes of course are often driven by social and cultural expectations – but at individual levels can be surprisingly subtle and mutable.
  2. prescribe the rights and duties of the partners and accords status to their offspring – the rights and duties of the partners are often extra-legal and pre-legal in the sense that they been in force and in practice before formal legal frameworks evolved or were legislated. As a matter of fact some of the core ‘rights and duties’ of the partners and the ‘status’ accorded to off-spring are out-right pre-historic – pre-dating the advent of civilisation.

This pre-historic attribute if often left out of definitions of marriage, but that may be on account of the singular arrogance of our species in trying to place itself at the pinnacle of the phylogenetic scheme of which we are a part. Marriage after all is at its core pair-bonding – a partnership between a mating couple that lasts at least through one mating season, serving primarily in the cooperative rearing of young. In humans it is observed to, and as recorded in literate communities, has been known to, last a life-time.

The neuro-harmonal, and hence ultimately genetic, basis of pair-bonding has been indicated in several studies; which seem to hint at three kinds or levels of ‘love’ that might be involved in pair-bonding.

  1. lust or sexual passion (independent of personality of a partner) – the most basic and observable in the mating behaviour of many non human animals as well
  2. romance or limerence (dependent upon a particular personality), – tending to short term attachment (few months to few years), and usually also has a strong element of sexual desire (lust or sexual passion)
  3. attachment (pair-bonding over extended time) – tending to long term, even life-long attachment; often seen to commence as limerence,

Limerence tends to be more common amongst adolescents and young adults as compared to mature adults – there may also be a gender difference with men being more likely to enter into short term pair-bonds as compared to women. This is significant when we consider that the other large terrestrial primates – the gorillas and chimpanzees – do not form pair bonds and the dominant male in the troupe tends to monopolise coitus with ovulating females. These great apes also display much higher levels of sexual dimorphism.

However mate selection by the human female seems to value not just dominance and aggressiveness in males, but the proclivity to form longer term attachments – which implies much higher levels of participation in parental care and child-rearing (protection and nourishment) – seems to have been positively selected for. Two interesting clues seem to reinforce this conclusion – the prevalence of male-child bonding (affection) which is largely absent in the other great apes is one. The other is the quirk of hidden ovulation in the human female – which has the consequence of necessitating more frequent coitus to achieve insemination. This is significant because coitus is known to stimulate activity in the dopamine system and oxytocin and arginine vasopressin systems – which reinforce mate preference (preference accorded to the mate over other males/females); hidden ovulation could therefore significantly serve to encourage pair-bonding.

As such, long term pair-bonding as outlined above seems to have the distinct characteristics of the male-female union described as marriage in humans. But this type of human pair bonding, with the associated man-child bonding has the ancillary effect of the father knowing the identity of his child and the child knowing the relatives of its father. Pair-bonding in context of the ‘social group’ of humans leads to the identification and establishment of kin-ship ties. From which derives the status of the off-spring and promotes kin selection. The distinctly social attributes and functions of ‘marriage’ start to emerge from mate selection and pair-bonding.

What then are we to make of the ‘gay marriage’?

Let us begin with pair-bonding. As humans, gays should ordinarily be quite capable of forging long term pair-bonds. The increased tendency amongst human males to engage in short-term (limerence) pair-bonds may tend to make marriages amongst gay men less durable – but then increasingly ‘durability’ is no longer a commonly observed attribute of traditional marriages either. Furthermore, the if legal sanction were to be provided to gay men to ‘marry’ and start a ‘family’ through adoption – the man-child bond, and the mate-preference induced by frequent coitus afforded by the marital alcove could have a salubrious effect on the durability of such a union. Legalising gay-marriage then may dampen promiscuity amongst gay men, which in turn will have its own benefits in terms of potentially lesser incidence of sexually transmitted diseases.

Legal sanction for gay marriages should also be relatively straightforward to establish – legal templates are already evolved to govern traditional marriages and to a large extent the same can be employed. Contractual obligations around marriage, the rights and responsibilities of the gay spouses, nuptial agreements, joint ownership of property, inheritance and right of ‘survivor’ benefits in the event of bereavement, status and inheritance for any adopted children, and tricky as it may seem, gay divorce and alimony-palimony laws, can all be framed with only slight modification to those applicable for traditional marriages.

It is when we start talking about social sanction for gay marriages – with all the trappings of custom, tradition, religion, beliefs and attitudes – that things become rather tricky. Social recognition for gay marriages has to evolve and emerge gradually – it can neither be legislated nor brought about by fiat. Questions such as – will a gay couple be welcomed to a neighbourhood, will they be accepted in the PTA at the schools of their adoptive children, can a lesbian take her partner along for a with-spouses party at work (well she can, but will she and her spouse be welcome and accepted), will a family be comfortable leaving their young boys in the care of a gay teenaged baby-sitter (yes, paedophilia is not known to correlate highly with gayness, but we are talking feelings not fact here), the answers to all these questions will wary greatly from person to person and situation to situation. And yet, I think (though I have no data to establish it), for a while at least, even in some of the most ‘liberal’ societies, the answers to these questions will be distinctly more uncomfortable for gay couples than for traditional couples. May be, at differential rates in different societies, the critical mass amongst the general population will give the ‘liberal’ answer to the above questions – but till such time, gay marriages cannot be said to be socially sanctioned, for whatever that is worth.

Religion, tradition, custom and culture – deeply intertwined as they all tend to be – will probably be the most formidable obstacle; these are the most difficult to change. My own religious tradition – the Hindu family of religious traditions – are so deeply enmeshed in ritual, tradition, custom and culture, I find it impossible to visualise a gay Hindu marriage. What mantras should the priest chant when consecrating it? Which of the two ‘fathers-in-laws’ will perform the gift of the bride (kānya-dān)? Will acquiring a gay ‘bride’ afford the gay Hindu the right of yajna? Who amongst the gay couple will perform the role of the ‘lady of the house’ and place yoghurt on the palm of the deity prior to immersion – visarjan? Will the gay husband wear the double sacred-thread while the gay wife wears none? Who amongst the gay couple will anoint his husband’s fore-head with vermillion and perform ārti on Diwāli? Who amongst the gay couple will place the nose-gay and gold ring he is wearing for Lakshmi Pooja? Trivial and anachronistic these questions will seem to many – yet they are not irrelevant because they are illustrative of the gap that needs to be bridged; that may perhaps never be bridged.

In terms of the functions of marriage, it is fairly straightforward to check which ones are discharged effectively by a ‘gay marriage’

  1. sexual gratification – I expect a gay marriage should ordinarily be able to secure this for the persons concerned
  2. regulation, division of labour between the sexes – this can be tricky, where in traditional marriage the woman tends to be the nurturer and care giver and in many societies the home maker while the man is the protector and in many societies the sole bread-winner; however these distinctions are increasingly blurred in most ‘modern’ marriages, which then becomes an easier target for gay marriages to achieve
  3. economic production and consumption – difficult to visualise how a gay marriage would differ from a traditional one on this matter – except perhaps to the extent 2 above is not clarified
  4. satisfaction of personal needs for affection, status, and companionship; – again like 1 above, gay marriages should probably achieve this at least as well as traditional ones
  5. procreation, – this then is the clearest short coming, yes a gay couple can adopt, but unlike a traditional marriage, a gay marriage, at least presently cannot procreate a meotically recombined offspring with a genome composed entirely of two random halves of its parents genomes
  6. the care of children and their education and socialization, – unclear how this can be evaluated, clearly the mother-child bond triggered by the oxytocin rush induced by a suckling infant will probably be difficult for gay men to replicate, less so for a lesbian couple perhaps. However the existence of relatively strong and as compared to other terrestrial primates a far more nurturing father-child bond, coupled with the significant neuro-plasticity of the neo-cortex should enable a gay couple to care for, educate and socialise their children if they are so resolved
  7. regulation of lines of descent – inheritance for adopted children should be relatively straightforward, complications could arise if the property is ancestral and the inheritance is challenged by kin (though the same can happen in traditional marriages as well);  as far as acceptance of any adoptive offspring into kinship ties with the extended families of the gay couple is concerned, that would remain a factor of whether the gay couple were able to maintain those kinship ties themselves. In any case, with increased incidence of nuclear families, and corresponding rise of extra-familial social support networks would tend to significantly reduce the need for kinship ties anyway

To sum up, gay marriages seem to display some of the key attributes and can probably discharge many of the functions to extents comparable with traditional marriage. Some of the significant attribute gaps being the ambivalence of social sanction, and the near total absence of religious, ritual, and custom or tradition based framework governing gay marriages. In terms of functions – the inability of gay marriages to constitute a procreative union and the potential concerns around, kinship ties, and unchallenged inheritance for the off-spring are the two notable gaps.

Consequently, it may seem appropriate, at this stage for nation-states with suitably ‘liberal’ polities to enact full legal equivalence of ‘gay marriage’. This should pave the way for increased social acceptance of the institution gradually.