It started once again with an argument about marriage equality. “We don’t have anything against gays,” I heard from across the table. “Let them even have civil unions. But why do they have to get married?”
It is tempting to get sucked into this line of argument, to start offering reasons for why “they have to get married”: all the legal and financial rights that come with marriage in our society, all the opportunity to declare a couple’s permanent family status to the world, and so on. I’ve done that many times, but every time I do, I feel I am capitulating to my interlocutor’s premise—one I reject—defending the right of gay marriage to exist, and it’s a losing game because there is no good answer to that question, “why.” The answer is the same as for those who ask it. Maybe, a better answer is, Why not?
Marriage is an institution with a history so long that its origins are lost in our past immemorial. It wasn’t always based on romantic love, and it’s had forms and meanings and incarnations as innumerable as there’ve been cultures, and it’s grown into us like a root system, through and through, and now there is no more simple or rational answer to why we do it. We do because this is the way we live one inexorable aspect of human sociality: creation of family.
This is true for marriage, this is true for other most foundational features of us. It is really the questions to which we have no satisfactory answers that run most deeply, isn’t it? It is the things we do but cannot explain why we do that are at the core of being human. They cannot be explained because they themselves are explanations, the axioms of human nature. The simplest, most basic level of what makes us what we are. Why do we make music, poetry, images? Why beauty? Why do we climb mountains, descend into the Mariana Trench, and go into space? Why do we devote the lives of our brightest, centuries of time, and unimaginable resources to pure discovery—mysticism, theoretical science—with no promise of practical gain? Why do we love? And don’t tell me the answers are about evolution or God’s plan or social Darwinism. To say that we seek meaning because evolution / creation hard-wired us to do so is the same as to say: We seek meaning because we must by virtue of being human.
Losing the freedom to pursue these foundational needs is the nightmare thought that feeds literary dystopia: worlds without honest art, worlds that control poetry, worlds of forced ignorance, narrow of mind and devoid of exploration, worlds without love… These are the rights for which we fight, for which we die, and we call them “basic freedoms,” and we don’t ask why they matter. They are inalienable rights.
Some truths are axioms: life is to be preserved, love is to be practiced… Others become axioms when we realize that the world rests upon them just as much, without rationale or derivation – when we realize that our humanity is incomplete without them. On May 20, 2014, Federal District Judge John E. Jones, III wrote his opinion on the case that had the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania holding its breath: was its law banning same-sex marriage constitutional or not? Judge Jones said “No” and struck the law down. In his opinion he compared marriage inequality to racial segregation and wrote, “We are a better people than what these laws represent, and it is time to discard them into the ash heap of history. … In future generations the label same-sex marriage will be abandoned, to be replaced simply by marriage.”