It may be based on what your parents taught you, and on how they acted when they thought you weren't watching. It's based on your friends' parents. It's based on television. It's based on religion. It might be based on a marriage you're in now. It might be based on a marriage you were in before, or more than one.
It might mean love, but it might mean hate. It might mean faith, but it might mean reason. It might mean honesty, but it might mean betrayal.
You know, in your heart, what marriage is. I know, in my heart, what marriage is. Every other person knows, in their heart, what marriage is.
But you don't know what, in my heart, marriage is. And I don't know, in your heart, what marriage is. And no other person knows, in any other heart, what marriage is.
So we look for the common ground.
When I wanted to know what marriage is, today, in America, I didn't look to religion. The church in which I was raised (Roman Catholic) has clear standards, but I set them aside. In fact, those clear standards made looking past them even easier, because all my life I've known married people who were Married In The Church and married people who were Not Married In The Church. When I looked for common ground, it was clear that the church was un-self-consciously divisive on the subject.
When I wanted to know what marriage is, today, in America, I didn't look to my parents. They were Catholic too, so I had to set them aside as exemplars for the reasons given above. They were committed to a standard that others didn't consider.
When I wanted to know what marriage is, today, in America, I didn't look to my friends. Being young, I had few friends who were married, and the range of relationships I saw were too varied for me to get a hold on. There were gay, straight, bi, poly, kinky, asexual people in a constant commingling of love, sex, hate, longing, friendship, and apathy. Some wanted to get married, some didn't, some didn't know, some didn't care.
When I considered what marriage is in America, I looked to the law. Because all I could be certain of was that, at some point, these people had applied for a marriage license from the state. And because the people who claimed exclusion from marriage were simply looking for the same thing.
The first thing I noticed, when I looked at the law, was how much was missing. I knew, in my heart, what marriage is, but so many of the things I knew (or thought I knew, or assumed I knew but would wait and see how things turned out later) were missing from the law.
In California, there's very little you have to do to marry someone. I don't have to love the person I marry. I don't have to fuck the person I marry. I don't have to procreate with the person I marry. I don't have to raise children at all with the person I marry. I don't have to live with the person I marry. I don't have to talk to the person I marry. I don't even have to know the person I marry.
Of course, now, I do know the person I will marry. And I do talk to that person. And I do live with that person. And we have agreed that we will attempt to procreate and will definitely raise children. And, yes, I fuck that person. And I deeply, deeply love that person.
And all of that means something to me, and it means something to that person. But it means nothing to the law.
According to the law, marriage is a contract. It confers certain rights and certain duties.
For some people, the search for marriage ends here; they say, "That's what's in the law, so that's what marriage is. It such-and-such rights and such-and-such benefits and everyone should get those right and benefits. End of story."
But I knew, in my heart, that wasn't even a story. These may, indeed, have been rights shared by all of the people who were married, but it said nothing to what I knew, in my heart, what marriage was.
So I looked deeper, to see what, in its leatherbound, blackletter heart, the law knew marriage is.
I saw children, as I've already mentioned, born during a marriage, born before a marriage, adopted into a marriage. But I also saw identity, and the changing of last names. I saw property, and how the things each spouse had are held together. I saw sickness and health, and the ability to care for and watch over one's spouse. I saw death, and the ways a person provides for their spouse even after they're gone.
What I saw was a bond between two people. I couldn't call it marriage; I already knew it was marriage, I needed to find something else. And I looked at the law, and I looked at my friends, and I looked at my parents, and I looked at my church, and I looked at my heart, and my heart began to sing, and I listened to that song as it echoed through everything I'd ever known about what marriage is.
What marriage is, is family.
Because no other person knows, in any other heart, what marriage is, we look for the common ground. And when we argue about what marriage is, our arguments are the cover for the subtle dance whereby we move each other to wherever we claim that ground is.
For the No on 8 campaign, as it was presented to California, the argument was about the rights that all married Californians share, and for them, that's where the common ground was too. Simple, straightforward, can't-lose.
For the Yes on 8 campaign, things were more complicated. The argument was that what all marriages share was that they were between one man and one woman. To protect their argument against the married couples here in California and in Massachusetts, Canada, and elsewhere in the world, they invented "traditional" marriage, which they said is what marriage was. It was, according to them, what marriage was from the dawn of time to a few years ago. And while we, their opponents, argued that what marriage was has changed so often, we didn't realize that "traditional marriage" was nothing more than what marriage is, once you agree to ignore all the thousands of marriages between persons of the same sex.
We were already losing our grip on what marriage is. They convinced married straight couples that they were already in a "traditional marriage," had been from the day they took vows, because their definition, though less inclusive, was closer to what people, in their hearts, knew marriage is. And once they'd done that, Yes on 8 argued that the families in "traditional marriages" were threatened.
Now, those arguments were baldfaced lies. But the arguments weren't the point. Because Yes on 8 had danced us all over to their common ground of what marriage is, family. They showed straight-couple family after straight-couple family; and they were lying, but it didn't matter. Yes on 8 had started California thinking about marriage as family, and they'd taken control of what families were. When No on 8 responded by showing us Parents, they were all straight too.
No on 8 never showed us the thousands of families that were directly threatened by this amendment, and they started to to disappear from the minds of Californians. Whenever Yes on 8 said, "Family!" No on 8 said, "Rights!" And as we already know, the heart only sings in response to one of those songs, even when the words are all wrong.
When the people of California went into the voting booth, they compared the two sides. And these Californians knew, in their heart, that what marriage is isn't a right, it's a family. And so they voted for the side they thought cared about protecting families, because for many of them, the rights about mariage didn't make sense in their heart. And it's easy to deny a person something you don't understand, aren't sure exists, barely realize you have. By the time they left the booth, they thought they'd protected families, perhaps at the cost of, at most, some legal technicalities.
What they did is destroy families.
If I could go back in time and run the No on 8 campaign, I would put those families front and center. I would run the ad where parents say, "I want to teach my duaghter that she doesn't have to worry about the state taking her away if something happens"; "I want to teach my son that if something happens to his mother, I can take care of both her and him." I would let these families stand in front of the state and say, "We are in danger. Think about your family, and protect our family."
Because I wish that Californians had understood what I knew in my heart. That when they voted yes on Prop 8, they weren't voting about laws or rights or judicial activism or theology or lawyers or mayors or even tradition. They were taking daughters and sons and husbands and wives and sisters and brothers and uncles and nieces and aunts and nephews and grandparents and stepchildren and saying, "You. You over there. Not the other ones, just you. YOU ARE NOT A FAMILY. YOU NEVER WERE. YOU NEVER WILL BE."
Because that's what they did.
And so many of them still don't even understand that.
And I'm crying at my desk now because I feel so goddamn stupid for not realizing this one week, two weeks, three months sooner. I feel stupid for letting it happen, feel stupid for feeling good about myself for understanding the legal arguments, feel stupid for missing so many opportunities to tell everyone I met about the people in California whose families were at risk, whose families are void. I feel stupid because I feel like right now all I have is hindsight to offer them.
Hindsight and regret.
What marriage is, is family. And it isn't law or sex or even tradition, because even family is not about those things. Family goes beyond even love, because even when we hate our family, they are still our family.
What marriage is, is family. And I will never forget it. And I will never again let anyone else forget it.