Colson: Marriage just another imperfect, changeable institution |

Colson: Marriage just another imperfect, changeable institution

with John Colson

I’d been hearing and reading it for weeks, but never really believed the U.S. Supreme Court would rule in favor of gay marriage on a national level.

Now, though, it’s a matter of history, following the announcement last week that the justices had voted, 5-4, in favor of making same-sex marriage the law of the land.

A hearty “Huzzah” to the five who voted for common sense over prejudice and ignorance.

I’m happy it has finally happened, make no mistake about that. I have watched in pain, sympathy and frustration as gay friends have gone to great lengths to get around state bans on same-sex marriages in recent years.

I heard on Sunday that one such couple, two men who live in San Francisco, immediately went out and got married in response to Friday’s announcement. I’ve been on a trip across the country and haven’t talked with them yet, but I can imagine the joy they felt as they recited their vows before a justice of the peace at City Hall.

Yep, it’s about damned time.

But the fight is not over yet, as the Christian right and its conservative political supporters have been fomenting everything from civil disobedience in protest to outright rejection of the ruling. Some counties in Alabama stopped issuing marriage licenses altogether, for gay or straight couples, which seems like a rather extreme reaction.

Even Chief Justice John Roberts, one of the four dissenters on the high court, seemed to be saying this ruling should not be taken on its face value.

In his desperation to find a way to condemn the ruling, he opined that marriage should not be something that he and his brethren on the high court (men and women) ought to be concerned with.

In reality, what he was saying is that gay marriage is not a civil right, so it cannot be a matter for the courts.

But how is this different, as a matter of law, than the rights of black citizens, or women, or any other group that has battled against illegitimate oppression, legalized discrimination and violent subjugation?

It is not, in my eyes, and a majority of the court concurred.

Marriage, at its most elemental level as currently practiced, is a union between two people, a contract by which they declare their devotion and commitment to each other for the duration of their lives, along with accepting certain legal rights and obligations that go along with being married.

But according to researchers, marriage initially had nothing to do with love and everything to do with more prosaic concerns, such as property rights and inheritance; strategic alliances between families, usually royal families but also wealthy ones with no royal ties; and control of a woman’s fertility.

The very word, “marriage,” first appeared in the Middle English lexicon of the 13t century, although its linguistic roots go further back in Latin and French.

But right off, the definitions and obligations associated with the institution were anything but uniformly understood, accepted and applied.

According to one website,, early customs regarding marriage held that a man could simply jettison his wife and get another if the first once was unable to conceive.

And there were other, less sanguine excuses for a man having multiple wives, mainly having to do with the libido of the male involved and the female interest in the security that wedlock provided, throughout much of the history of marriage as an institution.

It was the Christian church, the researchers report, that began agitating for monogamy in married couples, even as it continued to support the idea that married women remained essentially the property of their husbands with few or no legal, financial or other rights of their own.

That idea started changing in the late 19th century, according to Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia, primarily in Europe and the U.S., as governments began making changes to the institution such as giving wives identities of their own, abolition of the right of husbands to beat their wives into submission, and giving wives property rights, among many other liberalizing modifications.

In other words, marriage has never been, and never will be, precisely and lastingly defined.

As such, marriage cannot be viewed as any kind of rigid set of rules imposed by some higher authority on all of us little people down here on Earth.

Instead, it is just another of the numerous, sometimes flawed methods we humans have come up with for defining our relations with each other.

And despite all of the gnashing of teeth and beating of chests now underway among conservative political and religious subsets of our population, this latest redefinition is not a precursor to the end of the world.

It is just the end of one egregious and nasty chapter in our nation’s history, and the beginning of a new chapter, one that bestows on everyone the freedom to choose whom they love and to marry them, regardless of the howling condemnation from the bigots among us.

And trust me, ultimately this will all seem like a tempest in a teapot.