"Spouses", "marriage", and change

Mike Salovesh (t20mxs1@CORN.CSO.NIU.EDU)
Wed, 20 Dec 1995 00:28:03 -0600

Once upon a long time ago, when voting in the American Anthropological
Association was restricted to Fellows of the AAA, a gay anthropologist
who was not then a AAA Fellow tried to introduce a gay rights resolution
at the Annual Business Meeting of the AAA. He was ruled out of order.
The late Leonard Moss then took the floor, saying "As a Fellow of this
Association and a practicing heterosexual I move the adoption of the
resolution whose presentation by a non-Fellow was just ruled out of
order." (Eventually, the resolution was adopted.)

All right, as a subscriber to this list and a practicing heterosexual I
would like to jump into this "spouse" discussion from another viewpoint. I
am a member of the Society of Friends -- a Quaker. Over the last decade,
the question of whether same-sex unions can appropriately be taken under
the care of a Meeting (the Quaker equivalent of celebrating a marriage)
has come before many Meetings. Quite a few Meetings (perhaps a majority,
but certainly not an overwhelming one) have accepted the idea and go
through the same procedures for same-sex couples that are customary with
heterosexual couples. Couples so joined are regarded as spouses by the
Meeting that took them under their care, and by other Meetings that have
likewise accepted the practice. Members of some Meetings regard this
practice to be an open question they have not resolved to their
satisfaction. Quite a few Meetings (but certainly not a majority) have
come to the position that same-sex relations, with or without the sanction
of a Meeting, are to be regarded as a sin and an abomination. The issue
is difficult. But for nearly all people with whom I share a religion, I
believe that the term "spouse" refers to a long-term sanctioned
relationship between two individuals. We differ on whether same-sex
relationships should be granted the sanction of our religion.

George Peter Murdock argued that marriage is universal and that it has
universal functions. His saying that did not make it so; witness
Kathleen Gough Aberle's classic article on the Nayar and the definition
of marriage and all its sequelae. Woman-woman marriage for the purpose
of preserving a line of succession to chieftainship in Africa has been
known to anthropologists for a long time. In the U.S., a rising tide of
infertility is well-documented. Nobody has yet suggested that people who
are married and infertile are NOT spouses; I don't think Leif Hendrickson
is suggesting that, either.

I don't think we're going to get very far by saying "by definition,
spouses are this and are not that". By whose definition? Who chipped
that definition into stone and bound the governments of the English-
speaking nations to recognize it above all other definitions?

Turning to law to settle the question doesn't help, either. In my state,
Illinois, a couple who cohabited openly and called themselves husband and
wife for a period of seven years or longer were once regarded as having
the full legal status of a married couple: "common-law spouses". With
the adoption of the new Illinois constitution in the 1960's, common-law
marriage was no longer recognized as establishing legal rights and
obligations exactly equivalent to marriage. Did a couple who were on
their way to completing the seven-year defining period for common law
marriage when the new constitution came into force stop being spouses?
What about those who already had met the definition of common-law
marriage while it was still legally recognized -- did the new
constitution automatically divorce them?

Language changes. Culture changes. Recognized statuses change. There is
nothing about the term "spouse" that exempts it from change, and there is
nothing about the law of marriage that cannot be changed, either. At the
moment, the law of my state does not recognize same-sex marriages and does
not grant spousal privileges to partners in such a relationship. IRS
regulations provide that in such a case, a same-sex couple is not allowed
to claim married status for income tax purposes. (So what? At the moment
two working individuals married to each other are likely to have to pay
more federal income tax than if they were not married. In this case,
there actually would be an advantage to living as a same-sex couple in a
state that did not recognize same-sex marriages.)

The law of my state could change tomorrow. There is nothing to prevent
the Illinois State Legislature and/or the voters of Illinois from
recognizing same-sex marriages as exactly equivalent to heterosexual
marriages. Nothing inherent in the law, that is. Public attitudes are
another question entirely.

When we speak as anthropologists, however, I hope we can recognize the
existence of fair numbers of people who establish long-term, same-sex
relationships. Why NOT call them "spouses"?

How long does "long-term" have to be before we should be willing to
recognize "spousehood"? Well, what's happening to the average length of
heterosexual marriages nowadays? Do we call a married couple spouses the
day after they marry, no matter what the odds of their later seeking
divorce may be? Again, why shouldn't we -- as anthropologists! -- extend
the term "spouse" to same-sexed pairs whenever the couple themselves deem
it appropriate?

mike salovesh <salovesh@niu.edu> PEACE!
anthropology department, northern illinois university