There is a tendency, both by social conservatives and progressives in the United States, in any case—though no less a European than the current incumbent of the See of Peter is guilty of it—to view all of human history as if it were the history of the English-speaking world, and to limit the scope of even this history to roughly the late Victorian period through perhaps the late nineteen-fifties. Few places is this more obvious than in debates over marriage, presumably because it allows us to have a particularly idyllic view of that august institution.
Both those opposed to same-sex marriage and those in favor of it are fond of speaking of marriage as the eternal basis of (all parts of) society. For social conservatives, this claim often has the form of arguing that there have historically been no arrangements in society through which people have allied themselves other than "traditional" marriage. It must be noted that "traditional" marriage is usually meant to be something like the legal construction of marriage in Anglo-American (Protestant-inflected) law and not any of the other traditional models of marriage. (This is much like forgetting that the popular "Wedding March" comes from a scene in Wagner's work that represents rape more than marriage.) Thus, to alter this arrangement can only be detrimental to society as a whole. In addition, it is pointed out that we have made changes in recent years—no fault divorce, community property, etc.—and society has not generally benefited. It is rarely noted either that the relative equality of rights within marriage, the possibility of marrying across class and racial lines, et alia, are recent developments of the institution of that it was good, in these cases at least, to tinker with the institution. Nor is it noted that there is no longer tradition than common law marriage, having roots in the long-standing practice of concubinage in the West and recognized in such practices as the Catholic view that it is the partners to a marriage who make the marriage real, something that the Church can only witness.
For progressives, the claim often has the form of saying that since this is such a basic institution within society it must be manifestly unjust to exclude same-sex couples. But what is often missing from their consideration are the ways in which marriage has traditionally represented an unequal partnership between two already unequal members of society. Or, and I hate to take a page from the conservatives here, the ways in which marriage assumes a complementarity of partners, and not just a complementarity of personality but a complementarity of natures. Or, to put it another way, marriage is traditionally conceptualized as a relationship of difference.
So, you might ask, what am I a getting at here? Well, there used to be members of the gay and lesbian community who imagined different sorts of relationships for themselves. I don't just mean people who imagined sexually open relationships, I don't just mean people who imagined a radical reorganization of all society starting with the family. But I do mean all sorts of people who thought they could form relationships based on responsibilities and obligations and, yes, rights that did not thereby have to be marriage.
And, throughout history, there have been many different sorts of arrangements than just marriage. History is not just the story of husbands, wives and children and those defined by the absence of marriage: spinsters, bachelors, widows, widowers, divorcés and divorcées. There were also people whose lives were not defined in relation to marriage at all: monks and nuns, beguines and beghards, crusaders, hospitallers and nursing sisters, educators like the Brothers of the Common Life and Oxford and Cambridge fellows and many others.
I've picked on a lot of religious groups here both as a reflection of my own educational biases and because they ought to appeal to at least some conservatives. I realize that these were not groups whose lives were defined by sex but, then again, neither are the lives of those in same-sex relationships. No relationship that lasts, that matters, that forms its own society, that feeds into society, is based only on sex. What all of the groups I have mentioned have in common—and have in common with the relationships with which I am here concerned—is a shared view of life, a common purpose, shared goals, an interest in the good for one another, a desire to form a bond in which this view and purpose are furthered in new and interesting and mutually beneficial ways, in ways that themselves build up society. These were relationships built on mutual responsibility and
You know, there is a figure way back in Western history, Aristotle, who thought that friendship was the basis of society. He didn't think marriage was a particularly good example of friendship either; the conflation of marriage with friendship is quite recent. Perhaps we could all benefit from considering just what sorts of friendship are worthy of society's protection, approbation and sanction. A little history and imagination couldn't hurt.