The Bureaucracy of "Holy Matrimony"
About six weeks after my wedding, I'm finally getting around to legally changing my name. Which is a highly personal and arguably an eccentric choice for me to make as a polyamorous feminist. I've heard all the arguments for keeping one's maiden name, and I confess that I have no rational argument against them. My husband and I are still separate individuals. ...But for a few weeks after the wedding, every time I said, heard, or signed my name with my husband's last name, I did get a kick of girlish glee. It's a cool name. And now that the novelty is wearing off of it, my maiden name has started sounding increasingly strange to me.
So now that I'm succumbing to this "traditional" marriage custom, I've had a lot of time of sitting in fluorescent-lit government lobbies to ponder the difference between the personal/cultural recognition of marriage and the government's recognition of marriage. Because the inescapable part of any government institution is that it involves a rather a lot of very dull paperwork and standing in line. Which I am willing to do for all of the pragmatic legal advantages of a public record that my husband and I will be sharing our taxes, property, and financial decisions, and in order to have the name that I now prefer to be called listed on my legal identification and credit accounts. But after spending an absurd amount of money on a "search fee" to get our marriage-certification papers from the county (which didn't even guarantee that the county was going to find them), and filling out dozens of forms with my social security number, my parents' social security numbers, and my husband's social security number, I am freshly baffled how politicians and pundits argue that "traditional" marriage laws have any relationship whatsoever to any religious values.
My husband and I did have a religious officiant, in accordance with our families' cultures. But our chosen religious officiant also performs same-sex ceremonies, and proclaimed during our ceremony that marriage is not something that the government or even he could confer onto us. Marriage is a relationship that we had already built.
Now that I'm getting familiar with the legal aspects, I would be entirely fascinated to meet someone who actually believes that spending the first two hours waiting to be called at the Social Security Administration only to be told that I didn't have the proper paperwork from the county (and that the Social Security agent had no idea how I should go about getting the county's paperwork) is part of a religious, holy sacrament. (And I haven't even gotten around to the Department of Motor Vehicles or the State Department.)
Some liberals - and even Forbes Magazine - have argued convincingly that the government should stop recognizing marriages altogether. But legal marriage is a convenient shortcut for so many legal issues that would otherwise end up in lawsuits or without the weaker party's ability to enforce their rights: who owns property, who gets property if someone dies without a will, who is allowed to or legally obligated to take care of children, who's allowed to make decisions if we're medically incapacitated, etc. etc.
The laws are objectionable in many ways, including the explicitly heterosexist and monogamist bias, and the fact that so many people are in bad marriages. But as we seek to liberalize the institution, I'm not convinced that we have to throw out the baby with the bathwater.
Once again, I recommend lesbian E.J. Graff's book What Is Marriage For? for charting how Western marriage laws have already changed significantly over the past century - with a trend toward liberalization. (And for all the conservative politicians' and pundits' shrieking about the Death of the Family, the similarly apocolyptic cries of their 19th-century counterparts against letting married women own bank accounts or vote have yet to be substantiated.)
So I will limit my ranting about government bureaucracy, fill out my paperwork, and continue to argue that the marriage laws should be re-written to apply to any two or more people that want to get married. Pragmatically, legal marriage is an amalgamation of a large number of civil and financial rights, and it's well worth fighting for. But let's be honest about the role the government plays in heterosexual marriage now: which is to manufacture and maintain copies of bureaucratic paperwork.
Any time now that I hear a politician or pundit confer holy, religious sanctimony onto the government's recognition of marriage, I sincerely doubt that they've ever tried to get a copy of their marriage certification from the clerk their county of residence, or wonder if they find spiritual fulfillment in the waiting area of the Social Security Administration.