The SCOTUS Ruling on Marriage Equality is Good for Everyone
Sometimes our institutions need to deviate from tradition in order to thrive
Posted Jun 30, 2015
Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy's deciding opinion on marriage equality last Friday, June 26, 2015, went deeper than law. It reminded us that as human beings we all want the same thing: to be loved and protected, whether we tend to fall in love with women or with men.
Kennedy’s hermeneutic writing was criticized by the dissenters--Justice Antonin Scalia for one described it as,“...extravagances, of thought and expression...” But the case before the justices required a deviation from standard legalese in order to view the plaintiff, Jim Obergefell and his deceased husband, John Arthur--as well as all same sex couples--as people deserving of “liberty and justice.”
The language of American law--e.g., “Marriage is a commitment between one man and one woman.”--is sometimes in need of a hermeneutic update in order to truly do its job: to protect us all. In much the same way it is often necessary to use anomalous language in a variety of disciplines--medicine, psychology, religion--as we live, learn, and evolve.
Take it from the great American psychologist, Charles Silverstein. In 1973 he and other activists in his field worked for months demanding that the American Psychiatric Association (APA) delete homosexuality as a mental disorder from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual. The APA did. In Silverstein’s words “[One day] we were all perverts, but [the next day] we were healthy and normal.” LGBT people would still be considered disordered without brave professionals like Silverstein advocating for unsung human experience using language that deviated from tradition.
In his opinion, Justice Kennedy references the 1973 removal of homosexuality as a psychiatric disorder as an example of necessary evolution. He writes, ” [N]ew dimensions of freedom become apparent to new generations, often through perspectives that begin in pleas or protests and then are considered in the political sphere and the judicial process.” In other words, as we continue to live we come to understand ourselves and each other better, we evolve, and we make sure that our institutions and laws evolve with us.
Kennedy acknowledges the evolution of romantic relationships and that the institution of marriage has followed suit. He writes, “The history of marriage is one of both continuity and change. That institution—even as confined to opposite-sex relations—has evolved over time.” He describes the increasing autonomy of women, in relationships and in society overall, and how “These new insights have strengthened, not weakened, the institution of marriage.”
I make this point in the introduction of my book Modern Brides & Modern Grooms (Video clip from the audiobook below). To truly practice traditional marriage, one would have to enact a man dragging a woman by the hair and throwing her at the feet of another man. We have come a long way from that version of marriage.
Just as the leaders of our institutions must be versatile with language in order to make room for all of us, we must learn to be versatile in our own lives and relationships. We do this by learning to survive inevitable conflicts with our partners through processes of negotiation, adaptation, and creative collaboration. We have learned over the centuries that committed, loving, relationships are fertile ground for growing our individuality, our creativity, and yes, even our sexuality. Much like the anomalous language in Kennedy’s opinion, it is the necessary, fantastic, discoveries that allow us to be authentic in our marriages, that allow us to expand as individuals, and allow us to maintain marital stability at the very same time.
On the flip side, one almost feels bad for Justice Scalia (or, at least for his wife, as my husband says), for holding onto a confining idea of marriage. In his dissenting opinion he writes:
“Really? Who ever thought that intimacy and spirituality (whatever that means) were freedoms? And if intimacy is, one would think Freedom of Intimacy is abridged rather than expanded by marriage. Ask the nearest hippie. Expression, sure enough, is a freedom, but anyone in a long-lasting marriage will attest that that happy state constricts, rather than expands, what one can prudently say.”
The best outcome of the SCOTUS ruling on marriage is that the laws are now catching up with all of us--gay and straight. We all really want the same thing: to be recognized for who we are as individuals, and whom we love. Justice Kennedy acknowledged how we are all more alike than we are different along these lines, writing, “A first premise of the Court’s relevant precedents is that the right to personal choice regarding marriage is inherent in the concept of individual autonomy.”
Copyright Mark O'Connell, LCSW