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Marriage Equality in Prose and Poetry (or, “The Figuring-it-out at Kitchen Tables”)

April 4th, 2010 1 comment

Let’s start with this startling video. (Really, watch it. It’s only two minutes long and will amaze you if you’ve not seen it.)

So here we have the Iowa Senate’s Democratic Leader, Mike Gronstal, saying that:

(1) The battle over marriage equality will be over soon, once his daughter’s generation takes over. Nate Silver over at fivethirtyeight.com is just the latest to make this point in his usually quantifiably impressive style. Of course, her comment that “no one cares” is just the sort of statement that equality opponents love to jump all over, to wit: “That’s the problem; we need to care about the institution of marriage.” But that’s not what I think she meant. Rather, it’s that no one thinks that allowing same-sex couples to marry will do anything to harm marriage. This perception comes, in large part, from people under a certain age having grown up with and around openly gay people. That’s new, and it’s transformative.

(2) His marriage to his wife is stronger because same-sex couples can now marry. This is a point I’ve been trying to make for some time. Marriage opponents have been asserting that allowing same-sex couples to marry will destroy the institution (over time), as it will lose its historically rooted male/female definition. But it seems likely that many fair-minded, opposite-sex couples will come to the conclusion Sen. Gronstal did: The state’s embracing of relationships between two committed adults strengthens marriage. Keeping committed same-sex couples out of marriage might in fact weaken marriage for the next generation, by showcasing the state’s willingness to discriminate on a basis that, to many of them, is unsound.

The Senator’s reference to the talk he had with his daughter brought to mind Elizabeth Alexander’s Inaugural Poem, “Praise Song for the Day,” where she offered:

“Praise song for struggle, praise song for the day.

“Praise song for every hand-lettered sign, the figuring-it-out at kitchen tables.”

It’s this kind of conversation, going on at kitchen tables all over the country, that is quickly changing the terrain in this struggle. It’s not only 30-somethings and younger that support equality; because of these conversations, people like Mike Gronstal are “figuring it out” too.

Speaking of poetry… I came across a short poem that seems especially weighty right now. In the latest New Yorker, Spencer Reese’s “The Long-Term Marriage” describes an older couple (“[t]he dash between their dates is nearly done”) engaging in the most intimate kind of caring for each other (wife rubs cream on husband’s head to chase away “squamous-cell carcinomas”); but the creams are “FedExed from their adopted son’s boyfriend’s home, a relationship that remains, to them, unknown.”

The poem draws a striking contrast between the two relationships. The older couple at the center of this evanescent universe are portrayed in loving detail, while the son (likely “adopted” to suggest, somehow, the importance of the biological link for understanding between generations)  and his “boyfriend” are left undescribed at the other end of the FedEx transmission. Despite the physical and emotional distance, the son expresses his love by sending what his parents most need, and by the quickest means possible.

Equal dignity is both furnished and taught by law. I wonder if “The Long-Term Marriage” is a poem that could be written fifty years from now, after this struggle has been won. Will there still be straight couples this unaware of their children’s most important relationships? I doubt it.

Let me close with the final lines from “Praise Song”:

“What if the mightiest word is love?

“Love beyond marital, filial, national,
love that casts a widening pool of light,
love with no need to pre-empt grievance.

“In today’s sharp sparkle, this winter air,
any thing can be made, any sentence begun.
On the brink, on the brim, on the cusp,

praise song for walking forward in that light.”

This post was originally published on April 16, 2009.