Yesterday I had a long conversation with a friend, stemming from the ongoing debate in the UK and elsewhere about marriage equality, about marriage as an institution. He and I both support the right of gay couples to marry if they wish, but we both confessed that we couldn't really understand why anybody - of any sexuality - would wish to marry.
This has long been the case for me. Although I understand that marriage is important to many people, and therefore support the right of any couple to enter into it regardless of their respective sexes or genders on principles of basic equality, it's not an impulse that seems to exist in me. I'm twenty-nine now, and many of my friends and contemporaries are married... but I don't really understand why they've bothered. I've lived with my partner for nearly six years now, and virtually nothing would change if we decided to marry; I wouldn't even need a new passport since I wouldn't change my name. If we wanted to have kids that would make being married a more sensible financial and legal choice for us, but even that, I think, is more an argument in favour of amending the UK's rather outdated laws than in favour of marriage.
Many opponents to marriage equality argue that allowing gay people to marry will render the institution of marriage meaningless. In fact, I suspect that the opposite might be true. I think marriage - at least in the UK and other parts of Europe - already IS pretty meaningless; certainly it's no longer necessary for purposes of respectability, or for recognition as a couple. And I consider that loss of meaning to be a good thing; it's good that I am not the property of my partner, that our sex life does not require a stamp of approval from the church, that my legal rights are not different to those of my (male) partner. But when true equality is achieved in the UK (and it will be, although I predict it'll take us a while to work out all the kinks resulting from the current, rather strange, laws) I can see marriage regaining some of its lost meaning - but in an entirely new and positive way.
Marriage could be reborn as a TRUE symbol of love - and also of acceptance, equality and freedom. Purified of the taints of religious bigotry, of outmoded notions of respectability surrounding sex, and of the hangover of gender inequality that cannot but be present in an institution requiring that participants be of particular sexes, it could become meaningful in a positive way for the first time, arguably, ever. As marriage in the UK currently exists, I feel not the smallest desire to enter into it; in fact, the more I think about its history, its archaic, exclusionary and arbitrary messages about what is and is not "acceptable" to society, and its ongoing, inbuilt homophobia and sexism, the more actively opposed I become to the idea.
But when any consenting adult can marry any other consenting adult, and when the only motivation to do so is love, then I will consider that an institution I can support, and perhaps even want to be a part of. Then it will carry meaning that is truly deserving of our protection.