A few days ago, I received an email from a friend entitled “Interesting Marriages,” containing four links.
The first link told the 2007 story of a Sudanese man who was caught copulating with a goat. Since the Sudanese tribal custom requires that a man must marry a woman whom he sexually violated (in order to preserve her family’s honor), the village leaders decided to publicly embarrass the man who had violated the goat, forcing him to pay a dowry to the goat’s owner before “marrying” the goat. The story, which was first reported in a light-hearted way on the website of a British newspaper, drew worldwide attention, as did the subsequent report that the man was left a widower when the goat died after choking on some plastic it had swallowed.
The second link, from the Jakarta Globe in 2010, gave the unfortunate account of a young Balinese man who was caught copulating with a cow (but only, he explained, after the cow, which he believed to be a young, beautiful woman, had flirted with him). He was then forced to participate in a public marriage ceremony with the cow, during which he passed out. After the ceremony, the cow was drowned in the ocean, as were the young man’s clothes, in a purification ritual.
The third link, dating to 2005, was entitled, “Charmed woman marries cobra in India,” the story reporting that, “A woman who fell in love with a snake has reportedly married the reptile at a traditional Hindu wedding celebrated by 2,000 guests in India's Orissa state.” The woman, who was 30 years old, explained, “Though snakes cannot speak nor understand, we communicate in a peculiar way.”
The fourth link, from 2008, was perhaps the most bizarre of all, telling the story of a German woman who had been married to the Berlin Wall for 29 years. The woman, then 54, and whose “surname means Berlin Wall in German, wed the concrete structure in 1979 after being diagnosed with a condition called Objectum-Sexuality.”
Aside from the tragicomic nature of these stories, what they all have in common is that none of these unions were, in any sense of the word, “marriages,” despite the rituals and ceremonies performed. Marriage, we all know, is between human beings, not between a human being and an animal or reptile (or wall!).
But is marriage simply the union of two human beings or is it specifically the union of a man and a woman? If the latter, then the union of two men or two women is no more a “marriage” then is the union of a man and an animal, reptile, wall, or whatever, regardless of how much the two human parties love each other. In fact, there are conservatives who have asked, “If a woman can marry a woman, why can’t she marry her dog (or, horse, or plant, etc.)?” There is even a gay activist, watchdog website called BoxTurtleBulletin, deriving its name from remarks prepared for Senator John Corwyn in 2004 (although never spoken by him): “It does not affect your daily life very much if your neighbor marries a box turtle. But that does not mean it is right.”
While Senator Corwyn did well by not delivering these remarks, the very real question of the definition of marriage remains, especially in places like my current home state of North Carolina, where, for the first time, the people will be allowed to vote on a constitutional amendment defining marriage as the union of a man and woman. Simply stated, if marriage is the union of two people, then same-sex couples have as much right to marry as do opposite-sex couples. But if marriage is the union of a man and a woman, then same-sex couples no more have the right to “marry” than do the aforementioned human and goat (although there is, quite obviously, no comparison between the two situations).
These, then, are some of the questions that must be answered in the current debate. First, what is marriage? Conservatives would point out that, with virtually no exception until recently, marriage has always been the union of a man and woman, not simply the union of two people.
Second, why should marriage consist of only two parties? Supporters of natural, organic marriage argue that marriage consists of only two people because of the uniqueness of the male-female union. Otherwise, what’s so important about the number two? Why not more?
Third, since most Americans agree that government should have limited involvement in the lives of its citizens, why is the state involved in the issue of marriage? Opponents of same-sex marriage point out that the state conveys benefits on marriage because marriage conveys benefits on the state, namely, the possibility of procreation along with the ability to join a child to its mother and father.
For the next seven months in North Carolina, leading up to the May 2012 vote, the debate will be raging.
Michael Brown holds a Ph.D. in Near Eastern Languages and Literatures from New York University. He is the author of 25 books, includingLine of Fire. Follow him at AskDrBrown on Facebook or @drmichaellbrown on Twitter.