Sunday, March 06, 2005

I Don't Have a Brother

I don't have any brothers. My parents chose to consider their family complete after two daughters. I am the youngest.

I believe my grandfather was a bit upset by this, as my sister and I were insufficient to carry on the family name. My grandfather had two sons and a daughter. His daughter had six children-- including two boys--but of course they didn't have the same name as him, so they didn't technically "count."

All of that is a bit incidental. The point I'm trying to make here is that my immediate family (nuclear family, if you prefer) completely lacks a person who could be considered "my brother." Yet despite this, even as a child, I knew the meaning of the word "brother." I'm sure this all seems very obvious and most folks are scratching their heads and saying, "duh." Ordinarily I would agree with you, but it seems that some people have a difficult time wrapping their heads around the idea that not all families must be the same in order to preserve the meaning of words.

In this post, David Frum worries that the terms "mother" and "father" will be stricken from the language as a result of same-sex marriage. He refers to a statement he made to Andrew Sullivan once:
Andrew, three years after we permit gay marriage, it will be illegal for schools to send home printed forms with one blank for the mother's name and one blank for the father's.
Hmm. I went to school in the 80's, and I seem to recall that most school forms had ONE blank labeled "Parent/Guardian". Most things didn't require TWO signatures, and even back then not all children had mothers and fathers. Apparently some didn't even have parents, they just had "guardians." I guess in Frum's alternative world, the foster kids shouldn't get to go to the zoo field trip since they don't have anyone who could legally sign the Mother and Father lines on the permission slip.

At any rate, the argument that same-sex marriage will bring about the end of civilization by forbidding us to speak or think certain words is, frankly, silly. I do not have a husband. Most of my female co-workers do have husbands. By some strange trick of the brain, I am able to comprehend what husband means. The definition of the word is not changed by the fact that my family does not include one, just as no one would state that the word "brothers" must be tossed away because some families don't have any.

As for legal and government forms, there are so many easy ways around this "problem" that for folks on the right to obsess about words is beyond silly. Marriage certificates can have two slots: "Bride/Groom" and "Bride/Groom". Circle the appropriate term for each party to the marriage. School forms should be neutral where possible, but there is nothing unwholesome about the word "parent". Filling your name in next to the word "parent" does not mean that Junior has to stop calling you Mommy.

The end of Frum's post contains the most revealing comment of all:
And one effect of this revolution - and for many proponents, one of the revolution's aims - is to make forever unthinkable the idea that husbands and wives each have special duties to one another, and that a husband's duties to his wife - while equally binding and equally supreme - are not the same as a wife's duties to her husband.
Ah, the real objection. We all have gender roles, and same-sex marriage nicely highlights that not everyone is willing to live within them. Alas, Frum does not elaborate on exactly what those roles might be. What are a wife's duties? What are a husband's duties?

Andrew Sullivan takes on that argument here:
But the gender role argument against equal marriage rights has always been to my mind the most coherent of those on offer. If you believe that women should be subservient to men in marriage - and men should take proportionate responsibility to take care of and lead their wives - then indeed the idea of complete equality and interchangeability in the marriage compact is threatening. So let David and the right make that argument: we want to keep traditional gender roles in civil marriage and letting gays marry hurts that effort. Let them spell out a wife's duties and a husband's responsibilities. And let them make that case openly to the public. Support for same-sex marriage - especially among women - will soar. Because they will see it for what it is: a big advance for the civil equality of women.
A very good point, I think.

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