Saturday, April 28, 2007

Family versus Marriage

Two and a half years ago, in November 2004, the voters of Kentucky overwhelmingly (71 percent) voted to adopt a new constitutional amendment that would define marriage as being only between one man and one woman, and provided that "a legal status identical to or similar to marriage for unmarried individuals shall not be valid or recognized." [Unmarried individuals including heterosexual unmarried couples as well as gays and lesbians].

So imagine my surprise during the last six terms that I have taught SOC 101 (Introductory Sociology), when my Kentucky students have overwhelmingly with no exceptions, told me that the term "family" is inclusive of any and all groups of people who love and care for each other, and live together in a supportive relationship.

The chapter on Marriage and Family [authored by me, a fact of which students are generally not aware] in their sociology textbook begins with a descriptive listing of different groups of people: married couples with children, cohabiting heterosexual couples without children, homosexual couples with children, single mothers by divorce and by out-of-wedlock pregnancy and their children.

In my on-line classes, which draw on students from all over Kentucky, we have a discussion forum, and one of the questions I ask in the unit on family is "So what is a family?" I ask them to look at the list and tell which they would consider a family.

Here is a sampling of the responses that I have gotten from students:

Family is hard to define because people have so many different views. But I think family is people that you are close to, where there is mutual love, support, and a level of caring that is somewhat beyond just friendship.

all of the circumstances would prove to be a family. As I said, it is not what others perceive to be acceptable, as a family, but more how one feels when interacting with each other. I cannot state enough how important it is for each of us to feel a part of and accepted by at least one societal circle. To me that is ultimately makes a family unit.

All of the examples in the beginning of the chapter are families. A family is the biggest part of how we function in society. Family helps us to define who we are. Just because you are not married with kids does not mean that you are not a family. Some people think that gay couples with kids are not considered a family. In my own opinion marriage is just a piece of paper. If you are gay does not mean that they can not raise their child to be up standing citizens.

I believe a family is when someone relies on you to be there for them whether it be emotionally, financially, sexually, and so forth. A family is created when there is a strong bond between two or more. This doesn't just have to be man wife and kids, it can be anyone. You always hear of people close friends saying "they are like family to me". This is because they depend on that person to be there for them thru thick and thin. I believe that when you have a strong bond with someone and you know that that person will be there for you always then they can be considered family.

Over the past six or seven terms I have seen nearly a hundred posts that are variations on these examples. Out of that hundred, only one person, ever mentioned that they personally disapproved of gay relationships, but countered that by saying that they still deserved to be considered a "family."

This was so much at odds with what I expected given the overwhelming support that voters gave the anti-gay marriage amendment, that I began asking students additional questions. What I learned was fascinating. My students view "marriage" and "family" as separate entities not necessarily dependent upon each other. The reasoning varied. Some students suggested that "marriage" was a religious institution, while "family" was natural and biological. Others suggested that "family" was based on affinity, affection, and personal choice, while "marriage" was either a religious or legal institution. I found that it was possible for my students to have an open and inclusive view about families, while having a restricted and narrow definition of marriage.

Most formal groups that support anti-gay marriage legislation, have very restricted definitions of family, and generally would like to see all children raised by two biological parents, in a legally and religiously sanctioned marriage. In other words, part of the agenda of many formal organizations that promote "pro-marriage" or "pro-family" (i.e. anti-gay) legislation is to combat the idea that families can be what ever we want them to be.

The dichotomy between my students definitions of "family" and "marriage" may help to explain how a preponderance of open inclusive views about family could exist among students in a state that overwhelmingly supported an anti-gay marriage amendment. However, one must also consider two other possible contributing factors: one is that my students, who are overwhelmingly self described as middle, working and lower class, don't vote, and were not among the 71 percent of voters who passed the amendment; the other is that my students, who are also overwhelmingly female, under the age of 40, and mothers (some married, some not), are significantly different from the over all Kentucky population.

Nonetheless, I think the split in how my students think about family and marriage is intriguing and provocative.

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