I’ve written way more about the same-sex marriage fights than I ever intended to write. And apparently I’m not finished yet. This morning an amazing thing happened. The New York Times reminded me of my own objections to fighting the same-sex marriage fight. Of course I’ve largely conceded those objections but I was so happy to see the argument acknowledged that I had to blog about it.
In today’s Sunday Syles piece, Anemona Hartocollis begins with a brief profile of a gay activist who believes the fight for same-sex marriage rights is misguided. His objection is that marriage is not radical enough. I absolutely agree.
Marriage is an institution that has, historically, been oppressive and limiting and not based on romantic or sexual love. It has more often, historically, been a way to preserve property rights and sexual rights for men and has depended on unequal divisions of labor which have disadvantaged generations of women. In the US it represents a legal obligation to remain monogamous, though of course many people shun that obligation. (And to digress for just a moment, isn’t it interesting that “monogamy” has come to refer only to sexual relationships while “polygamy” remains definitionally linked to legal marriage?)
If marriage is, now, about romantic love and sexual love and individual commitments made between partners, why should anybody need the state to sanction those vows? Certainly marriage does not confer significant long-term stability with so many marriages ending in divorce. Certainly many people find it difficult to remain “monogamous” in the sexual sense whether they are married or not. Why fight for what seems, perhaps, like a dying institution or one that relies on traditional, outdated, and limiting expectations about sexual behavior?
And yet… the piece of paper that is a marriage certificate confers a great number of state-sponsored or state-supported rights and provides access to important resources. In this sense, marriage really is NOT about romantic and sexual love. Marriage is still the contractual arrangement that it has always been, but it is better understood as a contract between individuals and the state rather than between individuals and each other. And that access is currently exclusively the domain of people who are granted “heterosexual privilege.”
I am a great example of someone who benefits from heterosexual privilege without being heterosexual. I love, adore, am sexually attracted to men, women, and especially people who blur those categories in interesting ways. I am not “straight” but I benefit from heterosexual privilege because I am in a relationship with a man. I have been in relationships with women where I did not have the choice to marry or to reject marriage. I have been in relationships with men where I have had that choice. And twice I have chosen to marry.
My first marriage was an idealistic and failed attempt to renegotiate the traditional structure of marriage. We wrote vows that, if read carefully, disavowed any promise of monogamy, for example. There were many conflicts that caused the end of that relationship (and certainly being married did not prevent the end from coming). One conflict certainly involved our differing levels of commitment to living in a household that didn’t follow the mainstream script. And because our desire to marry was all about being in love with each other and with the idea of creating a radical marriage, when the radical marriage part didn’t work out, the “being in love” part was suddenly vulnerable to all of the other threats by which “being in love” is prone to being attacked.
When Will and I started our relationship we rejected the idea of marriage. It seemed unnecessary. We didn’t need the state to recognize our commitment to each other, we didn’t particularly want to follow the mainstream script. My family accepted our relationship as valid regardless of our marital status. Will’s parents wouldn’t promote us to a shared bed until we were married but we visited their household infrequently enough that sleeping in separate beds was hardly an unendurable trial.
We married for unromantic reasons, and it was that decision that made me again reconsider my own objections to the same-sex marriage fight. After my first marriage ended I had recommitted myself to rejecting institutions that were based on unjust privilege. If Will had been a woman we could not have married. Why should we take part in an institution that excludes so many people so arbitrarily? And, why take part in an institution that is all about legal obligations, really, and not about love?
As it turns out, the reason was “Exactly because it is all about legal obligations and not about love.” But not about Will’s obligations to me or mine to him. Those have not changed since we married. Nor has our love for one another. Rather we chose to marry because it clarified the state‘s obligations to us.
An event occurred in our relationship that made it suddenly very important to me that my position in Will’s life and his in mine be respected by the state, by Will’s children, and by our employers. I think it is wrong that marriage as defined in US society is the ticket to these protections. If marriage is, at its heart, a contract between individuals and the state, then why cannot any combination of people enter into that contract? I understand the need for the contract but I don’t understand the limitations placed on the number and gender of parties to it.
However, for as long as marriage-as-defined is the ticket, then we need to continue to fight for universal access. Same-sex marriage is a tricky issue. It retains the monogamy part of the traditional arrangement and it accepts the continued disadvantaging of singles. In my ideal world, things like health care and pension benefits and hospital visitation rights, for example, would not be linked to marital status. The first two would be universally provided and regarding the third individual wishes would always be respected. But I’ve come to believe in incremental steps.
In other words, I would like to see marriage-as-we-know it by and large rejected. But people can only reject something they are free to choose, and right now many people are not free to choose marriage in the first place. So, the fight need to be either to eliminate marriage altogether, or to expand the definition of marriage so that it is more inclusive. The later road seems, for now, to lead to greater equality and justice for. But it should not be seen as the end of the road!