Beyond Marriage: Democracy, Equality, and Kinship for a New Century
A few weeks after September 11, 2001, I went with my ex-lover to register as domestic partners with the city of New York. We had never registered our relationship with any state agency during the 17 years that we had actually been partners. But we changed our minds nearly a year after we broke up, on September 11, as we searched for each other in the chaos of that day. I had spoken to her on the phone that morning, but then lost phone service and all contact with her. She was teaching at Brooklyn Law School then, and I at New York University; we lived near each other only minutes from the twin towers. I did not know where she was, or how she would get home. I started to panic that she might have walked across the bridge right when the second tower fell. I imagined her hurt and me unable to find her, or unable to convince a city worker or hospital employee that she was my next of kin still, though no longer my lover. I worried that her Helms-voting mother in North Carolina might be able to take her away. When she finally came through my door late that evening, covered in grey dust and totally exhausted, we both grasped the significance of that term “next of kin” as we never had before. If anything happened to her, the importance of me being recognized as the one most responsible, the one most concerned, arose in my mind then as an absolute emotional and practical imperative.
As soon as the relevant city offices reopened, we made the trip to city hall to register—though given the requirements and assumptions of the domestic partner provisions, we had to lie and claim we lived together as a conjugal couple. We were not surprised that there was a long line of people waiting to register along with us. We were very surprised to find that nearly all were heterosexual couples. We asked the people around us why they were there, and their reasons were very much like ours. They did not want to be married, or they were not romantic couples, but their experiences since September 11 had convinced them that they wanted the basic legal recognitions that domestic partnership registration would provide.
This experience of mine resonates with many others—of caretakers and friends or ex-lovers with HIV/AIDS, of long time roommates with intertwined lives and joint property, of lesbian and gay parents bound to each other and to children in complex non-nuclear ways, of lovers who do not want the state contract with all its assumptions that is civil marriage. There are legions of people—straight and gay, bisexual or transgendered, and others—whose lives are intertwined in ways that do not fit with one-size-fits-all marriage. Yet the needs and desires we all have—emotional and material—are as real and compelling, as fundamental and as significant, as the needs that lead many romantic couples to want to marry.
I have therefore been shocked at the way lesbian and gay leaders and organizations have prioritized same-sex marriage. It is not just one issue on a broad list, encompassing the many needs of a diverse constituency. Marriage equality has become the singularly representative issue for the mainstream LGBT rights movement, often standing in for all the political aspirations of queer people. Over the past decade, the campaign for marriage has consistently garnered the lion’s share of movement energy and ideological push.
Of course, on the one hand, the pursuit of marriage equality makes some sense. It has been fueled by a wide range of overlapping priorities: a demand for equal rights under law, a need for access to the private health care system, a desire for inclusion in the elementary structures of kinship recognition. But, on the other hand, if we consider such priorities with a broad vision of economic and social justice in mind, the right to marry is a very narrow and utterly inadequate solution for the problems that most queer people face. Access to the state-regulated institution of marriage does not provide full equality, universal health care, or expansively reimagined forms of kinship that reflect our actual lives.
As the army of lovers and ex-lovers we often imagine ourselves to be, queer people, perhaps more than others, might be expected to see marriage as a much too narrow and confining status to accommodate our elaborate, innovative forms of intimacy, interconnection and dependency. But rather than continue to expand the forms of partnership and household recognition begun by the LGBT movement in the 1970s, the marriage equality campaign has resulted in a contraction of options. Whether through the substitution of marriage for other statuses where marriage equality has been won, or through the impact of “defense of marriage” legislation in states where that fight was lost, other statuses (including domestic partnership and reciprocal beneficiary) have been disappearing. Too often, such alternatives are represented as second-class marriage rather than as alternatives crucial to the lives of so many of us. Why not diversify and democratize the ways we recognize interdependencies, rather than enshrine the right to marry as a singular priority goal?
It’s puzzling, really. How did marriage equality come to represent the ultimate progressive goal of queer politics? Since the Reagan 1980s, the emphasis on the importance of marriage as a national political issue has been anything but progressive. Various efforts to “promote” marriage have been attached to welfare reform legislation since 1996. Government-supported marriage education projects run by conservative Christians have doubled as “moral” or “values” pedagogy, and as tax-saving initiatives designed to push marriage as an alternative to public assistance. Efforts are ideologically directed to poor women and women of color, assumed to be immoral and inappropriately dependent on the upright taxpaying citizenry. In the broadest sense, “marriage promotion” in welfare policy aims to privatize social services by shifting the costs of support for the ill, young, elderly and dependent away from the social safety net and onto private households. Women are encouraged to marry to gain access to higher men’s wages and benefits, while taking up the slack for lost social services with unpaid labor at home. For poor households, this requires more labor and responsibility with fewer resources, as employment based benefits shrink and disappear. In addition, poor single women with children are encouraged to rely on child support payments mediated by the state. They are encouraged, and sometimes coerced, into naming fathers on birth certificates, or on applications for public assistance, so that “deadbeat dads” can be located for legal action against them to collect funds. Surveillance, coercion, and pressure on people surviving on low wages and no benefits are the everyday realities of the “personal responsibility” advocated by welfare reformers. All the cost shifting is wrapped in the idealization of marriage, the “private” ideal deployed to replace public, collective social responsibility.
In addition, a vigorous conservative “marriage movement” has arisen with a long list of goals for shoring up “traditional” marriage: restricting the grounds for divorce, punishing adultery, teaching abstinence, and bringing children and teenagers more tightly under the authoritarian control of parents. Marriage has been glorified not merely as the best way to privatize social welfare costs, but as the best way to exert social control generally, and to stem the “decline” in social discipline since the 1960s. Though the conservative marriage movement has generally opposed same-sex marriage in favor of so-called “traditional” marriage, some conservatives have endorsed gay unions for their contributions to good social order and discipline (e.g., the New York Times columnist David Brooks). Despite such conservative uses of idealizing rhetoric to support coercive policies on everything from marriage “promotion” in welfare reform to forced birth control for Black and Latina women, the marriage equality campaign has often echoed rather than attacked it. Same-sex marriage proponents commonly represent legal monogamy as an unalloyed social good, and as the basis for a stable, happy, “mature” adulthood. For instance, one marriage campaign document, the “Roadmap to Equality: A Freedom to Marry Educational Guide” published by Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund and Marriage Equality California, opined:
Gay people are very much like everyone else. They grow up, fall in love, form families and have children. They mow their lawns, shop for groceries and worry about making ends meet. They want good schools for their children, and security for their families as a whole. [...] Denying marriage rights to lesbian and gay couples keeps them in a state of permanent adolescence [...] Both legally and socially, married couples are held in greater esteem than unmarried couples because of the commitment they have made in a serious, public, legally enforceable manner. For lesbian and gay couples who wish to make that very same commitment, the very same option must be available. There is no other way for gay people to be fully equal to non gay people.
Well, might the abolition of marriage be one other path to full equality of gay and non-gay people? Nonetheless and in the meantime, it is obviously discriminatory to exclude same-sex couples from marriage. But given the demographic reality—the diversity of our actual relationships and households—might de-centering marriage and multiplying options be not just another, but a better path to meaningful equality? Might opposition to the conservative marriage movement’s entire agenda be more effective than trying to mirror their idealizations in order to gain inclusion? Might real separation of church and state require that “marriage” per se become a private or religious matter, while the state offers civil union, domestic partnership, reciprocal beneficiary, and other recognitions to all equally?
These are the questions that led to the formation of the group that produced “Beyond Marriage,” a statement with 250 original signatures from LGBT, queer and allied organizers, scholars, artists, writers, and educators (many more have signed on since the document was released on July 25, 2006). The publication of this document is just the beginning of an effort to widen the agenda of the marriage equality campaign to include a broader set of relationships and the goals of social and economic justice for more of us than marriage, as it exists in current law, can provide. Given the current political impasse—with a few states providing the right to marriage or civil union, with a larger number prohibiting not just same-sex marriage but a range of forms of recognition for “nontraditional” partnerships and households—organizing for democracy and diversity in relationship and household recognition, as well as for an expanded social safety net for us all, might not only be right, but also a practical way to improve the lives of people in a wide range of situations: elder companionate relationships, multigenerational immigrant households, nonconjugal caretaking arrangements, and more. We do not have to settle for marriage. We deserve more.
3. See Nancy Polikoff, Beyond (Gay and Straight) Marriage: Valuing All Families Under the Law (Boston: Beacon Press, 2008). [Return to text]