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Queer Marriage: A New Oxymoron
T o begin, my three declarations: (1) I firmly believe that everyone should have an equal choice about marrying legally; (2) I consider marriage a dying, oppressive institution; (3) Some of my best lesbian friends have been getting married this month, now that Massachusetts is the first state to sanction it for lesbians and gays.
There is no denying the heartfelt desire of many same-sex couples to be able to choose marriage. The all-night party at Cambridge, Mass- achusetts City Hall, beginning at 12:01 AM on the first day of legality, May 17, 2004, was testament to the sense of victory. By now, many of us have already attended several weddings. State Representative Pat Jehlen, who got herself declared a Justice of the Peace in order to perform my friends’ ceremony, wept throughout. For her—a heterosexual apparently awakened to homophobia by this legislative process—it was a satisfying conclusion to her new activism. For the couple in question, the motivation was gaining permission from one of the women’s employers to take family leave in order to care for her mother-in-law, who is ill and living with them.
On the other hand, the institution of marriage is in disrepair. Its history is tied to property and male lineage and initially had as its main role a means of ensuring that a man’s wealth passed to his “legitimate” son. Maternity was obvious, but paternity was more a matter of trust and wishful thinking (DNA testing now replaces this obsolete means of sanctioning the biological “validity” of the heir).
Over the centuries, marriage has been as much a way of keeping people apart as bringing them together. In our own country, laws against inter-racial marriage were on the books until recently. In fact, Alabama only removed their miscegenation statute in 2000. Today it is same-sex lovers who are banging their love against the closed gates of legal matrimony—with Massachusetts the only success story so far. They quite rightly object to being denied the benefits and blessings of huddling under the sheets with clergy and Congress.
The first month of queer weddings was anything but exclusive and excluding, as so much about marriage traditionally has been. Instead of the notion that it’s “You and me against the world, baby,” or “It’s just the two of us, special and apart,” whole gaggles of couples waited together on the steps of City Halls and whole communities have felt a part of the celebrations, even when they don’t know the actual participants.
Lesbians and gays are not likely, however, to save this institution. Even the pro-family group Concerned Women for America sees marriage as a weak and insecure structure. They note unhappily that by 1999 the percentage of adults living in marriage had “declined steadily to 56 percent.” Divorce- mag.com gives us even more telling stats. They point out that the “median duration of marriage” (1997) is only 7.2 years. Moreover, as of 1997, 50 percent of first marriages and 60 percent of remarriages ended in divorce. As the entertainer Will Rogers said at the turn of the century, “I guess the only way to stop divorce is to stop marriage.”
Marriage is propped up by over 1,100 automatic federal benefits—financial, social, pension, immigration, judicial, medical, parental—in addition to being surrounded by a plethora of symbolisms. When blessed by a religious institution, the bond is given a patina of righteousness: the union is God’s will. But if the government or the divine have been joining these couples, why are their marriages falling apart?
The Bush agenda around marriage as an antidote to poverty has added a taste of the surreal to the debate. Ryn, 25, a trans-queer activist working in the queer family movement for 9 years, does not think it should be investing so many precious resources in gaining the right to marry. Given her personal background, she finds it ironic. “I am the daughter of a lesbian couple and, when I was young, I was desperate for my mother and her lover to marry. My mother was on welfare. Today she would have been required to take marriage education classes—and they don’t mean same sex.”
No activist denies the power of extending legal choice around marriage to everyone—they just challenge it as “the” political priority of this movement. After all, says Eleanor Roffman, 60, psychology professor at a local university, “Marriage brings ‘access’ to things that many people don’t have in the first place, often because of racism and sexism: pension, health insurance, job security, family leave, parental rights.” Although she and her partner have been together for over a decade, they will not be marrying. “I was married once and it didn’t do much good for me then! Marriage privileges couples; the benefits should be available to everyone.”
Roffman makes a fundamental critique of the Noah’s Ark syndrome; “Part of being a lesbian is having my eyes opened by queer theory, which challenges the traditional heterosexual paradigms that control our lives. Queer theory re-examines gender roles, power dynamics in relations, and the assumption that couples should be privileged over others.”
Susan Jacoby, 55, is a paralegal long involved in progressive politics who thinks it’s no coincidence that, in this election year, this issue is taking some of the attention away from the wars, military scandals, unemployment, occupation, and health crisis.
Although her partner of 21 years would like to marry, Jacoby refuses: “I’m not part of the gay movement that wants to say we are just like everyone else. I’m part of the movement that critiques the dominant culture. A big motivation is getting onto your partner’s health plan, but I believe health benefits should be a civil right independent of whether you’re in a relationship or not. Retirement with dignity should also be a civil right.”
She worries about how single-issue struggles distort the general perspective. “This reminds me of the ‘gays in the military’ movement. What’s wrong with the U.S. military is not just that it doesn’t accept gays, but that it dominates the world.”
Vermont was the first state where, through civil unions, queer couples were granted the same state benefits as married heterosexuals. One of the first results was that many companies dropped domestic partnership benefits, so some people felt forced into being civil unionized in order to maintain their privileges.
Dave, 43, is a school bus driver in southern Vermont. He and his partner of seven years, John Scagliatti, got civil unionized for the state benefits, “the medical in particular, but also the death benefits and rights to hospital visitation.” Dave watched a friend be completely disenfranchised by the parents of his late partner—he was even excluded from the funeral. That couple was registered in New York as domestic partners, but it did not protect them.
Scagliatti, creator of “In The Life,” the first gay and lesbian series on PBS and a prominent gay filmmaker, experienced the difference in social interaction. “There is power to being a couple. Once I was out of the widow role—and you only get about six months as a gay man—I was considered single. You’re not high on the social inclusion list as a single person. You really step up when you get civil unionized.”
He welcomes the fact that queer marriage is bringing the institution into the open. “By demanding marriage, gays and lesbians have re-opened a debate about family that we haven’t had since the days of communes in the 1960s.”
That view seems optimistic. Any real debate about the institution per se has been subsumed into the camps represented by “godhates- fags” counter-demonstrators on the one hand and the “happiest day of my life” newlyweds, on the other. Those who see marriage as a welcome form of assimilation decorated their pre-marriage vigils outside the state legislature with U.S. flags. They promise to strengthen the institution by reaffirming its role as a declaration of love, commitment, and family values. At the same time, instantaneous commercial initiatives—gay videographers, gay gift baskets, gay wedding rings—have brought this movement into the market.
Major employers—from hospitals to corporations—declared the end of domestic partnership benefits the day after legalization. Northeastern University is giving those who are presently registered as domestic partners until July 1, 2005 to get married.
Dana-Farber Cancer Institute is “grandfathering” current domestic partners until the end of the calendar year (no new partnerships will be recognized) and does recognize civil unions alongside gay marriages.
According to Steven R. Singer, senior VP for communications, DFCI went even further to ensure equality: “If an employee resides in a state where marriage or civil union is not recognized…the Institute will allow them to elect domestic partner coverage.”
BM, a lesbian employee of Dana-Farber, is not entirely satisfied with the new policy. “They should have extended domestic partnerships to both straights and gays. I do believe that, in a way, the new marriage law took away the domestic partnership option and I do not yet know what other options we’ll be losing. As people—gay or straight—we should have the opportunity to decide what we want to do. Now, because of this external impetus, my partner and I are talking about marrying. Of course, the Institute may be driven by business considerations.”
Blue Cross Blue Shield is living up to its commitment to be “an employer of choice” by recognizing gay marriages at the same time that it continues to accept both same- and opposite-sex domestic partnerships. Their director of Media Relations, Susan Leahy, explains, “We want to have a progressive benefit package that attracts and retains the highest performing people in their profession.” (BCBS does not extend benefits to domestic partners of policyholders.)
Some LGBT activists have felt quite frustrated during this period of struggle when the only issue getting attention has been the demand to board the sinking ship of marriage. Despite its myriad legal and financial benefits, despite the social and religious scaffolding propping it up, despite its place as a “keystone” of Western civilization, marriage just isn’t cutting it. This object of gay desire is a tarnished prize at best.
The French Renaissance thinker de Montaigne has an appropriate final observation: “Marriage is like a cage; one sees the birds outside desperate to get in, and those inside equally desperate to get out.”
Sue Katz is a freelance writer.
Z Magazine Archive
CUBAN 5 - From May 30 to June 5, supporters of the Cuban 5 will gather in Washington DC to raise awareness about the case and to demand a humanitarian solution that will allow the return of these men to their homeland.
Contact: email@example.com; firstname.lastname@example.org.
BIKES - Bikes Not Bombs is holding its 24th annual Bike- A-Thon and Green Roots Festival in Boston, MA on June 3, with several bike rides, music, exhibitors, and more.
Contact: Bikes Not Bombs, 284 Amory St., Jamaica Plain, MA 02130; 617-522-0222; mailbikesnotbombs.org; www.bikesnotbombs.org.
LEFT FORUM - The 2013 Left Forum will be held June 7-9, at Pace University in NYC.
Contact: 365 Fifth Avenue, CUNY Graduate Center, Sociology Dept., New York, NY 10016; http://www.leftforum.org/.
VEGAN FEST - Mad City Vegan Fest will be held in Madison, WI, June 8. The annual event features food, speakers, and exhibitors.
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ADC CONFERENCE - The American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) holds its annual conference June 13-16 in Washington, DC, with panel discussions and workshops.
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CUBA/SOCIALISM - A Cuban-North American Dialog on Socialist Renewal and Global Capitalist Crisis will be held in Havana, Cuba, June 16-30. There will be a 5-day Seminar at the University of Havana, plus visits to a co-op and educational and medical institutions.
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NETROOTS - The 8th Annual Netroots Nation conference will take place June 20-23 in San Jose, CA. The event features panels, trainings, networking, screenings, and keynotes.
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MEDIA - The 15th annual Allied Media Conference will be held June 20-23, in Detroit.
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GRASSROOTS - The United We Stand Festival will be hosted by Free & Equal, June 22 in Little Rock, Arkansas. The festival aims to reform the electoral process in the U.S.
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IWW - The North American Work People’s College will take place July 12-16 at Mesaba Co-op Park in northern Minnesota. The event will bring together Wobblies from across the continent to learn skills and build one big union.
PEACESTOCK - On July 13, the 11th Annual Peacestock will take place at Windbeam Farm in Hager City, WI. The event is a mixture of music, speakers, and community for peace. Sponsored by Veterans for Peace.
Contact: Bill Habedank, 1913 Grandview Ave., Red Wing, MN 55066; 651-388-7733; firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www. peacestockvfp.org.
LA RAZA - The annual National Council of La Raza (NCLR) Conference is scheduled for July 18-19 in New Orleans, with workshops, presentations, and panel discussions.
Contact: NCLR Headquarters Office, Raul Yzaguirre Building, 1126 16th Street, NW, Washington, DC 20036; 202-785-1670; www.nclr.org.
ACTIVIST CAMP - Youth Empowered Action (YEA) Camp will have sessions in July and August in Ben Lomond, CA; Portland, OR; Charlton, MA. YEA Camp is designed for activists 12-17 years old who want to make a difference.
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