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Wedding Bell Blues
I t looks like same-sex marriage is here to stay. It’s even beginning to look downright patriotic. This past Fourth of July, Cambridge Massachusetts saw one of its most prominent lesbian couples marry at Memorial Church in Harvard Yard. Professor Diana Eck, of Harvard Divinity School, and her partner, the Reverend Dorothy Austin, a minister at the famed church, wed amid a crowd of well-wishers that included Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Margaret Marshall. Not only did the brides purposely choose Independence Day for their nuptials, the ceremony’s final hymn was “My Country ’Tis of Thee.”
But even though queer Massachusetts residents gained the right to marry with Goodridge v. Department of Public Health —a decision that has already withstood various challenges to it—and has, according to some, redeemed the American Way of Life for many gays and lesbians, some queer political activists are raising questions about the limits and long-term worth of same-sex marriage. It’s not that these activists don’t believe that same-sex couples should have the same rights as heterosexual couples. Rather, the vital questions they pose are, “What might we lose and who might be harmed by same-sex marriage?” Such questions stem from a longstanding division among queer activists dating back to the 1960s. One side has stood firmly for gaining equal rights while the other “liberationist” side has celebrated a politics of difference, arguing that gay culture has its own ethos from which straight people could learn a thing or two about justice and love. Not surprisingly, this debate has resurfaced in what many in the gay community are calling “the great divide” over the fight for same-sex marriage.
What’s interesting this time around is that alongside the well-worn plea for gay cultural liberation is a critique of gay marriage based on class rather than culture.
What’s now being called the great divide over same-sex marriage was anticipated by lesbian legal theorist and activist, Paula Ettelbrick, in her fall 1989 article “Since When Is Marriage a Path to Liberation?” published in Out/ Look: National Gay and Lesbian Quarterly , when she wrote that “marriage defines certain relationships as more valid than all others.” (These days, a running joke among gay men and lesbians is that, with marriage as an option, parents are hounding them to the altar just as avidly as they do their heterosexual siblings.)
Ettelbrick went on to say that the creation of this new, “more
valid” relationship for gay people “runs contrary to [one
of] the primary goals of the gay and lesbian movement...the validation
of many forms of relationships.” In the absence of legal civil
marriage, lesbians and gay men gleefully invented their own panoply
of romantic and household configurations that worked—at least
as well, if not better, than the traditional “nuclear family.”
Recent critics of same-sex marriage are not just worried that the antic good old days of lesbians and gays (which, of course, still exist) are endangered. In an important article, “Speak Now: Progressive Considerations on the Advent of Civil Marriage for Same-Sex Couples,” just published in the Boston College Law Review , lawyers Kara S. Suffredini and Madeleine V. Findley argue persuasively that while same-sex marriage will provide advantages to some people—those with incomes that are middle class or higher—it could have deleterious effects on other groups. Suffredini and Findley examine a myriad of commonly accepted myths about the benefits of same-sex marriage and discover that, often, they deliver far less than they promise, especially if you are poor.
The most obvious example, perhaps, concerns health care. One of the most compelling arguments same-sex marriage advocates make is that civil marriage will give partners, and any children involved, access to one partner’s health insurance. Suffredini and Findley point out that this is true only if one partner has health-care benefits—and most people working low-paying, hourly jobs do not.
But there are also overt economic drawbacks to being poor and getting married, the authors argue, which gay men and lesbians from the working classes will have to suffer if they wed. For example, the aptly named “marriage penalty,” which kicks in when a married couple who both work and earn similar incomes end up paying more in taxes than if they were single, tends to affect same-sex couples more egregiously than different-sex couples. That’s because the tax laws assume the traditional arrangement in which one spouse (usually the husband) will be the primary wage earner and that the ancillary wage earner will make considerably less. In that case, a married couple’s joint tax rate equals out, but when incomes are comparable, as is more often the case with gay and lesbian couples, they end up paying more taxes. The same is true of African American couples, according to Washington and Lee University School of Law professor, Dorothy Brown, who argues that they are doubly affected since the “marriage penalty” is harshest on all lower-income families and affects white middle-class and upper-class households the least.
A more draconian “marriage penalty”—and one that affects women on the lowest level of the economic scale—results from the Bush administration’s welfare reform policy, designed to discourage out-of-wedlock births. According to Suffredini and Findley, the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) program “promotes a ‘family cap’ policy to discourage women from having additional children while receiving welfare assistance. The family cap policy denies welfare benefits to children born to unmarried welfare recipients or heightens work requirements to mothers who exceed the family cap.” All of this is intended to induce—or coerce—poor women to get married. But for many low-income households, getting hitched may also mean losing the earnedincome tax credit that many single mothers depend on, thus putting them in an even more vulnerable economic position. The idea that marriage helps solve the economic problems of poor women—heterosexual or lesbian—is a myth.
The situation worsens when you consider some of the social-policy changes engendered by same-sex marriage. Over the past 15 years, various private companies and some municipalities instituted domestic-partnership (DP) programs intended for gay couples, i.e., those who did not have the right to marry, which granted an array of economic and health-care benefits. This alternative system of benefit sharing was, for the most part, an effort to extend fairness to gay and lesbian people. But since the advent of same-sex marriage in Massachusetts, both private and public-sector DP programs in the state have been eroded. Because most were instituted out of a sense of fairness to gays and lesbians, and not to promote viable economic and ethical alternatives to traditional marriage, it makes perfect sense (to some) that they will disappear as legal civil marriage becomes available across the country. Marriage will not be simply a choice for some gay people, but compulsory if the couple needs any of these benefits.
But the other reality is that DP programs—where and when they exist—are not only a boon to gay couples, but mark a shift toward recognizing alternatives to traditional marriage. Realistically, many gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender (GLBT) relationships, for a wide variety of reasons, do not fit the traditional-marriage template, yet they need healthcare and other benefits, too. Many form what Suffredini and Findley call “diverse forms of partnership and households.”
They cite the example of a lesbian co-parenting couple who wish to include the child’s biological father in their family configuration. But there are many others as well: a gay couple caring for a former partner of one of its members who is ill from AIDS, or a gay or lesbian couple who takes on the care of an aged parent. (Who cares if these examples play into that antigay right-wing stereotype—gay or lesbian people who form ethical and sustained romantic relationships with more than two people?) It is a mistake to pretend that all GLBT families are alike and that legal civil marriage will cure their ills. Same-sex marriage will not be applied to or experienced “equally” by all GLBT people.
If the GLBT movement is simply looking for equality under the law—surely a modest and estimable goal—why do the particular circumstances of poor GLBT people matter? The answer lies with the rhetoric of the GLBT movement, that same-sex marriage is essential for the health and welfare of GLBT families. The way they have framed the debate, and the way in which they have lobbied and organized this fight, has ensured that only the most traditional, and the most middleand upper-class gay families will reap the lion’s share of the benefits.
There is nothing wrong with fighting for same-sex marriage as long as it is part of a larger scheme in which all the myriad issues affecting GLBT families are addressed. Rather than working from the top down, using a model that uncritically accepts the enshrinement of marriage as the gold standard of personal and romantic relationships, gay and lesbian legal advocates should have been looking at the specific needs of a wide variety of GLBT families and shaping and fighting for policies and law that will benefit everyone—not just those in the middle class or those who choose to engage in the most traditional relationships.
Sue Hyde, who serves as New England field director for the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and who has worked on marriage-equality issues in Massachusetts for close to ten years, is attuned to the discrepancies between “equal rights” and broader approaches to social change. “While not addressing structural change in institutions, this kind of progress, nonetheless, is transformative for some of the people who live within those structures,” she says. “This is hardly a net loss.”
Evan Wolfson, executive director of Freedom To Marry, and one of the prime movers in the struggle for marriage equality, says that, although he has not yet read the Suffredini and Findley article, he is wary of their arguments: “The denial of marriage harms all gay people, but falls harshest on people of lesser means, immigrants, people who are ill, children, and in general people who are vulnerable. They need a safety net, however imperfectly our society accords these things through marriage,” he says. “Although I believe marriage should not be the only way that people should access protections—I believe in universal healthcare—it is an important way that people can access them. Many of these protections—Social Security, immigration regulations, qualifying for public assistance—cannot be replaced by private agreement or with the help of an expensive lawyer, which many people cannot do. Marriage gives that protection with the words ‘I do.’ It is a choice and an option that the vast majority of people who have it, exercise.”
Further, Wolfson thinks that, like it or not, no matter how one feels about marriage equality, this is the fight we are having now and it is essentially about the larger place of gay people in the U.S. “I think it’s important that we engage in this debate with our fellow Americans—especially to reach out to those who have not made up their minds about the injustice of second-class citizenship.”
The fact remains that the fight for marriage equality is at its essence not a progressive fight, but rather a conservative one that seeks to maintain the social norm of the two-partnered relationship—with or without children—as more valuable than any other relational configuration. While this may make a great deal of sense to conservatives—Jonathan Rauch, the author of Gay Marriage: Why It Is Good for Gays, Good for Straights, and Good for America , argues that one of the purposes of marriage is to explicitly and legally value some relationships over others—it is clear that this paradigm leaves the basic needs of many people out of the equation. In the case of same-sex marriage the fight for equality bears little resemblance to a progressive fight for the betterment of all people. This conservatism also shows up outside the family circle. The fight for equality under the law as it now stands—no matter how ill-advised or unfair it may be—often promotes and perpetrates preexisting inequality and unfairness. For example, in its public discussions about what it means to fight the ban on gays in the military, the gay rights movement has never taken into consideration that it is mainly poor people who join the armed forces and are the most likely to be wounded or killed. Nor has the gay rights movement had a public discussion about sexual and gender orientation in hate crimes legislation, which acknowledged that these laws often add draconian “extra” time to prison sentences, and add to the power of a troubled and often-corrupt court system that historically and routinely affects young African American men more than any other group. The professionalized gay rights movement is a very middle-class, white movement that has always had trouble seeing beyond its own limited landscape.
Same-sex marriage advocates have argued that marriage is nothing more than a personal choice, that what gay people were denied is the “freedom to marry.” But marriage—or any legal or social contact—concerns the entire society in which they live. The gay movement has to begin looking at issues in a larger, more socially conscious way. This is not simply a matter of “what about poor people” or “what about people who want to live their family lives outside of a dyadic coupling.”
If the gay movement is to be a true social justice movement, it has to think about social justice for all GLBT people. This is not a matter of tactics, but an ethical challenge. The question the gay movement should be asking is not how to make life more livable for all gay people, but how to make it better for all people.
The fight should not simply be for same-sex marriage equality, but for reforming marriage laws to make them equitable to meet the needs of all families. A fight for universal healthcare would better address some of the basic needs of all families—gay and straight—than the fight for same-sex marriage will. There are those in the gay movement who argue that healthcare isn’t a “gay issue.” Tell that to single lesbian mothers with no health insurance or to a man with AIDS and no access to medications.
Unfortunately, the gay rights movement has been looking at life too long from the inside, often to the detriment of the very people it is trying to help.
“Equality under the law” is a pretty phase and one that resonates well at a Fourth of July wedding, along with phases like “sweet land of liberty.” The only other phase that’s missing is “with liberty and justice for all.”
Michael Bronski’s latest book is Pulp Friction: Uncovering the Golden Age of Gay Male Pulps (St. Martin’s Press, 2003).
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.
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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/.
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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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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.
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