The Republic of T.

Black. Gay. Father. Vegetarian. Buddhist. Liberal.

Why Marriage and Not the Rest?

Air asked a fair question on a previous post, and I want to take a shot at addressing it.

What sort of equality are looking for us to push for? Because it seems that HRC, the organization that you imply we should be pushing, wants a particular kind of equality: “To me, the work of moving the American people toward marriage equality is about moving people toward a greater understanding and respect of same-sex relationships.”

Same-sex relationships rather than same-sex sexual activity, same-sex desire, or same-sex identity (as examples). I, to be honest, am wary about using any current organization whether it be the Democratic Party or HRC to push for “equality,” because I don’t think that the type of equality they want will effectively change anything substantial. In particular, the disruption of “the normal” as a positive value. Right now, that realm is represented by monogamous coupling. If we achieve that, something will take its place.

Like I said, it’s a fair question because marriage equality isn’t a priority for everyone or even for every LGBT community. For people in areas where marriage equality is unlikely, anytime soon employment discrimination might be a more pressing issue. And for people who have no desire to pursue marriage or other legal recognition, there’s a host of other issues that want addressing, up to an including as esoteric a goal as “the disruption of the normal.”

So, why marriage? And what about other issues?

Well, the “why marriage?” part is fairly easy to answer. It started over 10 years ago, when several same-sex couples around the country (Hawaii was the most high profile case) sued for the right to marry and get the rights and protections afforded that status. The major gay organizations wanted no part of it at the time, with the exception of LAMBDA Legal, where the leadership seemed to recognize that the fight was unavoidable and that it was something many in the community were passionate about wanting.

On the other issues, according to the same Chicago Tribune article, HRC is “quietly addressing” those issues along with other organizations. But, you’re right. They’re probably doing so as a means of advancing some kind of social/legal recognition of same-sex relationships that’s similar to the social status and rewards granted monogamous heterosexual coupling. I think I understand what you mean by “disruption of the normal,” but I don’t know what an effective model to achieve it —socially, legally, or legislatively — would look like.

One approach I’ve heard suggested pretty often is getting the government out of the marriage business, or the business of legally recognizing any relationships, altogether.

As I see it, the root of the family crisis is that all day long, people work in corporations that teach them that their own worth is dependent on their ability to contribute to a bottom line of maximizing money and power, looking at others in terms of how they can be of use for our own needs. It is this corrosive way of seeing one another that undermines loving families.

That’s why the Network of Spiritual Progressives, a group I helped to establish, aims to counter the me-firstism that has increasingly become the yardstick of common sense in societies like ours. We think it’s time for a new bottom line: Let institutions and social programs be judged efficient and rational to the extent that they help develop our capacities to be kind and generous and treat others as embodiments of the sacred.

… Let people be wed in the private realm with no official legal sanction. Then, religious communities that oppose gay marriage will not sanction them, and those like mine that sanction the practice will conduct it. Rather than issuing marriage certificates or divorces, the state would simply enforce civil unions as contracts between consenting adults and enforce laws imposing obligations on people who bring children into the world.

There’s a lot to be said for this strategy. I’ve considered it myself. But there’s one problem with it. It’s unrealistic for the simple reason that it means asking the majority of people to give up something they already have, which I think is a lot harder than convincing people to expand access to those rights and protections.

The proposal of tearing down marriage as an institution and replacing it with civil unions for all is likely to incite stronger opposition from the heterosexual majority because it’s actually taking something away from them that they currently have. How is that supposed to be a winning strategy? Think about it. Many people today are married by a justice of the peace not in a church. They are married. Eliminate marriage and replace it with civil union, and what are they now? Civil unioned? You’ve just pulled the legitimacy of their union right out from under them. This proposal is dead on arrival. The right would go ballistic and most liberals would honestly prefer to have the marriage umbrella extended to include gays, so it’s a compromise that all are equally sure to hate.

Of course, it’s also likely that I’m not quite understanding the type of equality the commenter is advocating. I have to admit that in this debate I’m guilty of thinking primarily about the rights and protections marriage equality would afford my family. And my relationship sticks pretty close to the marriage model, right down to the rings and the vows. I’m probably not the only marriage equality advocate who thinks this way. So, I probably need some help with shifting my thinking beyond the context of marriage in this debate.

However, it occurred to me while I was at YearlyKos that another way to talk about the marriage issue (without specifically talking about marriage) would be to address all of the issues that fall under that heading because they pretty much run the gamut of issues. Our community is part of every aspect of American life and is affected by all of it, from economics (let’s talk Social Security) to defense (let’s talk Don’t Ask Don’t Tell) to jobs (let’s talk job discrimination) to healthcare (let’s talk about everything from HIV/AIDS to transgender issues), etc., etc.

Breaking those issues out from the marriage issue might also open up the possibility of discussing them beyond the context of a marriage relationship or the model of monogamous coupling. At least it would be a place to start. Or, rather, it’s the best I can come up with. I’m open to other suggestions, but in order to get my brain around it I need a concrete example of what we’re trying to achieve.


  1. “The disruption of the normal” sounds to me like a gay ghetto version of the religious right — using government force to impose your ideal version of life on everybody else.

  2. Terrence: Thanks for your thoughts, I appreciate them. The main reason I finally commented is that I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the divide between politicos and academics, or, in more specific terms, that between GLBT and queer activists and those involved in GLBT and queer studies. The marriage debate is an especially hard one for me because, in my head, I don’t like marriage and the way it enforces social norms, but in practical terms I’m a strong supporter of gay marriage. In addition, your post on the possibilities of a queer netroots made me wish for something a little, I don’t know, more than most offer. More radical perhaps. Or just more queer.

    What I’m looking for is a politics that attempts to transform the way we view desire as a whole. A politics that recognizes the myriad of ways people live and want. One that rids us, once and for all, of social expectations that are, not just wrong for some people, but actively harmful to others. (Marriage, in the way it has traditionally treated women and GLBTQ folk, for example). Perhaps that’s why I do think that its best to get rid of marriage altogether, not by replacing it with civil unions, but with giving everyone the benefits marriage entails. That would be the end of marriage as we know it, without a necessary declaration of war on it. But, of course, that would require a new form of government involvement that would smack of socialism. And we can’t have that.

    Rick: When did I ever say that disrupting the normal requires the government to do anything? Disrupting the normal eliminates “ideal version[s] of life” in all its forms. It means taking away the power of being normal and entails a valuation of difference.

  3. air, that’s an interesting phrase, ‘a valuation of difference’. One of the implications of your ideals is that queer people have some type of special relationship with ‘transforming the way our society views desire’. And I am a prisoner of my own experiences, as are we all, but that sounds really old-school to me.

    One of the revolutionary changes in our society in the 20 years I’ve been out is the shift from external forces declaring me deviant, to deviancy being one of many lifestyle choices available to me. The same as it’s available to my straight friends, siblings, etc. The majority of us choose to live a traditional lifestyle instead, which was not a choice in the bad old days. But given that a homo orientation per se no longer dictates a narrow band of life choices, I’m not sure I agree that we queers have any special obligation to or particular insight on the soclal change that you’re asking for instead of marriage equality.

    T, I’m going to use a sentence that may well cause my hard drive to melt down: I agree with Gary Bauer. As he explained to the Xtian Coalition in 1995 to muster support for the federal DOMA which Bill Clinton signed, once adoption by gay couples became permissible in this country, the battle for marriage equality was won. (Obviously he framed it as lost, but you get my point.)

    I don’t think you need to be too humble about failing to advance some more complex form of equality for LGBT folks; I know I don’t. Because the limits that you and I experience in our understanding of what air and his ilk could be asking for, limits imposed by our kids and spouses and normative lives, prevent us from coming up with some broader vision of what equality means.

    To speak a bit more about my own experience: I live in a state that protects me from violence, job loss, eviction, or state-based discrimination based on my orientation; I’m one of two same-sex adoptive parents to one lovely child; I’m legally married to my partner. What the hell more do I need to be equal? I’m already treated like my straight sister is, by the law. Equality is never going to mean everyone liking me, or no one feeling entitled to exclude my kid because she has same-sex parents.

    The fact that every queer person in this country doesn’t have the same protections that I do is a big problem, but I’m not sure that making every state as great as my state is an unworthy goal.

  4. Being gay is normal. The fact that society has marginalized being gay does not make it otherwise. I’m left-handed. For centuries, left-handed people faced often-violent discrimination. As recently as forty years ago, I was threatened with suspension from school for refusing to write with my right hand.
    Today, I doubt that anyone, in this country, considers, beyond the occasional kitchen gadget, a person’s tendency toward left-handedness.

    The goal, it seems to me, is to bring the society to a place where a person’s sexual identity is incidental, of no real interest. Codifying civil unions using the language of marriage is a critical step in moving that goal forward. Should government be involved in certifying a couple as married? Of course not. But government is involved, and the web of legal consequences of that involvement is too extensive to be dismissed. That is the reality. So codifying a committed relationship between same gender partners as “marriage” matters.

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  6. I’m not a political analyst but it seems to me that marriage should be the most important battle.

    Certainly there are many other important battles for our equality, but I think that marriage is clearly the pinnacle. It is the legitimitization of our relationships.

    Every court ruling can have a domino effect on future rulings. Previous cases are referred to all the time. Consider if we pushed marriage through, the blow that would deal to Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. Marriage changes everything and our opponents know it. With marriage, the government is legitimizing and recognizing our relationships as valid, worthy of support, and part of society like a heterosexual marriage. So then how can they justify DADT? How can they say you’re not a valid citizen of society while at the same time say that you are?

    Marriage wouldn’t make DADT crumble overnight, but it would be a huge political blow to it and make that battle probably a mop up.

    A landlord throwing a gay couple out in some rural area will have a much harder time justifying that action in a court of law, in a society that recognizes that gay relationship as equally entitled to that place as the next family. Marriage isn’t the definite win, but for so many battles, it tips the scale so far, only partisan, bigoted judges would be able to stop a mop up.

    ‘how can you justify any sort of discrimination when in the same political breath, you legitimize the relationship?’ Ultimately, I don’t think you can, so I think marriage is the head domino.

    Also, and for the same reason, it is the most important for our community in terms of our psychological health. Marriage would do more to combat our self-esteem, our community pride, and reach out to our gay youth far more than a battle about employment, access to adequate medical info or anything like that. I wonder if there’s any research yet on the effects of the Mass. gay community since marriage became legal.

    I think though, we need to pick and choose our battles. Too many states are modifying constitutions, so maybe in those places we don’t pursue marriage yet.