In Case You’ve Ever Wondered: the Radical Testifies on Gay Marriage

December 8, 2007, 5:11 pm

I wrote this essay back in September, at the request of the Zenith student newspaper, which had posed the question of whether I thought gay marriage would ever be legal. Since I am trying to fulfill several long standing writing commitments this weekend, I offer you this turgid little polemic, only slightly edited, in place of a new post. It will, in fact, be new to you — unless you are a member of the Zenith community; or my attorney, who is working on the gay marriage legislation in our state; or one of the many queer intellectuals who have written about marriage and whose thoughts I have inevitably learned from/cribbed from here.

It also seems like a timely essay to re-print, given yesterday’s decision by the Rhode Island State Supreme Court that Margaret Chambers and Cassandra Ormiston, having married in Fall River, Massachusetts, may not divorce in Rhode Island, where they live and where gay marriage is not yet legal. Here goes:

I think gay marriage will be legalized in the United States, but not because it delivers equality to gay and lesbian people, although that is one way of understanding marriage — as simply a matter of one’s legal status that is governed by the equal protection clause of the Constitution. However, marriage itself is also a social institution that does not, in and of itself, make one set of people equal to another in a society characterized by class, racial, gender, age, physical and national inequalities.

For example, although marriage conveys rights to a spouse that are often material (health care, rights of survivorship, citizenship, community property, and legal relationships to children adopted during the marriage are good examples), these are “rights” that only people who already have property, full citizenship or high-status employment can convey at all. Marriage will do nothing to improve the status of homeless, unskilled, migrant or under/unemployed LGBTQ people: the majority of us in other words. Marriage will do nothing to ensure access to healthcare for queer people in relationships where neither partner has health insurance benefits as part of their employment package.

However, gay marriage will be legalized eventually, although not because it would be a theoretical move toward social justice. It will be legalized because marriage itself is an extraordinarily conservative institution, and a method by which the state has limited the distribution of civil rights and economic privileges over time to those citizens who agree explicitly or implicitly to derive some, or all, of the economic support necessary to sustain life from a nuclear family structure. That marriage is also perceived by many people, straights and queers, as a more “moral” status is in fact a way of restating the previous idea, in which “morality” is constituted by independence, or the appearance of not being dependent, on public welfare structures. Neoliberalism, as well as conservatism, works on this principle: the political emphasis of the last thirty years has succeeded in reshaping United States society, and much of the world, to conform to an economic vision that valorizes independence, rather than interdependence.

Gay marriage will also not be legalized because marriage is a particularly successful institution, because it offers principles for living a life that are easy to adhere to, or because it is comprised of personal commitments that most people truly understand or agree to. As an activist colleague of mine once said in conversation, after Massachusetts legalized gay marriage, “If they like gay marriage, they’ll love gay divorce.” But despite its many failures, marriage continues to be understood as a platform from which complete personal happiness will follow, an idea that is not new but which resonates to our particular historical moment, one where securing private happiness dominates popular success narratives.

That said, the political importance of marriage as a conservative institution is this: it is both a legal status and a symbolic realm that can stand in for equality, so that social inequality need not, in the end, be addressed through state redistribution of resources. Marriage, in other words, is not just the natural outcome of a romance between two people, as many gay and lesbian marriage advocates portray it: it is a political romance about what constitutes a well-ordered, and just, society.

For a much less polemical, and more original, take on gay relationships in general, go to this post by GayProf. For pro-marriage positions in my liberal state, which has recently legalized civil unions and where a marriage bill has been presented to the legislature several times without success, go to Love Makes a Family. And here’s a link to a short film about gay marriage in Massachusetts, sent by the first commenter to this post, Charlotte Robinson, of OUTTAKE, that gives you a pretty accurate picture of the arguments and strategies of advocacy groups.

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