Feather and Tar Me, But Get Me To The Court On Time

March 31, 2013, 2:19 pm


Jack Russell Terrier wedding cake toppers

Remember the scene from My Fair Lady in which Liza Doolittle’s no-good, anti-marriage, alcoholic father (who, in the first act, has tried to sell his daughter to Professor ‘Enry ‘Iggins) effects a vast change in his circumstance by getting a wealthy widow to put a ring on it?

Poor and working class people had few options in Victorian London, and marrying into the middle classes was one of them. Both marriage models are represented in My Fair Lady: Liza marries for love, while her father marries for money. Inviting his drinking pals to “feather and tar me” on the eve of his nuptials, Alfred Doolittle inveighs against the marital state, kisses his many girlfriends goodbye, and orders his friends to “get me to the church on time”:

If I am dancing, roll up the floor,
If I am whistling, Right out the door!
I got to get there in the morning;
Ding, ding, dong, the bells they’re gonna chime!
Kick up a rumpus, don’t lose your compass, and
Get me to the church, get me to the church
For Pete’s sake, get me to the church on time!

This perfectly expresses my mixed feelings as I watched last week’s gay marriage cases. I wanted to stay on the beach (literally and metaphorically) and I wanted to be on the steps of the Supreme Court milling around at this historical moment.

But don’t take my word for it. Blogpal Marilee Lindemann was actually there, on her birthday no less.  She has a terrific report up on Edie Windsor, the demonstrations outside the court, and what it means to be a queer who is simultaneously for marriage equality and against marriage. As Carly Simon once crooned, nobody does it better. To be truly informed, you will want to follow up on her links to queer sites that make the case for and against the political campaign that has moved these cases forward to SCOTUS. I have drawn on many of them for my thoughts below.

What a long strange trip it’s been from institutionalization and electroshock treatments for queers back in the twentieth century to gay marriage in the twenty-first!  In our current easy-peasy, post-Sixties, Turkey-baster, multi-parent, gender-bending, non-monogamous families, it is easy to forget that until quite recently you couldn’t just have a  queer family because you wanted one or had access to IVF (for the history of this, see a wonderful new book by Daniel Winuwe Rivers, Radical Relations: Lesbian Mothers, Gay Fathers, and Their Children in the United States since World War II (UNC Press, 2013). The stubborn notion that children suffer from being raised outside of legal, heterosexual, two-parent marriages has not entirely given way, but it has been significantly modified. As Rivers and others point out, determined litigation by gay and lesbian parents, enhanced legal rights for women, the emergence of joint custody practices,  and a vast number of unmarried (or formerly married) homo- and heterosexual parents changed the state of play completely in the second half of the twentieth century.

Weirdly, childbearing has become a path to respectability for gay, lesbian, and increasingly determined transgendered couples. In addition, the interests of the child are, with no shame at all, now being deployed as an argument for gay marriage. In today’s New York Times, Albert R. Hunt echoes many gays and lesbians who claim that their inability to marry is unnecessarily humiliating and harmful to their children. “Last month, the American Academy of Pediatrics, after an extensive review, declared that allowing gay and lesbian couples to marry is in the best interests of children,” Hunt writes. “When critics worry this will lead to more adoptions by gay couples, they ignore that the alternative often is for these children to suffer in orphanages or in a flawed foster-care system.”

This talk of happier children (who become crucial if you believe that marriage is designed almost exclusively for reproduction) deliberately diverts us from the queer case against marriage, a civil rights strategy that has implications for children but posits that there are far greater stakes to the marriage debate than the psychological well-being of children or adults. The argument goes like this: marriage narrows, rather than expands, the framework within which social justice and economic rights can be delivered. Why does it do this? Because marriage then becomes the normative condition for delivering social justice, it further marginalizes alternative forms of kinship and mutuality, and it confines the delivery of economic/social rights to those in state-sanctioned unions.

In other words, rights are something you get by agreeing to the social contract of two-adult family units that are recognized by the law. Hence, activisms that make marriage central to equality (the euphemistic phrase “marriage equality” has subsumed the phrase “gay marriage” in common parlance just as abortion rights are now “the right to choose”) obscure many other ideas of what equality might look like. They flatten differences that queer people and radicals have cherished over the years: households, kin and economic networks that celebrate many different kinds of connection. Finally, they makes a lack of access to rights into a “bad choice” rather than an effect of unequal access to economic resources.

Queer critics of marriage are correct that mainstream GLBT organizations have staked everything on these cases. Organizations like HRC and Equality Now have seized on the American romance with romance. They have successfully persuaded a broad range of stakeholders that marriage is the gateway to a range of rights and opportunities that “everyone” but gay and lesbian people have. This is not an entirely untrue statement, but it is a radically incomplete one. Rights tend to be distributed along the lines of race, class, gender and nationality; many people, straight and gay, have no access to social, legal or economic justice. Women’s history would also suggest that, until quite recently, marriage itself has been a barrier to legal equality across the lines of race and class.

Really, it’s hard to argue against the queer anti-marriage argument as a moral or a cultural position. Unlike some radicals we know, we at Tenured Radical are sticking to it as a life practice. I have no civil union (a position that some prominent critics of gay marriage seem to be able to bend their minds around) and I remain unmarried. That said, the next time you meet an anti-marriage queer, consider how much privilege is required to maintain that position. I offer myself as an example.

Since attaining adulthood, I have lived in (enlightened) states that feature minimal persecution at a high cost of living. I have had the good fortune to work for (practical, if perhaps not enlightened) employers that have awarded me some spousal rights upon the thin evidence I provide about my domestic partnership. I have an excellent (and pricey) set of professionals who keep me armed with all kinds of paperwork. I have been blessed with a choice of jobs that has allowed me to avoid a place like, say, Virginia. I would prefer Virginia to the unemployment line, but there I would be prohibited from executing any contract with an intimate partner and my employers would be prohibited from extending marriage-like benefits even if they wished to do so.

I am not yet demented, disabled or dependent on the care of another. That is a huge privilege.

In other words, like many heterosexual people who choose not to marry, I have the financial and social means to individuate from my partner in the law, and in economic life:  my desires and my resources currently correspond with my politics. So counter to some queer criticism aimed at Edie Windsor (that her case against DOMA is about a rich white woman’s right to inherit money as a married, heterosexual woman could) the Human Rights Campaign, and the other groups that have fought for marriage equality, I have precisely been able to avoid all balls and chains because of my economic and social  privilege.

Is this the way life should be? No: it is currently the way life is. So how do we move forward to balance our support for marriage equality with our distrust of the institution? Here are a few thoughts that might help to think about what can happen in the event that one form of discrimination is ended, leaving another and more complex one (in which simply not being married remains a potent source of economic  and social discrimination) behind.

I am not the first to suggest that a good social welfare system, excellent public education, liberal child custody laws and universal health care could, and should, be separated from the marriage institution.  As a private institution, or agreement, marriage is what people want it to be (until it isn’t: national marriage and divorce rates can be found here.) But as a public institution, marriage is an agreement between two people and the state in which rights are acquired in exchange for establishing households where we theoretically care for each other and free the state of this responsibility.

The marriage equality movement holds out the false promise of an end to official homophobia (early analysis suggests that even a positive ruling by SCOTUS will not be transformative.) But it is worth pointing out that the limited gains of any ruling are not entirely useless, since marriage inequality reproduces homophobia and structural inequality every time the state, or a Human Resources department, makes marriage a criterion for benefits. Wishing marriage away does not diminish the impact of this on many people, the vast majority of whom are poor. For example, it can hardly be asserted that Loving v. Virginia (1967) ended racism in the United States. Rather, overturning anti-miscegenation laws was an effect of a much longer, more comprehensive anti-racist struggle. Prior to Loving, the lack of economic, citizenship and property rights among African Americans, who lived in a society where property ownership was concentrated among whites, was generationally reproduced in part through the bar on interracial marriage. Interrupting this one aspect of racism was a thread in the broader web of white supremacy. The same might be said about homophobia and the gay marriage cases now before the court. Arguably, the high focus on marriage by the GLBTQ movement might also reflect a far lower, and slower, commitment to the principle of full civil rights across the lines of sex and gender than the African-American civil rights movement had achieved by 1967.

The radical queer critique of marriage emerges from this complex history of marriage: under current conditions, gay and lesbian people who marry signal a commitment to things as they are, not as they could be. But this does not have to be the case: just as marriage should not require the marginalization of the unmarried, movements for economic justice do not have to occur in a world where no one marries. Marriage is not a radical act, and ought not to be spoken of as one — but radical people do sometimes marry, and no one should have to apologize for it.

Regardless of what the court decides, the agenda must be to continue the critique of marriage as an institution, scrutinize the improper power relations that marriage nurtures, and recommit to a larger vision for social justice. But asking millions of people, rich and poor, to accept a set of discriminatory and humiliating legal exclusions until the revolution comes, laws that hurt them economically and repeatedly articulate them as second class citizens, does not necessarily move the revolution forward either.


Kenji Yoshino explains the two marriage cases, why they are different and what is at stake:

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