Saturday, December 08, 2007

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

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.


ezfez said...

well, i'm the marrying kind, i guess. but when we were able to the legal deed in massachusetts, i experienced it as a moment of 'interdependence' with the community around me. it's hard to articulate this exactly, but i felt a new sense of responsibility for and connection to the whole of the state's community--a sense that participating in this legal institution made me a full participant in more broadly, to this specific community (the state of massachusetts) and its specific problems (of justice, of poverty, etc.). it was the first time i had experienced citizenship as a feeling of belonging and of responsibility.

marriage is not a substitute for broader measures of social justice, and i take your point that focusing on it as *the* issue of justice and equality can have that rhetorical effect. but i am not convinced that it can only function in the service of a thatcherite vision of personal independence and 'victorian values'. i think it can also be interpreted and used as a radical act of interdependence and in the service of greater justice. but like i said, i'm the marrying kind.

Unknown said...

marriage CAN improve the 'migrant status' of gay people. This is the way many if not most immigrants get to be legalized and stay in the US.
Talk to some bi-national gay couples sometimes and see how angry we are that we don't have the right to help our immigrant partners obtain legal status, whereas straight people can legalize their mail-order brides or anyone else they just met.

Tenured Radical said...


Sure it can, and it's a strategy gay people are already using by marrying opposite gender gay people, although that poses other tricky and inconvenient problems.

But that begs the question: why not immigration reform, and a policy that gives long-term immigrants civil rights, rather than perpetuating the myth that people in stable family units are better and more desirable citizens?


GayProf said...

I have to say that I am not on the marriage band wagon for most of the reasons that you articulate here. Alas, it is also an issue that has been thrust upon us and, therefore, we have to take up. More than anything, though, I wish that we could have a productive discussion about whether marriage is really serving anybody regardless of their sexuality.

Anonymous said...

You wouldn't tell someone with a health crises to `just work for nationalized health care', even gay radicals support partner health insurance despite the fact that it means going along with the idea that one has to be partnered to get health care. Currently there is an immigration crises, work visas are down and our partners are forced to leave the country. Obviously there should be broad immigration reform as well as broad health care reform, but neither will happen in this country for a long time. Meanwhile, gay couples are forced to split or live illegally whereas straight bi-national couples can solve this problem with marriage.
This and the other 1001 legal benefits of marriage are why gay people (outside of the ivory tower) want these rights.

Tenured Radical said...

anonymous 11:14 speaks to a real political divide in the LGBTQ movement, and in other movements for progressive reform, one that was recently acted out in the legislative "victory" that excluded transgendered and transsexual people from a bill that protects gays and lesbians from discrimination.
Sie (third gender pronoun for the uninitiated) is on one side, and I am on the other, and the argument looks like this:

Is it better to get protection for some people, by assimilating them into the social and political norms, when that assimilation depends on the isolation of another group as unacceptable and unassimilable? Or is it better to go maintain principle and include everyone in universal political change? I argue the latter; the current gay marriage movement argues the former. And when organizations like the HRC agree to write trans people out of a major federal bill, it does not increase the confidence of we who are skeptics of gay marriage that once "you guys" get the rights you want, you will remember to work for equality on behalf of the rest of us.

But my question remains: on what grounds ought we to privilege the couple, any couple, as a social or political unit? What is *better* about couples that means they should have access to more money, better rights, more equality, the ability to adopt -- than people who aren't in couples? What most gay marriage proponents won;t admit is that while they don't want people to discriminate against them, they are perfectly willing to tolerate other forms of discrimination as long as they can live their own lives in peace.

As politics, this is not progressive at all, and it is impossible for me not to oppose it. Sorry.

And let me point out one danger of privileging marriage over other reforms that might confer equality on the largest number of people, gay or straight: as I pointed out in the original piece, if one partner does not already have health care, both partners are f***ed, married or not. If one partner isn't a citizen, both get deported, married or not. And anti-immigrant movements and la Migra are precisely going after family protections that have previously been respected -- deporting teh illegal family member, deporting parents without children -- so I would argue that as a protection, marriage is a mirage.

And how about adoption? For two lesbians to be legally recognized as the parents of a child, the actual father has to give up his rights to be legally recognized as the parent of that child. This is even worse, in my view: the privileging of the couple means there can only be *two* parents, hence one parent acquires rights at the expense of another agreeing to give up his rights. So how is this about "equality"?

Finally, given the lack of success of the marriage movement, what makes us think this will be a route to change that is *more* possible or practicable than health care or immigration reform?

When you get down to it, gay marriage is at heart an emotional issue with emotional consequences, whether you are straight or queer, and a route to conveying privileges that we don't actually want to make universal. And it does so at the cost of stigmatizing people who can't or won't marry, substituting one form of discrimination for another.


ezfez said...

adoption for a lesbian couple is significantly more complicated than you imply, and also a lot more similar to adoption by straight or single folk. sperm donors to sperm banks give up parental rights in advance, whether their sperm goes to a straight or gay couple, married or not, or to a single woman. birth parents surrender parental rights in all types of adoption (sometimes by choice, sometimes not). and so on. in some family situations, legally recognizing that a child has more than two parents might be the right thing--see this article on a canadian decision doing just that :
these are important issues but they are not about "lesbian adoption" as such.
marriage as a network for distributing unrelated social benefits, or as a rhetorical substitute for broader equality, is one thing. but it is not the same thing as a society choosing to acknowledge that some people want to structure their personal lives via a partnership. i don't want to take over your comments, so i'll just say that i think there's a strong case for the latter, and that it does not involve anything like the discrimination suffered by transgender people.

Anonymous said...

Claire, I think this is right. But another dimension of the normative call to marriage is that it extends the regulatory apparatus of the state--and makes this regulation, in the guise of 'rights' a desideratum. The state's actions in extending marriage "protections" (get the language here) is inevitably a mechanism for control. My disdain for the call-to-marriage is the legitimacy it gives to the state and its artifice, w/out interrogating the presumptive right to regulatory control in these domains.