The vicious debates surrounding California’s Proposition 8 this election season again evoke the right-wing stranglehold on the discourse of (gay) marriage. Aside from recycling the perpetual imagery of torch-wielding savages clamoring at the gates of Purity, Goodness, and Moral Restraint (indeed, the “defense” of marriage remains the primary grounds upon which the right opposes gay marriage), those discussing this issue continue to argue for two sides and two groups: those who support gay marriage as an indicator of strengthened civil rights for the gay and lesbian communities, and those who oppose gay marriage because of its threat to tradition, religion, and the pillars of heterosexuality. The missing piece here, of course, is the somewhat-amorphous third group: those (gay and straight) who oppose gay marriage because it assimilates queer people into a problematic, sexist, patriarchal, classist, and homophobic institution. Perhaps in their efforts to avoid the stereotype of being “anti-family-values,” left-wing folks have failed formally to ask these questions: Why marriage at all? Why not work collectively to end marriage, or at least divorce marriage from the conferral of rights, for both queers and heterosexuals? If marriage tangibly institutionalizes the supremacy of heterosexual kinship structures, as Judith Butler has argued, why should anyone get married?
In March 2004, Oregon’s Benton County did something extraordinary: it banned all marriages as a response to our nation’s heterosexist definition of marriage as “between one man and one woman.” County commissioner Linda Modrell told Reuters, “It may seem odd, but we need to treat everyone in our county equally.” Odd indeed. This action asks us to consider the nearly-universally-accepted principle that gay marriage = gay rights by posing: Do gay people get “rights” if they become more like heterosexuals? What would happen if we instead demanded that heterosexuals–those with mainstream, religious, and cultural power–change their relationship to marriage? What if heterosexuals could no longer (or, in the interim, chose not to) marry?
The call to end marriage as an institution does not fall far from trends found in recent demography studies. In 2005, numbers of non-nuclear families surpassed nuclear families for the first time in U.S. history.1 Studies asking, “Why?” (often with much hand-wringing about the rising divorce rates as a sign of the apocalypse) point out that marriage has increasingly less relevance for heterosexual couples. We have seen dramatic increases in opposite-sex couples living together before marriage, or avoiding marriage altogether, along with spiking divorce rates, increases in same-sex families, trends toward more intergenerational families, and more step-families and adoptions nationwide. Studies also show huge increases in young people reporting that they do not have a religious affiliation, do not attend church, and generally see religion as irrelevant to their lives. I mention this data because if those who care about gay rights worked to harness some of the anti-marriage/altered-kinship-structure/anti-religious energies within the heterosexual community, we might find ourselves with an unexpected tidal wave of support for formally revising the cultural meaning of marriage.
After all, marriage consistently has negative consequences both for women and the culture at large. For instance, the astonishingly disturbing property implications can overwhelm: fathers “giving away” their daughters like mules (or, more accurately, paying someone to take their daughters off of their hands), the bride’s parents paying for the wedding as a way to reinvent the dowry system, wives changing their names and adopting their husbands’ names, grooms asking permission of the bride’s father (owner) to marry his daughter (property), being pronounced “man and wife” (subject and his property) at the ceremony, women wearing engagement rings as a marker of their taken status, and the like. These customs, while perhaps somewhat on the decline and certainly steeped in notions of tradition and ceremony, have real consequences for women’s lives. They imply that husbands own and possess their wives, which leads to a host of social problems based on this fundamental inequity, even for the more “enlightened” couples who imagine they can distance themselves from this paradigm. For example, because marriage presumes that husbands should have sexual access to their wives, spousal rape did not become a legally recognized crime until the late 1970s, and the first-ever recorded charge of spousal rape did not occur until 1949(!). Even with this “progress,” successful prosecutions for spousal rape remain extraordinarily low in comparison to other rape trials. Further, other problems also arise from the property implications of marriage: women earn less of their own money and therefore cannot leave unhappy marriages; women receive little institutional support for fleeing their husbands; women still inherit property at lower rates than men; and cultural divisions between legitimate and illegitimate families gain momentum. In short, despite the improvements made to the packaging of marriage in recent years, this repackaging does not undermine marriage’s patriarchal attributes and implications.
Social science data also reveals the ways that marriage privileges the nuclear family over all other kinship relationships while it specifically harms women. For example, married women tend to have more negative physical and mental health outcomes than single women, while men show the opposite trends. Women in caretaking roles—whether taking care of husbands, children, elderly parents, etc.—show far worse health outcomes than their non-caretaking counterparts.2 With regard to divorce, women’s incomes take a far more intense beating following divorce than do men’s incomes, and women more often take on child-rearing responsibilities, thereby dropping their incomes even further. Women even face social consequences as single parents that differ from men’s experiences as single parents: compared to single fathers, portrayed as generous, kind, and attractive, single mothers are constructed more often as overworked, neglectful, and unattractive. Moreover, institutional marriage reveals twisted kinship values. For example, health care coverage values the married couple but not other familial ties; one cannot give one’s elderly mother one’s employer-paid health care plan, just as one cannot give a sibling or a friend one’s coverage.
Marriage also makes it much more difficult for people to disentangle themselves from each other. Aside from the social validation provided by marriage (e.g., others recognize the couple as “legitimate”), the legal contract of marriage does little to predict longer relationships or more egalitarian unions, even while it promises to bind people together “until death do they part.” In practice, the artifice of the marital union often serves as a costly, ineffective, and exclusionary means of unifying people. The marriage contract does not specify the rights and burdens it enables, yet we accept this in the name of sentimentality; come time to divorce, many wish they had read the fine print. In short, marriage is a losing proposition, particularly for women.
And still, we have spent a great deal of time over the past several years framing marriage as The Answer to full civil rights for gay people, while simultaneously requiring that they legitimize their desire to marry. This has resulted in some disastrous discursive problems. First, these assumptions raise questions about whether gay identity is about who one has sex with (and how), or why one has sex with them (and with what consequences). We are severely ahistorical on this point because we too often forget that we once divided people’s sexual identities based on why they had sex–either for procreation (the normative) or for pleasure (the sinners, degenerates, bohemians)–without any concern for whom they had sex with. In other words, modern-day heterosexuals who liked oral sex, anal sex, sex for pleasure (etc.) would have historically been lumped together with homosexuals as sexual deviants. While these terms have shifted–in that we’re almost okay with heterosexual sex for pleasure as long as it’s not too blatant, raunchy, overly-accessorized, or public–this historical anti-pleasure campaign still seeps into our cultural consciousness today. For example, right-wing fear of gay people often stems from the fact that gay people blatantly have sex for pleasure and not for reproduction. Gay people directly contradict the bourgeois value system that leads to kinship systems based on reproduction; they openly and purposefully have sex solely for pleasure. In this sense, gay identity has stood outside of the Puritanical, capitalistic (“be productive and produce productive products!”) model of productive kinship for quite some time. Assimilation efforts like the pro-gay-marriage campaigns, therefore, have to spend a great deal of time reassuring everyone that being gay is about “love” and “family” rather than, say, unadulterated sexual pleasure. While pitching gay people as less “scary” and more “normal” to jittery Middle America is an unfortunately necessary part of the pro-gay-marriage game plan, this effort distances us from the reverence gay culture has for sexual pleasure and non-reproductive sex.
Second, by asking gay people to legitimize their desire to marry, the debate about gay identity as either biological or a choice has raged on, splitting the “experts” and the public into two camps. First, the pro-gay-marriage people who argue that gay = biological claim that gay people cannot help being gay because they were “born that way,” so they should therefore receive the same rights as heterosexuals. They forget that these arguments pave the way for eugenicists to simply “fix” the gay gene and “repair” the dysfunction of gayness. Gay identity in this model becomes something that happens to us, something that we do not consciously choose. (Also, remember that mainstream media then tends to apply the biology argument more intensely to gay men rather than lesbians, thereby recycling the same old “men have uncontrollable urges for sex” argument feminists have rejected for years now). Conversely, other proponents of gay marriage instead argue that being gay is a choice, and therefore gay people and straight people are biologically equal and thus deserve equal rights. One can easily deconstruct the absurdity of this argument by imagining the implications of having, say, a civil rights movement arguing for equality between white people and people of color solely on the basis of biology. The problem here is simple: we are asking the wrong question.
When I say that the right-wing has a stranglehold on the discourse of (gay) marriage, what I specifically mean is that they have managed to convince reasonably intelligent folks on the left that this debate between biology and choice stands in for the question of whether gay people deserve rights. We forget that no possible answer to this question serves the interests of gay rights. The biology/choice debate not only goes against nearly all reputable scientific research that shows an integration between the nature/nurture positions, but it also demands that gay people account for themselves in the eyes of heterosexuals. It positions heterosexuals as the ones evaluating gay people, rather than situating gay people as themselves aligned with heterosexuals in the struggle for full civil rights and equality for all. When we ask, “Is being gay biological or a choice?,” we essentially force gay people to submit to the evaluative will of heterosexuals. In my own research on women’s sexuality, the absurdity of accounting for oneself in this way appeared when I (slightly sadistically) asked heterosexual-identified women how they became heterosexual or discovered their heterosexuality. After bumbling around for a few seconds, these women typically looked me straight in the eye and said, “That’s a ridiculous question.” We should take a cue from them and do the same.
Returning to the original dilemma of what to do with marriage itself, I propose a different set of solutions: first, let’s remember and celebrate the fact that gay identity is in part based on its blatant, sometimes flamboyant and in-your-face, opposition to heteronormativity. While gay people may choose to reproduce, raise children, and imitate heterosexist norms of kinship, gay people have also consciously valued sexual pleasure and reimagined notions of family. That’s a good thing. Second, marriage is a deeply flawed institution, and as such, not only promotes sexist and heterosexist values, but stands in as the primary way that the State confers rights upon us. We should look carefully at how other countries reconcile these problems by, for example, divorcing marriage from the conferral of rights and, as such, rendering marriage strictly a religious ceremony. It is entirely unacceptable that we attach rights as basic as health care (which, contrary to what John McCain has argued, is not a “privilege”), hospital visitation, and the ability to adopt children to an institution that shamelessly and flagrantly promotes the conflation of Church and State. These rights should not be conferred via marital status. If we separate rights from marriage, this would benefit both gay couples and unmarried heterosexual couples. Heterosexuals must serve at the forefront of this battle by demanding an end to marriage as we currently define it. Third, we must reprioritize our goals for gay rights, first by demanding that heterosexual allies take a more personal role in the struggle, ideally by either not marrying or working to strip marriage of its legal power, and then by recognizing that gay marriage is not synonymous with gay rights. Let’s seriously consider: Is gay marriage really the kind of change we want for our country? Marriage is not a building-block for challenging oppression; it is oppression. If we spend our time and energy fighting for gay marriage, and we end up winning, we might find ourselves irreversibly wedded to marriage as a religiously-based institution. The joining of heterosexuals and queers in the battle to separate marriage from rights will reinvigorate the overly dichotomous gay marriage debates while challenging one of the most backward, sexist, and regressive institutions of our time.
* Image: Allusion aux Agences matrimoniales, Croquis californien par Cham. Wood engraving from the New York Public Library collection. Created by Cham (1819-1879), originally published in Le Charivari magazine.• Footnotes