Saying "I don't".
Last year, my partner Jacob and I chose to hold a commitment ceremony to celebrate our partnership before friends and family, rather than join an exclusively heterosexual society. When I talk about our decision, I'm frequently met with a befuddled look. After fumbling around a bit, I sometimes offer this scenario to make my point: "If white-supremacists seized your state legislature and interracial marriage was suddenly forbidden, assuming you could still get married, would you?" I have watched friends squirm at this question. Some respond, "Well, that's different." In most cases, I think they know better.
I've often wondered why so many progressive couples of my generation choose to enter into a union reserved for straights only. At the height of media frenzy over the Lawrence v. Texas sodomy case, Michael Kinsley, then-editor of Slate.com and a poster boy for moderate Democrats, argued that state recognition of marriage should be abolished allowing it to become a personal affair that doesn't need the seal of approval from government. If Kinsley gets it, why don't so many bona fide leftists?
MARRIAGE IS DISCRIMINATORY
Campaigns for gay marriage reveal an array of intersecting ideas, among them the argument that straight people should boycott marriage as discriminatory. Although I still might be alone in this view at most dinner parties, I feel increasingly less isolated in the world as more people discuss the idea that civil marriage ought to be rejected.
The organization Boycott Marriage sprang up in 2003, calling for straight couples to refuse to take vows as long as their gay and lesbian brothers and sisters could not. Several years ago, I became active with Alternatives to Marriage Project, an organization that advocates for fairness and equality for unmarried folks. (1) And all one has to do is look at the generational shifts in polling data across age groups on the issue of gay rights to be able to predict the future. (2) Macalester College student Brandi Sperry put it this way in the student paper The Mac Weekly:
Straight supporters of gay marriage must do something to show their support. The way to do this is not by pinning a button to your messenger bag. It is by refusing to show your support for the institution of marriage as it exists in contemporary U.S. society. If you want to have a big wedding and declare your undying love, devotion and commitment to another person, go ahead. Just don't actually get married. That's what your gay friends will have to do as things stand now. Make yourself experience the inconvenience of having no legal connection to the person with whom you are trying to share your life. Declare loudly to everyone who will listen what you are doing. Get other people to do the same thing. Make the government hear you, make them know that you will not stand to be ruled by prejudicial ideology and you will not have oppressive morality be a part of your constitution. Let them know that if marriage is going to stay an exclusive convention, like a nationwide no-queers-allowed country club, then you don't want to have any part of it. (3)
Even if few of Sperry's peers are willing to refuse marriage, equal rights for gay people are increasingly considered obvious among college students. It's only a matter of time until same sex marriage is legalized.
BEYOND SAME-SEX MARRIAGE RIGHTS
When that day comes, however, I still won't be applying for a marriage license. At the heart of the matter, I don't believe that the state should have the power to say who is and who is not a proper family and distribute public benefits accordingly. To insist that there is one proper shape that forms the building blocks of society, and anything that differs is, then, a deviation from the norm defies the heterogeneity of actual families as they have always existed. Despite the pro-family rhetoric around saving the institution of marriage from lesbian infidels or hypersexualized moral decay, it is a profoundly anti-family idea to insist that all families ought to be composed of two parents--one male, one female--sanctioned by law, plus their offspring.
A decade ago, I met a woman named Sylvie who had, with her sister, inherited a large, rambling house from their parents in Westchester, New York. It had been in the family for generations and the sisters lived there on and off, through marriages and divorces, and while caring for their parents and a great aunt. At the time, both were content to be single. The sisters decided to raise their five children together; Sylvie earned a good living and her sister worked at home, caring for their kids. While Sylvie's own two children enjoyed the benefits of her health insurance, they had to purchase coverage for her sister, niece, and nephews, as they were not eligible for coverage on her family plan. It is this sort of arrangement that highlights the problems of narrowly defining families and tying benefits such as health insurance to marriage.
Critics have warned that should the institution of marriage be amended, we would slide down a slippery slope that would destroy the very structure of family and society. In one way, this defensive posture is reminiscent of state bans on interracial marriage. It was only 38 years ago, following the Supreme Court decision in Loving v. Virginia, that states were forced to abandon the "corruption of blood" rationale against interracial marriage, premised on the argument that if God intended the races to mix, he wouldn't have placed them on separate continents.
The state should support two (or more) women raising their children together the same way it does for married, heterosexual couples. The status of their relationship, whether sisters, friends or lovers, should not make any difference to the government. While the state does have an obligation to make sure that children are not neglected or abused, in many cases parents fashion such family arrangements specifically to improve their children's care and stability. Their lives should not be considered cheap imitations of an original form. (4)
MUST MARRIAGE BE A CIVIL MATTER?
While marriage has been, for millennia, recognized by an often intermingled set of religious and state authorities, there is nothing about marriage that requires it to be a civil matter in its present incarnation. In the name of separation between church and state, it has been argued that all such relations could be designated "civil unions" while the term "marriage" would signify a strictly religious affair. Legal scholar Martha Fineman has made this case, arguing that state-sponsored marriage ought to be replaced with contracts between two or more individuals whose relations would be governed on their own legally binding needs and desires. (5)
Criticisms of marriage as a civil institution are a tricky thing given the political environment in the United States. I feel about marriage the same way I do about the military: It isn't an institution I wish to join, but if it exists, it ought to be open to everyone. Following November's election, in which 11 states voted to define marriage as between "one man and one woman," advocating for the protection of domestic partnership rights takes on a defensive tone. In no way should these efforts be misconstrued as a compromise--the creation of legally inferior "marriage lite." Activists have long argued that full civil marriage must be granted to gay and lesbian couples to prevent the development of a separate and inevitably unequal parallel track in the law. (6)
When gay marriage is realized, many couples will, of course, opt not to marry. The argument against embracing marriage as a conservatizing force is as old as the idea of gay liberation itself. Judith Levine put it this way in The Village Voice:
But marriage--forget the 'gay' for a moment--is intrinsically conservative. It does not just normalize, it requires normality as the ticket in. Assimilating another 'virtually normal' constituency, namely monogamous, long-term, homosexual couples, marriage pushes the queerer queers of all sexual persuasions--drag queens, club-crawlers, polyamorists, even ordinary single mothers or teenage lovers--further to the margins. "Marriage sanctifies some couples at the expense of others," wrote cultural critic Michael Warner. "It is selective legitimacy." (7)
At the same time, it's perfectly understandable why many queer couples would desire marriage--to achieve the mark of normality that they've been denied. Andrew Sullivan's desire to be legally wed is perfectly consistent with the rest of his conservative politics. (Unless you think that the true conservative position would be to get "big government" out of couplehood.) Sullivan does not want to be a sexual radical or a member of a so-called alternative family. He wants to be a husband. (8)
The notion of couples "making it legal" goes beyond access to resources to the central issue of recognition: to provide a forum for the acknowledgement by others of one's declaration of love to another and the forging of a new family. At most weddings, guests don't witness the state-sponsored, bureaucratic moment where the license is signed. So what, then, makes the couple legitimate? Marriage has always constituted, as scholars like Priscilla Yamin have argued, a form of civic membership. (9)
This raises the question of what creates and constitutes commitment--what is the stuff that binds people together? Does the law produce this relation--the formal recognition granted by external authority--which then garners legitimacy? Or is one's status as married the reflection of existing bonds? Is some measure of togetherness fashioned in the ceremony of putting on expensive attire and standing before one's family and friends? Does this relation already exist and the ceremony is the excuse for the acquisition of flatware? Or is it, perhaps, love?
Jacob and I decided to have a commitment ceremony because the recognition--the celebration and formal intermingling of our families and friends--mattered to both of us. And as our big day neared, all the fuss about us not getting married felt ridiculous. We spent thousands of our parents' dollars on a party for 150 family and friends. We registered for gifts and at last have a good set of knives and matching flatware. At the reception, people confessed that they hadn't known what to expect but that the event seemed so, well, normal.
IS IT MARRIAGE THAT PROVIDES THE BENEFITS?
Jacob and I also opted to register as domestic partners, even though this tie to the city of New York makes me uncomfortable. Sometimes I lay in bed at night, thinking about that piece of paper and how it represents the very thing I wanted to avoid when we decided on a commitment ceremony. I have had to stop myself from going down to City Hall to start the process of undoing it, even though I may need some of the benefits it provides. Recently, I've considered changing jobs to join a not-for-profit that is not currently able to offer health insurance. As domestic partners, I qualify for Jacob's health insurance plan. But as our couplehood is not recognized by the federal government, Jacob would be required to pay tax on any benefits I receive. As useful as domestic partnerships have been, carving out limited protections in some states, they fall short of providing the benefits that married couples enjoy. When we submitted our application at City Hall, Jacob noticed that our certificate cost $20, while a marriage license cost $30. It would be nice to enjoy two-thirds of the rights.
Nonetheless, through a patchwork of paper, we have sorted out some of the most critical rights that would have been granted to us had we wed, such as power of attorney for healthcare and financial matters. Someday, when student loan companies no longer have a claim on all of our assets, we'll draw up wills.
According to the U.S. General Accounting Office, there are more than 1,000 legal benefits and protections bestowed upon couples when they marry, rules that effect Social Security, veterans' benefits, Medicaid, pensions, estate taxes, family leave, and immigration. When discussing marriage, some have lectured us by listing the legal perks of marriage which we are now denied, as if we weren't precisely aware of what was being offered to some and denied to others. I have been drawn into prolonged conversations about how we will handle our taxes, health insurance, and hospital visitation rights. But my favorite reason that people cite for marriage was a vague concern "for the children."
While the last legal vestiges of illegitimacy were swept away three decades ago with the "laws of uniformity," its stigma is stronger than I would have suspected among progressives. As the identification of a biological father on a birth certificate is good enough for the state to enforce laws against "deadbeat dads," I was surprised by the number of people who asked me if Jacob would have to adopt our potential, future children to solidify his legal relationship with them.
Second wave feminism fashioned a critique of marriage based largely upon the rejection of traditional gender roles that accompanied becoming man and wife. Drawing upon the example of radical women who preceded them, such as Simone de Beauvoir and Emma Goldman, feminists like Gloria Steinem refused an institution that trapped wives--in particular--in an outmoded contract, calling it "an arrangement for one and a half people." (10) Steinem's decision to get married in 2000, which continues to generate comment, has been cited as both a hypocritical betrayal and a sign of feminist victory. Some suggest that it signals success, and lets us know that times have changed and what it means to be married is not the same as it once was. A generation of feminists just coming of marriage age has argued for and attested to its transformation. Lisa Miya-Jervis, co-editor of the feminist magazine Bitch, assembled a collection of essays called Young Wives' Tales: New Adventures in Love and Partnership, featuring the voices of those seeking to alter marriage socially. Websites like indiebride.com, or the popular manual The Anti-Bride Guide: Tying The Knot Outside The Box, insist that women should not have to choose between a big, white poofy dress and their feminist credentials. (11) For those who study long-term cohabitation, it is the challenging of traditional gender roles that people often cite when arguing against marriage. (12) What these debates have tended to ignore is the relation to the marriage certificate.
When people define marriage exclusively, as a relation of one man and one woman, it's clear what they are defending. They--a group that spans the political spectrum from George W. Bush to the late Paul Wellstone--are using religious tradition to inform public policy. This position combines a breach of the separation of church and state with sometimes unvarnished homophobia, in the name of defending traditional marriage. Gay-friendly defenders of civil marriage tend to rally around the stability of households and the connection of children to their (biological) fathers. It has become common in sociological literature for marriage and cohabitation to be studied, side by side, and compared in different kinds of cost-benefit analyses. Conservative critics, like Stanley Kurtz of the Hoover Institution, attribute plummeting rates of marriage in Scandinavian countries to their recognition of civil unions and cohabitation. He argues that legal recognition of domestic partnerships in the United States would lead to fewer marriages, which would then mean a weakened commitment between parents, which would in turn produce high poverty rates among children raised in single-parent households. Others, like Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, of the National Marriage Project at Rutgers University, emphasize the positive benefits of marriage, like increased savings rates and better health, when arguing that these arrangements, unique to marriage, ought to be available to gay and lesbian couples.
Marriage does produce benefits. We are organized financially and culturally around the institution, so why should it be a surprise that there are positive attributes associated with it? It should not, then, be formally compared to long-term cohabitation, which is not recognized and fostered in the same way. Absent from much of this literature is the question of what ought to be? Is marriage as it is currently legally and socially defined the best way that we can achieve or imagine these results? Why doesn't cohabitation produce these same results?
In fact, it is access to resources that often drives couples' decisions to marry. Isn't the real point of the Scandinavian cases that people need not choose marriage because they already have things like health insurance regardless of marital status? The decision to marry can be a choice more freely made by U.S. citizens when access to health insurance is universally guaranteed.
A CONSCIOUS CHOICE
While I'd like to see folks opt out of civil marriage, obviously many people are dependent upon the protections it provides. Jacob and I were lucky to live in one of the 70 or so municipalities that not only recognizes domestic partnership, but extends this option to heterosexual couples. In some places, like Seattle, only gay and lesbian couples qualify for domestic partnerships. I know that our choice is a luxury as the penalties we face are not severe. If one of us were not from the United States, we would be compelled by immigration law to marry in order to stay together. Despite the same politics on this issue, my sister, whose access to healthcare is more precarious in her profession, decided to marry.
Her decision reminds me that people are not always opting freely to marry--they are doing so for the goods. My refusal to marry has everything to do with how I feel about issues like access to health insurance and the institution of a fair tax code--matters that should not depend upon the status of one's romantic relationships.
I believe that intimate relations should be freely chosen, without social and economic coercion. Life outside of marriage emphasizes that a romantic relation is, ultimately, a conscious choice that is renewed each day you are together.
1. To learn more about Alternatives to Marriage Project visit, http://www.unmarried.org.
2. See, for example, the data on attitudes toward gay marriage in Religious Beliefs Underpin Opposition to Homosexuality (Washington, DC: Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, November 2003), accessed 16 February 2005, <http://pewforum.org/publications/surveys/religion-homosexuality.pdf>.
3. Brandi Sperry, The Mac Weekly, Volume 97, Number 11, 5 December 2003.
4. Judith Levine points out that this is not the case in Vermont which allows civil unions for "non-sexual pairs." To counter the argument that lesbian and gay couples would be awarded "special rights" denied to people like "maiden aunts," the authors created a class of "less extensive class of mutual rights and responsibilities for cohabiting kin, called 'reciprocal benefits.'" See, "Stop the Wedding! Why Gay Marriage Isn't Radical Enough," Village Voice, 23-29 July 2003, accessed 16 February 2005, <http://www.villagevoice.com/news/0330,levine,45704,1.html>.
5. Martha Fineman, The Neutered Mother, the Sexual Family and Other Twentieth Century Tragedies, (New York: Routledge, 1995).
6. This argument has also been made in human rights terms. See, for example, Non-Discrimination in Civil Marriage: Perspectives from International Human Rights Law and Practice, A Human Rights Watch Briefing Paper (New York: HRW, 2004), accessed 16 February 2005, <http://hrw.org/backgrounder/lgbt/civil-marriage.htm>.
7. Levine, 2003.
8. Andrew Sullivan, Homosexuality, andrewsullivan.com, accessed 28 February 2005, <www.andrewsullivan.com/homosexuality.php>.
9. Priscilla Yamin, "Nuptial Nation: Marriage and the Politics of Civic Membership in the United States," Doctoral Dissertation, New School University, 2003.
10. Melissa Denes, "Feminism, It's Hardly Begun," The Guardian, 17 January 2005, accessed 16 February 2005, <http://www.guardian.co.uk/g2/story/0,3604,1391841,00.html>
11. See: http://www.indiebride.com/; Carolyn Gerin and Kathleen Huges, The Anti-Bride Guide: Tying The Knot Outside The Box, (New York: Chronicle Books, 2001).
12. Vivienne Elizabeth, "Cohabitation, Marriage and the Unruly Consequences of Difference," Gender and Society 14.1(February 2000): 87-110.
Oprah Winfrey: ... I remember when you got married, you said you really didn't want to be married or didn't want to get married. Sharon Stone: Well, you know, I'm kind of a hippie. Winfrey: Yeah. Stone: So I never was into that whole like government gets your like ... Winfrey: Yeah. Stone: ... 'Hello, government, I'm signing up for this with this person and aren't you glad?' Winfrey: Yeah. Yeah. Stone: It wasn't my--I never got that as the--that makes you committed to a person. Winfrey: Then why did you do it? Stone: I think you're committed in your heart. Winfrey: I think you either are or not. Stone: Right. Winfrey: Yes. Stone: I mean ... Winfrey: And no piece of paper can ... Stone: And I know you're into that with Stedman. Winfrey: Yes! Stone: It's like you're ... Winfrey: You're talking to the choir leader. Yeah. Stone: They're either--it's either you commit to that person innately ... Winfrey: Yes. Stone: ... or you don't. Winfrey: And no piece of paper can make it otherwise. Stone: Right. Winfrey: Yeah. --The Oprah Winfrey Show May 27, 2004
New York, NY
Jennifer Gaboury is a PhD student at CUNY Graduate Center and a member of the board of directors of Alternatives to Marriage Project.
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|Title Annotation:||A PERSONAL PERSPECTIVE|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2005|
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