If you believe social conservatives, marriage in America has been under dire assault for more than a century--from adultery, divorce, feminism, birth control and now, apparently, gays and lesbians, who on May 17, the day Massachusetts began recognizing same-sex marriages, joined this at once venerable and fraught institution. Conservatives have a point; the percentage of married Americans has been in steady decline for decades. And yet, as the annual June hordes at the altar and the dramatic struggle for gay marriage attest, marriage continues to occupy a dominant position in American society. How does one make sense of this confusing marital landscape? We asked a range of writers and scholars to offer their thoughts. Should marriage be abolished? Reformed? How is it that marriage--despite its routine and oft-documented failures--persists as the focus of both our personal aspirations and political struggles? Their responses follow.
SAN FRANCISCO MAYOR GAVIN NEWSOM, appearing on The Charlie Rose Show, denounced civil unions as a "separate but unequal" solution to the gay-marriage issue. He argued that marriage was about more than just legal rights, and if civil unions were proposed as a substitute for marriage for everyone, heterosexual "married people would be up in arms."
Au contraire, for some of us at least. My husband and I got married, after living together for many years, to secure various rights and benefits for ourselves and our daughter. We had no desire to have the state recognize our personal relationship, let alone "sanctify" it, but that was a compulsory part of the package. I believe in the separation of sex and state. I also believe that social benefits like health insurance should not be privileges bestowed by marital status but should be available to all as individuals. Marriage, in the sense of a ceremonial commitment of people to merge their lives, is properly a social ritual reflecting religious or personal conviction, and should not have legal status. "Sanctity" is a religious category that is, or ought to be, irrelevant to secular law. The purpose of civil unions should be to establish parental rights and responsibilities, grant next-of-kin status for such purposes as medical decisions and insure equity in matters of property distribution and taxes. Such unions should be available to any two--or more--adults, regardless of gender.
While same-sex marriage redresses an inequality between gays and straights, it reinforces inequality between married and unmarried people. It will force homosexuals, as it now forces heterosexuals, to sign on to a particular state-sponsored, religion-based definition of their relationship if they want full rights as parents and members of households. The desire for recognition and "normality" that motivates many of its proponents inescapably implies that the relationships of the unmarried and those that do not conform to conventional "family values" are less worthy of respect.
Yet despite its essential conservatism, gay marriage does have a subversive aspect. However much gay assimilationists may simply want to redefine family values to include them, heterosexuality is not merely incidental to the institution of marriage. Historically, a central function of marriage has been to enforce a repressive religious morality that enshrines heterosexual intercourse as the only licit sexual act, signifying the subordination of sexual pleasure to procreation. A one-man, one-woman definition of marriage is integral to the patriarchal conception of the family as a hierarchy with father ruling over dependent wife and children.
Homosexuality, by its very nature, challenges the primacy of procreation over sexual pleasure; when gay people have children, whether through birth or adoption, they only emphasize that sex, reproduction and childrearing have increasingly become separate activities. Similarly, homosexual coupling, however conventional, is inherently an offense to the traditional familial gender hierarchy. Feminism and gay liberation have already seriously weakened marriage as a transmission belt of patriarchal, religious values; conferring the legitimacy of marriage on homosexual relations will introduce an implicit revolt against the institution into its very heart, further promoting the democratization and secularization of personal and sexual life. (For starters, if homosexual marriage is OK, why not group marriage--which after all makes a lot of sense at a time when the economic and social fragility of family life is causing major problems?) This prospect is what exercises the cultural right. I believe it is also what troubles those legions of ambivalent Americans who support gay civil rights yet feel emotionally attached to heterosexual marriage as one of the last remaining bastions of traditional familial norms, which are fast slipping away.
But the left, for the most part, is in blinky-eyed denial, which is consistent with its general attitude toward familial politics. Since the Reagan era most mainstream leftists, feminists and gay rights advocates have been terrified of criticizing marriage or the family lest they offend social conservatives. Instead of acknowledging that feminism and gay liberation pose a challenge to the family as we've known it, they insist the only issue is recognizing "different kinds of families," all equally wonderful. The now-ubiquitous tic of advancing all progressive proposals in the name of "working families" (translation: "Don't worry, you can support economic populism and still be normal") has reinforced this evasion, which neither fools the opposition nor speaks to the ambivalent middle.
Legalizing same-sex marriage would be an improvement over the status quo. But let's see it for what it is--a step toward the more radical solution of civil unions, not vice versa.
STRUGGLES FOR JUSTICE on behalf of racial minorities have often generated benefits that have enhanced the quality of life for society as a whole. Federal judicial monitoring of police practices arose from efforts to deter racist cops from beating confessions out of black suspects. The legal standards that provide substantial breathing room to publications that make mistakes in criticizing public figures emerged from efforts to safeguard newspapers against crippling libel actions brought by angry segregationists. Many of the key legal rules that protect demonstrators against arbitrary or discriminatory suppression were established by efforts to shield and encourage the black liberation movements of the 1960s. Some of the most impressive feminists and champions of gay liberation found their voices initially in campaigns for African-Americans and other oppressed peoples of color.
This pattern has continued with struggles to free marriage from invidious discriminations actuated by irrational or malevolent prejudices. In 1967 the Supreme Court belatedly invalidated state laws that prohibited people of different races from marrying one another. The Court announced its ruling in the most aptly titled decision in all of American law: Loving v. Virginia. On November 18, 2003, in Goodridge v. Department of Public Health, the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts made history by becoming the first American court to prohibit state officials from withholding marriage licenses from same-sex couples. In the course of its ruling, the Massachusetts Court referred repeatedly to Loving in an obvious attempt to tap into its popularity and legitimacy. Nowadays, after all, no national politician would dare support the laws that, for three centuries, prohibited interracial marriage.
The jurist who wrote Goodridge--a person who should be honored as the judge of the year--Chief Justice Margaret Marshall, is a South African--born white woman whose social consciousness was formed in the crucible of opposition to the apartheid regime and, later, through exertions on behalf of racial desegregation in the United States. Her court's landmark ruling took effect on May 17, which happened to be the fiftieth anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education. Symbolically and substantively, then, there are numerous threads that link campaigns against racism and homophobia at the marriage altar.
Unfortunately, there are some progressive African-American activists who oppose analogizing racial discriminations and sexual-orientation discriminations. The Rev. Jesse Jackson, for example, objects to the analogy, asserting that "some slave masters were gay," that "gays were never called three-fifths human in the Constitution" and that "they did not require the Voting Rights Act to have the right to vote." These objections should be swept aside. Yes, some slave masters were gay. But some were also black. And more to the point, some slaves were gay, as are a substantial number of black people who are descendants of slaves--a fact that Reverend Jackson seems keen to ignore. As for comparisons of legal standing, blacks and other racial minorities currently occupy a higher legal status than do gays and lesbians. In many locales, gays and lesbians are subject to open, unembarrassed and legally validated discriminations in terms of marriage, adoption, employment, housing, public accommodations and military service. Today, governments in America prevent no one from marrying on account of racial difference. But in forty-nine of the fifty states, gays and lesbians are wrongly prohibited from marrying on account of gender sameness. This is an injustice in which all Americans have a stake and against which all Americans should rally.
MARRIAGE HAS ALWAYS APPEALED to my heart (and even, oddly enough, to my crotch) and offended my head. For years, throughout my 20s, I longed to get married to a man, and the idea so excited me that I had to learn not to propose: I realized it was too much of a turn-on for me to trust it. The rhetoric of eternal love and marital fidelity thrilled me, though I was never faithful to anyone longer than a month. At the same time I knew that real marriage--the kind that actually existed between men and women and not in my same-sex fantasies--was primarily a legal and economic institution, a bride exchanged for cowrie shells or cows. Having seen my parents live through a difficult divorce, I knew perfectly well that when love evaporated what was left was rancor, a hit squad of lawyers and drained family coffers.
Nevertheless, from a practical political point of view I'm not sure that the breakdown of marriage has been of any advantage to women and children. On the contrary, the sexual revolution of the 1960s and the feminist revolution of the 1970s have had the totally unexpected and unintended result of depriving women of husbands' support and pushing women into the labor market, where they earn about 76 percent of what men earn for the same work. Social changes have also left single mothers high and dry without alimony or shared parental responsibilities. Men have gained and women have lost; as Barbara Ehrenreich has argued, the end of marriage has been a practical disaster for women. Perhaps these inequalities will be righted when the feminist revolution is more thoroughly assimilated.
And what about gay marriage? At first my rational side could see no advantages to it. I belong to the 1970s generation of gay liberationists who thought that gays might provide straights with a new, superior model of association, long chromosomes of lovers, partners, serial husbands and fuck buddies that would answer the real complexity of human needs. We were all certain that the ideal of companionate marriage invented in the nineteenth century represented an unrealizable goal, especially when the claims of hedonism and self-realization that cropped up in the second half of the twentieth century weakened the ethic of self-sacrifice. Companionate marriage--in which just one other person was supposed to be helpmate, sexual partner, best friend, domestic manager and soul-sister for life--obviously was not something that came naturally to the vagrant human spirit. Only strong religious convictions and an inflexible self-discipline could make it work, as well as a sense that one was living not for pleasure but out of duty to the next generation. Once that model of marriage started to collapse, gays proposed their own molecular models of multiple partners. To be sure, our model emerged in the late 1970s because that was an era in which antibiotics had stilled our fears of venereal disease and AIDS had not yet appeared with a new fatal consequence to promiscuity.
AIDS in the 1980s killed off many of the gay men who'd been adventurous about their personal lives--guys who slept around, took it up the ass, tried out new positions, played versatile roles, experimented with drugs. It preserved those men who were too drunk or too fearful or too puritanical or too homely or too traditional or too stiffly macho to try out any of those fun new gadgets or practices. Whereas the only visible gay leaders in the 1970s had been the leftist liberationist crowd, AIDS in the 1980s flushed out of the woodwork conservative, middle-class men, the ones who'd had no stake in coming out previously but who now were forced by disease out of the closet. Once out, these middle-class men seized power and knew how to wield it. They brought to the gay movement their own conservative values--including a respect for the family and for marriage.
Until a year ago I would have sniffed at the gay pro-marriage movement as just one more effort on the part of gay neocons to assimilate with their white, middle-class, straight friends and relatives. But the uproar of the Christian right against gay marriage has won me over to the cause. Anything that Republicans and Christians hate so much can't be all bad. The question for me is no longer one of lifestyle but rather of civil rights. Lesbians and gays should have all the same rights as straights. Some of the rights we gained earlier were peripheral (and often reversible), whereas marriage goes right to the heart of national concepts of community and the future. Civil unions are not as good as marriages precisely because they lack the quasi-mystical symbolism (and many of the rights of inheritance and adoption).
Curiously, perhaps the ardor and zeal that gays are bringing to marriage may renew the prestige of the institution even in the eyes of straights. And maybe gay male couples--who aren't subjected to the compassionate, civilizing influence of women--need marriage to soften them, bring a note of humanity and kindness into their relationships.
WHEN SPEAKING OF THE FUTURE of the American family, politicians of various stripes often resort to the language of "personal responsibility" to make the point that individuals should take care of themselves and their families in this society. This way of speaking applies to issues ranging from same-sex marriage to childcare and other forms of dependency, as well as to poverty and education in general. Though marriage is thought of as a private contract between individuals (spouses), it is public state law that anchors and frames this relationship. Further, in today's conservative rhetoric, marriage becomes much more than a legal category. Publicly and symbolically, it is reconfigured into the mantle of morality, from both a societal and an individual standpoint. Marriage is presented as the path to personal and familial (and therefore, societal) salvation. Individual responsibility thus masks a broader effort to privatize dependency--which extends to the broader organization of American society, politics and economics.
But individual responsibility is an impoverished and dangerous vision of family policy. This way of organizing the world leaves us with a social and political system in which concern for children and other dependents is expressed only as concern for our own children and members of our own family. Individual responsibility is misleadingly simplistic and inaccurately reflects the reality of our lives as members of society interacting with various institutions beyond the family. On a political and symbolic level, the concept fails to represent our society's collective dimensions; one in which we have values that reach beyond the merely individual to demands that we pay attention to our general well-being. Individual responsibility will never be sufficient to fulfill the obligations we owe as members of society.
We have lost the sense that there should be some notion of collective responsibility to all children (and all families) that is not discharged merely because we take care of our own. No one would dispute that responsibility accompanies parenthood. But should the state leave the family exclusively responsible for children and other family members in need of assistance and care? Children are the future--they are a collective good--of benefit to the society at large as the citizens, workers and consumers of the future. Taking care of those who are disabled or fall ill or become dependent in their elderly years is equally a collective good. No society should neglect its ill, disabled and frail elderly, or ignore families overwhelmed by the demands of care.
Intergenerational responsibility more accurately reflects our distinctive and historic commitment to the goals of equality and justice for all. It would demand that the government subsidize the families that produce its future citizens in the same way that it subsidizes (through tax policy, developmental assistance and economic incentives) the market institutions that produce its goods and services. Public institutions, such as schools, must be adequately and equally funded and maintained. Families with ill or disabled members should receive support in their efforts. A government that shirks its intergenerational responsibility is a failure.
We should assess our policies according to their intergenerational implications. Politicians should be required to tell us how their proposals or positions on such things as social welfare policy, education, the environment and so on will affect future generations. We are not interested in platitudes about grandchildren and fictionalized scenarios but in concrete policy discussions that appeal to our intelligence rather than play on our emotions and presumed biases. We should foster only a politics that recognizes our collective intergenerational aspirations and needs, as well as our individual problems and perspectives.
WE LIVE IN ANXIOUS TIMES, conjugally speaking. Given recent census data, the condition of marriage has been declared a civic emergency, since as goes marriage, so goes the future of civilization--or thus conservatives fear. But what of all those thankless marrieds doing their best to uphold this flailing institution, especially those for whom the term "happily married" does not entirely apply? A 2003 Rutgers University study reported that 40 percent of married Americans do not describe themselves as very happy in this state. This is rather shocking: such a large percentage of the population pledged to lives of discontent and emotional stagnation, because that's what's expected, or "for the sake of the children," or various other rationales. Contemplate the everyday living conditions that follow such tradeoffs: households submersed in low-level misery and soul-deadening tedium; the reek of unsatisfied desires and unmet needs; a populace downing anti-depressants like M&Ms, or other forms of creative self-medication from double martinis to serial adultery.
Though what if luring a populace into conditions of emotional stagnation and deadened desire were actually functional for society? Consider the norms of modern marriage. Take monogamy, its fundamental organizing premise. The presumption here is that desire can and will persist throughout a lifetime of coupled togetherness, but what if it doesn't? Apparently you just give up sex: Desire may wane, but those vows must remain intact. (Though let's not forget what a lot of investment opportunities sagging marital desire provides--Viagra, couples porn, the therapy industry--dead marriages are actually rather good for the economy.)
Consider next the panoply of regulations and interdictions that underscores domestic coupledom--rules about everything from how you load the dishwasher, to what you can't say at dinner parties, to how you drive. What is it about marriage that turns nice-enough people into small-time dictators, whose favorite marital recreational activity is mate behavior modification? What is it about modern coupledom that makes criticizing another person's habits and foibles a synonym for intimacy? (Or is it something about the conditions of modern life itself: Does domesticity become a venue for control issues because most of us have so little of it elsewhere in our lives?)
Then there's that American relationship mantra: "Good marriages take work." How exactly did the rhetoric of the factory become the default language of coupledom? Is there really anyone for whom this is an attractive proposition, who after spending all day at a job, wants to come home and work some more? (If ours is a society that promotes more work to an already overworked population as the solution to marital discontent, who really benefits from an ethos of overwork? Typically not those performing the labor.)
If modern marriage has transpired into a social institution devoted to maximizing obedience and the work ethic while minimizing freedom and mobility, to renouncing excess desires (and whatever quantities of imagination and independence they come partnered with) in exchange for love and companionship, clearly there are social advantages here: The psychology of marital stasis is remarkably convergent with that of a cowed work force and a docile electorate. Who needs a policeman on every corner with such emotional conditions in effect?
Given that "wanting more freedom" is the contemporary euphemism for leaving such marriages, the ascendancy of gay marriage as a political demand has a depressing side to it. Resource distribution issues aside (which could be the case, were this the political fight being fought instead), the mainstreaming of homosexuality aside (with the kissing up to mainstream values it necessarily entails), of all possible social claims to advance, why this one now? If "wanting more freedom" were treated as a serious political question rather than a euphemism, no doubt different social claims would be forefronted. (Working less instead of more?) And should such claims be advanced, what other social contracts and vows might be up for re-examination, what other unrewarding social institutions would have to start watching their step?
ONE OF THE THINGS THAT DRIVE ME NUTS is that people always say that one in two American marriages ends in divorce. This isn't exactly true. What is true is that every year there are twice as many marriages as divorces, but this doesn't mean that one in two marriages ends in divorce. (Unfortunately I can't really explain why this is so, any more than I can explain short selling, but trust me.)
I have a whole collection of statistics of this sort, statistics that persist in spite of the fact that they're untrue. One of them is that one in eight Americans will have worked for McDonald's. Another, which was stated categorically the other day on NBC, is that one in three New York men is gay. Another one, and I'm sorry to say this in the pages of The Nation, is the number of people who are killed by landmines (one every twenty-two minutes), and I don't even want to get into incest, which for a while was alleged by some feminists to have happened to one in two women.
The statistic about marriage persists, of course, because although it isn't true, it feels true. There's a huge amount of divorce. Divorce is the news about marriage, and has been for the past fifty years. Divorce is the news about the culture, too, even though we tend to think that things like television and the Internet are the news about the culture. Divorce is probably going to turn out to be the reason for everything. And unlike television and the Internet, which may or may not be "good things," divorce is bad. It's bad for women and it's bad for children. Show me an assassin or a serial killer whose parents weren't divorced and I will show you an anomaly. On the other hand, I have been divorced twice, and thank God.
Happy marriages aren't all alike, but most happy marriages aren't particularly interesting. But divorce is. Love is bland; the end of love is riveting. Love is serious; the end of love is farce. Love is mysterious and elusive; the end of love is specific to a fault. And when love ends, in the hands of lawyers, you can often see things about marriage that sometimes make me wonder whether half of American marriages (whether headed for divorce or not) aren't, for the most part, performances.
My friend Merrill Markoe once wrote that one of the most compelling reasons to hope that gay marriage becomes legal is that gays may end up doing for marriage what they do for run-down neighborhoods: restore it to its original splendor. No question that the photos of gay couples getting married these days are far more moving than those perfectly posed pictures of men and women in the Sunday Styles section. Gay couples are usually celebrating love that has lasted, which is, of course, the hard part about marriage. It will be a long time before there are half as many gay divorces as there are gay marriages, but long before that happens, there will be a statistic about it that won't exactly be true.
Patricia Hill Collins
IT'S HARD TO REGULATE AFFAIRS of the heart. That's one reason segregation remains so deeply entrenched within American society. If people fail to come into contact with one another as equals across differences of class, race, ethnicity, gender, immigrant status, sexual orientation and religion, they are unlikely to grant one another full humanity. You can't love someone you have no opportunity to meet.
Love is one thing--marriage is an entirely different story. Most people are pressured to get married, and one fundamental rule governs this process--marry someone of the same race and different gender. In the US context, where race and class are so tightly bundled together, obeying the "same race" rule typically upholds existing social class arrangements. Because wealth and poverty are passed down through families, policing marriage keeps families racially homogeneous, virtually insuring that affluent white Americans will retain family assets and that black Americans disproportionately experience intergenerational economic disadvantage. Because the "different gender" rule installs heterosexuality as the preferred form of sexual expression, in a context that denies gay marriage, getting married becomes a mechanism for upholding gender norms of masculinity and femininity and for certifying heterosexuality.
The "same race, different gender" rule thus serves as one critical site for reproducing inequality. Segregate people into boxes of ghettos, barrios, closets, private households and prisons, rank the boxes as being fundamentally separate and unequal, and keep the entire system intact by scaring people to stay inside their boxes. Mystify these arrangements with ideologies of race, class, gender and sexuality. Encourage individuals to grant humanity only to those in their own segregated boxes. Reward them for dehumanizing, objectifying and, upon occasion, demonizing everyone else. Punish them for breaking the rules.
So how should we think about marriage and its rules? Some argue that breaking the rules is inherently transgressive, that refusing to marry or defying the "same race, different gender" code is the path to social transformation. Yet individual choice, no matter how heartfelt, can never get at the deeply entrenched structural nature of American social inequality. Interracial marriage has hardly made a dent in intergenerational black poverty. Others see saving marriage as critical. Choosing to commit to another human being through marriage can buffer us from the alienation of rampant individualism. Yet the rules that govern marriage limit our success in finding committed love. For now, marriage rules, until we decide to change it.
ARE YOU FOR OR AGAINST GAY MARRIAGE? Once one agrees to answer the question, one is already trapped. By answering, one loses the chance to ask, why has this become the question? When polled, I reject the proposed constitutional amendment restricting marriage to a man and a woman, and support legislation establishing marriage as an institution open to any two (or possibly more) people, regardless of gender. But if I enter this debate as if it were the priority for our times, I ratify that priority and fall into amnesia about what the alliances of the lesbian and gay movement used to be, and stifle the hope that its alliances and priorities still might broaden and change. For me, the more pressing question is: What would the priorities of a radical movement for sexual minorities be right now if gay marriage were not monopolizing the forefront of the political agenda?
The first issue that comes to mind is violence against queer youth and transgendered people. The contemporary legacies of Matthew Shepard, Gwen Araujo and Brandon Teena should remind us that lesbian and gay, genderqueer and trans people remain targets of violence not only on streets and bars but at the workplace and inside families. Gay marriage is not the same as alternative kinship, and it's only through extended kinship and broader community alliances that antiviolence efforts stand a chance of success. Marriage is but one way of addressing the problems of kinship: how to organize human relations that attend to basic needs and enduring forms of dependency like illness, shelter, childrearing and aging. It does not address our community responsibilities toward those who live, love, suffer, thrive and die outside the conjugal frame. What are the ties of kinship among those who defy gender norms, evoke public anxiety and often suffer loss of employment, loss of parental status, undergo physical injury and, sometimes, lose their lives? Rather than privatize those relations of care, why not extend our conception of kinship and community to establish ongoing support for vulnerable populations: genderqueer and trans people, youth and the aging?
Gay marriage became a national priority only after the AIDS crisis, despite its persistence in communities of color, was prematurely declared over, and a new, cleaner, whiter image of the gay movement was promulgated by the Human Rights Campaign and others. Prior to "the cocktail," HIV/AIDS threatened to popularize a conception of gay relationships as "promiscuous," "unstable" and "irresponsible." It was not only against the stigma of HIV/AIDS that a new, bourgeois model emerged to sanitize the public image of gay and lesbian people, but against the often multiracial coalitions fostered by AIDS activism that allied gay and lesbian people with transgender and intersex movements, drug users and queers of color who suffer heightened physical and economic vulnerability both in the United States and abroad.
We would be better off forging broad-based coalitions and supporting social agencies that seek to prevent suicide among gay and trans youth. We should be thinking about collective housing arrangements for aging queer and trans people for whom the wider community constitutes their main emotional and economic resource. We could be forging a new global coalition of AIDS activists, allying queers and communities of color, to combat the rise of HIV among people of color, especially women of color in the urban United States and in the global South. Why has the marriage bid taken the place of an activism that would prioritize educational outreach, combat profiteering drug companies and produce communities of support--reanimating ideals of radical kinship--across racial and sexual lines?
Gay marriage sets up a hierarchy between so-called legitimate intimate associations and those that should remain closeted, shamed or stigmatized. Those who are single, who have multiple partners or who negotiate relationships in ways that are unrecognizable by public norms or the state, are still innovating social relations outside the established marriage norm. Relationships that were once considered brave, if difficult, sociopolitical experiments now stand to be stigmatized, effaced or, indeed, deemed threatening to the monolithic priority of the movement. That very movement should, however, be capacious enough to demand legitimacy for an array of intimate and kinship arrangements that don't conform to the marital model.
Currently, thousands of gay people, exhilarated by the thought of legal recognition, forget their prior political commitments and their hopes for a social movement that exceeds the demand for this one legal right. They do not think about the history of property and race that has gone into the idealized version of the institution they are entering, and they do not consider what social forms of kinship they are delegitimizing along the way. If gay marriage promises health insurance, power of attorney and inheritance rights for one's partner, then perhaps we can consider an alternative political path. Instead of battling for gay marriage, we could be seeking legislation to guarantee healthcare to every citizen regardless of marital status, to separate power of attorney and inheritance from marital status and to leave marriage as a "symbolic" act that consenting adults might perform if they so wish.
Luckily, my lover of thirteen years, more a Marxist than I, threatens to divorce me if I try to marry her, so I'm not at risk. But the personal desires of those who want that symbolic status should not stand in the way of a broader alliance and political activism that furthers the needs of a community whose material and corporeal vulnerabilities remain seriously unaddressed. Along the way, we will be articulating an extended notion of kinship and community that goes far beyond what can be imagined from within the marriage norm.
I JOKILY PREDICTED on a heated David Susskind show in 1971 that marriage would "wither away like the state." Seconds earlier the popular and utterly infuriating TV host had accused me of calling marriage a form of slavery. No, no, no. Other feminists, specifically Sheila Cronan and Ti-Grace Atkinson, had equated marriage with slavery, not I; but there was no way I could convince Susskind, who was wagging his finger, consulting his notes, insisting, "Yes, you did."
Trapped in a surreal television moment with a live studio audience, I had a little fun with Marxist theory and Mr. Susskind. Please understand that I was referencing Engels (Anti-Duhring, 1878), where the wither-away phrase regarding the eventual role of state power first appeared. (The notion that the state would wither after the advent of true socialism was elaborated on by Lenin in The State and Revolution, 1917.)
At the time I did not believe that either marriage or state was about to go into a fading act. Neither, quite frankly, did I expect to witness such a strong resurgence of these problematic institutions. Yet here we are today, living in an era when the vested interests in "state" and "marriage" are stronger than ever. These historically related phenomena and passionate conflicts are nothing to celebrate, in my estimation.
Heterosexual feminists of the 1970s had many differing opinions about marriage, whether it needed to be monogamous, whether it needed to be legalized by the state, but we basically agreed that the gut issue was equality--that is, childcare and housework had to be equally divided. We talked more about divorce, alimony, custody, child support and domestic violence than we did about sanctified union. No one I knew in that dress-down, bluejeans era ever dreamed of a wedding gown. No one I knew even wore a skirt. Romance and love? Hmmm, juicy subjects for analytical treatises on subtle but pervasive forms of oppression.
Who could have predicted today's turn of events? Who could have predicted a gay-rights lobbying group called the Log Cabin Republicans?
A few of my friends decided to marry after the feminist movement, uh, withered. I didn't, probably less from conviction than from lack of opportunity, I imagine. Marriage was never one of my front-burner concerns.
Same-sex marriage boils down to property and inheritance rights, or, to use the current relevant terms, to medical benefits and Social Security. No problem there. When it veers into soppy sentiment about the state's affirmation of love and a lasting union, I think about prenuptial agreements, divorce rates and deadbeat dads.
LIVING IN CAMBRIDGE, MASSACHUSETTS--a city so committed to being in the vanguard of the right-to-marry movement that it opened the doors to City Hall at 12:01 am Monday, May 17, to be the first municipality in the United States to issue state-sanctioned marriage licenses to queer couples--I feel that I am often in the eye of the same-sex marriage hurricane. While I have mixed feelings about the fight for same-sex marriage--which range from a 1960s gay liberation--instilled distrust of the institution to a cheerful acceptance that "equality under the law" has to be a good thing--there is one aspect of all this that drives me crazy. Now that many of my 40-60-year-old lesbian and gay male friends are getting hitched (many opting for the traditional wedding dinner and party they cannot afford), I wish them well. But I also wish they would be more honest about their motives.
My friends are, for the most part, women and men who have a history of political activism and who, even a decade ago, would have been dead set against looking for the state's imprimatur on their intimate relationships. Yet they are rushing to the altar. Sure, civil marriage will provide gay couples some benefits that are now granted to heterosexuals--but until the federal government recognizes same-sex marriage, the scope of these benefits is quite limited. The rush to the altar is so strong that I can only think there is another reason; despite their stated countercultural politics and commitment to lesbian-feminism and gay liberation, these friends have a deep-seated, sentimental attachment to traditional marriage, with all its emotional weight and social trappings.
Equally surprising to me is that, to a large degree, this is a gendered affair. In fact, close to 75 percent of marriages that have taken place (legally) in Boston and (illegally) in San Francisco have been between women. (In my extensive social and political circle of friends, I know of only two males couples who have decided to get hitched.) Clearly there is something about state-sanctioned marriage that is more appealing to lesbians, and probably women in general.
And why not? These are women who were raised on Barbie--that rubberized icon of femininity, whose most sublime apotheosis was as a beautiful Bride--and who were caught up in the first wave of commercial propaganda of the postwar Wedding Industry. Is there any doubt, in anyone's mind, that we live in a society that is completely dominated by a Marriage Culture that tells us from the age of consciousness that the only way to be happy is to be married? And that women are the primary targets of this cruel myth?
From my vantage, the fight for same-sex marriage is as much, if not more, about the brainwashing of Americans by the $70billion-a-year Wedding Industry as it is about equal rights. Over the past sixty years it has been impossible for women and men--although most of the Wedding Industry's advertising is aimed at women--not to be affected by the over-the-top consumerism that has warped people's minds to make them believe that marriage is the only valid relationship. Sure, most of my friends are not buying $12,000 wedding dresses or $2,000 wedding cakes, but we are living in a political dream world if we don't believe that the intensive commercialism and consumerism that unites Marriage Culture to the Wedding Industry touches all of us. According to Cindy Sproul, co-owner of RainbowWeddingNetwork.com, an online wedding gift registry for gays, gay newlyweds want the same thing heterosexuals want. "They want to wear tuxes, they want to wear gowns, they want traditional weddings. They want the same things: a DJ, a florist, a caterer." Of course gay people, and especially lesbians, want to get married: They have been told to do so their entire lives by a culture that is hellbent on promoting a dyadic family unit and by a form of consumer capitalism that is as avaricious as it is overpowering.
Feminism has astutely dissected how the fashion and "glamour" industries have devastated women's lives. They have scrutinized how commercialism of all kinds has harmed women. Yet, as far as I can tell, the gay and lesbian community has refused to discuss how the Wedding Industry--from Bride's magazine to the newly minted "same-sex marriage greeting cards" that are selling briskly in gay bookstores--has influenced our lives. Marriage means many things to many people. But to willfully refuse to examine how marriage is deeply connected to--and propelled by--consumerism is both dangerous and destructive.
I am less worried about state-sanctioned marriage--there are some useful benefits here that are awarded to heterosexuals and not to same-sex couples--than I am about consumer-sanctioned marriage.
THE KANKAKEE (IL) DAILY JOURNAL. The Tuscaloosa (Alabama) News. The St. Petersburg (Florida) Times. The Wilmington (North Carolina) Star-News. In the past year, these--and dozens of other local papers--have all run commentaries saying, essentially: "Yes, gay people should be able to pledge their vows. Yes, they should be considered next of kin and allowed to visit each other in the hospital. How the hell does any of that hurt me?"
OK, so that one's from a columnist in the Cleveland Plain Dealer--arguably a major urban paper, like the Dayton Daily News and the Baltimore Sun, which have also run similiar articles. I've got a million of 'em from American cities and suburbs and exurbs, these columns and op-eds and letters to the editor, all of which echo (albeit less wittily) James Carville's quip: "I was against gay marriage until I found out I didn't have to have one."
This is not an outbreak of progressive sentiment; it's a fundamentally libertarian attitude, a pragmatic indifference toward life's variety. And it's come much faster than has happened for similar social movements in the past. Same-sex couples are especially easy to shrug at for three reasons. First, whichever homos you meet probably look a lot like you, sharing your ethnicity, workplace, religion, neighborhood, classroom or even your family. Second, they're not asking you to sacrifice anything: They're not demanding to be underwritten, like lazy welfare moms; they're not trying to dilute your political voice, like black voter wannabes in the South or legal aliens in New York City; they're not gunning for your job, like affirmative-action applicants; they're not shirking their god-given responsibilities, like working wives whining about the second shift.
And third, same-sex marriage (unlike married women's property or custody rights, or legal contraception, or no-fault divorce, or laws against marital rape and domestic violence) will change pretty much nothing about the institution. As I've argued here before, marriage's big changes were made between 1850 and 1970. Lesbians and gay men are just tagging along.
Why seek marriage then? Well, some lesbians and gay men (like their sibs) see it as the way to express love, and god bless 'em for it. More important, marriage is the only way Americans can designate a new adult next-of-kin (though more pragmatic countries offer other options). Civil marriage is a shared legal mailbox, a shorthand that tells institutions such as hospitals, jails, public housing officials, insurance companies, banks, probate courts, cemeteries, county coroners--and more--that you two have designated each other as primary. That's essential for resolving the inevitable spats over who counts to whom in crises of disease, disaster, divorce or death. Unlike any alternatives, the irreplaceable M-word is understood worldwide.
Of course, many Americans remain profoundly ambivalent, queasily holding two opposing ideas at the same time. On the one hand, they have that deep American belief that only equal is equal. On the other hand, they think--as the spring break T-shirt put it a few years ago--"Silly faggot, dix are for chix!" When pollsters asked this year whether Americans support a federal marriage amendment, guess what percentage said yes: 6? 47? 59? Correct answer: All of the above, in Pew Research, Newsweek and CBS polls, respectively. That's because each phrases the question differently, coaxing forth a different one of those two contradictory beliefs.
Still, the direction in which opinion is moving, year after year, is obvious even to Ralph Reed. Give us twenty years, or maybe even ten.
By the time we win full marriage rights, the only people who will notice will be lesbians and gay men and their families. No one else will care.
And yet, just as the right wing claims, winning same-sex marriage will be a radical feminist victory. By gender- neutralizing
marriage's entrance requirements--the last such sex-based rule left in the institution after 150 years of feminist transformation--same-sex marriage will more deeply inscribe our culture's legal endorsement of spousal (and sexual) equality.
Is marriage perfect? Hardly. So progressives (not just gay folks!) must tackle such essential tasks as disentangling health insurance from employment or spousal status and insuring that children have more economic and social supports than just the too-tight nuclear family, which so often explodes into radioactive waste. Just because homos are winning the marriage wars doesn't mean the left can go take a nap.
Michael Eric Dyson
A LOT OF BLACK FOLKS ARE ANGRY that gay folks want to get married, and that they're using the civil rights movement as grounds to justify their efforts. Well, as a straight, ordained Baptist minister and activist intellectual, I fully support gays and lesbians who want to get hitched. First of all, black folks should be the last on earth to tell anybody when and under what conditions they should or shouldn't be married. Not long ago, we were jumping a broom to sanctify marriages that weren't recognized by the state. Then, only yesterday, our unions to folks outside our race weren't recognized in many states across the nation. That should give us pause as we remonstrate against gays who want to walk down the aisle in utter commitment to one another. (Plus, doesn't it seem odd that some of the loudest voices in opposition to marriage rise from religious leaders who couldn't keep their vows of fidelity if Jesus were in their bedrooms? Alas, I'm not casting any stones, since I can't afford to; I'm just underscoring an obvious hypocrisy.)
As for gay folks hijacking the language of civil rights to further their goals, it's just fine with me. To be sure, racial segregation and homophobia are historically distinct, if overlapping, phenomena. Today, gays and lesbians on average make a whole lot more money than blacks, and their ability to masquerade and hide their identities is far greater than for most blacks. And there are some gays and lesbians who are downright racist. (But isn't that one of the points to be made here--that being gay, lesbian, transgender or bisexual doesn't exempt one from the passions and pitfalls that befall the rest of us?) Still, black folks can't deny that the ability to marry whomever one chooses is a civil rights issue, one not best left to high-minded moralists. Our feathers needn't be ruffled by gays and lesbians who seek to tie the knot of matrimony. In fact, heterosexual Christians should applaud the desire of gays and lesbians to seal their sexual and spiritual solidarity with a nod to traditional family values. Now mind you, those traditional family values have led to destructive consequences in many homes, but the desire of gays and lesbians to sign up has given me fresh hope that it needn't be so.
Ain't that a trip? Oops, I'm so sorry to have descended to Ebonics to make my point, especially since Bill Cosby, on the fiftieth anniversary of Brown v. Board, assailed lower-income black families--like the one I made as a teen father on welfare--for the verbal pathology of black English. Come to think of it, Cosby's recent assault on poor black families, which echoes decades of assaults on the black family, from the Moynihan Report to welfare reform, is much more dangerous to us--and should cause far more sustained outcry from black folks--than two loving people who happen to be gay or lesbian committing to each other in the hope of bolstering the value of all families.
FAMILY-VALUES CRUSADER JAMES DOBSON warns that "for more than forty years the homosexual activist movement has sought to implement a master plan that has had as its centerpiece the utter destruction of the family." To the familiar slippery-slope jeremiads that same-sex marriage "will lead inexorably" to polygamy, group marriage and incest, Dobson adds the specter of marriage "between adults and children" and "between a man and his donkey." Such apocalyptic rhetoric from opponents signals their desperation.
Gay marriage is a fait accompli. It was no joke on April 1, 2001, when the Netherlands became the first nation to ratify this irreversible, world-historic family transformation. Same-sex marriage seems likely in Catholic France, and possibly in Spain and areas of the global South. Now it is legal in Massachusetts, the original Puritan colony.
A fait accompli--but what will be accompli, for whom, and at whose expense remains to be determined by political struggles. Ironically, feminists and gay liberationists find ourselves defending gay marriage against the conservative backlash. For although only a handful of conservatives like David Brooks and Andrew Sullivan seem to get it, marriage is a conservative institution, no matter the gender mix of mates. It favors the interests of the propertied and privileged. That is why marital stability correlates with employment, income and education, particularly for men. Admitting same-sex couples to this primarily bourgeois club will likely intensify discrimination against the unmarried and their kin--the explicit goal of marriage-promotion campaigns now directed at welfare recipients. It will replace sexual-orientation discrimination with even harsher discrimination by marital status.
Paradoxically, virulent right-wing resistance to gay marriage opens a door for promoting more democratic scenarios. An unlikely hopeful prospect appeared in April. Paul Loscocco, a Republican state representative in Massachusetts, and Deborah Glick, a progressive Democratic assemblywoman in New York City, both recognized that sharing the name of marriage with gays incites more opposition than conferring its benefits. Both proposed taking their states out of the marriage business entirely and offering "civil unions for all" instead. "We in the legislature," Loscocco explained, "have the power to call what has commonly been known as marriage anything we want. We could pick the word liverwurst if we wanted to."
Perhaps as startling, self-described "marriage nut" David Blankenhorn expressed support for the proposal: "I've spent my whole public life arguing that marriage is an important public institution in the interest of children, but we may have reached a point in our society where we can no longer sustain a common legal definition." I agree, and with less regret. If one size of family never did fit all, never has the reality of family diversity been more apparent. A progressive family agenda should support not just gay unions but the many-colored rainbow of de facto families in our midst. It should challenge discrimination against the unmarried and advocate equal treatment for "all our families." Public policy should foster care-giving and commitment in creative shapes, sizes and colors. We could borrow a maple leaf here from our northern neighbors. In 2001 the Canadian government published Beyond Conjugality, an inspirational blueprint for this enlightened agenda.
The liverwurst solution allows progressives and conservatives an uncommon opportunity to forge common ground seeking to fortify the thinning blue line between church and state. Churches would remain free to define, discriminate and demand whatever prerequisites for entering marriage they choose. States, as Loscocco declares, should be free to affix whatever label they fancy, including liverwurst, to legal recognition for intimate bonds. Personally, "civil union" strikes me as an excellent, even a lofty, term for starters. Imagine a state that fostered civility and union in its challenged families and nation. Decidedly more appetizing than liverwurst!
CAN MARRIAGE BE SAVED? Why, it's saved every day, the good old-fashioned way, by divorce and adultery. The mistake is in believing those things to be outside the marriage system, spanners in the works or, from another angle, bold, "transgressive" enunciations of sexual liberation. Of course household to household, divorce or adultery may mean any of that. There are real tears and sighs of relief among that 50 percent of straight married couples who dissolve their contracts, and real excitement (tears can come later) among the majority who tryst in spite of vows. For capital-M marriage, though, they are beside the point. Divorce saves the institution of marriage the way an escape clause saves the institution of the business deal, freeing the partners, in the bargain...for another marriage. I'll never forget a feminist friend explaining, among the positives of her divorce, that her little daughter, who at the time liked nothing better than to play bride, would not have to endure the example of a loveless marriage spoiling her own dreams of a white wedding and the happy-ever-after.
No one talks this way about adultery. It promises no new beginnings, no second chance for monogamy, for the "good marriage" this time, with the good wife and good husband in which no one is ever insecure, ever needy beyond the embrace of home, ever even intrigued; in which everyone is happy, while happiness wreaks its impossible demands. Yet adultery rarely brings absolute rupture. Most adulterers don't leave home for wedded bliss with their lover. What adultery brings is something harder, a confrontation with the lie and, beyond the bric-a-brac of forbidden love, with plain old desire in a monogamy system in which sex is currency, withheld as punishment, doled out as reward, or sometimes just another thing on a To Do list that is already too long.
Of course, the lie is more comforting than its unmasking, and so the "other woman," ghoul of married women's fears, is a horned thing, symbol of failure, delusion, selfishness. The dark angel, she is as necessary to the totem of the ideal wife as hellfire is to heaven. But is it reasonable, or just an article of faith in the marriage religion, that apostates must all be cynics or manipulators? A woman I know, single, 50-ish and by chance or design long involved with married men, answered the question this way:
"The fact is a lot of us are single and the longer we insist on that the smaller the pool becomes of single interesting men. Now, the boxes lined up conventionally for someone like me are celibacy, computer dating, husband-hunting, broken heart. No thank you. So I see these men, and let's just say we engage in a free love. I don't expect them to leave their wives. I want their interest and their care, intimately, mentally, and I offer them the same. They go home to their wives. I don't know what they say or do about that, and it's not my business. They love their wives, or need them, or need their families, or need the image of themselves that comes along with twenty-five years of marriage or whatever even if love is dead, and maybe it was never alive in the first place. Or maybe it's good, but how much can it give? Life demands a lot, you know, and sometimes a person just needs to be weak. Or just needs, wants, a different kind of loving. We act as if comfort were evil--and curiosity, God forbid! For the time that I'm with these men I know something deep and loving occurs. Apart from everything else, I am their intimate friend. We're talking years here. The Dr. Phils of the world would say that I'm a fool. The gay men I know get it completely. The women mostly I don't discuss this with. It isn't perfect, but nothing is. And I'd be lying to say I never want for more. In the pie-in-the- sky there's always the 'great love,' the soul mate and comrade and lover combined. It's a wish; it happens or it doesn't, and, let's face it, most of the time it doesn't. But we live in a tyranny of the couple. Only single people understand this. And I guess what I resent most is the assumption that there is only one way for love, and if you haven't found it, or if your man 'strays' or if you are the one he's 'straying' with, then you've failed. I don't think these guys' wives have failed any more than I think the men have or I have. The supposed experts on love can hawk all the stuff they want about commitment, denial, avoidance, and people can lap it up and repeat it back to their single friends and their children. But at the end of the day there're all these broken marriages, all these broken hearts, all these needs unmet. The rules for love everlasting are a bit like the rules for making it in the opportunity society, where really nothing is equal and nothing is fair."
Maybe instead of asking whether marriage can be saved, we might think about how love is achieved, and not just couple- love, contract-love, but love in common too?
MY BEST FRIEND DIED IN 1990. This is the first time that I have been able to type, let alone say, those words. We met at Columbia University in 1981. That was the year a report surfaced in the New York Times about a mysterious "gay" cancer that was claiming a number of lives--lives that seemed to have very little to do with ours, which were lived among the groves of metropolitan academic pretension. Barthes was big, but our very own Professor Karl-Ludwig Selig was bigger. He offered a course on Pasolini, whose epic film about the degradation of the soul, Salo, was being screened at night. Columbia was a boys' school then. Together we sat in our tweed jackets, chinos and penny loafers, watching Pasolini's critique of marriage, fascism and the lengths to which perversity takes us, in mind, body and language. In the film, the most beautiful couple--both virgins, a boy and girl barely out of adolescence--are married by a salacious "priest," and then "defiled" by two older members of the cabal. The old man takes the young boy, and a hardened whore takes the young girl. It is a terrible moment, filled with lilies.
I don't recall if I saw this film with my friend or not, but it was certainly among the films that we discussed at the time. I can't imagine what it meant to us then, before we had married one another in our hearts, but I'm sure the effect of the film was terrifying. After we finished the school year (he graduated and I did not), we both got jobs working in the art history departments of Columbia and Barnard, respectively. Every day, after work, he came over to the Barnard side of the campus where I worked. He'd slip out of his loafers and put his big white feet on my desk as he read the paper and smoked (you could smoke in offices then). He had just broken up with his first boyfriend. One afternoon, as we walked to the subway, I told him how much I loved him, and forever. I suppose it was a marriage proposal of sorts. We never discussed it, but the promise of that afternoon never left us.
I have never been interested in public vows of affection. I have never, to my knowledge, ever left my friend, in spirit or mind, even after his death. I can't imagine that if we had stood up in a room full of people and exchanged words of fidelity in front of a priest that it would have been much different than what we knew we were to one another: partners for life.
Ellen Willis, who directs the cultural reporting and criticism program in the department of journalism at New York University, writes regularly on issues of cultural politics.
Randall Kennedy, a professor at Harvard Law School, is the author of Interracial Intimacies: Sex, Marriage, Identity and Adoption (Vintage).
Edmund White, who teaches writing at Princeton, has written seventeen books.
Martha Fineman is the Robert W. Woodruff Professor of Law at Emory. Her most recent book, The Autonomy Myth: A Theory of Dependency, was published this spring by the New Press.
Laura Kipnis is the author of Against Love: A Polemic (Pantheon).
Nora Ephron, a writer and director, is currently working on the movie Bewitched.
Patricia Hill Collins, a professor of sociology at the University of Cincinnati, is the author of Black Sexual Politics: African Americans, Gender, and the New Racism (Routledge).
Judith Butler is the author of Precarious Life: Powers of Mourning and Violence (Verso).
Susan Brownmiller, best known for Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape (1975), has just completed a comic novel.
Michael Bronski is a writer, critic and journalist. His last book, Pulp Friction: Uncovering the Golden Age of Gay Male Pulp (St. Martin's), was just awarded a Lammy Award for best anthology. A visiting professor in women and gender as well as Jewish studies at Dartmouth College, he has been active in the Gay Liberation Movement since 1969.
E.J. Graff, author of the recently reissued What Is Marriage For? The Strange Social History of Our Most Intimate Institution (Beacon), is a Brandeis Women's Studies Research Center visiting scholar.
Michael Eric Dyson is professor of humanities and religious studies at the University of Pennsylvania.
Judith Stacey is on the faculty of sociology and at the Center for the Study of Gender and Sexuality at New York University. A founding member of the Council of Contemporary Families, her current research focuses on gay family issues.
JoAnn Wypijewski is a writer in New York City.
Hilton Als, a staff writer for The New Yorker, is the author of The Women (Farrar, Straus & Giroux).…