Mixed Blessings

By Flynn, Tom | Free Inquiry, December 2003 | Go to article overview

Mixed Blessings


Flynn, Tom, Free Inquiry


Only a year ago, most antifamily activists believed that legal same-sex marriage lay decades in the future. The best near-term bets for unmarried cohabitors--gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered (GLBT) couples included--seemed to be either expanding domestic partnership rights (as in California, the District of Columbia, Hawaii, and Connecticut) or winning recognition for civil unions (as in Vermont and Quebec, Canada). In recent years progress on each front has been slow but steady.

In June and July 2003, Canadian court rulings opened legal matrimony to same-sex couples in Ontario and British Columbia. (1) As I write, the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts will soon rule oil Goodridge et al. v. Department of Public Health, perhaps legalizing the first same-sex marriages in the United States. Across North America, the issue of same-sex marriage has gained a level of traction activists couldn't have hoped for just twelve months in the past. (2) This momentum could be blunted if ally of the conservative initiatives to declare marriage a bond between one man and one woman succeeds. But right now, what is most startling is how suddenly perceptions of same-sex marriage switched. Yesterday's utopian dream now looks like an achievable short-term goal; to some, the drives to widen domestic partnership or establish civil unions have become history's discards.

Stand back while l commit heresy: I'm not convinced that legalizing same-sex marriage is such a great idea.

Daunting inequalities confront all unmarried couples, and also participants in more complex nonfamilial living arrangements. The activist group Marriage Equality counts 1,049 federal benefits, rights, and responsibilities available only to legally married couples: hospital visitation rights, health care decision-making, parental rights, inheritance privileges, Social Security benefits, access to joint insurance policies, joint home ownership, tax-free gift-giving between partners, established legal frameworks for determining child custody and dividing shared property when a partnership ends, and many more. (3) It's unfair, discriminatory, and just plain wrong that married couples enjoy these benefits automatically while they are denied to men or women who choose to form less conventional lifepartnerships.

So why might a secular humanist view same-sex marriage with ambivalence? Wouldn't its legalization solve all 1,049 of those problems, and more besides?

Well, no.

To be sure, extending the privileges of conventional matrimony to same-sex couples would largely end unequal treatment of same-sex couples, a desirable step. But same-sex couples are only one class of individuals whom current matrimonial law unfairly burdens. Current law discriminates against unmarried opposite-sex couples too, to say nothing of individuals who form households that are open, communal, polyamorous, or otherwise comprise more than two persons. It can be objected that this latter group is small, but you can't say that about opposite-sex unmarried couples. According to the Alternatives to Marriage Project, 9.7 million Americans cohabit with an unmarried opposite-sex partner, 89 percent of all cohabitors. Only about 1.2 million Americans cohabit with a same-sex partner. (4)

I'm one of those 9.7 million straight cohabitors. If my lifepartner, Susan, is hospitalized, I may be restricted from visiting her. I'll have no voice in her healthcare decisions. When one of us dies, any assets passing to the other will be taxed. And on and on. Susan and I are as thoroughly cut off from that menu of 1,049 benefits, rights, and responsibilities as any gay or lesbian couple. Granted, we could marry, which same-sex partners cannot (at least without a trip to Canada). But we choose not to, in our case for reasons of conscience (5); why should we--and millions like us--be excluded from benefits that same-sex couples may snort be able to attain by tying the knot?

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