Can Marriage Be Saved? A Forum

By Willis, Ellen; Kennedy, Randall et al. | The Nation, July 5, 2004 | Go to article overview

Can Marriage Be Saved? A Forum

Willis, Ellen, Kennedy, Randall, White, Edmund, Fineman, Martha, Kipnis, Laura, Ephron, Nora, Collins, Patricia Hill, Butler, Judith, Brownmiller, Susan, Bronski, Michael, Graff, E. J., Dyson, Michael Eric, Stacey, Judith, Wypijewski, JoAnn, Als, Hilton, The Nation

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.

--The Editors

Ellen Willis

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. …

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