Beyond Gay Marriage
In the wake of the 2004 election, the right moved swiftly and decisively to capitalize on its "values mandate." As many as fourteen gay marriage amendments could take effect in the next year or so. But bans on gay marriage may be only the tip of "the great iceberg," as Robert Knight of Concerned Women of America put it after the election. Parlaying anti-gay marriage campaign victories into a larger "pro-marriage" agenda, conservatives have targeted domestic partnership and reciprocal beneficiary recognition through broadly worded state ballot initiatives, launched a grassroots campaign for covenant marriages, imposed new restrictions on sex education, expanded federally funded marriage-promotion initiatives and introduced state legislation to restrict divorce. Such initiatives appeal simultaneously to fiscal conservatives who see promoting marriage as a way to reduce state dependency, anti-gay voters who quail at the notion of same-sex unions, right-wing Christians who seek to enforce biblically determined family law and the mass of voters anxious about the instability of marriage. Conservatives have found a way to finesse their differences through a comprehensive and reactionary program that aims to enshrine the conjugal family as the sole legally recognized household structure.
Democrats and progressives, by contrast, remain perplexed and divided, publicly bickering over the role gay marriage played in the party's defeats. Senator Dianne Feinstein chided San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom and the Massachusetts Supreme Court for moving "too much, too fast, too soon" on the issue and thus energizing Bush's conservative base. In rebuttal, the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force (NGLTF) pointed out that anti-gay marriage initiatives--successful in all states in which they were introduced--had negligible impact on Bush's share of the vote, particularly in swing states like Ohio, Michigan and Oregon. Nonetheless, many gay leaders expressed deep anguish at what they felt was a surprisingly strident outpouring of homophobia at the polls and pledged to renew neglected grassroots efforts. Meanwhile, the gay movement has continued to pursue its primarily litigation-based strategy on gay marriage, winning some significant if preliminary court rulings in New York, California, Washington and Nebraska, as well as scoring a legislative win for civil unions in Connecticut.
We believe that by engaging the marriage debate only in terms of "gay rights," both the gay movement and the Democratic Party have put themselves in a compromised and losing position. Faced with an aggressive marriage movement that has skillfully stoked and manipulated anxiety about same-sex marriage, progressive Democrats and gays must come together to reframe the issue as part of a larger campaign for household democracy and security, a campaign that responds to the diverse ways Americans actually structure their intimate lives.
The brutal central fact: Ballot initiatives banning same-sex marriage passed easily in all eleven states in which they were introduced this past election, as well as in Louisiana and Missouri earlier in the year. In all, seventeen states have amended their constitutions to ban gay marriage; ten of these extend beyond marriage to eliminate other forms of partnership recognition, including civil unions and domestic partnerships. These initiatives go beyond blocking future progress for "marriage equality." Their attack on domestic partnerships and other civil contracts rolls back decades of success in winning recognition and benefits for couples of all gender combinations who could not or would not marry.
Michigan's Proposition 2 is typical of these broad state constitutional amendments. It mandates that "the union of one man and one woman in marriage shall be the only agreement recognized as a marriage or similar union for any purpose." Although Christian-right activists and Republican politicians insisted during the campaign that the amendment's vague language would only "defend marriage" and not eliminate benefits for unmarried couples, the Republican state attorney general soon announced that Prop 2 "prohibits state and local governmental entities from conferring benefits on their employees on the basis of a 'domestic partnership.'" The governor's office canceled plans to extend benefits to employees in same-sex relationships, and several public employers, from the University of Michigan to the city of Kalamazoo, will be forced, by the end of the year, to retract benefits already given to same-sex couples. Conservatives have even been pushing to have Prop 2 interpreted to bar private businesses that contract with the state from providing benefits to unmarried couples.
Although propositions like Michigan's are aimed at same-sex couples, they will impact all unmarried couples. Many of them could eliminate domestic partnership and reciprocal beneficiary statuses at state, and possibly private, institutions; revoke out-of-state and second-parent adoptions for gays and straights alike; invalidate next-of-kin arrangements, including those involving life-and-death medical decisions; and imperil joint home-ownership arrangements between unmarried people.
Is this exceedingly narrow vision of kinship and household arrangements what voters endorsed this November? Not if we take their actual living patterns as an indication of their preferences. Marriage is on the decline: Marital reproductive households are no longer in the majority, and most Americans spend half their adult lives outside marriage. The average age at which people marry has steadily risen as young people live together longer; the number of cohabitating couples rose 72 percent between 1990 and 2000. More people live alone, and many live in multigenerational, nonmarital households; 41 percent of these unmarried households include children. Increasing numbers of elderly, particularly women, live in companionate nonconjugal unions (think Golden Girls). Household diversity is a fact of American life rooted not just in the "cultural" revolutions of feminism and gay liberation but in long-term changes in aging, housing, childcare and labor.