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Beyond Gay Marriage | The Nation

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Beyond Gay Marriage

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At the same time, there is increasing support for basic gay human rights. Large majorities favor employment and housing rights for gay people (89 percent in the latest Gallup poll), and a clear majority of Americans support some form of partnership recognition for same-sex couples--either marriage or civil unions (60 percent at the time of the election). In Cincinnati and Topeka, home to infamous homophobe Rev. Fred Phelps, voters defeated anti-gay ordinances, even as both Ohio and Kansas voted in favor of state-level amendments banning same-sex marriage. These victories demonstrate that decently funded and well-coordinated grassroots campaigns that reach out to other constituencies in the name of fairness and equality can secure gay rights even deep within red state territory. They also put into stark relief that gay marriage is the single issue trending against increasing support for gay rights. Certainly, outside the electoral arena, the entertainment industry presents lesbian and gay characters and issues as a ho-hum element of everyday life. How does this increasingly widespread acceptance of sexual diversity square with the sensational, overwhelming defeats of this election?

About the Author

Lisa Duggan
Lisa Duggan, professor of social and cultural analysis at New York University, is the author, most recently, of The...
Richard Kim
Richard Kim
Richard Kim is the executive editor of TheNation.com. He is co-editor, with Betsy Reed, of the New York Times...

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The answer may be that homophobia was not the sole or even central element behind voter support for the same-sex-marriage bans. The vexing, volatile issue may not have been equal rights for gay people so much as household security--the other security issue in this election--represented symbolically by the institution of marriage.

The net effect of the neoliberal economic policies imposed in recent decades has been to push economic and social responsibility away from employers and government and onto private households. The stress on households is intensifying, as people try to do more with less. Care for children and the elderly, for the ill and disabled, has been shifted toward unpaid women at home or to low-paid, privately employed female domestic workers. In this context, household stability becomes a life-and-death issue. On whom do we depend when we can't take care of ourselves? If Social Security shrinks or disappears and your company sheds your pension fund, what happens to you when you can no longer work? In more and more cases, the sole remaining resource is the cooperative, mutually supporting household or kinship network.

But if marriage is the symbolic and legal anchor for households and kinship networks, and marriage is increasingly unstable, how reliable will that source of support be? In the context of these questions, the big flap over marriage in this election begins to make a different kind of sense. If voters are not particularly homophobic, but they are overwhelmingly insecure, then the call to "preserve" marriage might have produced a referendum vote on the desire for household security, with the damage to gay equality caught up in its wake.

Indeed, the campaigns against same-sex marriage spewed rhetoric about the importance of "preserving" marriage, often steering away from overtly anti-gay fearmongering. For example, the Alliance for Marriage's Matt Daniels, who spearheaded the push for the Federal Marriage Amendment, has insisted that the marriage agenda is "not organized around homosexuality. Its mission is to see that more kids are raised in a home with a married mother and father." Daniels contends that "no one in the alliance believes that saving the legal status of marriage as between man and woman will alone be sufficient to stem the tide of family disintegration," but he believes that "if we lose that legal status, we lose the policy tool we need to pursue our broader agenda." What constitutes that "broader agenda" was made clear by another marriage movement leader, Bryce Christensen of Southern Utah University, when he said, "If those initiatives are part of a broader effort to reaffirm lifetime fidelity in marriage, they're worthwhile. If they're isolated--if we don't address cohabitation and casual divorce and deliberate childlessness--then I think they're futile and will be brushed aside."

Capitalizing on their clean sweep of November's marriage amendments, pro-marriage forces have taken Daniels and Christensen to heart. Pointing to high divorce rates in red states, social conservatives have revitalized efforts to repeal no-fault divorce and enact covenant marriage laws in Georgia, Arkansas and other Southern states. While firmly rooted in fundamentalist Christianity, pro-marriage leaders also court more secular voters. For example, Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee--who recently remarried his wife in a covenant marriage ceremony before a stadium packed with thousands--touts the financial gains to the state that result from pro-marriage policies. "If you start adding up the various costs--the costs of child-support enforcement, additional costs in human services, how many kids will go onto food stamps--it all adds up," he said.

From a policy perspective, then, the anti-gay marriage initiatives are important to conservatives for a range of reasons beyond insisting upon the heterosexuality of marriage. Aiming to roll back the decades-long diversification of households, conservatives see the marriage amendments as the first step in encoding the conjugal, procreative and, for some, biblically ordained married family as the sole state-sanctioned household. Furthermore, by limiting recognition and benefits to a declining number of married families, marriage advocates are able to appeal to fiscal conservatives who might otherwise be wary of such moral legislation.

This is not to say the pro-marriage movement didn't exploit the Massachusetts Supreme Court decision and the reaction it provoked among anti-gay voters and social conservatives resentful of the so-called "liberal elite." Focusing on marriage-minded gays and lesbians and the "activist judges" who were "legislating from the bench," conservatives found an easy proxy for the decline in marriage. The "threat" of gay marriage enabled them to portray marital households as under assault (from homosexuals and judges) without addressing any of the economic factors that put marital households under stress and without directly attacking any of the related legal and social transformations (no-fault divorce, new reproductive technologies, women in the workplace) that most Americans would be reluctant to reject.

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