Beyond Gay Marriage
So it seems that the priority given to marriage equality by the gay movement gave the right an opening to foment a backlash that centered on gay marriage (and all that it has been made to stand for). But before gay marriage itself emerged as a viable goal, the gay movement pioneered state and local campaigns for distributing benefits through domestic partnerships and reciprocal beneficiary statuses. These statuses neither secured entitlements like Social Security nor were they portable as people switched jobs or moved, but they nonetheless marked real progress in recognizing household diversity. While some of these clauses applied to straight couples and nonconjugal households (siblings, unmarried co-parents, long-term housemates and the like), they were largely driven by the gay movement. Now, however, they are seen by many in that movement as second-class substitutes for marriage equality. What we're left with is an erratic and unevenly distributed patchwork of household statuses tied all too closely to the issue of gay marriage, with no major social movement--not labor, senior citizens, students or gays--committed to household diversity as a primary political goal.
In order to counter conservative Republican strategy, one that promises to wreak havoc in elections to come, gay activists and progressives will have to come together to reframe the marriage debate. For gay activists, and indeed for all progressive activists, it would be far more productive to stress support for household diversity--both cultural and economic support, recognition and resources for a changing population as it actually lives--than to focus solely on gay marriage. By treating marriage as one form of household recognition among others, progressives can generate a broad vision of social justice that resonates on many fronts. If we connect this democratization of household recognition with advocacy of material support for caretaking, as well as for good jobs and adequate benefits (like universal healthcare), then what we all have in common will come into sharper relief.
Ironically, by overreaching with the state marriage amendments, the right wing may have provided the gay movement and progressives with an ideal starting point for just such a campaign. By showing the sheer number of households affected by such broad constitutional amendments, progressives can demonstrate just how narrow and extremist the pro-marriage agenda is. Defense of marriage amendments not only enshrine discrimination against gays and lesbians in state constitutions; they also severely curtail the freedom of intimate association exercised by Americans in nonmarried households--gay and straight alike. Indeed, a recent decision by a federal judge striking down Nebraska's defense of marriage amendment (the first ever at the federal level) noted that Nebraska's ban violated the rights of same-sex couples, foster parents, adopted children and people in a host of other living arrangements. The ban "imposes significant burdens on both...expressive and intimate associational rights" and "potentially prohibits or at least inhibits people, regardless of sexual preference, from entering into numerous relationships or living arrangements that could be interpreted as a same-sex relationship 'similar to' marriage," wrote Judge Joseph Bataillon.
A campaign to expand and reform family law to account for the diversity of American households could blunt the right's moral panic about marriage and shift the entire debate in a more useful direction. Support for such a campaign might be drawn from a variety of constituencies: young adults, who are the least likely to be married as well as the least likely to have health insurance; single parents, many of whom now choose to live together in order to share housing, childcare and other costs; the elderly, who often live together after the death of a spouse or end of a marriage; caregivers, whose ability to attend to the elderly, sick and disabled is often restricted by regulations that privilege marriage. Major corporations (almost half of which extend benefits to unmarried couples) as well as labor unions have opposed the marriage amendments on the grounds that domestic partnership agreements are necessary to provide for a diverse workforce. The nonpartisan American Law Institute has argued for blurring and eliminating distinctions between married and unmarried couples in order to simplify the laws that govern marriage, divorce and cohabitation.
The gay movement might also do well to broaden its agenda to include Social Security preservation, reform and expansion, along with universal healthcare. According to Amber Hollibaugh, senior strategist for the NGLTF, most gay people age alone (perhaps as many as 80 percent), rather than in conjugal couples. The needs of this population are better addressed through diversified forms of household recognition, guaranteed healthcare and retirement security than through access to one-size-fits-all marriage. More broadly, progressives must lay out a vision of expanded social justice, rather than simply battle conservative initiatives that attack our limited welfare state. For instance, rather than merely criticize Republican plans to privatize Social Security, progressives might advocate reform and expansion of collective retirement provisions to include a wider range of households.
Meanwhile, a quiet social revolution is proceeding apace, as unmarried households of all ages and backgrounds work to forge collective economic and social rights. By drafting novel cohabitation contracts, pressing for state and local legislation, challenging discriminatory laws and urging employers to expand benefits, they have begun to create the kind of household recognitions that befit a genuinely pluralistic society. They have done so without an organized political infrastructure and without any major political party championing their rights. Gays and lesbians were once at the vanguard of this loosely constituted movement. It's time they rejoin it. And it's time for progressives to step forward and champion household diversity by reframing and recapturing the election's other security issue.