Can Marriage Be Saved? | The Nation


Can Marriage Be Saved?

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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. Feminism and gay liberation have already seriously weakened marriage as a transmission belt of patriarchal, religious values; conferring the legitimacy of marriage on homosexual relations will introduce an implicit revolt against the institution into its very heart, further promoting the democratization and secularization of personal and sexual life. (For starters, if homosexual marriage is OK, why not group marriage--which after all makes a lot of sense at a time when the economic and social fragility of family life is causing major problems?) This prospect is what exercises the cultural right. I believe it is also what troubles those legions of ambivalent Americans who support gay civil rights yet feel emotionally attached to heterosexual marriage as one of the last remaining bastions of traditional familial norms, which are fast slipping away.

But the left, for the most part, is in blinky-eyed denial, which is consistent with its general attitude toward familial politics. Since the Reagan era most mainstream leftists, feminists and gay rights advocates have been terrified of criticizing marriage or the family lest they offend social conservatives. Instead of acknowledging that feminism and gay liberation pose a challenge to the family as we've known it, they insist the only issue is recognizing "different kinds of families," all equally wonderful. The now-ubiquitous tic of advancing all progressive proposals in the name of "working families" (translation: "Don't worry, you can support economic populism and still be normal") has reinforced this evasion, which neither fools the opposition nor speaks to the ambivalent middle.

Legalizing same-sex marriage would be an improvement over the status quo. But let's see it for what it is--a step toward the more radical solution of civil unions, not vice versa.

Ellen Willis, who directs the cultural reporting and criticism program in the department of journalism at New York University, writes regularly on issues of cultural politics.

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