Meanwhile, critics of marriage promotion, located primarily in feminist policy and research organizations, are working to counter rosy views of the institution of marriage. The National Organization for Women's Legal Defense and Education Fund has documented the planned flow of money and services away from poor women and children and toward conservative organizations, contained in the proposed welfare reauthorization bill (see www.nowldef.org). A group of academic researchers and professors organized by Anna Marie Smith of Cornell University, Martha Albertson Fineman of Emory University and Gwendolyn Mink of Smith College have created a website to circulate critiques of marriage promotion as a substitute for effective social welfare programs (falcon.arts.cornell.edu/ams3/npmbasis.html). As they point out, "While marriage has provided some women the cushion of emotional and economic security, it also has locked many women in unsatisfying, exploitative, abusive and even violent relationships." Their research findings and legislative analysis demonstrate that "federal and state governments are transforming the burden of caring for our needy sisters and brothers into a private obligation."
The agendas of lesbian and gay marriage-equality advocates and progressive feminist critics of marriage promotion don't necessarily or inevitably conflict, though their efforts are currently running on separate political and rhetorical tracks. Given the rising political stakes, and the narrow horizons of political possibility, it seems imperative now that progressives find ways to make room for a more integrated, broadly democratic marriage politics. To respond to widespread changes in household organization and incipient dissatisfaction with the marital status quo, progressives could begin to disentangle the religious, symbolic, kinship and economic functions of marriage, making a case for both civil equality and the separation of church and state. They could argue that civil marriage (perhaps renamed or reconfigured), like any other household status, should be open to all who are willing to make the trek to city hall, whether or not they also choose to seek a church's blessing. Beginning with the imperfect menu of household and partnership statuses now unevenly available from state to state, it might not be such an impossibly utopian leap to suggest that we should expand and democratize what we've already got, rather than contract our options.
Such a vision, long advocated by feminist and queer progressives, may now be finding some broader support. Kay Whitlock, the national representative for LGBT issues for the American Friends Service Committee, circulated a statement at the National Religious Leadership Roundtable last fall that argued, "We cannot speak about equal civil marriage rights and the discrimination that currently exists without also speaking of the twin evil of coercive marriage policies promoted with federal dollars.... For us, it is critical that the LGBT movement work for equal civil marriage rights in ways that do not further reinforce the idea that if a couple is married, they are more worthy of rights and recognition than people involved in intimate relationships who are not married." The statement continued, "We do not want to convey the message that marriage is what all queer people should aspire to. We also do not want the discussion of marriage to overwhelm and suppress discussion about a broader definition of human rights and basic benefits that ought to accompany those rights."
This seems like a good place to start. The question is, How can arguments like this be heard in the midst of the clamor against gay marriage on the right, when Democrats are reduced to a timid whisper and gay groups are too often sounding like the American Family Association? Might it be possible to tap into an undercurrent of dissatisfaction with the current state of the marital union--and appeal to the public's understanding of the enormous distance between rhetoric and reality on this subject? Politicians pay lip service to conservative family values, but voters do not always bolt when their actual lives fail to conform to the prescriptions--as Bill Clinton's enduring popularity despite repeated sex scandals demonstrated. Polls show widely contradictory public views on the subjects of marriage and divorce, adultery and gay rights. Questions with only slight wording changes can yield widely differing results. Why not muster the courage to lead the public a little on this issue? Civil unions, considered beyond the pale only a few years ago, are now supported by many conservatives. The political center can and does shift--and right now, it is particularly fluid and volatile in this area.
In the current climate, progressives might profit by pointing out the multiple ways that conservative marriage politics aim to limit freedom in the most intimate aspects of our lives--through banning gay marriage as well as promoting traditional marriage. Given current demographic trends, it couldn't hurt to ask: Why do Republicans want to turn back the clock, rather than accept reality? And why can't Democrats find some way to support law and policy that advances the goals of intimate freedom and political equality, even during an election year?