Beyond Gay Marriage

Beyond Gay Marriage

By engaging the marriage debate only in terms of "gay rights," progressives have put themselves in a losing position.


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.

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?

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.

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.

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