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.
WHEN SPEAKING OF THE FUTURE of the American family, politicians of various stripes often resort to the language of "personal responsibility" to make the point that individuals should take care of themselves and their families in this society. This way of speaking applies to issues ranging from same-sex marriage to childcare and other forms of dependency, as well as to poverty and education in general. Though marriage is thought of as a private contract between individuals (spouses), it is public state law that anchors and frames this relationship. Further, in today's conservative rhetoric, marriage becomes much more than a legal category. Publicly and symbolically, it is reconfigured into the mantle of morality, from both a societal and an individual standpoint. Marriage is presented as the path to personal and familial (and therefore, societal) salvation. Individual responsibility thus masks a broader effort to privatize dependency–which extends to the broader organization of American society, politics and economics.
But individual responsibility is an impoverished and dangerous vision of family policy. This way of organizing the world leaves us with a social and political system in which concern for children and other dependents is expressed only as concern for our own children and members of our own family. Individual responsibility is misleadingly simplistic and inaccurately reflects the reality of our lives as members of society interacting with various institutions beyond the family. On a political and symbolic level, the concept fails to represent our society's collective dimensions; one in which we have values that reach beyond the merely individual to demands that we pay attention to our general well-being. Individual responsibility will never be sufficient to fulfill the obligations we owe as members of society.
We have lost the sense that there should be some notion of collective responsibility to all children (and all families) that is not discharged merely because we take care of our own. No one would dispute that responsibility accompanies parenthood. But should the state leave the family exclusively responsible for children and other family members in need of assistance and care? Children are the future–they are a collective good–of benefit to the society at large as the citizens, workers and consumers of the future. Taking care of those who are disabled or fall ill or become dependent in their elderly years is equally a collective good. No society should neglect its ill, disabled and frail elderly, or ignore families overwhelmed by the demands of care.
Intergenerational responsibility more accurately reflects our distinctive and historic commitment to the goals of equality and justice for all. It would demand that the government subsidize the families that produce its future citizens in the same way that it subsidizes (through tax policy, developmental assistance and economic incentives) the market institutions that produce its goods and services. Public institutions, such as schools, must be adequately and equally funded and maintained. Families with ill or disabled members should receive support in their efforts. A government that shirks its intergenerational responsibility is a failure.
We should assess our policies according to their intergenerational implications. Politicians should be required to tell us how their proposals or positions on such things as social welfare policy, education, the environment and so on will affect future generations. We are not interested in platitudes about grandchildren and fictionalized scenarios but in concrete policy discussions that appeal to our intelligence rather than play on our emotions and presumed biases. We should foster only a politics that recognizes our collective intergenerational aspirations and needs, as well as our individual problems and perspectives.
Martha Fineman is the Robert W. Woodruff Professor of Law at Emory. Her most recent book, The Autonomy Myth: A Theory of Dependency, was published this spring by the New Press.
PATRICIA HILL COLLINS
IT'S HARD TO REGULATE AFFAIRS of the heart. That's one reason segregation remains so deeply entrenched within American society. If people fail to come into contact with one another as equals across differences of class, race, ethnicity, gender, immigrant status, sexual orientation and religion, they are unlikely to grant one another full humanity. You can't love someone you have no opportunity to meet.
Love is one thing–marriage is an entirely different story. Most people are pressured to get married, and one fundamental rule governs this process–marry someone of the same race and different gender. In the US context, where race and class are so tightly bundled together, obeying the "same race" rule typically upholds existing social class arrangements. Because wealth and poverty are passed down through families, policing marriage keeps families racially homogeneous, virtually insuring that affluent white Americans will retain family assets and that black Americans disproportionately experience intergenerational economic disadvantage. Because the "different gender" rule installs heterosexuality as the preferred form of sexual expression, in a context that denies gay marriage, getting married becomes a mechanism for upholding gender norms of masculinity and femininity and for certifying heterosexuality.
The "same race, different gender" rule thus serves as one critical site for reproducing inequality. Segregate people into boxes of ghettos, barrios, closets, private households and prisons, rank the boxes as being fundamentally separate and unequal, and keep the entire system intact by scaring people to stay inside their boxes. Mystify these arrangements with ideologies of race, class, gender and sexuality. Encourage individuals to grant humanity only to those in their own segregated boxes. Reward them for dehumanizing, objectifying and, upon occasion, demonizing everyone else. Punish them for breaking the rules.
So how should we think about marriage and its rules? Some argue that breaking the rules is inherently transgressive, that refusing to marry or defying the "same race, different gender" code is the path to social transformation. Yet individual choice, no matter how heartfelt, can never get at the deeply entrenched structural nature of American social inequality. Interracial marriage has hardly made a dent in intergenerational black poverty. Others see saving marriage as critical. Choosing to commit to another human being through marriage can buffer us from the alienation of rampant individualism. Yet the rules that govern marriage limit our success in finding committed love. For now, marriage rules, until we decide to change it.
Patricia Hill Collins, a professor of sociology at the University of Cincinnati, is the author of Black Sexual Politics: African Americans, Gender, and the New Racism (Routledge).
ARE YOU FOR OR AGAINST GAY MARRIAGE? Once one agrees to answer the question, one is already trapped. By answering, one loses the chance to ask, why has this become the question? When polled, I reject the proposed constitutional amendment restricting marriage to a man and a woman, and support legislation establishing marriage as an institution open to any two (or possibly more) people, regardless of gender. But if I enter this debate as if it were the priority for our times, I ratify that priority and fall into amnesia about what the alliances of the lesbian and gay movement used to be, and stifle the hope that its alliances and priorities still might broaden and change. For me, the more pressing question is: What would the priorities of a radical movement for sexual minorities be right now if gay marriage were not monopolizing the forefront of the political agenda?
The first issue that comes to mind is violence against queer youth and transgendered people. The contemporary legacies of Matthew Shepard, Gwen Araujo and Brandon Teena should remind us that lesbian and gay, genderqueer and trans people remain targets of violence not only on streets and bars but at the workplace and inside families. Gay marriage is not the same as alternative kinship, and it's only through extended kinship and broader community alliances that antiviolence efforts stand a chance of success. Marriage is but one way of addressing the problems of kinship: how to organize human relations that attend to basic needs and enduring forms of dependency like illness, shelter, childrearing and aging. It does not address our community responsibilities toward those who live, love, suffer, thrive and die outside the conjugal frame. What are the ties of kinship among those who defy gender norms, evoke public anxiety and often suffer loss of employment, loss of parental status, undergo physical injury and, sometimes, lose their lives? Rather than privatize those relations of care, why not extend our conception of kinship and community to establish ongoing support for vulnerable populations: genderqueer and trans people, youth and the aging?
Gay marriage became a national priority only after the AIDS crisis, despite its persistence in communities of color, was prematurely declared over, and a new, cleaner, whiter image of the gay movement was promulgated by the Human Rights Campaign and others. Prior to "the cocktail," HIV/AIDS threatened to popularize a conception of gay relationships as "promiscuous," "unstable" and "irresponsible." It was not only against the stigma of HIV/AIDS that a new, bourgeois model emerged to sanitize the public image of gay and lesbian people, but against the often multiracial coalitions fostered by AIDS activism that allied gay and lesbian people with transgender and intersex movements, drug users and queers of color who suffer heightened physical and economic vulnerability both in the United States and abroad.
We would be better off forging broad-based coalitions and supporting social agencies that seek to prevent suicide among gay and trans youth. We should be thinking about collective housing arrangements for aging queer and trans people for whom the wider community constitutes their main emotional and economic resource. We could be forging a new global coalition of AIDS activists, allying queers and communities of color, to combat the rise of HIV among people of color, especially women of color in the urban United States and in the global South. Why has the marriage bid taken the place of an activism that would prioritize educational outreach, combat profiteering drug companies and produce communities of support–reanimating ideals of radical kinship–across racial and sexual lines?
Gay marriage sets up a hierarchy between so-called legitimate intimate associations and those that should remain closeted, shamed or stigmatized. Those who are single, who have multiple partners or who negotiate relationships in ways that are unrecognizable by public norms or the state, are still innovating social relations outside the established marriage norm. Relationships that were once considered brave, if difficult, sociopolitical experiments now stand to be stigmatized, effaced or, indeed, deemed threatening to the monolithic priority of the movement. That very movement should, however, be capacious enough to demand legitimacy for an array of intimate and kinship arrangements that don't conform to the marital model.
Currently, thousands of gay people, exhilarated by the thought of legal recognition, forget their prior political commitments and their hopes for a social movement that exceeds the demand for this one legal right. They do not think about the history of property and race that has gone into the idealized version of the institution they are entering, and they do not consider what social forms of kinship they are delegitimizing along the way. If gay marriage promises health insurance, power of attorney and inheritance rights for one's partner, then perhaps we can consider an alternative political path. Instead of battling for gay marriage, we could be seeking legislation to guarantee healthcare to every citizen regardless of marital status, to separate power of attorney and inheritance from marital status and to leave marriage as a "symbolic" act that consenting adults might perform if they so wish.
Luckily, my lover of thirteen years, more a Marxist than I, threatens to divorce me if I try to marry her, so I'm not at risk. But the personal desires of those who want that symbolic status should not stand in the way of a broader alliance and political activism that furthers the needs of a community whose material and corporeal vulnerabilities remain seriously unaddressed. Along the way, we will be articulating an extended notion of kinship and community that goes far beyond what can be imagined from within the marriage norm.
Judith Butler is the author of Precarious Life: Powers of Mourning and Violence (Verso).
I JOKILY PREDICTED on a heated David Susskind show in 1971 that marriage would "wither away like the state." Seconds earlier the popular and utterly infuriating TV host had accused me of calling marriage a form of slavery. No, no, no. Other feminists, specifically Sheila Cronan and Ti-Grace Atkinson, had equated marriage with slavery, not I; but there was no way I could convince Susskind, who was wagging his finger, consulting his notes, insisting, "Yes, you did."
Trapped in a surreal television moment with a live studio audience, I had a little fun with Marxist theory and Mr. Susskind. Please understand that I was referencing Engels (Anti-Dühring, 1878), where the wither-away phrase regarding the eventual role of state power first appeared. (The notion that the state would wither after the advent of true socialism was elaborated on by Lenin in The State and Revolution, 1917.)
At the time I did not believe that either marriage or state was about to go into a fading act. Neither, quite frankly, did I expect to witness such a strong resurgence of these problematic institutions. Yet here we are today, living in an era when the vested interests in "state" and "marriage" are stronger than ever. These historically related phenomena and passionate conflicts are nothing to celebrate, in my estimation.
Heterosexual feminists of the 1970s had many differing opinions about marriage, whether it needed to be monogamous, whether it needed to be legalized by the state, but we basically agreed that the gut issue was equality–that is, childcare and housework had to be equally divided. We talked more about divorce, alimony, custody, child support and domestic violence than we did about sanctified union. No one I knew in that dress-down, bluejeans era ever dreamed of a wedding gown. No one I knew even wore a skirt. Romance and love? Hmmm, juicy subjects for analytical treatises on subtle but pervasive forms of oppression.
Who could have predicted today's turn of events? Who could have predicted a gay-rights lobbying group called the Log Cabin Republicans?
A few of my friends decided to marry after the feminist movement, uh, withered. I didn't, probably less from conviction than from lack of opportunity, I imagine. Marriage was never one of my front-burner concerns.
Same-sex marriage boils down to property and inheritance rights, or, to use the current relevant terms, to medical benefits and Social Security. No problem there. When it veers into soppy sentiment about the state's affirmation of love and a lasting union, I think about prenuptial agreements, divorce rates and deadbeat dads.
Susan Brownmiller, best known for Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape (1975), has just completed a comic novel.
THE KANKAKEE (IL) DAILY JOURNAL. The Tuscaloosa (Alabama) News. The St. Petersburg (Florida) Times. The Wilmington (North Carolina) Star-News. In the past year, these–and dozens of other local papers–have all run commentaries saying, essentially: "Yes, gay people should be able to pledge their vows. Yes, they should be considered next of kin and allowed to visit each other in the hospital. How the hell does any of that hurt me?"
OK, so that one's from a columnist in the Cleveland Plain Dealer–arguably a major urban paper, like the Dayton Daily News and the Baltimore Sun, which have also run similiar articles. I've got a million of 'em from American cities and suburbs and exurbs, these columns and op-eds and letters to the editor, all of which echo (albeit less wittily) James Carville's quip: "I was against gay marriage until I found out I didn't have to have one."
This is not an outbreak of progressive sentiment; it's a fundamentally libertarian attitude, a pragmatic indifference toward life's variety. And it's come much faster than has happened for similar social movements in the past. Same-sex couples are especially easy to shrug at for three reasons. First, whichever homos you meet probably look a lot like you, sharing your ethnicity, workplace, religion, neighborhood, classroom or even your family. Second, they're not asking you to sacrifice anything: They're not demanding to be underwritten, like lazy welfare moms; they're not trying to dilute your political voice, like black voter wannabes in the South or legal aliens in New York City; they're not gunning for your job, like affirmative-action applicants; they're not shirking their god-given responsibilities, like working wives whining about the second shift.
And third, same-sex marriage (unlike married women's property or custody rights, or legal contraception, or no-fault divorce, or laws against marital rape and domestic violence) will change pretty much nothing about the institution. As I've argued here before, marriage's big changes were made between 1850 and 1970. Lesbians and gay men are just tagging along.
Why seek marriage then? Well, some lesbians and gay men (like their sibs) see it as the way to express love, and god bless 'em for it. More important, marriage is the only way Americans can designate a new adult next-of-kin (though more pragmatic countries offer other options). Civil marriage is a shared legal mailbox, a shorthand that tells institutions such as hospitals, jails, public housing officials, insurance companies, banks, probate courts, cemeteries, county coroners–and more–that you two have designated each other as primary. That's essential for resolving the inevitable spats over who counts to whom in crises of disease, disaster, divorce or death. Unlike any alternatives, the irreplaceable M-word is understood worldwide.
Of course, many Americans remain profoundly ambivalent, queasily holding two opposing ideas at the same time. On the one hand, they have that deep American belief that only equal is equal. On the other hand, they think–as the spring break T-shirt put it a few years ago–"Silly faggot, dix are for chix!" When pollsters asked this year whether Americans support a federal marriage amendment, guess what percentage said yes: 6? 47? 59? Correct answer: All of the above, in Pew Research, Newsweek and CBS polls, respectively. That's because each phrases the question differently, coaxing forth a different one of those two contradictory beliefs.
Still, the direction in which opinion is moving, year after year, is obvious even to Ralph Reed. Give us twenty years, or maybe even ten. By the time we win full marriage rights, the only people who will notice will be lesbians and gay men and their families. No one else will care.
And yet, just as the right wing claims, winning same-sex marriage will be a radical feminist victory. By gender-neutralizing marriage's entrance requirements–the last such sex-based rule left in the institution after 150 years of feminist transformation–same-sex marriage will more deeply inscribe our culture's legal endorsement of spousal (and sexual) equality.
Is marriage perfect? Hardly. So progressives (not just gay folks!) must tackle such essential tasks as disentangling health insurance from employment or spousal status and insuring that children have more economic and social supports than just the too-tight nuclear family, which so often explodes into radioactive waste. Just because homos are winning the marriage wars doesn't mean the left can go take a nap.
E.J. Graff, author of the recently reissued What Is Marriage For? The Strange Social History of Our Most Intimate Institution (Beacon), is a Brandeis Women's Studies Research Center visiting scholar.
MICHAEL ERIC DYSON
A LOT OF BLACK FOLKS ARE ANGRY that gay folks want to get married, and that they're using the civil rights movement as grounds to justify their efforts. Well, as a straight, ordained Baptist minister and activist intellectual, I fully support gays and lesbians who want to get hitched. First of all, black folks should be the last on earth to tell anybody when and under what conditions they should or shouldn't be married. Not long ago, we were jumping a broom to sanctify marriages that weren't recognized by the state. Then, only yesterday, our unions to folks outside our race weren't recognized in many states across the nation. That should give us pause as we remonstrate against gays who want to walk down the aisle in utter commitment to one another. (Plus, doesn't it seem odd that some of the loudest voices in opposition to marriage rise from religious leaders who couldn't keep their vows of fidelity if Jesus were in their bedrooms? Alas, I'm not casting any stones, since I can't afford to; I'm just underscoring an obvious hypocrisy.)
As for gay folks hijacking the language of civil rights to further their goals, it's just fine with me. To be sure, racial segregation and homophobia are historically distinct, if overlapping, phenomena. Today, gays and lesbians on average make a whole lot more money than blacks, and their ability to masquerade and hide their identities is far greater than for most blacks. And there are some gays and lesbians who are downright racist. (But isn't that one of the points to be made here–that being gay, lesbian, transgender or bisexual doesn't exempt one from the passions and pitfalls that befall the rest of us?) Still, black folks can't deny that the ability to marry whomever one chooses is a civil rights issue, one not best left to high-minded moralists. Our feathers needn't be ruffled by gays and lesbians who seek to tie the knot of matrimony. In fact, heterosexual Christians should applaud the desire of gays and lesbians to seal their sexual and spiritual solidarity with a nod to traditional family values. Now mind you, those traditional family values have led to destructive consequences in many homes, but the desire of gays and lesbians to sign up has given me fresh hope that it needn't be so.
Ain't that a trip? Oops, I'm so sorry to have descended to Ebonics to make my point, especially since Bill Cosby, on the fiftieth anniversary of Brown v. Board, assailed lower-income black families–like the one I made as a teen father on welfare–for the verbal pathology of black English. Come to think of it, Cosby's recent assault on poor black families, which echoes decades of assaults on the black family, from the Moynihan Report to welfare reform, is much more dangerous to us–and should cause far more sustained outcry from black folks–than two loving people who happen to be gay or lesbian committing to each other in the hope of bolstering the value of all families.
Michael Eric Dyson is professor of humanities and religious studies at the University of Pennsylvania.
FAMILY-VALUES CRUSADER JAMES DOBSON warns that "for more than forty years the homosexual activist movement has sought to implement a master plan that has had as its centerpiece the utter destruction of the family." To the familiar slippery-slope jeremiads that same-sex marriage "will lead inexorably" to polygamy, group marriage and incest, Dobson adds the specter of marriage "between adults and children" and "between a man and his donkey." Such apocalyptic rhetoric from opponents signals their desperation.
Gay marriage is a fait accompli. It was no joke on April 1, 2001, when the Netherlands became the first nation to ratify this irreversible, world-historic family transformation. Same-sex marriage seems likely in Catholic France, and possibly in Spain and areas of the global South. Now it is legal in Massachusetts, the original Puritan colony.
A fait accompli–but what will be accompli, for whom, and at whose expense remains to be determined by political struggles. Ironically, feminists and gay liberationists find ourselves defending gay marriage against the conservative backlash. For although only a handful of conservatives like David Brooks and Andrew Sullivan seem to get it, marriage is a conservative institution, no matter the gender mix of mates. It favors the interests of the propertied and privileged. That is why marital stability correlates with employment, income and education, particularly for men. Admitting same-sex couples to this primarily bourgeois club will likely intensify discrimination against the unmarried and their kin–the explicit goal of marriage-promotion campaigns now directed at welfare recipients. It will replace sexual-orientation discrimination with even harsher discrimination by marital status.
Paradoxically, virulent right-wing resistance to gay marriage opens a door for promoting more democratic scenarios. An unlikely hopeful prospect appeared in April. Paul Loscocco, a Republican state representative in Massachusetts, and Deborah Glick, a progressive Democratic assemblywoman in New York City, both recognized that sharing the name of marriage with gays incites more opposition than conferring its benefits. Both proposed taking their states out of the marriage business entirely and offering "civil unions for all" instead. "We in the legislature," Loscocco explained, "have the power to call what has commonly been known as marriage anything we want. We could pick the word liverwurst if we wanted to."
Perhaps as startling, self-described "marriage nut" David Blankenhorn expressed support for the proposal: "I've spent my whole public life arguing that marriage is an important public institution in the interest of children, but we may have reached a point in our society where we can no longer sustain a common legal definition." I agree, and with less regret. If one size of family never did fit all, never has the reality of family diversity been more apparent. A progressive family agenda should support not just gay unions but the many-colored rainbow of de facto families in our midst. It should challenge discrimination against the unmarried and advocate equal treatment for "all our families." Public policy should foster care-giving and commitment in creative shapes, sizes and colors. We could borrow a maple leaf here from our northern neighbors. In 2001 the Canadian government published Beyond Conjugality, an inspirational blueprint for this enlightened agenda.
The liverwurst solution allows progressives and conservatives an uncommon opportunity to forge common ground seeking to fortify the thinning blue line between church and state. Churches would remain free to define, discriminate and demand whatever prerequisites for entering marriage they choose. States, as Loscocco declares, should be free to affix whatever label they fancy, including liverwurst, to legal recognition for intimate bonds. Personally, "civil union" strikes me as an excellent, even a lofty, term for starters. Imagine a state that fostered civility and union in its challenged families and nation. Decidedly more appetizing than liverwurst!
Judith Stacey is on the faculty of sociology and at the Center for the Study of Gender and Sexuality at New York University. A founding member of the Council of Contemporary Families, her current research focuses on gay family issues.