Since www.beyondmarriage.org launched last week, there’s been surging interest in our statement and ideas. The New York Times‘ Anemona Hartocollis mentioned it in a long story, “For Some Gays a Right They Can Forsake,” in Sunday’s Style section. (The piece featured former UFPJ spokesman, rabble-rouser and deep throat for many a queer journalist — I mean that in a totally platonic way — Bill Dobbs, looking fruity as ever in his picture). Newsweek picked it up in a story they ran on the Washington Supreme Court decision, as did the Washington Blade‘s Elizabeth Perry. The San Francisco Chronicle ran a short story devoted entirely to the statement. And of course, it’s been hitting the blogosphere, radio (Air America among others) and the National Gay and Lesbian Taskforce homepage. It even made an appearance, courtesy of Beyond Marriage collaborator Nancy Polikoff, at the International Conference on LGBT Human Rights in Montreal. The conference’s final declaration, while not directly influenced by our statement, included calls for “recognizing and granting equal rights to non-marital relationships” and “opening up legal marriage to same-sex couples and introducing similar partnership rights for all unmarried couples.”
Beyond Same-Sex Marriage has, of course, generated its share of dissenters — which is great since for so long the marriage talk in the gay community has been one side saying “I do” to itself. But, I can’t resist the opportunity to point out some of the mistruths, misinterpretations and daffy analysis generated by its detractors. So, with the caveat that these are solely my views and not those of the Beyond Marriage working group or statement signers, here goes:
Over on his blog at the Washington Blade, editor Chris Crain overheats until his brain explodes. Calling Beyond Marriage “the revenge of the liberationists, ready to pounce on a series of defeats by equal rights advocates,” Crain engages in typical left-baiting, only stretching to replace the dreaded “Communist” with “anti-conjugalist.” He accuses us of crafting PC-neologisms, though as far as I can tell the silly expression is entirely his own. Crain’s beef boils down to the argument that “by diverting attention from the inherent inequality of marriage for heterosexual couples but not gay couples, the anti-conjugalists rob the gay rights movement of the fairness claim that resonates with more Americans.” As evidence, he points out that “95 percent” of all Americans “want someday to marry.” (What does this statistic mean? Do 95 percent of married Americans want “someday to marry”? Again?! If so, kudos to them for thinking ahead.)
Even if such a statistic were true, so what? Whatever it is they aspire to (marriage, fabulous wealth, a perfect body, fame) most Americans don’t live in marital households (or have wealth, health and Page Six gravitas). As we point out in our statement, meeting the needs of the majority of American households, whether gay or straight, calls for something more than the elusive, fragile bonds of matrimony. Arguing that benefits like healthcare and pensions shouldn’t be tied to marriage is, in fact, “the fairness claim that resonates with more Americans.” Tarring us as “anti-conjugalists” is merely Crain’s way of sidestepping the deeply pragmatic nature of our vision. And where alternatives to marriage are already the law, Crain can’t see beyond the hallucination of his own wedding veil. For example, he sweepingly dismisses progressive domestic partnership statutes like Washington, DC’s (which allows any two unmarried adults to register and receive rights and benefits) as “the realization of the Right’s worst fears and the last thing our movement needs to do at this critical juncture.” So yes Chris, let’s revoke that law because it might piss off Concerned Women of America. Screw single mothers. Heck, screw single people, the elderly, the poor — as long as we get gay marriage, right?
If Crain’s strategy is to cling to the marriage-only-until-death line and paint us as utopian liberationists, then the marriage equality folks have taken the opposite tact. One imagines our vision as impossible, the other as fait accompli. Reached for comment by gay journos (see here and here), as well as the SF Chronicle and the NYT, representatives from Human Rights Campaign (HRC), Lambda Legal and the National Center for Lesbian Rights (NCLR) all attempted to co-opt and/or de-fang the statement. For example, Jon Davidson, legal director at Lambda, said “there’s a lot in the statement that we totally agree with” and that “even organizations that do focus mostly on marriage say that marriage is not the only important thing.” Brad Luna and Jay Smith Brown of HRC and Shannon Minter of NCLR agreed. Minter said “gay legal groups already agree with them and are doing the things they recommend for the most part.” If that’s true, then I invite these people and organizations to sign the statement themselves. Just go to www.beyondmarriage.org and add your name.
I suspect, however, that they won’t because there are crucial ideological and strategic differences between Beyond Marriage and those gay marriage advocates. First, I find it utterly disingenuous for these folks to suggest that they vigorously advocate for alternatives to marriage. Last week national gay organizations spent $250,000 on full-page ads in major daily newspapers declaring that they won’t retreat on the marriage front. I can’t imagine them ever going to town like that for, say, domestic partnerships for all. It’s abundantly clear that most marriage equality advocates see domestic partnerships and reciprocal beneficiary statuses as disagreeable pit-stops on the way to gay marriage — not as valuable ends in and of themselves. Minter, for one, clearly says that marriage equality should happen first, and then we’ll worry about the other stuff later. From my perspective, this is a tragic miscalculation; as Lisa Duggan and I have argued, the push for same-sex marriage has, in fact, eliminated these statuses in places like Vermont and Massachusetts. Nary a peep was heard from these folks when the Boston Globe rescinded domestic partnerships and required its gay employees to get married to access benefits, and when a few of them finally did chime in, it was only because they were pushed to by Zak Syzmanski of the Bay Area Reporter.
In this vein, it was particularly frustrating to see marriage guru Evan Wolfson claim that the push for same-sex marriage is responsible for the proliferation of alternatives to marriage. This is true of recent domestic partnership or civil union legislation in Connecticut, New Jersey and California — which are only available to same-sex couples — but it is patently false when it comes to the longer history of domestic partnerships, many of which were available to hetero and homosexuals alike. As Nancy Polikoff, professor of law at American University, points out in her forthcoming, must-read book Valuing All Families (Beacon, 2007):
“The push for domestic partnership recognition that began in the early 1980’s was about recognizing an alternative to marriage. Heterosexual couples emerging from the counterculture of the 1970’s and from a time when the feminist critique of marriage carried great salience often chose commitment without marriage. 1979 and 1981 saw the highest divorce rates in the history of the country. No-fault divorce laws were firmly embedded in every state and in popular consciousness. In such a climate, same-sex partners and unmarried opposite-sex partners shared a common interest in breaking down the sharp dividing line based on marital status between who was in and who was out of any given law or policy. Some questioned why “couples” should be preferred over other familial relationships.”
Polikoff goes on to document how throughout the ’80s, employers like Princeton, Oberlin, Ben & Jerry’s, The Village Voice, NOW and many progressive cities began to offer benefits to unmarried couples, both gay and straight. As Polikoff convincingly demonstrates, domestic partnerships were forged by those who believed that “marriage, with its patriarchal history buttressed by the ideology that helped elect Reagan, was part of the problem, not part of the solution.” “The need for recognition of those who could not and those who chose not to marry was two sides of the same coin,” she argues.
It is this coalition between the unwed-by-choice and the unable-to-be-wed that the gay marriage movement has splintered by making the argument, in legal brief after legal brief, that marriage ought to be the primary conduit through which rights and benefits should flow. Supporters like Minter and Crain make clear that those who object to this marriage-first and/or marriage-only philosophy ought to step aside, be silent or bide their time. For Wolfson and others to pretend, now, that alternatives to marriage and marriage equality can amicably walk hand-in-hand utterly effaces their own role in creating this political schism, and as such, gravely misrepresent the consequences of their own work for the past 20 years.
Sorry for the long post. Next time I promise I’ll write something short and spicy about, say, Mel Gibson or Lance Bass.