The Radical Case for Gay Marriage

Why Progressives Must Join This Fight

For some Democrats, gay marriage is the political equivalent of doggie doo. James Carville has identified it as one of those "icky" issues his party should shy away from. But the Republicans won't allow it. This week, the Senate holds its first hearing on the proposed constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage. Test cases are pending in several states. This wedge issue has been wedged, and the only question is the fundamental one when it comes to human rights: Which side are you on?

Usually progressives can be counted on to prod the Democrats, but not this time. Carville's comment has gone virtually unanswered by the left. There's been no crush of Hollywood celebs at fundraisers for this cause. The radical cadres that march against globalization and war haven't agitated for marriage rights. "There is virtually no opposition from progressive groups," says Evan Wolfson of the advocacy group Freedom to Marry. "The problem is a failure to speak out and get involved." From a movement noted for its passion about social justice, this lack of ardor demands to be addressed.

Mind you, plenty of progressives, queer and otherwise, have enlisted in this fight. NOW has filed amicus briefs in several marriage cases. The Leadership Council for Civil Rights is circulating a letter among its members opposing the amendment. The NAACP is expected to sign on. But there is dissent in each of these organizations, and the divisions are sufficiently deep that activists have had to present two options: If you can't support same-sex marriage, surely you can see the danger in an amendment banning it. This approach has been fruitful, but the larger problem remains. "Whether it's due to a failure of progressives to connect the dots or a failure of gay groups to ask for their help," says Wolfson, "there's a curious silence."

Why the reticence? In part, it's because the right has attached this issue to fears about the future of the family, and some progressives are all too willing to fall for that line. In part, it's a question of style. Ever since the days of Emma Goldman, marriage has been icky for radicals. Their image of gay culture as a "site of resistance" is threatened by the thought that these sexual outlaws might hew to the narrow if not the straight. Underlying these concerns is the fundamental reason why many feminists and sex radicals are cool to gay marriage. They worry about the unintended consequences.

"In seeking to replicate marriage," Judith Levine wrote recently in the Voice, "reformers may stall the achievement of real sexual freedom and social equality for everyone." Queer theorist Michael Warner regards marriage as part of a larger push toward gay normalcy, and he sees this trend as a threat to the variety that has flourished in the queer community, "with its ethical refusal of shame or implicitly shaming standards of dignity." Warner calls marriage "selective legitimacy."

Both feminism and gay liberation have developed a potent critique of matrimony, exposing its relationship to repression and patriarchal privilege. Activists who cut their teeth on this reasoning are guided by it (and anyone headed for the altar would be well advised to check it out). But institutions change, and—thanks largely to agitation by radicals—marriage today is (or can be) different from the prison many older feminists escaped. Yet these memories of underdevelopment color the reaction of progs like The Nation's Katha Pollit, whose column on gay marriage was called "Don't Say I Didn't Warn You."

"Why should straights be the only ones to have their unenforceable promise to love, honor and cherish trap them like houseflies in the web of law?" Pollit wrote. "Marriage will not only open up to gay men and lesbians whole new vistas of guilt, frustration, claustrophobia, bewilderment, declining self-esteem, unfairness, and sorrow, it will offer them the opportunity to prolong this misery by tormenting each other in court." Sage as these caveats are, they have a "Let them eat wedding cake" air. There's a difference between repudiating an entitlement and having no right to it at all. The former breeds a certain fatalism; the latter can sow the seeds of change.

I want to argue that the radical critique of gay marriage is shortsighted in several respects. Even when it is correct—as in its claim that marriage is organized to bolster what Pollit calls "the socio-marital order"—it ignores the human capacity to transform an oppressive institution. As for the notion of normalcy, it simplifies the reasons why lesbians and gay men might want their relationships to carry the same legal weight as heterosexual ones. Major questions of civic equity and social prestige are on the line; this is much more than a flight from the creative anarchy of queer life. What gays are fighting for is the option to marry, not the obligation to do so—and choice, as all progressives should know, is the essence of freedom. In that sense, there's a connection between same-sex marriage and abortion rights. That's why both issues are central to the culture wars.

If the right succeeds in barring gay marriage, the fallout will do much more to set back sexual freedom than any wedding vow. The proposed amendment stipulates that no state constitution can be read in a way that extends the "incidents" of marriage to same-sex couples. In other words, all domestic-partner arrangements and civil-union statutes that come by court order will be voided. Only laws that emanate from legislatures or policies enacted by private companies would be valid. The result will be a patchwork of procedures varying so dramatically that no unmarried couple will be sure of the right to inherit assets, retain custody of children, carry a partner's health insurance, or even visit a loved one in the hospital. (It's worth noting that even in New York City the tradition of forcing lovers to identify themselves as siblings in order to be with their mates in the intensive-care unit is still alive.)

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