The Radical Case for Gay Marriage

Why Progressives Must Join This Fight

The panic over gay unions obscures this hidden agenda, but rest assured that the real object of the right's campaign is straights who stray. The same people who are agitating for the amendment don't intend to stop there. The next thing they will go after is what they call "divorce on demand." Feminists who recoil at the thought of supporting marriage rights should consider what America will be like if everyone except homosexuals is coerced into matrimony.

And that's just the start. In weakening the role of the judiciary, this amendment would be a powerful tool in halting the advance of civil rights. All potential victims of discrimination should be aware that, for the first time ever, the Constitution would restrict the ability of judges to fight inequality. What's more, courts stacked with conservatives could strike down decisions that have nothing to do with marriage, applying the logic of this amendment just as liberal judges have used the Bill of Rights to establish many of the liberties we enjoy today. The principle so eloquently articulated by Justice Anthony Kennedy in his ruling against sodomy laws—that the Constitution allows each generation to expand the terrain of freedom—will be effectively moot once that process has been abridged.

What stops some lefties from applying their libertarian instincts to this issue? The most inexcusable reflex is the one that casts gay marriage as a bourgeois exercise in assimilation. It hardly helps that the loudest voices on this issue belong to gay conservatives who have framed it in similar terms. The media abet this image by selecting gay couples that can afford to travel to Canada, or that are tony enough to qualify for nuptial notices. To focus on poor people in a gay story is rare enough; but to show such folks fighting for marital benefits threatens the upbeat image the media feel compelled to project. Marriage activists aren't much more discerning. As a result, those who get to speak don't look like working stiffs.

But there are many more poor queer families than meets the media's eye, and they are the ones who stand to gain the most from marriage rights. As things are, they may not qualify for public housing; family courts may not accept their claims of domestic abuse; hospitals can—and regularly do—dismiss their right to make medical decisions on behalf of a loved one; they lack the standing to sue for a partner's wrongful death; they can't count on a partner's social security; and even when private pensions are passed along, the tax-exempt status is lost if the recipient is an unmarried mate.

Child custody, always a perilous pursuit for gay couples, is an almost Sisyphean task for the queer poor, especially in Southern or Midwestern states with laws and policies denying legal recognition to domestic partnerships. It isn't widely known that 34 percent of lesbian and gay couples in the South are raising kids. That's more than any other region, but not by much; about a third of lesbian households in America contain children. (Among gay men, it's a fifth.) Census data also suggest that lesbians of color are more likely than white dykes to have kids at home. In other words, same-sex marriage is a black, working-class, women's issue, despite its palmy facade.

But doesn't this argue for a system in which benefits aren't tied to marriage at all? "Even as we support legalizing same-sex unions," Pollit writes, "we might ask whether we want to distribute these rights and privileges according to marital status. Why should access to health care be a by-product of a legalized sexual connection, gay or straight?" Wouldn't we all be better off if everyone raising a child were entitled to the same break? And why not allow people to structure their intimate lives as they choose without sacrificing security? Generations of radicals have imagined a world in which the norm-making rules of matrimony are suspended—or at least loosened to suit the way people actually live. This is a struggle worth waging. Why do radicals assume it will be hindered if gay people can wed?

It's understandable that advocates for gay marriage would portray it as a tribute to normalcy, and in the short term it probably will look like that. But as gay people grow accustomed to this option they will shape it to suit their particular needs. You'll see leather weddings, boi-on-boi unions between queers of the opposite sex, trans matches that defy the boundaries of gender—all in cahoots with rice-throwing, trip-to-Niagara realness. Queers won't stop being queer just because they can get hitched. The tradition of open relationships won't cease to exist, nor will the boundless exploration of identity and desire. Marriage won't change gay people, but merely affirm them as they are—and that, in all its profane glory, isn't so different from what straight people have become.

The vogue for white weddings notwithstanding, most young heterosexuals entering the state of matrimony have very different expectations than their parents did. Some take their vows as a statement of eternal fidelity, others regard them as the affirmation of a loving but not necessarily lifelong bond; some are laying the groundwork for having children, while others are focused on fitting their kids from prior unions into a new whole. For each of these strategies, there are couples that mean to accomplish the same goals without hitching up. The growing range of options both within and outside marriage is a reality not just in America but across the West, and the law is evolving accordingly. The right's anxiety about gay unions has everything to do with this new flexibility. The more patterns of intimacy change, the more conservatives rush to keep the form of marriage the same.

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