The Radical Case for Gay Marriage


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.)

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.

It’s debatable whether allowing gay people to wed will open the floodgates to recognition for other relationships. But certainly civil unions present a model that can be broadly applied. I’m not thinking of Rick Santorum’s specter of incest and polygamy, but of the elderly who live together and don’t want to sully the memory of their deceased spouses with another formal marriage. Civil unions might suit them, along with siblings who want to commemorate their bond (and join their assets). Down the road we may see groups of people sharing the custody of children, or geriatric communes seeking a legal tie. Each of these contingencies will involve its own process of agitation, and it will be up to society to accept or reject each claim. But the result could be a menu of possibilities, ranging from trial unions to so-called covenant marriages that are very difficult to leave. People may elect to pass from one category to another as their attitudes change. This begins to look like the kind of world radicals want to see—a world of choice.

Gay marriage won’t bring that about; nor will banning gay marriage prevent it. But the outcome of this struggle could determine whether America will adhere to a rigid code of intimacy, enforced by a system of penalties and stigma, or evolve toward the democratic vistas our poets have foreseen. “The greatest lessons of Nature,” wrote Walt Whitman, are “the lessons of variety and freedom.” America, he believed, was the ultimate repository of that principle. If we see gay marriage in that light—as an emblem of variety and freedom manifest in love—we can understand why the right feels compelled to crush it. And we can see why the left must defend it, if only for its potential as a radical act.

Research: Matthew Phillp