Thursday, January 10, 2008

The Marriage One - version 2

Call me old fashioned, but, I still think marriage is a tool of the patriarchy.

In my previous post I outlined a few ways of thinking about who does and does not benefit from same-sex marriage. One answer is, same-sex couples who choose to get married benefit. Adults who choose not to get married, do not benefit.

I was a graduate student in Massachusetts both before and after same-sex marriage became legal here. Before the law went into effect, graduate student employees at my University could register their non-married, same-sex domestic partner to share their University-sponsored health coverage and other benefits. As soon as same-sex marriage became legal, University administration tried to end this program. Their argument was, now that same-sex couples could get married, those couples should get married in order to share benefits, just like hetero couples do. It was a short leap from gay people are allowed to get married, to gay people had better get married.

The financial benefits of sharing health insurance are not insignificant. A couple in financial hardship might reasonably decide to get married for that reason. Actually, I know some couples who have. Holding basic human rights like healthcare hostage to a marriage certificate is tantamount to compulsory marriage. “Compulsory marriage” smells an awful lot like “compulsory heterosexuality.” Hence, marriage is a tool of the patriarchy.

To be clear, I think it was always ludicrous that hetero couples couldn’t get non-married domestic partner benefits. See, hetero marriage is a tool of the patriarchy, too.

In this case, the gay community rallied to convince the University to retain the non-married same-sex couple benefits. The outcome was not as bad as it could have been. However the arguments they deployed were disturbingly conservative.

The argument that seemed to have the greatest impact on administration was that some lesbian couples were choosing not to get married because some adoption agencies won’t work with gay parents. It’s easier for one partner to adopt as a single woman, and then do a second-parent adoption later, than for both of them to adopt as a married same-sex couple. In other words, “We just want to be a normal family, just like you. And because of homophobia in the adoption industry, the only way for us to do that is not to get married until after we adopt kids.”

This was another repetition of the “normal family” rhetoric I critiqued in my previous post. It is racist, classist, and ultimately heterosexist in its valuing of one kind of family structure over all others, and in its effort to align white, upper-middle-class gay people with white, upper-class people in power.

An argument that rings truer to me is this: Compulsory marriage is wrong. Basic human rights should not be tied to any particular family structure. Compulsory marriage has been used in the service of racism, sexism and classism. If the gay rights movement is a movement for social justice, we can’t align ourselves with institutions of oppression.

(here ends the short version. for the long version, keep reading.)

When I talk about compulsory marriage, I am not talking about ancient history. Quite recently, marriage incentives in public benefits programs have been used to compel single mothers to marry their kids’ fathers in order to retain their welfare benefits (see for example Dean Spade, 2006, “Compliance is Gendered,” in Transgender Rights, edited by Currah, Juang & Minter). Such “incentives” send a clear message to single parents (especially mothers) and other non-nuclear families in need: “When we say that we value families, we don’t mean you.”

The rhetoric of “family” has been used to circumscribe the kinds of people considered deserving of public aid. Marriage plays a large role in defining “family” so as to exclude from benefits certain kinds of people, who people in power don’t want to help. Unsurprisingly, those who are excluded tend to be people of Color and poor people of all races.

(It may seem redundant to talk about poor people, since we were already talking about public benefits. But consider this contradiction: single women on welfare are now required to put their children in daycare at a young age and go back to work, whereas wealthy “stay-at-home moms” can get a tax break for the work they do in caring for their children. In effect, wealthy mothers’ childrearing labor ‘counts’ as work under the law, and poor mothers’ labor does not. See Dean Spade, same citation as above.)

Additionally, legally sanctioned marriage has always been reserved for only some kinds of couples. These days, we mainly hear about same-sex couples being unable to marry. But until 1967, interracial couples were not allowed to marry in many U.S. states. Some state laws forbidding interracial marriage were still on the books as late as 2000, even though they were not enforceable after the 1967 U.S. Supreme Court decision affectionately known as the Loving decision (citation: wiki).

The ignoble history of legal limitations on marriage came to the attention of many white gay Massachusetts residents right after same-sex marriage became legal here. At that time our then-governor, Mitt Romney (R, presidential candidate, please don’t vote for him), dragged up a decrepit old state law forbidding couples from obtaining a marriage license in MA unless the couple had legal residence in MA.

Romney was trying to protect his conservative buddies in other states from possibly having to honor a marriage certificate issued in MA to a same-sex couple from another state. Previous to that, the law had hardly been noticed for decades. It was still on the books from back before the Loving decision, when it was legal for interracial couples to marry in MA, but not in many other states. MA legislators had sought to prevent interracial couples from other states from coming to MA, getting married, and going back.

When Romney dragged up that law, I thought, the nerve of him! Beyond his frankly heterosexist goals, to use an obviously racist legal relic to get there seemed … well, racist.

But if marriage laws and policies have been racist, classist, etc. as well as heterosexist, then we must also say that the very institution of legal marriage is racist, classist, etc. That’s not to say that monogamous partnership is necessarily oppressive (although it may be). But the legal institution of state-sanctioned marriage with state-defined terms and benefits, has always served oppressive purposes.

Whether it could serve a purpose of liberation rather than oppression, seems to me to be beside the point. It never has. It doesn’t now. It won’t in the near future.

The mainstream gay rights agenda (mainstream relative to other gay agendas, that is) seeks inclusion for same-sex couples in the institution of legal marriage. Why should we desire inclusion in an oppressive institution? Why should we seek inclusion in the tools of domination? A movement for social justice cannot be built on an agenda of “we want to be the oppressor, too!”

Instead of demanding access to marriage, we should be challenging marriage and all its legal and policy implications. We should be rethinking ways to value partnerships and families of all kinds. And we should speak for our selves, and speak loudly, and not let an affluent, white gay rights movement claim to speak for all of us queers.

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