Recent Ruminations on Gay Marriage

June 19, 2006

I discovered something alarming last week. I happened upon the group blog jspot.org, “the spot for Jewish perspectives on contemporary issues of social and economic justice,” as the site proudly proclaims. My eye scans down the list of topics and I click the one called “LGBT.” I scrolled through the entries, dating back to March. Out of 25 entries, 22 were about one topic: gay marriage. I couldn’t believe what I was reading. Aren’t there any other justice issues that affect LGBT people? How about the slew of pride month gay bashing incidents? How about the 25 year anniversary of the first documented cases of AIDS and about our current government’s problematic denial about what methods are actually successful in preventing the transmission of HIV and other sexually transmitted infections?

Here are some assumptions I wish people would stop making about me and my fellow queers. Not all LGBT/queer people:

  • are gung ho about gay marriage and proclaim it as an issue to which they would like devote much time
  • want to commit to monogamous, life-long relationships
  • who are in monogamous relationships want to have their relationship approved by the state
  • have the same exact values as straight people and just happen to be attracted to people of the same gender
  • would benefit from marriage the way middle-class white gay people might

I should preface this by stating that I am not opposed to anyone, gay or straight, having ceremonies to recognize their commitments to one another publicly, within their community. I take issue, however, with a need to have that commitment recognized, policed, and otherwise controlled by the government.

Regarding spending time pushing gay marriage through the courts: I have other commitments and things to do with my time, and of course I should put it right out there – I consider myself way too young to even think about committing to another person for my whole life. Maybe I will at some point, and maybe I won’t. But I think that’s an aside, and I can say that because I’ve thought through many of these issues and I’m not just being the flippant young queer. I just want to set the record straight: gay marriage is not good for all gay people and the issues are so much larger than just “marriage equality.”

I just read an amazing article, Altar Ego, by Michael Bronski, written in 2004. A friend sent it to me when I expressed frustration at all the gay marriage talk and activity going on around me. It’s really fantastic and sums up a lot of what I have been thinking about in my head. If you think you have a handle on gay marriage (for or against or more complicated than that), check it out. He put a few things that had been floating around in my head into clear, concise words. He talks about one of the basic arguments that queer people have with the gay marriage movement, which is that what marriage does, among other things, is privilege monogamous, romantic relationships over everything else. It leaves no room for all the different family structures that exist in this country.

Bronski goes through a number of arguments, analyzing and complicating the tax and health insurance issues. He touches on the fact that the argument about health insurance being a major issue for the gay marriage movement is completely a middle- and upper-class issue, because having the opportunity to access one’s partner’s insurance assumes that at least one of two people *has* health insurance – something that cannot be said for millions of Americans who work hourly wages or in the service sector. Futhermore, not all gay people would benefit equally from the tax breaks marriage offers.

There are many, many rights that marriage offers that do not need, logically, to be attached to marriage: Why should we not be allowed to declare for ourselves who can visit us in the hospital if we are sick (1, 4, or 10 different people, not related to us by blood or marriage)? Why should the government decide who can adopt and be a parent? It is so ironic that we seem to be *inviting* the government into our bedroom, asking to for our lives and relationships to be policed, instead of demanding that those rights be made available without marriage.

Another ironic twist to this debate is gay marriage’s effect on unmarried straight people. Bronski also discusses the effects of having domestic partnership as an opportunity not just for gay people but for straight people, and the way that marriage will become compulsory in order to receive benefits. On marriage “equality” in the state of Massachusetts, Bronski states:

Because [domestic partnerships] were instituted out of a sense of fairness to gay men and lesbians, and not to promote viable economic and ethical alternatives to traditional marriage, it makes perfect sense (to some) that they will disappear as legal civil marriage becomes available across the country. The result is that marriage will not be simply a choice for some gay people, but compulsory if the couple needs any of these benefits, even if they are not inclined to marriage.

What’s especially amazing about the DP discussion is that it seems that beyond giving gays and lesbians the opportunity to recognize their partnerships and receive some benefits, it actually gives straight people an alternative to marriage that would give them some of the same benefits. Why do these rights have to be attached to marriage, if not for reinforcing monogamy and the traditional nuclear family? Why should who I sleep with have anything to do with what rights I have? And why do gay people want their relationships to be policed by the government? It seems to me that rather than “being realistic” and “working with the system already in place,” (both arguments that I have heard when I protest against pushing for gay marriage) we are just reinforcing all of the values and compulsory relationships that gay people were rebelling against in the first place, and even worse, we are doing so only with middle- and upper-class goals in mind (see Speak Now: Progressive Considerations on the Advent of Civil Marriage for Same-Sex Couples for more on this topic).

Bronski argues further:

There is nothing wrong with fighting for same-sex marriage as long as it is part of a larger package, a larger scheme in which all the myriad issues affecting GLBT families are addressed. Rather than working from the top down using a model that uncritically accepts the enshrinement of marriage as the gold standard of personal and romantic relationships, gay and lesbian legal advocates should have been looking at the specific needs of a wide variety of GLBT families and shaping and fighting for policies and law that will benefit everyone — not just those in the middle class or who choose to engage in the most traditional relationships. The sad reality is that the GLBT movement had a chance to address all these issues in a more systematic and comprehensive manner — and decided not to do so, focusing instead on simply gaining access to traditional marriage, even though that road to “equality” was hardly the most efficacious or sensible.

The bottom line seems to be that we need to keep the “face” of the gay movement as conservative as possible, displaying our lifelong commitments to only one person to the right-wing Christians who run this country in the hopes that they will see us as their allies in their fight to “save marriage” instead of their enemies. When we do this, we leave behind all the complicated definitions for “family” that gay people (and all people) have developed: lesbian mothers with an involved sperm donor dad; a straight couple living with and supporting one or many of their elderly parents; or maybe two or several single mothers who have found companionship and financial support together. What of all of these configurations of “family?” Why are we so afraid to admit that marriage and the nuclear family structure is not ideal for all or even most Americans, gay or straight? Certainly we can admit that it’s not an ideal structure on which to decide who gets health insurance and tax breaks.

I know that gay marriage is on its way. But I fear that it will become another way for conservative America to dictate how relationships should be and what rights one receives as a “reward” for good relationship behavior. This is not the “sexual liberation” that gay people fought for in the 1960’s and 70’s, and it’s certainly not what I am fighting for now.

Topics I didn’t get to touch on: the history of marriage, the connection between capitalism and gay identity (see D’Emilio, “Capitalism and Gay Identity,” – this article changed my life), the gross consumerism involved in weddings, my personal whining about not wanting to feel pressured to get married, and a more extensive foray into how marriage affects low-income and non-white Americans, among many other things. I am still getting used to the whole blogging thing and having to write in little bites of writing.

More questions? Here’s some interesting articles, and no, not all of their authors have the same position as I:



  1. I agree with a lot of what you say about gay marriage. it’s funny how the personal and the political don’t always come together, at least for me. I so agree that we need to redefine the role that the govt plays in defining what a family is, and yet for my own purposes this ceremony and yes, I guess the ‘registration’ part of it, the formal recognition by the state, is also very important. maybe this could just be the thin edge of the wedge, so that we can start to redefine family from within?

  2. People have argued that – and others have argued that it will just reaffirm traditional “nuclear families” and give the gov’t even more power. it depends how the argument is framed and what we plan to do afterwards.

  3. The debate is going on here in the UK too – some arguing that the broadening definition of marriage (i.e. giving many of the privileges of married couples to common law partners) is destroying marriage, while others say it only strengthens it. But of course they’re still using a relatively narrow definition of family.

  4. All of the issues are really, really complicated and crazy – I hadn’t even thought of many of them until i started sorting through all these articles.

  5. Hey, Sarah B pointed me to your blog, and I wanted to let you know how much I appreciated your analysis – this is pretty much how I feel at the moment too. I don’t support the HRC financially because they have such a limited view of how to help LGBT folks (because they mainly want to help out more middle class “mainstream” white LGBT folks).

    I agree that there are bigger issues to focus on too – like universal health care – that would help out not only more LGBT folks but more folks in general. I like your belief, too, that the whole gay marriage push is part of a conservative wing to make LGBT folks look more “normal” – “Look, we want to be just like you!” While marriage might be in my future, I’m not so thrilled about it being codified by the government.

    Thanks! I look forward to reading your blog more!

  6. […] Recent Ruminations on Gay Marriage (June 2006) Beyond Rhetoric (July 2006) NYTimes on Those Rebel Gays (July 2006) Wedding Bells Ring Again (October 2006) Potlucks, Purim, and Gay Marriage (October 2006) Blame it on the Gays. Seriously! (November 2006) Maybe DOMAS Should Address This Instead? (November 2006) Whose Agenda is GENDA? (July 2007) […]

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