Is There a Downside to Same-Sex Marriage?

Published in: July-August 2004 issue.


The fact that the gay and lesbian rights movement has put same-sex marriage at the top of its agenda is not hard to fathom: marriage is the hub from which so many of our cultural, legal, economic, and religious institutions extend. Nothing else could accord us more respectability, bring us closer to a status of normality, or move us faster from the margins to the center of society. It is irrefutably crucial to our full participation in and integration into the mainstream. Then why do I think we’ve taken up the wrong battle in fighting for the right to marry?

One problem with marriage is that it privileges those who marry over those who do not. It’s not only that marriage confers a whole slew of economic benefits, or that it unfairly stigmatizes those who pursue sexual arrangements outside of marriage, though it undoubtedly does both. Another point against marriage as a goal for gay people is that it move us that much closer to the mainstream and robs us of what has been our unique cultural perspective.

Historically, the queer credo has esteemed gender and sexual freedom, carrying with it a suspicion of the mechanisms that create social hierarchies rendering some classes of people as aberrant or invisible. This credo has embraced a proud celebration of difference and a refusal to allow mainstream culture to define who we are. These fundamental values created the critical lens through which we’ve been able to see the ways in which certain ideologies (patriarchy, capitalism) and institutions (marriage, the healthcare system) operate to oppress particular groups of people (women, African-Americans), desires (notably sexual ones) and behaviors (homosexual or extramarital acts).

Our social critiques have manifested themselves in various forms—through grassroots political organizing, protests, scholarship, art, and literature. Our outsider’s view has given birth to the social consciousness and aesthetic eye of some of the world’s most influential writers, artists, and thinkers. People like Walt Whitman, Oscar Wilde, Marcel Proust, Radclyffe Hall, E. M. Forster, Jean Genet, James Baldwin, Bessie Smith, Gore Vidal, Audre Lorde, Jeanette Winterson, Keith Haring, Michel Foucault, Adrienne Rich, and John Waters (to name a few) would probably not have seen what they saw, felt what they felt, or created what they created without tapping this sensibility.

Consider camp, that quintessentially gay way of challenging mainstream articulations of gender. Camp shines a spotlight on the performative nature of masculinity and femininity, mocking reified notions of gender and sexuality. Such a subversion of society’s norms has infiltrated mainstream society and are visible in such pop cultural phenomena as “the metrosexual male” and the reality show Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. As cultural critic Chris Nutter has argued, gay men have liberated the straight American male by radically reshaping masculinity into something that depends much less on homophobia and sexism to define itself.

I’m not suggesting that we tolerate inequality to maintain our unique perspective. But I do think we should weigh the value of social acceptance against that of justice, which has always been the guiding principle of our struggle. Our vision of the future must be guided by the lessons we’ve learned from standing on the margins. The goal should not, in my view, be gaining the right to marry, but rather the uncoupling of marriage from a system of reward and privilege that excludes those who are not married, whether gay or straight. I concur with Richard Goldstein of The Village Voice, who argues that we should work for a proliferation of social and legal arrangements available to accommodate the ever-expanding range of desires in our democracy. That, it seems to me, should be our goal—perhaps a more difficult goal than joining the marriage bandwagon, but not an unattainable one. Barring that, my fear is that once we gain the kind of acceptance that marriage would confer, the perspective that defines who we are as a subculture and gives us our unique outlook will be lost.


Stephanie Fairyington is a freelance writer living in Brooklyn.