Challenging the Marriage Imperative

Published in: January-February 2007 issue.


Considering how the marriage issue has been framed by the mainstream media, it’s no wonder most fair-minded straight people and even many gay people—notably those who’ve been colonized by news outlets that blindly uphold the status quo—think every gay person in the America is dying for the right to wed. That’s far from the case, and a recent panel discussion in New York City titled “Beyond Marriage” lucidly laid out why the myopic pursuit of marriage rights is an affront to a large majority of families in America that look vastly different from the conventional nuclear family.

The panel followed from a widely circulated pamphlet entitled “Beyond Same-Sex Marriage” (BSSM) that began circulating last summer. The statement threw down the following gauntlet to those for whom same-sex marriage has become the central or even the exclusive goal of the GLBT rights movement: “Marriage is not the only worthy form of family or relationship, and it should not be legally and economically privileged above all others.”

Terri Boggis, the director of Center Kids, the family program of the LGBT Community Center in New York, challenged the assumption that heterosexual marriage describes the reality of family life for most Americans, citing statistics from the U.S. Census. “The majority are single-parent households, grandparents raising kids or other kinship care arrangements, adults living alone, friends with benefits, multiple generation households, extended families, and more. Only approximately 25 percent of U.S. households are now comprised of a mother, father, and kids.” Unlike some of the signers of the BSSM document, Boggis supports the rights of same-sex couples to be married. What she advocates is a more expansive (and ever-expanding) definition of “family” that does not depend for its legitimacy on the presence of a marriage. How this is possible in light of the immense cultural capital (and actual capital) that society has invested in the institution of marriage is not clear.

Lisa Duggan, professor of American Studies at NYU, seemed to spot a countertrend to this objective, noting that marriage is increasingly expected to absorb the responsibilities of various social services and resources that the states and federal government once provided. A prime example is the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families or TANF, a program championed by conservatives that Duggan mentions in an article she wrote for The Nation called “Holy Matrimony!” TANF orders the states to promote marriage as a solution to poverty. Referring to this and other right-wing political maneuvers aimed at “privatizing” a public function, the BBSM statement echoes Duggan’s point: “The purpose [of such proposals]is not only to enforce narrow, heterosexist definitions of marriage and coerce conformity, but also to slash to the bone governmental funding for a wide array of family programs, including childcare, healthcare and reproductive services, and nutrition, and transfer responsibility for financial survival to families themselves.” Duggan calls for the renunciation of the term and institution of marriage altogether.

Joseph DeFilippis, executive director of American Studies at NYU and a former gay marriage advocate, argued that the GLBT folks who would benefit from marriage the most—senior citizens—will be the least likely to reap its economic and social rewards. Noting that the vast majority of gay seniors are single, have no children or are estranged from their families because of their sexualities, DeFilippis says elderly gay families are “less like Ozzie and Harriet and more like The Golden Girls.” He went on to highlight a sobering statistic from the research of Amber Hollibaugh, senior strategist for the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force: eighty percent of gay seniors are single. And while all of the seniors DeFilippis used to work with were in favor of the legalization of gay marriage, when asked what would help their lives more, universal health care or same-sex marriage, the overwhelming response was universal healthcare. This raises the question: where are our priorities? Who exactly would benefit from same-sex marriage?

Kenyon Farrow, author of the widely circulated essay “Is Gay Marriage Anti-Black?”, spoke about the ways marriage serves a controlling and normalizing function that has been used to stigmatize and marginalize black people, whose familial organizations often do not correspond to the nuclear family structure. The right to wed for non-hetero blacks would not be a panacea, especially for poor people of color, who are often struggling to meet basic necessities. He also noted with chagrin how the Christian Right has aligned itself with African-American religious leaders to come out against gay marriage, and how gay white liberals have taken up the language of civil rights activism to advance the marriage cause—two insidious ways that both groups are using black people to advance an agenda that’s not a major focus of the African-American community as a whole.

Hollibaugh made what seems to me a fundamental distinction between the pursuit of equality, the goal of same-sex marriage advocates, and the pursuit of liberation, which is the goal of the BSSM signers. Equality asks for equitable treatment under the rule of institutions that are inherently unfair and unfree, while liberation asks for fair treatment under new or radically changed institutions. Instead of asking for a place at the current table of marriage, we ought to be asking for a new table altogether that respectfully, comfortably, and securely accommodates us all.

Stephanie Fairyington is a writer and editor based in New York.