Equality, Without Marriage?

While following the ups and down of the Prop 8 trial, I was reminded of an editorial by Bob Morris in The New York Times way back in 2004. “Gay Marriage? How Straight” was a cheeky bit of contrarianism, a gay man’s lament that marriage equality could ruin what he considered the relative freedom of gays and lesbians to self-define the terms of their romantic lives.

In his essay, Morris cites a claim made by the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund that denying same-sex couples the right to marry dooms gays and lesbians to “permanent adolescence,” the cultural purgatory of the eternally dating, never permitted to graduate to the paradise of wedded bliss. The implication is that the marital side of the mountain is not only the side of state-sanctioned legitimacy, but also maturity, stability and depth. And that those of us who remain unmarried–either because of discriminatory laws, circumstance, or personal choice–are leading diminished, circumscribed lives, excluded from meaningful and fully committed adult love. Though his analysis is somewhat problematic, Morris worries that legalized same-sex marriage would mean that gays and lesbians would lose a powerful privilege–the ability to “be single without being stigmatized.”

Six years later, this argument still resonates with me as a now-30-year-old, unmarried (but not single) hetero chick with no plans to ever tie the knot. Indeed, it’s difficult to find a respite from the cultural master narrative that any romantic relationship that does not culminate in marriage is in some way flawed. All marriages may not be happy ones, but it’s a truth near-universally acknowledged that unmarried folks–especially unmarried women–must be miserable. (A myth, by the way, that social scientist Bella DePaulo ably deconstructs and refutes in her book Singled Out.)

But more is at stake here than just concern over being misunderstood. Marriage is a contract, after all, and a lot is tied up with it, including basic economic and social rights and privileges. Radical queer, feminist and anti-capitalist activists have established well-developed critiques of the institution of marriage and its implication in systems of oppression. Srimati Basu recently detailed the “unnaturalness” and non-normativity of marriage on the Ms. blog. Meanwhile, organizations such as Beyond Marriage and the Alternatives to Marriage Project are working to expand the marriage debate to ensure that it addresses not only the unjust exclusion of some groups from marriage but also the ways in which marriage itself is exclusionary. As Beyond Marriage’s call-to-action puts it:

Marriage is not the only worthy form of family or relationship, and it should not be legally and economically privileged above all others. A majority of people–whatever their sexual and gender identities–do not live in traditional nuclear families. They stand to gain from alternative forms of household recognition beyond one-size-fits-all marriage.

Among groups that are stigmatized and harmed by the elevation of marriage as the gold standard of committed relationships, Beyond Marriage lists single parents, senior citizens living together and serving as each other’s caregivers, adult children caring for their parents, close friends or siblings living together and serving as each other’s primary support, and care-givers who provide support to those living with long-term illness such as HIV/AIDS. Beyond Marriage makes the case that expanding legal recognition to include diverse forms of households, families and relationships will do more for social justice.

So instead of erasing boundaries, a single-minded focus on marriage equality for same-sex couples may run the risk of re-inscribing the lines and perpetuating inequity. Still, given the earnest desire to celebrate love and partnership, how do you initiate a conversation that critiques marriage when it’s a right that so many of our friends, partners, parents and others have fought long and hard for, and are still actively, substantially denied?

In other words, how can an unmarried person question the value of marriage without it coming across as undermining, overly negative, or a bad case of sour grapes?

Dean Spade, an assistant professor at Seattle University School of Law and the founder of the Sylvia Rivera Law Project, provides a video primer, via Xtranormal. Some highlights:

I want a world where romantic relationships are not privileged over other kinds of friendships, where we don’t make empty promises about forever.

I hate it when people say that gay marriage will disrupt gender and family roles because gay people will bring something new to marriage.

It feels like what is happening is the wedding industrial complex has got gay and lesbian people in its clutches and they are all building desires for its boring, expensive fantasy.

It is so awful that people keep on saying this is about equality; there is nothing equal about the state privileging certain relationships over others.

If we want equality we should get rid of marriage and make it that no one should have their immigration status, health care access or parenthood depend on being married.

Questioning marriage doesn’t mean abandoning the fight for marriage equality, or pursuing it with less fervor. It means expanding the dialogue and examining our underlying assumptions and biases about the kinds of relationships that count.

Photo from Flickr user hojusaram under Creative Commons 2.0.


  1. Depends, don't know how it is 4gays, but I got out of it straight up 18yrs on, cause I entered it with the wrong person, am still trying 2recover from the shock of how different we truly R one was absolutely evil & supported by everyone vile & hateful on earth when it broke up, & I was & still am good as gold & made 2feel like I was the only dvorced woman alive! Consequently, my submission on the matter is & may be a unique submission due to bad experience, is, if u marry a good person it could be great! even if it does end in divorce you will have good stuff 2reflect on but if you marry a nasty person & u divorce hell, the more you try to mend & move on, the more hell the nasty person will keep reminding u, u were once at it's mercy, especially if there are kids involved & u happen 2love your kids, if you don't have a good legal team, your kids could be turned into spoils of war against u for who is paying for the lies, litigation, confusions and war it wishes to fight to show you, with all your goodness, you got no right to find who is good like you and be happy in life, u r supposed to be kept back so he can feel great and in control even in divorce, so really it depends on what you marry, if you marry good it will be ok, even if stuff didnt work it, it remains great and you could be friends and invite each other to your next marriage, but if you divorce hell, your progress will remain an issue for the hell u divorced even in divorce as it kept reminding you, all that agreed with it hurting you are evil like it, and it cannot get over your goodness, but you want nothing to do with his evil but it hurts you when he holds on to your kids and he is no more a blessing to them than he was to you, he just uses them as spoils of his war and captives to get at you, depending on your financial status!

  2. Amy Williams says:

    Really good, interesting article. You’re definitely right when you say that “more is at stake here than just concern over being misunderstood. Marriage is a contract, after all, and a lot is tied up with it, including basic economic and social rights and privileges.”

    As someone who waffled on the decision to marry – and eventually got hitched anyway – I can say that those legal & economic protections make a strong case for marriage, whether or not you object to the wedding-industrial complex, or have no interest in “tying the knot.” Without a marriage certificate, I wouldn’t be able to get onto my partner’s affordable and very, very good health insurance plan. Also, now that we're legal, it will be easy for me to get a residency permit to join my partner when he goes abroad.

    I really liked the idea of not getting married – or rejecting the institution flat-out. But that ended up not being a good or financially-viable option for me for several reasons, some listed above. You're absolutely right that we need to question marriage. We also need to figure out how to make it easier for partners to stay together while NOT getting married.

    • These are exactly the kinds of benefits that people who are not married are not receiving but, if we were really asking the deep questions about marriage equality, we would be fighting for! Why should access to health care depend on a marriage certificate (or employment contract)? I liked the article especially because Berenstein calls for these questions to be asked – not at the personal level but at the movement level. Also, nobody should be forced to get married – as you were – for economic reasons!

  3. "In other words, how can an unmarried person question the value of marriage without it coming across as undermining, overly negative, or a bad case of sour grapes?"

    This is a big problem in singles advocacy. Marriage worship is so ingrained in the worlds' cultures–and not necessarily for the right reasons–that many people have a knee-jerk reaction to anyone who questions the institution. We (singles' advocates) are called bitter, man-haters (or woman haters, whatever), etc etc. Therefore all our rhetoric has to be tempered and carefully laid out to avoid even the appearance of defensiveness.

    However, at the same time, marriage advocates also have a responsibility to open their minds to the possibility that the institution does need questioning, and that marriage–in its true spirit of personal love and commitment–can survive that cross-examination and come out stronger and fairer for everyone.

  4. Ursula K. Le Guin: Success is somebody elses failure. Success is the American Dream we can keep dreaming because most people in most places, including thirty million of ourselves, live wide awake in the terrible reality of poverty.

  5. No offense but check heterosexual privilege! Thought experiment – imagine its 1965, prior to the Supreme Court’s Loving v. Virginia decision, would you write an article lecturing african americans for fighting bans on interracial marriage? Were they not sufficiently radical like say the Black Panthers who did, in fact, object to interracial marriage because they viewed it as a betrayal of black nationalism? It is bad enough when “queers” made these same privileged, narrow ideological “critiques” but its borderline homophobic when a straight person recycles the same bullshit.

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