The Perfect Storm: Why Progressives Must Reframe the Narrow Terms of Marriage Politics
Kay Whitlock, a progressive queer writer and organizer based in Missoula, Montana, is one of the authors of "Beyond Same-Sex Marriage: A New Strategic Vision for All Our Families & Relationships."
Last year, an eclectic group of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer organizers, scholars, funders, writers, and other cultural workers came together to discuss marriage and family politics as they exist in the United States today. Their statement, "Beyond Same-Sex Marriage: A New Strategic Vision for All Our Families & Relationships" can be read in its entirety at www.beyondmarriage.org, and has been endorsed by hundreds of pro-LGBT movers and shakers throughout the country. In the article that follows, one of the statement's 19 authors -- speaking for herself and not the entire group -- summarizes this new vision and assesses its relevance in light of recent political developments.
Homophobia-fueled opposition to same-sex marriage is only the most visible tip of a much larger conservative policy iceberg that threatens not only same-sex couples who seek civil marriage recognition, but the stability and security of countless families and households headed by people of all sexual and gender identities -- many of whom cannot or do not wish to marry.
The conservative marriage agenda also includes coercive marriage promotion policies directed toward women on welfare, abstinence-only sex education, and stringent divorce laws. It mounts attacks on reproductive freedom, second-parent adoption, reciprocal beneficiary agreements, and legal recognition of domestic partnerships and civil unions. All of these measures, accompanied by a 30-year assault on the social safety net, leave a rapidly increasing number of families and households with fewer resources, but increased burdens and constraints. As always, poor people -- a disproportionate number of whom are people of color (both immigrant and US-born) -- are hardest hit. Women, youth, elders, transgender people, and people with disabilities are also disproportionately represented in the ranks of those with low and fixed incomes.
The marriage politics of the right, in fact, constitute an almost perfect storm of racial, gender, sexual, and economic injustice. You'd think that could bring us together in powerful, cross-constituency coalitions to build a shared family/relationship recognition agenda. Yet the right has too often succeeded in pitting the different communities suffering the harms of its marriage politics against one another.
It's time to create new terms of debate -- and new strategic approaches that address the needs of diverse households and communities, regardless of race, citizenship status, sexual orientation, gender/gender identity, or class. Even as we fight against anti-gay measures, we must continue to support the right of same-sex couples to marry. However, we must also call for a broader definition of family so that marriage, for all who choose it, is only one option among many, not the only way people can access essential government protections and supports. These supports include unmarried partner access to health insurance, second-parent adoption, and survivor benefits for Social Security and pensions.
Here, briefly, are three of the most compelling reasons for embracing this new vision and the profound challenges it entails.
The Anti-Marriage Backlash
A narrow focus on marriage equality as a stand-alone issue may secure rights and benefits for some LGBT families, but it also places many in jeopardy. Marriage equality has come to dominate many LGBT institutional agendas and budgets, pushing aside the basic survival needs of many queer families and households for whom marriage is not the only or even most important issue, and in some cases, is neither relevant nor applicable. As Kenyon Farrow, co-editor of Letters From Young Activists: Today's Rebels Speak Out, notes, "People of color, women, and trans people don't have the luxury of just being gay. We have to look at the totality of our lives and make decisions about the total impact of our lives. Marriage will not be the thing that saves our lives. We need to work for full, universal access to health care [and] fight for legal recognition for a wide range of family and kinship structures."
The accomplishments of marriage equality activists are important. Legal recognition for same-sex relationships has expanded in a handful of states. Currently, only Massachusetts issues marriage licenses to same-sex couples who are residents of the state, but in addition, Vermont, Connecticut, and New Jersey permit same-sex partners to enter into civil unions. The significance of such recognition is profound.
Yet the right wing has responded to these struggles with an especially virulent wave of political backlash. Today, 38 states have enacted some version of a "Defense of Marriage Act," or DOMA. Typically, DOMAs define marriage as between one man and one woman -- and prohibit recognition of same-sex marriages recognized elsewhere by religious authorities or other governments. (There is also a federal DOMA, signed into law by Bill Clinton.) Twenty-seven states -- some of them also with DOMAs -- have constitutional amendments prohibiting same-sex marriage, and more states are trying to pass their own.
These laws don't affect only gay people. In six states, DOMAs also prohibit legal recognition of "marriage-like" status, such as civil unions and domestic partnerships, for queers and heterosexuals alike, and in 18 states, constitutional amendments do so.
The fallout is already showering down. Anti-gay "marriage" laws serve as a legal crowbar to dismantle any progressive framework of relationship/household recognition. The consequences are devastating. In Michigan, for example, an appeals court recently held that the state's same-sex marriage ban prohibited public universities, state agencies, and local governments from offering health insurance to partners of gay and lesbian employees. And two lower courts in Ohio have cited the state's same-sex marriage ban in denying protection under domestic violence laws to members of unmarried couples.
Within the past year, courts in New York and Washington found no constitutional guarantee to marriage for same-sex couples and threw the issue back to state legislatures -- which, presumably, are free to discriminate. Other court cases will follow. Whether they tilt our way or not, we should expect fallout of one kind or other, for as historian John D'Emilio points out, even when the LGBT movement wins a marriage equality fight, we still stand to lose. For example, when same-sex marriages were finally recognized in Massachusetts, the Boston Globe and a host of other businesses and institutions dropped domestic partner benefit programs that had benefited many, instead privileging only married couples. While some LGBT organizations, many of which fought early on for domestic partner recognition, have been responding to such developments (in crisis mode and on a case-by-case basis), others consider any relationship status other than marriage to be unworthy of defense.
"Marriage Only" Leaves Most of Us Behind
It's time to take a clear, hard look at demographic reality. A "marriage-only" approach to relationship and household recognition will leave most of us, heterosexual and queer, behind.
Change is the one historic constant, and over time, marriage has been declining across all income groups in the United States, as people respond to constantly changing social, economic, demographic, and technological realities.
According to US Census data, married couples with children now constitute fewer than one in every four households. Marriage with children is no longer the household norm, and has not been for quite some time.
Slightly more than 50 percent of households are headed by unmarried people, some single and some partnered, and almost a third of children in the United States are being raised in unmarried homes. About 40 percent of unmarried partner households, queer and heterosexual, have children under 18 years of age living in them. Many aging baby-boomers will spend a significant part of their senior years alone. Many will live with relatives or friends in non-conjugal relationships. Increasingly, both married and unmarried adults are serving as primary caregivers for aging and infirm parents or other relatives. Many people live in extended-family households. Needless to say, LGBT people in each of these categories often face the added burdens of homophobia and transphobia.
Requiring marriage as a way to access legal recognition and the economic support of a caring society is not a viable option for millions of households. Consider, for example, these kinds of families: senior citizens living together or serving as one another's caregivers, partners, or constructed families; close friends or siblings who live together in long-term, committed, non-conjugal relationships, serving as each other's primary support; extended families living under one roof (a practice common in many immigrant communities). Are they less worthy in our eyes?
Rather, we should provide access to a flexible set of household benefits and options that are separated from the requirement of conjugal or marital relationship. Marriage, then, could remain a meaningful and respected personal choice, with civil and in some cases spiritual recognition. But it would no longer be the means by which civil society triages family worthiness.
Is this possible? Absolutely. Some hopeful models that provide material support for a wide range of household formations can stir our strategic imaginations.
For example, Canada has made considerable strides toward recognition that various kinds of families and relationships can fulfill the critical social functions of parenting, mutual economic support, primary care and support for aging and disabled persons, and more. The legal distinction between marital and non-marital conjugal relationships has been virtually erased, and specific rights and responsibilities of marriage have been extended to both opposite-sex and same-sex couples.
In Salt Lake City, Utah, an ordinance allows city employees of all sexual and gender identities to identify an adult designee who is entitled to health insurance benefits in conjunction with the benefits provided to the employee. Benefits extend to children of the adult designee as well. The sensible and simple requirements for adult designees are not related to marital or conjugal status.
A Winning Approach
Finding new ways to defend all families will let fresh air and new light into a dangerously suffocating political climate. No longer will LGBT people be seen primarily as a self-interested constituency, but as partners in a larger, multiracial struggle for social and economic justice for all.
Already, we are seeing indications that this approach can work. In November 2006, Arizona became the first state to reject in the voting booth a proposed constitutional amendment that banned not only same-sex marriage, but also other forms of legal recognition for those who are not married. It was a fearfully close vote, and there were serious strategic tensions among different factions in the campaign responsible for defeating it. Nonetheless, by running a multi-constituency campaign that demonstrated how the proposed amendment would affect not only same-sex couples, but also seniors, survivors of domestic violence, unmarried heterosexual couples, adopted children, and the business community, a potentially precedent-setting victory was achieved. The LGBT community's work is not done, however, because in the same election, voters approved four anti-immigrant measures. Will the Arizona campaign's multi-constituency approach develop into broad-based LGBT support for immigrant communities, as it should? We do not yet know.
And while a South Carolina effort to defeat a similar constitutional amendment failed, the margin by which the amendment passed was smaller than expected. Not coincidentally, the South Carolina organizing effort also carefully built relationships with a broad, multi-based, multi-racial constituency, emphasizing in day-to-day organizing the themes of "Fairness for All Families" and "Families Have No Borders. We All Belong."
Translated into practical action, such themes will resonate with many who are not currently with us. Along the way, we, too, will be changed -- for the better -- by building deep, long-lasting relationships with communities whose needs have, until now, largely been absent from our vision of marriage equality.