The marriage equality movement has changed the face of “gay culture”, and not entirely for the better. “Gay life” might have been derided as tawdry and dangerous by onlookers for decades, but it was also long on fun and short on rules for people who actually participated. Now, when many straight people hear ”gay”, they imagine the elderly, sweet-looking Edie Windsor describing her victory over DOMA, or politically aware middle-aged folks in street clothes making it legal with their partners of 20 years at city hall.
Image: Jennifer Morrow via Flickr
Nobody (LGBTQ individuals) thought it was OK that we were shut out as a group from the protections and respect of marriage, but some gay people questioned the value of creating an assimilation-oriented public image. What about gay people who don’t want to get married? Are they and their relationships worthy of respect, or will they soon, like their straight friends, discover that only one specific legal designation makes them “really together”?
My partner and I have not ruled out marriage for ourselves (when Illinois makes it legal) but we both feel that when our community made marriage its most public cause, it traded away the chance for a different cultural contribution: starting the conversation about making married relationships more equal to non-married ones. Gay people, like people from other groups historically prevented from marrying, have a rich history of non-marriage support systems that work better for some people than traditional marriage might. Making a new framework for legally recognizing similar alternative arrangements to marriage would give more people more options to live well with the people who matter most to them.
For example, what if an adult taking care of an elderly parent, two best friends who share living space, or two sisters who raise a child together could designate one another as domestic partners, and receive marriage-like benefits? Legal benefits like providing health insurance and filing taxes jointly should be available to them if they so choose. Extending marriage-like legal benefits to unmarried couples isn’t as farfetched as you may think; some states recognize that elderly couples, in particular, benefit from non-marital legal partnership. California’s domestic partnership law defines domestic partners as “two adults who have chosen to share one another's lives in an intimate and committed relationship of mutual caring”, and is available to opposite-sex couples over age 62. Advocate groups such as Unmarried America and Beyond Marriage are already working on expanding legal partnerships to more people.
Marriage could exist as an option, even if other ways emerge for people to protect loved ones. The institution would still retain significant cultural, social, and religious importance for many people even if it lost its current legal status as most-favored human relationship. The argument that marriage is a necessary building block for a stable society is simply not persuasive. Consider the post WWII era, from about 1945-1960, as the “golden age” to which most politicians refer when they allege that marriage means stability for Americans. The only people who can really claim that life was more stable then are white, straight, cisgender men.
Americans of color had virtually no civil rights, and were barred from most jobs that paid a living wage, as well as from most unions. Gayness was defined as a mental illness, and people could rarely live in the open. Marriage laws gave wives few rights independent from their husbands, and social norms discouraged education and career investment in favor of economic dependence. Activists' focus on making marriage itself more available and egalitarian is only one necessary step. Real "marriage equality" would allow people to choose their own most important relationships and still be legally protected. It’s time to stop insisting that people get married so their lives can be better, and start implementing poilicies that will improve people's lives no matter what relationships they think are most important.
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