Culture: A Marriage Proposal

With gay marriage now on the agenda, it may be time to consider the institution of marriage itself.

By Mary E. Hunt
Summer 2005

The best proof that the religious right is in charge in the United States lies in the movement for same-sex marriage. Of course the Right opposes it, but by setting up marriage as the main lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender/ queer (LGBTQ) agenda item, the Right has set itself up to win. This issue, like gays in the military before it, is not necessarily the most important to LGBTQ people ourselves. But the Right’s polarizing opposition has made it necessary to struggle for it or lose ground. I make no pretense of solving a difficult problem and I know the injustice of a heterosexist culture. But my modest proposal is intended to reframe the issue.

In fact, what seems to be a huge step forward for lesbian and gay people, will, when achieved, extend the reach of state control over relationships. It will privilege those who are coupled over those who are single or otherwise connected. It will shore up the nuclear family model despite the fact that people live in many other relational constellations. However, if same-sex marriage is prohibited, as the 11 state referenda lost in the last election year would have it, a significant percentage of the population will continue to lose out on the 1,138 federal rights that marriage conveys. This is a classic “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” situation. The Right knows how to frame the issue, a skill I suggest we who have a broader vision learn.

Progressive people, and especially progressive religious people, must do better if relational justice for all—and not just more rights for a few—is to result. In the interest of full disclosure, I live in a long-term committed relationship with a wonderful woman, and we have adopted a daughter. By some lights, we look like the new model of the Catholic Family of the Year. By others, we are the incarnation of evil. By my lights, we are simply three people who deserve all of the rights of citizenship, but no more than my single cousin, my widowed neighbor or my friends who belong to religious congregations. Connecting rights to marriage is, in my view, an outmoded approach to the common good.

The operative problem is not same-sex marriage, but heterosexual marriage. Hetero- marriage is not a right, but a privilege- granting machine that favors those who are lucky in love by making them even luckier in the business of daily life. I see no reason to extend that privilege to more people, and every reason to curtail it, so as to level the socio-economic playing field for all. This can only be achieved while building social safeguards for the whole of society, since any protections afforded, especially to women, by heteromarriage, such as maintenance after divorce, will be lost.

I support the efforts that have resulted in civil unions in Vermont, same-sex marriage in Massachusetts, and the various forays in Oregon, San Francisco, New Paltz, NY, and elsewhere to bring about equality. Far from contradicting myself, I am politically practical enough to realize that without forcing the issue into the courts, it will lie dormant. Moreover, it has been very instructive for the whole country to see that same-sex marriages have not brought about the end of the world, nor have they resulted in the end of heterosexuality as we know it.

If anything, same-sex marriages have fueled the wedding business (catering, photographers, flowers, receptions and gifts galore) and reinforced the notion that “ good” gay and lesbian people come in happy twosomes. I favor other economic priorities (like health care for all) and know that many lesbian and gay people are single, between relationships, or quite content to live outside the long arms of the state. But choice is choice and I support it. Nonetheless, my long term goal is not same-sex marriage. I seek a broader, perhaps more utopian, trajectory toward full citizenship for all with an emphasis on the common good upheld by structures that support individual choices.

Jewish feminist theologian Judith Plaskow and her longtime partner Smith College professor Martha Ackelsberg, who live in Massachusetts, said it best: “In not taking advantage of this new right, however, we can more comfortably advocate for the kind of society in which we would like to live.” If those of us who are white, middle or upper middle class and well educated enough to manipulate the legal system do not resist the grinding moves toward social sameness, who will? In addition, African American womanist scholar Irene Monroe has claimed that the move toward same-sex marriage has been a narrow framing of the queer justice agenda, one that leaves aside many of the concerns of African American families including adoption, HIV/AIDS prevention and unemployment. I trust these women’s views and prefer them to the Andrew Sullivanesque hand wringing over tying the knot. Interestingly, while gay men have pushed for marriage, the Massachusetts’ statistics after the first year of same-sex marriage reveal that women are marrying one another at more than twice the rate of men. This is due, no doubt, to the longtime female conditioning to bond and to the economic challenges two women face in what is still—economically speaking—a man’s world.

Discussion of same-sex marriage lays bare how siflingly rigid we are when it comes to encouraging relational diversity.

The debate around same-sex marriage has been very helpful in making transparent several fundamental issues. First, marriage, both hetero and homo, is as much, if not more, a business deal than a romantic or even a religious matter. I say this not to demean or degrade those who choose it, but to explain how the world works so we can make informed choices. For example, hetero-marriage assures the sharing of Social Security benefits, certain pension survivor’s rights and the option to file joint income taxes when doing so will be favorable. Of course one need not be heterosexual to marry as it is. The late Andrea Dworkin, a lesbian feminist activist who was a critic of marriage, married her longtime companion John Stoltenberg, a gay man. Their motives are none of my business, but I suspect business entered into the decision since access to a partner’s insurance coverage, for example, is easier for married people.

It is simply ethically intuitive to extend such privileges to same-sex couples who, by marrying, take on the various responsibilities that heterosexual couples claim justify their privilege. But what remains to be explained is why being coupled, especially without children, should result in any economic advantage. Rather, it seems fair that everyone should be able to designate survivors for purposes of inheritance, or no one should; everyone ought to be able to choose with whom they will jointly file taxes, or no one should. Thousands of same-sex couples married in Massachusetts are finding out as they file their first income taxes as married couples that the “full faith and credit” is not an easy constitutional mandate to fulfill. Married in their state’s eyes, they have to file their federal returns as single people.

The court challenges in this regard promise to be many and lengthy as samesex marriage plays out first in the states and eventually at the federal level. I am persuaded, along with Sue Hyde of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force that “same-sex marriage is a reality; it’s here to stay and it will eventually become the law of the land.” My concern is whether marriage is actually what we want, the short term justice goal it represents notwithstanding.

The more I examine marriage, the more obvious it becomes that the laws are written to favor a certain two-by-two lifestyle that is simply a fiction. A divorce rate above forty percent and the growing number of longtime single people in our society suggest that for many people marriage is at best a temporary state of affairs. It would seem to make more sense to draw the legal lines vis-à-vis those who have children or even those who care for elders, privileging them because they have taken on the care of those who cannot care for themselves. But doing so in the case of children would reinforce the notion that children “belong” to their parents, rather than being the responsibility of society as a whole; it would reinforce that elder care is family- rather than society-based.

A second problem with marriage, delicate to handle without being accused of promoting promiscuity, is one raised by LGBTQ Canadians who have the right to marry but do not seem to be exercising it in the same proportions as their US counterparts. Is hetero-marriage, with its presumption of sexual exclusivity, really what lesbian and gay people want? Do we intend to perpetuate what one Canadian referred to as the “white picket fence model,” the fiction that happiness and relational goodness only come in matched pairs?

I admit to being on the conventional side here, and so, fortunately for me, is my partner. But I see no good reason to legislate such morality when other people find different models that suit their mutual tastes. It is hard to know the players without a scorecard, but polyamory is increasingly acceptable in some circles. Celibacy is also an option that, in my view, deserves equal treatment under the law. Discussion of same-sex marriage lays bare how stiflingly rigid we are when it comes to encouraging relational diversity. Same sex divorces will make the shortcomings of marriage even more obvious, with lawyers waiting happily in the wings to profit from our losses. I see no reason to reinforce such a dysfunctional model by insisting on admitting more people to it, though I understand that everyone should have the right to be wrong.

A third major flaw in the marriage model is the relationship between religion and the state that is a major part of the same-sex marriage debate. One of the reasons given to prohibit same-sex marriages is that many ministers, rabbis, imams and other religious professionals who now act on behalf of the state could be forced to do so against their religious principles if same-sex marriage becomes an option. While I doubt any court would so order, what I hope will result from this discussion is a wholesale rethinking of the role of religious professionals in the state’s business.

Religious leaders would do everyone a favor by breaking out of the moral mold and talking frankly about what we know to be the many and varied ways good people live their relational lives.

It is not clear to me why clergy people handle the legal aspects of marriage at all, signing off as official representatives of the state. It would seem that judges, justices of the peace and other duly elected or appointed government officials should do so, leaving religious professionals to tend to the spiritual dimensions of relationships for those who wish to avail themselves of such services. This is done in many countries as a routine matter. Note that Prince Charles and Camilla Parker Bowles married first in a civil ceremony (the real thing, that Queen Elizabeth took a pass on) and then had a religious blessing (which the queen attended since it, like the reception, had no legal weight). I remain mystified as to why clergy in the US willingly work for the state without pay or pension.

Many progressive religious people, including me, have been supportive of the same-sex marriage movement. I believe that we need to continue that public support, including risking ecclesial and/or civil disobedience in doing so. But at the same time, and without risk of contradiction, I think we need to raise the kinds of issues I am flagging here so as to avoid being co-opted by the Religious Right one more time.

We need to admit that many of our religious traditions have not strayed far from their roots when it comes to marriage as a commodity exchange. We, as their current leaders, need to put a wholesale reexamination of marriage on the agenda, leaving aside the same-sex distraction in order to think anew about how we envision a just society.

Religious leaders would do everyone a favor by breaking out of the moral mold and talking frankly about what we know to be the many and varied ways good people live their relational lives. We need to bring the moral energies of religion to the realities of contemporary social life. This does not mean that we abdicate ethics, but that we listen hard and speak honestly about the fact that two-by-two is not the only, and for some not the best, way to live. It is because religions put such a priority on those who are vulnerable or marginalized, like the young, the old and the infirm, that religious leaders can dare to entertain relational models other than marriage without risking the loss of what marriage now purports to protect. Someone has to start the conversation.

Religious leaders, especially licensed clergy, will need to lead the way in separating religion and the state by refusing to function on the state’s behalf at weddings. When asked to officiate, I suggest that clergy think twice, steering people to the state for the legal part and of course welcoming all who wish a religious service of blessing on their partnerships, their extended families, or their solitary splendor. That action alone would move this question forward by light years.

Let the Religious Right struggle with these challenges and perhaps same-sex couples can marry, or not, in peace.

MARY E. HUNT, Ph. D., is a feminist theologian and co-founder and co-director of the Women’s Alliance for Theology, Ethics and Ritual (WATER).

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