By now, you’ve probably seen a certain political cartoon. It comes in several variants, but the basic premise is always the same. Basically, it juxtaposes a straight person’s adamance in “protecting” his or her marriage from same-sex marriage with obliviousness or willful laziness in regard to those more realistic and immediate threats of their own making, such as adultery, drinking, abusiveness, emotional distance, poor sexual intimacy or compatibility, getting married far too soon or too young, or just the overall rate of divorce amongst straight couples. One version contrasts the “threat” of same-sex marriage against the supposed threat presented by quickie celebrity marriages, such as those of our sacrificial pop culture whipping girls like Kim Kardashian or Britney Spears.
Funny how they’re always mocked for this, but not their husbands. Slut-shaming writ large.
You may have also seen a witty political outreach campaign asserting the message “same-sex marriage does not threaten our marriage” alongside images of happy, committed, loving straight couples. Stephanie and Ben Zvan contributed a particularly adorable image in this series.
The message being conveyed in these cartoons, jokes, and campaigns is that it’s simply absurd and silly for anyone to believe that allowing men to marry men, or women to marry women, poses any kind of threat to a straight person’s marriage, especially when held in contrast to the much more direct threats that are born of their own flaws and vices. This is often followed, in the easy, self-congratulatory tone of the mainstream Whole Foods and NPR liberal, that we’re smart enough to recognize this. We’re much less clueless than those homophobic right-wingers who rally together under the banner of “protecting” the institution or “sanctity” of marriage. We’re smart enough to recognize an actual threat to our marriage, and thus we won’t mistakenly invest our energies in the wrong places and will consequently have much happier, and ultimately more successful, unions. They’re just taking their own miseries out on a vulnerable minority because they can’t accept responsibility for themselves. We’re better than that.
This is to make a fundamental misunderstanding in what is meant by threat.
Honestly, not once have I ever seen an organization like NOM (National Organization for Marriage), or supporters of DOMA (Defense Of Marriage Act), or even your everyday, ground-level homophobe ever once advance the opinion that same-sex marriage is a threat to their marriage in the direct sense of potentially contributing to a divorce. The idea that this is the argument being advanced by opponents of same-sex marriage is a ridiculous, groundless, and dangerous straw-man, that leads us away from where the actual ideological battle is taking place. The idea that would substantiate a campaign like “same-sex marriage does not threaten our marriage” would be that this is meant as an informative, educational tactic, designed to help spread the message that heterosexual couples have nothing to fear from same-sex unions threatening their own, with the image of healthy, “normal” straight couples accompanying the message to help drive it home. But it’s trying to address a belief that no one actually holds, and is thereby wasted effort. Misdirected energy.
No one needs convincing that same-sex marriage won’t lead to a divorce because as a general thing, no one is actually worried about that.
The concept of “sanctity of marriage” gets us much closer to the heart of what it is they mean by “threat” and what exactly it is to they intend to protect or defend, as well as on what field the battle is actually taking place. It’s not the literal aspects of the marriage that are at stake, such as two people who love each other cohabitating and sharing certain legal and fiscal rights and responsibilities. If that were the issue, the term “defense of relationships” could just as easily be swapped in. What’s at stake is the concept of marriage as apart from “mere” relationship. What’s threatened is what marriage means to many of these people. And that meaning is that their union has been explicitly approved, sanctified, blessed, and lifted up above others in the eyes of God and The State. Any two people can fuck each other and share a pad, but we’re married. Our fucking each other and sharing a pad is special.
The institution of marriage in this sense, at least, as it has more or less existed in our culture since it stopped being primarily about kinship and property law, is fundamentally kyriarchal in nature, and deeply intertwined with a whole bundle of social privilege. It’s directly about the normalization of a given union, the conference of an inherently discriminatory institutional blessing (that is defined in these blessings and rights denied to others), and privileging these particular unions above others, as proper, moral, normal, real, just, sacred. Therefore, same-sex marriage, or indeed any step in the direction of granting institutional equity in how intimate relationships are treated or perceived, or even just spreading the privilege around a bit, is a threat to marriage. This particular concept and model of marriage, anyway. The privileged are always threatened, always have something to lose, by that privilege being conferred on others.
This is a big part of why arguments on behalf of protecting traditional marriage inevitably fall back on religion. Religion is one of the only things that can adequately provide a justification for social stratification and institutionally blessing one class of human beings (or, in this case, human relationships) over another. It can’t be ethically justified in the secular sense of ethics, wherein demonstratable and intentional (or conspicuously negligent) harm must be connected to that which is perceived as immoral or wrong. Secularly speaking, social equality is almost inevitably less harmful than stratification, and institutionalized inequality is often considered definitively selfish and unethical. But the Will of God trumps all.
If all intimate relationships were to be perceived as potentially healthy, moral, normal, worthy, valid, and deserving of equitable institutional treatment, the meaning of marriage would fundamentally shift. It would suddenly become exactly what we’ve been pretending it is for ages: a simple symbolic ritual of love and commitment. But in so far as that is all that marriage “really” is, campaigning for marriage equality wouldn’t be necessary in the first place. It’s generally very frowned upon to say so openly, but that’s not really the reason most people get married, and if that were what marriage were to be, many, many people wouldn’t even bother. Many people would be happy to say “Pssh. We don’t particularly need a big ceremony and the blessing of God to prove that we’re in love and are committed to one another”. But in so far as marriage is about the inequal distribution of rights and privileges, it has an actual purpose. Hence the existence of civil ceremonies for some, and big, grand rituals under the eyes of God for others. Asking God, the community, family and The State to sanctify your relationship as ABOVE others. Above what it was before the wedding. Kyriarchally privileged.
Equalizing the distribution of those rights and privileges threatens that purpose. “If any ol’ fags can get married, what’s the damn point? It’s like marriage ain’t even special no more. We need to protect the sanctity of our marriage!”
Where on relationship is held to be sacred, another is held to be profane. When no relationships are seen as profane, none shall be sacred.
Of course homophobia does play a role. Absolutely. That is a large motivation in determining why THIS was where the line was to be drawn, beyond which this iteration of marriage was not to be so symbolically compromised. That THIS was where the battle would be fought. But the homophobia is only gasoline thrown on the fire. It’s not the actual fuel log.
So yes. Same-sex marriage does threaten marriage. It does threaten its sanctity. And it does threaten the current incarnation of what marriage means to us as a culture. Trying to claim otherwise, especially by misdirecting your attentions at a straw-man that never willingly stepped a foot on the battlefield, is not going to mullify anyone or do much of anything to calm the “culture war” brewing around this issue (a war that is, thankfully, temporarily winding down as same-sex marriage equality becomes a legal inevitability… but will most certainly crop back up again the next time a step forward needs to be made in dismantling the inequality inherent to the institution of marriage).
It just so happens that the thing being threatened is something that very much needs to be threatened. The thing they seek to protect and defend is something that needs to done away with.
Privilege and kyriarchy.
The Nerd says
When New York state legalized same-sex marriage, a news organization (damned if I can recall which) took to the streets and interviewed people in the city on how they felt about it. Most people were happy, some were indifferent. But there was this one couple where the man said “I feel like our marriage is now worth less as a result”. I guess having a loving relationship with his wife just isn’t enough for his type.
Natalie Reed says
Yep. That sums it up perfectly. For these types, it’s not about love, it’s about thinking your relationship is worth more than others. THAT’S what marriage equality threatens, and what they mean when they say same-sex marriage is a “threat”.
Let’s threaten the hell out of it!
(just like how I beam with pride whenever anyone says trans people threaten the foundations of society)
and yup, trans people DO threaten your perception of the way society is and what you think people are…what you gonna do about it bitches 😛 BAHAHAHAHA! nothing, because you LOST the culture war, its been over for ages, its all down to the kicking, screaming and plugging of ears and going ‘blah blah blah, i can’t hear you, lalalalala, the world ISN’T changing lalalalala’ while the rest of us progress ahead and they stay back in stone age, trying to pray away any/all things they don’t approve of…REALITY CALLING YA’LL- SHIT DON’T WORK THAT WAY! reality DOES NOT work that way, the sooner you adjust to that fact, the better off society will be (you being the people in the ‘part of the problem’ column naturally)
frankly, i’m waiting for the US to catch up to more civilized countries (like Canada, France, the Netherlands, Sweden and such, and you bet if i COULD move to one of them, i’d have been gone at age 18)
What, trans people are like ground subsidance or earthquake damage?
Ms. Daisy Cutter, Gynofascist in a Spiffy Hugo Boss Uniform says
Well, gay secks causes earthquakes, so I guess trans sex causes … a giant meteor to hit the earth?
Woohoo! Let’s all get together and exterminate the dinosaurs!
Is that a trans person having sex with a cis person or 2 trans people having sex with each other? If one causes a meteor strike, what does the other do?
and gay trans sex must just make the sun explode or something 🙂
Damn, all that work on my doomsday device gone to waste when I could just hold the world to ransom by threatening to get 2 specific people to have sex…
If that’s what they really think, then I want to fight against it and for equality all that much more.
It was easier to have empathy when I just figured they were mistaken or confused. If they are really, more honestly and straightforwardly, for maintaining their ‘we’re better than you’ position… well &*$% them.
I can’t find the will to empathize with that thought process. It doesn’t matter the subject, the idea that I am in some fundamental way, better (not in some physical or particular way, but in a moral sense) than someone else is alien to me. They are words I can speak but not internalize.
I think considering people that hold that view is about as close as I can get to sharing the feeling… only I don’t feel better than them, I just feel confused and angry.
Much as I believe everyone has a right to get married, I also believe that marriage-equivalent rights should be automatic for any cohabiting partners, by simple virtue of sharing a postal address.
Anyway, the “traditional” nuclear family probably isn’t the best way of raising children.
Alice in Wonderland says
I also believe that marriage-equivalent rights should be automatic for any cohabiting partners, by simple virtue of sharing a postal address.
This issue is not so clear-cut, because legal marriage also confers certain responsibilities towards each other (especially in terms of division of assets if the relationship ends), that cohabiting partners might not want to enter into. People shouldn’t lose the ability to move in together without automatically and involuntarily making a whole lot of additional legal commitments to each other.
Some jurisdictions (like Quebec) actually provide for various schemes for handling assets of married partners, up to and including complete division of finances and/or property for the duration of the marriage. Certainly that kind of civil partnership should be available to any cohabitors who want it, regardless of the details of their sex lives.
Which is kind of how it works in Australia for people who have a long-term relationship. It’s called de facto partnership, and obviously it’s defined by somewhat different criteria than “shared postal address” (after all, you wouldn’t want to make sharing a flat a huge commitment, or conversely exclude long-distance relationships). Fun fact: Actively wishing/being aware of being in such a relationship is not a criterion.
As de facto relationships are relevant for all kinds of legal purposes (eg. partner immigration or division of assets after separation), lawyers have a lot of work sorting out who’s in a de facto relationship with whom. I love the ads headlined “Could you be in a de facto relationship you don’t know about?”
It also threatens sexism, since it shows marriage doesn’t require one person to be the big strong hubby and the other person to be the meek little wifey. I mean, I know not all straight marriages are like that, but same-sex marriage puts an especially big crimp in gender roles.
Ms. Daisy Cutter, Gynofascist in a Spiffy Hugo Boss Uniform says
Extra points for this:
They might be smarter than your typical fundie, but they’re usually nowhere near as smart as they think they are, and damn do they get piqued if you challenge their smug assumptions.
As I’ve found more than once when those types have brought up trans issues in my presence. Those encounters usually ended with me needing to take some aspirin and lie down for a while.
on a side note, I criticize the men in the relationship as much as the ladies when it comes to slap dash celebrity marriages (like Kelsey Grammar dumping his wife over the phone, phil collins divorcing his wife via fax…and that politician, i forget who, who made his wife sign divorce papers while she was on her DEATH BED w/cancer and then married some young piece of ass…WTF ASSHOLES??? very gentlemanly of ya’ll), frankly if we’re going to publicly chastise people for that sort of thing, BOTH parties need to be equally so, or just not at all (i don’t get our cultures obsession w/celebrities & their personal lives, just like MY private life is none of ANYONE elses business, why should THEIRS be any of mine???).
well spoke as always…ps, dunno if you’re a foamy fan, but he did a rant on gay marriage thats PRETTY damn hilarious 🙂 definitely worth a watch.
Ms. Daisy Cutter, Gynofascist in a Spiffy Hugo Boss Uniform says
tim gueguen says
Fortunately Jackie Gingrich nee Battley, survived the cancer treatment she was undergoing when Newt filed for divorce. Interestingly she was his high school math teacher and was 7 years older than him. They were married 2 days after he turned 19.
Isn’t that because they’re the famous ones that people have actually heard of whereas the guys in question are basically nobodies (and who cares about a nobody because they’re not famous anyway)? That seems less like slut shaming & more like blatant manipulation of the celebrity cultists, getting them to tune in or read the article so they can be fed advertising.
Does the same thing not happen with male celebrities? I couldn’t give a toss about the whole celebrity thing so I’m completely out of touch in this regard
Well, I think you’re half-right. The “slut shaming”, especially of celebrities in things like People Magazine and TMZ etc., is a big problem. Those two examples aren’t particularly good ones, however. Kim Kardashian was married to Brook Lopez, a professional basketball player who was actually booed by fans at games for weeks after they got divorced. So, he got some disapproval to be sure. Spears’ ex, Kevin Federline, is indeed a nobody and self-parody par excellence. I think if anyone made anymore fun of him, he would collapse into a black hole. I don’t know if that answers your question.
Perhaps a better example for celebrity marriages and slut shaming would have been Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston. She seems constantly to have been dumped on, called crazy, not taken seriously etc. as he moved on romantically within his “proper” social class (to another Hollywood sex-symbol actress). Her career has been largely dumped on, as her comedic prowess is chronically under-appreciated or ignored (I actually think she’s got great comic timing), whereas Pitt’s acting career has become more “serious” and thus praiseworthy. This is in contrast to Spears and Kardashian whom no one ever really took seriously in the first place.
And, for the record, I’m not into the whole celebrity culture thing at all. I’m just American, which means that if I ride a subway, read a newspaper, or stand in line at the supermarket, I know about this crap. Precious brain-space, what have they done to you? *SIGH*
Ms. Daisy Cutter, Gynofascist in a Spiffy Hugo Boss Uniform says
Yeah, you can’t really avoid absorbing some of it through cultural osmosis.
Kris Humphries, actually, not Brook Lopez. So don’t worry, you haven’t absorbed as much of it as you thought. 🙂
But it’s trying to address a belief that no one actually holds, and is thereby wasted effort. Misdirected energy.
I’m not sure about that. To a low-information voter, it may be sufficient to hear “threat to marriage” and interpret that as “threat to my own personal marriage,” especially since marriage-equality opponents are short on specifics about whose marriage is threatened, in what way, and what is even meant by “threat.”
Furthermore, the goal of the “SSM isn’t a threat to our marriage because we support SSM” ads isn’t necessarily about explaining anything to anybody with reasons and logic and what have you, so much as modeling what acceptance of SSM might look like, to lead people to “oh, I might also be able to accept SSM, since those people who look somewhat like me say that they accept it.” (Or, possibly, “well, these people don’t seem to think it cheapens their marriage if gays marry, so maybe it doesn’t.”)
I mean, it may not be a particularly good or effective strategy, but I think providing examples of people being accepting makes it more likely that the audience will be accepting, and to that degree, it really doesn’t matter whether the specific context is “our marriage isn’t threatened” or “we’re happy for our daughter” or “we believe same-sex couples deserve equal rights before the law.”
I find the ‘womanising unfaithful husband’ to be the most common counter-threat to marriage raised. But your point is well-made.
Other than that I largely agree. I’ve never understood why marriage shouldn’t be like any other contract and the associated rights be something you fill in a form for and send to the relevant government department (Much like a will. “If I’m incapacitated and need consent for medical help ask these people, in this order…”)
That way people can define their own marriage however they want to and it doesn’t affect anyone else. I mean, some random individual’s marriage probably means a lot to them, but to me it has nor more effect than their binding contract to deliver 10 truckloads of Iron Ore to Port Wherever by the 5th of June 2016.
Ms. Daisy Cutter, Gynofascist in a Spiffy Hugo Boss Uniform says
But in those cases, it’s always a woman who’s blamed. Either “the other woman” for “tempting” the husband, or the wife for failing to “keep her man.”
I totally agree with your point about same-sex marriage being a meaningful and positive “threat” to certain forms of privilege/kyriarchy. My only question would be whether the liberal campaigns are as misdirected as you claim. Could it be that they *know* on some level that they aren’t directly addressing bigots’ concerns, but are nevertheless trying to assert a view of what people really *should* be concerned about when it comes to marriage (i.e. “if your marriage isn’t going to be dissolved because Adam and Steve are tying the knot, it’s none of your business”)? It’s kind of a perpendicular approach, but honestly, why should they even give kyricarchical assumptions the privilege of a hearing? Maybe they’re trying to make the bigots show their hand a little. Anyway, maybe I’m giving the liberals too much credit, but just a suggestion.
Forbidden Snowflake says
I’m not so sure about the pointlessness of the usual liberal message. Propaganda-wise, the advantage of the “marriage is just a union of two loving people” message over the “marriage is special by virtue of its exclusionary nature” message is that the former can be advocated explicitly and be palatable to fence-sitters, while the latter needs to be delivered in code-words in order not to sound overtly and extremely bigoted.
So I feel as though the “gay marriage doesn’t threaten our marriage” set is not so much misunderstanding or strawmanning (though some surely are…), but playing coy. “Threaten traditional marriage? What ever do you mean? My marriage does not appear to be in danger. Could you spell it out without the dogwhistles and expose yourself as a raving bigot on the way, please?”
This is kind of the impression I got as well. As far as the real anti marriage equality argument which you point out, I honestly never did understand that one. I figured it was just plain old fashioned homophobia, because the idea of sanctity is an entirely foreign one for me.
exactly. the whole point of the liberal campaign (as i see it) is to appropriate same-sex marriage opponents’ language without preserving their assumptions. when the liberals play dumb and say, “what do you mean, threat? i don’t see any threat” it forces the bigots to clarify the nature of the threat they see, and the more they have to do that, the more their naked bigotry shows. and it ain’t pretty.
I think there’s some of that, yes–but I think there’s also an implicit argument that does engage (NPI) with the anti-gay stuff about “sacred” marriage that Natalie cites. I think Natalie is fundamentally misreading the (e.g.) Zvans’ picture in service of her claim that it’s putting a straw man argument: in short, I don’t see any reference to divorce, explicitly or implicitly, in there at all. I read “gay marriage doesn’t threaten our marriage” to mean “We agree with NOM et al. that marriage is special and important–it’s a central aspect of our life together, and we value it deeply–but our conception of the institution and its value is not threatened (in fact, it’s very much the opposite) by the prospect of gay couples taking part in it.”
That’s not strawmanning conservatives with a “gay marriage will lead to straight divorce!!!” bit (though I did see right-wing Boston Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby try that one several years ago); instead, it’s accepting the anti-gay right’s premise that marriage, as an institution, is valuable and then arguing that adding gay couples to it will do nothing to tarnish the institution–quite to the contrary, legal gay marriage strengthens marriage for the same reasons that legal interracial marriage did.
You characterize the political cartoon as a straw man, since opponents of marriage equality are not worried that gay marriage will literally lead to divorce, but that it will lead to loss of privilege and sacredness. However, in my reading, the political cartoon is precisely about the sacredness of marriage, or rather, the lack thereof. It’s asking, why attack gay marriage, while ignoring all the real mockeries of marriage?
The response I anticipate, is that gay marriage opponents *do* oppose all those other mockeries of marriage, from adultery to abusiveness to quickie celebrity marriages. And they also oppose gay marriage. They’re not inconsistent, they’re just hateful.
Ms. Daisy Cutter, Gynofascist in a Spiffy Hugo Boss Uniform says
I doubt they oppose abusive marriages. Women are supposed to “submit unto” our husbands, after all.
Honestly, this is the reason that a lot of us gays aren’t settling for simple civil unions. There’s no valid reason same-sex relationships should de-facto be excluded from marriage–they only threaten the ‘sanctity’ of marriage if one believes same-sex relationships are inherently inferior to opposite-sex ones, and that’s just bigotry.
I completely agree.
I didn’t understand the opposition to gay marriage at all until I talked to my fundie uncle in Illinois.* I hadn’t encountered a coherant argument before (not that his was very coherant) that consisted of more than “Ew, gays. Why can’t they be satisfied that we don’t kill them anymore?”
He really, truly believed that gay marriage devalued his marriage to my aunt. He was offended, deeply, that gay people wanted to get married. When I asked him why, he went on and on and on about how his marriage to my aunt was special, and she was a wonderful woman who stood by him when he came home from Vietnam, and he stayed by her as she slowly deteriorated from a horrible disease over the last decade, etc. etc. And he felt that was a complete argument. He couldn’t understand me, why I didn’t see the connection that fighting for gay rights meant making a mockery his marriage to my auntie. We spent days talking past each other, because I didn’t understand his point of view at all (or think that he was making any sort of argument against gay marriage; he was just saying he loved my aunt, which, awesome), and he didn’t understand why I couldn’t get that gay marriage = his marriage wasn’t worth anything.
So, you’re totally right, it’s not about gays causing divorce, and those cartoons are creating a strawman. Unfortunately, I don’t see the solution, because even trying as hard as could with someone I cared about, I still just don’t get at all his position, and he sure as hell doesn’t understand mine.
Maybe it’s like men who are terribly threatened by feminism. More women being educated and going to work means, in many anti-feminist and MRA minds, that men are being screwed. Or that by raising the education, work, and standard of living for people of color, we’re hurting white people. Equality = oppression of the dominant group, in many people’s minds. That’s the closest I can get to understanding where these people are coming from. Any other thoughts?
*I’m not saying that people in the midwest are uneducated hicks, I’m saying that I found a different point of view from someone in a more rural area than those I’m surrounded by in San Francisco. There are obnoxious stupid people in SF, too, who are usually more annoying because, like you said, the Whole Foods crowd doesn’t recognize their own ignorance.
Wow I haven’t commented here in forever (hi Natalie!) but I had to pop in just to say I agree with this post wholeheartedly and have thought this very thing for years, but rarely express it for fear of being pilloried.
Honestly even going to weddings makes me somewhat uncomfortable these days. The very concept of a huge expensive public spectacle designed purely to confer elevated social status onto a romantic relationship (and the fact that we all as guests are expected to be complicit in feeding the egotism on display) is enough to turn my stomach a little. As is the implication that–especially in the case of couples who have dated and cohabited for years–the relationship is somehow transformed into something entirely new with a few magic words and a champagne toast.
PS When can we hope your busy schedule will bring you to Montreal for a speaking engagement?
Natalie Reed says
You can expect me in Montreal some time in the fall or winter. Don’t know if there will be any speaking engagements, though.
The Nerd says
My dad would run the sound system for marriages, so I got to see more than a few weddings. They were always magic Jesus moments where they magically were soul-bound or some such Christianity. Then I attended a secular wedding a year and a half ago for dear friends, and wow. I had been wondering what there could be to replace the Jesus magic, especially for a couple who already own a home together. Turns out it’s a hetero-fest of epic proportions. Also disturbing that apparently their anniversary was now supposed to be the date of their wedding and not the day they met, the day they decided to be together, the day they declared love, the day they moved in together, the day they bought a house together etc.
Lou Doench says
Just from the POV of one of those secular married couples, the date of the wedding is usually easier to remember than all of those other events. The day we met? Sometime in November after the Bush/Gore election, not sure when, it was a Friday. The day we admitted our love…well that’s actually two different days, separated by about a month (I went first!). The day we moved in together? No Clue… The only way I remember the day we moved into our house is it was July 3rd and we woke up the next morning and they had a parade! (We do commemorate that day with a wicked BBQ every year). Our anniversary is the day we threw a big party with cake and fancy dresses and tuxedos and took a lot of pictures and had a bluegrass band and had the date written down on a bunch of crap we still have. Just a more convenient date all around.
I have a different question: what precisely is the point of anniversaries, as specific dates? I mean, I know these things seem important to people, but I’m not entirely sure how that works. can sort of understand “anniversaries” in the sense of “this one big thing happened this one specific day, and we’re reliving it every year on the same date”, like birthdays or conversely like memorials of disasters. but anniversaries of something that’s ongoing, like living together and relationships… I don’t understand that at all.
and i’m completely incapable of tracking these supposedly important dates I’m supposed to commemorate my relationship with. I know the boyfriend and I have been together about 5 years, but I can’t even specify the month we became a couple, since it all sort of happened very gradually
I agree that one of the purposes that bigots have in mind is privileging certain kinds of relationships over others. I don’t agree at all that that’s the only reason marriage exists, and I think some of the other reasons are valid. In our culture, most people will go through a series of romantic/sexual relationships in their lives, of degrees of seriousness varying from one-night stand to expecting to get old together. Some demarcations of seriousness are natural, like living together—but they also have symbolic content. Everyone recognizes when two or more people move in together that it means something about the seriousness of their relationship. Marriage is, among other things, a public commitment to a certain level of relationship seriousness. Like other sorts of public promises, it’s harder to break and it helps establish the correct sort of expectations. For married couples, for instance, people know that both partners will often come to social events like funerals, graduations, or group vacations, and that if one partner is sick the other partner will help take care of them.
There are lots of problems with the way marriage works in our culture. Should there be similar forms of public commitment for non-sexual/romantic relationships? I wish there were. Should poly people be able to make their own kinds of commitments and expect everyone else to understand what they mean and respect them? Yes! (I’ll note that a lot of poly groups I know have used marriage to signify relationship precedence, but not everyone does and that’s okay too.)
With respect to seeing marriage as an oppressive institution, I think some parts of the queer community are throwing the baby out with the bathwater. It reminds me a lot of the attitude that since gender is often an oppressive institution, we need to throw out gender—only that doesn’t work so well for binary-identified trans people who get to be told, “Fuck gender, your identity isn’t important.” In practice that attitude has created a new, equally fucked-up hierarchy in some subcultures. For people who for one reason or another don’t want to make a public commitment like marriage, because they’re poly or they find it too constricting or whatever, not having marriage is no loss. For people like me, who want to take selectively only the parts of it we find valuable, it’s a real cost.
Finally, I want to make an analogy to the situation with the diagnosis of GID or gender dysphoria or whatever one wants to call it in the DSM: our choice isn’t between an ideal situation where everyone can get appropriate transition care regardless of what is or isn’t in the DSM and the status quo, it’s located in the real world where removing the diagnosis would probably make it harder for some people to obtain care. In the case of marriage, the choice isn’t between a utopian situation where everyone gets their relationships, desired levels of seriousness and public commitment, and legal responsibilities and privileges respected and the status quo; it’s whether people in hetero relationships get the legal privileges and obligations if they want them but no people in gay relationships do, and allowing gay people to get those legal privileges and obligations too. I don’t like the way the marriage issue seems to have become the single LGBT issue (can gender-identity protections get some attention too?), but I think it is real, important, and valuable.
Natalie Reed says
At no point did I argue that kyriarchal privileging is the only reason marriage exists or that people get married. I said that for many, that is one of the primary purposes of its present meaning, in this cultural iteration of the institution of marriage.
I also didn’t say the issue was unimportant. The title is heavily ironic.
Thanks Natalie. I think I agree with you.
I’m interested though: do you think that marriage should be available to a whole lot more people — those in relationships of more than two people, those who don’t necessarily intend to stay together for life (one country, I forget which, has brought in a rolling marriage contract), those who aren’t in a sexual relationship, those who live apart (ok those last two happen but both are technically grounds for divorce) — or do you simply think there should be no legal institution of marriage at all?
Natalie Reed says
I believe the legal institution should be uncoupled from the ceremonial institution. Legal cooperation stuff, like sharing finances, inheritance rights, hospital visitation, etc. should be available to any couple or relationship cluster that wants them, and that includes poly, asexual, aromantic, etc. The only requisite should be informed consent, legitimate commitment and trust. Marriage could exist as a ceremonial ritual thing that has nothing whatsoever to do with legal, institutional rights, and then the fucking fundies could pretend their relationships are all sacred and awesome and heterotastic to their heart’s content without it actually being a legally empowered discriminatory act of granting institutional privileges.
It reminds me of an article I saw a while back about two elderly sisters (both single) who owned a house together and had lived together most of their lives. They argued that, when one of them died, the surviving sister should be able to inherit the house without paying inheritance tax, so she could continue to live in the house (IHT would be 40% of the value of the house; no way to pay it without selling). Their argument was that it was discriminatory that married couples, and people in civil partnerships, could inherit property from each other without paying IHT, but two sisters living together had no such priviledges.
The court disagreed, but I think they were right. The system you’re suggesting would fix that, among other things.
yeah, a “next of kin” contract and a “marriage” really should be two entirely separate things; primarily for the reason you list, but also because sometimes maybe you don’t want your “spouse” to inherit stuff, but rather have the kids inherit them, for example (that’s my parents situation: they’re married now, and as a result my mom created accounts for me and my brother in which she stores her savings. because having my dad inherit her money if something happened to her would be a complete waste; my dad can’t hold on to money to save his life, and he doesn’t need any of my mom’s stuff since they don’t live together or have any other kind of shared expenses)
I think it sounds like the best solution, only thing i have against it is allowing them to continue to delude themselves by thinking their relationship is any better than any other relationship just by virtue of being a heteronormal couple, ya know…but then I don’t like seeing people delude themselves like they always seem to be doing w/all these bogus lies & bs 😛 its just sad. Aside from that though, it sounds like the more or less perfect fix, I have always been of the opinion that the ceremonial bs and the legal aspects should be separate (separation of church and state and all that ya know right?). one day we’ll get there, I hope.
Robert B. says
That creaking sound you hear is my mind expanding. I hadn’t put that one together yet. Thanks.
really? cuz I’m pretty sure I’ve heard a number of conservadudes come right out and say that they think the only reason anyone ever gets married is because it’s expected, and if we “let” guys just have sex with other guys, no one would ever touch those icky women ever again.
I’ve heard this too. One of the things to remember is that for many in the far right, the downright silly things they keep saying about politics are things they really believe. When they say that they believe that homosexuality is a choice they really do think of it as a self destructive habit that anyone can be drawn into if they aren’t raised right. It might not be a significant voting block, but many of them actually do fear that if their sons and daughters are around too many people that accept homosexuality, they won’t have the willpower to resist.
I believe the reason they think straight people don’t have those attractions is that they were essentially taught to accept a sexual taboo that does not necessarily come automatically (like most people not being attracted to their cousins). I think it’s an interesting topic since I grew up in the church, but this particular type of religious crazy probably isn’t common enough to be changing the advertising.
not that I disagree with your post in general, since marriage absolutely is about privileging some relationships over others (and not just gay relationships; somehow, my relationship is also “lesser than” just because I wouldn’t need a lawyer to break up with my boyfriend). that’s why some flavors of christianity now offer super-special marriagier-than-marriage marriages where you’re not allowed to get divorced, or where you’re married even after death. but it’s not the same if the state doesn’t confirm your special specialness, so they’re trying to make legal marriages into that kind of marriage, and stop losing ground on what’s left of “traditional” marriage to the egalitarians.
I largely agree with your analysis. However, I do think the kinds of mainstream arguments for gay marriage which you’re criticizing here have served a practical political purpose in facilitating a wider acceptance of gay marriage in the political mainstream.
Increasingly, in Britain (where I’m from), mainstream conservatives are in favour of gay marriage. (Something which was certainly not the case a decade or two ago.) In many cases, they’re in favour of it for conservative reasons; they still believe in the value of traditional lifelong monogamous marriage as the basis of the family and of a stable society, they just think that this institution should be extended to gay and lesbian couples. This view is less common in the US, but it’s not unheard of there. For an illustrative example, see Ted Olson’s conservative case for gay marriage:
What’s noteworthy about these arguments is that they are conservative arguments. For these people, arguments like “gay marriage does not threaten the traditional institution of marriage” actually carry weight. And because of this, gay marriage has become mainstream, both on the centre-left and, increasingly, on the centre-right. We’ve come a long way in Britain from the 1980s, when there was still an unequal age of consent and when the most vocal advocates for gay rights were radicals like Peter Tatchell, to 2012, when a Tory Prime Minister is happy to say loudly and publicly that he supports gay marriage. In ten or twenty years, it seems likely to me that many mainstream Republicans in the US will be supporting gay marriage, too.
Now, I think the status quo is far from ideal. I’m a radical. I agree with you that the institution of marriage, as traditionally understood, is deeply bound up with kyriarchal privilege. But, all the same, I think the moderate conservative arguments for gay marriage serve a practical political purpose – and in a great many cases, they’ve been successful in helping gay marriage to be seen as a mainstream idea rather than a radical one.
So I don’t disagree with your analysis. And of course we do need a radical discourse that challenges traditional ideas about what marriage is and means. (In another field, immigrants’ rights, I take a very radical stance, and hope to shift the Overton window over time.) But I would say that the kinds of mainstream arguments for gay marriage which you describe in this post do serve worthwhile political ends, even though they’re not ideal.
Ace of Sevens says
I’d agree the entertainment media is horrible to female celebs in general and Britney Spears in particular, but the reason she takes heat for her 55-hour marriage instead of her ex-husband is that he’s a non-celebrity and seems to have wanted to stay married.
As to the rest, I don’t think this is really a straw-man, because you are inferring what people mean by “protecting marriage.” They aren’t saying it. They tend to just say that they want to protect traditional marriage and act like it’s obvious what the threat is. That’s pretty much begging for someone to fill in the most ridiculous possible explanation. Also, people like Scott Lively and Peter LaBarbera do seem to actually be arguing that the irresistible lure of gay sex will destroy straight marriages.
Austin Lucksted says
If these right wing zealots want to protect a traditional marriage, then why don’t they start with their own and stay out of other people’s private business? Just saying. The real threats are like you said; adultery, drinking, abusiveness, emotional distance, poor sexual intimacy or compatibility, getting married far too soon or too young, or just the overall rate of divorce among straight couples.