My post yesterday about marriage equality attracted so much attention my website crashed…twice. And traffic isn’t showing signs of slowing. Obviously, people are hungry for debate. Many make enlightening arguments on both sides of the issue. I’ve learned a lot from reading them. And, if my email box is any indication, some people get really angry when you say that marriage equality is unlikely to eradicate fundamental structural inequities.
I’m fine with the anger. I get it. Exclusion from marriage is a slap in the face of same sex couples. It says our love and our families aren’t legitimate in the eyes of our government, never mind to the many cultural institutions licensed by our government that condemn same sex unions. Criticizing efforts to defeat that kind of disrespect, not to mention the material consequences that result from exclusion, are going to make some people feel like you’re belittling them.
Further fanning the flames, there’s the way the issue has been framed by the mainstream media. They obviously thrive on over-simplifying and polarizing social issues. In the case of marriage, they’ve turned it into an either/or proposition. You’re either for marriage equality, or you’re against marriage altogether. Or, worse, you’re against same sex couples.
This kind of framing robs us of the opportunity to have a more robust discussion about marriage, family, and the strategic priorities of the LGBT movement. Instead, as I wrote in my last post, it traps us into a fight for the right to use marriage as a shield against wrongs, including simple prejudice, that no one should have to suffer. I won’t begrudge anyone a shield in a society where slings and arrows are business as usual for some, but I think we’re better than that.
That’s what got me to write the post in the first place. I aspire to a both/and approach to the issue. Why?
Because while marriage equality is an improvement, it won’t result in substantive structural change, or at least not as much as some other possible approaches to the problem of exclusion. For instance, marriage may protect our parental rights, but not if we fall into poverty. In most states in the country, marriage equality won’t protect us from being fired for our sexual orientations or gender identities. In fact, getting married might just be the flag that brings injustice to our doorsteps. And, just as winning inclusion in the military does nothing to stop unjust wars, winning inclusion in marriage does nothing to change the way the tax code disadvantages unmarried couples.
And our marriage laws will continue to reflect a narrowly chauvinistic, even Puritanical, definition of family. I get that marriage the world over isn’t a Christian institution. I also understand that not all Christians are conservative (and not everything that is conservative, as in, wanting to keep things the same, is bad). But, marriage as defined by U.S. law is rooted in a chauvinistic brand of Christian values. And, marriage in the U.S. is a conservative institution, as in, it licenses unions that tend to reproduce existing norms. In a society in which it is normal to pathologize and even punish poor single parents through our welfare codes, and as normal to vilify homeless parents and remove their children as it is to lift families out of homelessness, I think that’s a problem.
So what I’m arguing for is a progressive, inclusive family values agenda. One that situates family in the context of a broader understanding of the common good. Toward that common good, busting up oppressive norms would be central. So would winning the same rights for unmarried couples as for those who marry. And recognition of loving unions would be contested in the cultural arena while getting the state out of the business of reproducing oppressive cultural norms and into the business of creating codes that truly support all families would be a fight we’d wage in the political arena.
Marriage equality should be a step in this direction, but history indicates otherwise. The powerful have a way of accommodating conservative demands, especially when doing so kills the momentum necessary for oppositional movements to reorganize power. For instance, the 1964 Civil Rights Act was a great thing that dramatically slowed the roll of the Civil Rights Movement before issues (such as the racial wealth gap) being raised by more radical factions could be addressed. For the LGBT movement, marriage may be our Civil Rights Act. A grand victory that also takes the winds out of our sails before we navigate to other desired destinations. And why not? If you live in a state that prohibits employment discrimination and the feds allow us to marry, what more does the mainstream LGB movement offer?
And, in the broader scheme of things, winning civil rights recognition is a conservative enterprise. It’s meant to bring us under the protection of a Constitution that actually makes meaningful measures to provide redress for some of our most fundamental grievances as the descendents of slaves and colonized people (either here or abroad) illegal. And that’s why you’re reading this in a blog called Race Files.