Tuesday, April 13, 2010

LGBT and Allied Critiques on Marriage

[Cross-posted at A World of Progress and Our Big Gayborhood]

Although those opposed to LGBT rights tend to portray the LGBT advocacy community as a monolithic political movement, many of us within the community know that diversity of thought, opinion, and ideology exists within it.

Actually, some within the LGBT movement do not know that varying opinions exist as, just the other day, a commenter at a popular gay blog claimed that same-sex marriage is the Number One Issue for all gay people! That sentiment is an inaccurate yet understandable reaction to the mainstream LGBT political movement's prioritization of marriage equality as one of the most important- if not the most important- "gay issue" of our time.

Today, I will provide examples of some of the less mainstream positions on marriage and LGBT equality. I don't necessarily agree with these positions, but it is my hope that this post will be informative or, at least, a starting point to explore some of these other voices.

1) Compulsory Matrimony: In a chapter of the book Feminist and Queer Legal Theory, law professor Ruthann Robson has written a chapter arguing that marriage is a political institution that confers economic privileges on the married over the unmarried that problematically compels individuals, and women especially, to marry.

Professor Robson first recites many of the economic and legal benefits of marriage that the state grants to married couples, some of which have been extended to same-sex couples. She then notes the various ways the government, through marriage promotion policies in welfare provisions, tries to encourage poor women to "choose" marriage as a way to remedy poverty. Furthermore, by invariably invoking civilization and the sacred, courts promote marriage through legal rhetoric and overstatement, and society promotes marriage by stigmatizing the "single" woman and aggrandizing the big white wedding.

"Arguments in favor of same-sex marriage," says Robson, "recognize this propaganda and use it to support the status of marriage as an institution too important to be denied to same-sex couples." And, this inducement continues in arguments against same-sex marriage that posit quite openly that the purpose of marriage is to coerce heterosexual men into marrying the mothers of their children.

Essentially, Robson notes, the mainstream same-sex marriage movement is asking for the right to be coerced into marriage just as heterosexuals are. I have to admit that, although I find the denial of marital benefits to same-sex couples to be problematic, I also find state coercion to marry convincingly problematic in its own right.

2) Queer Kids Against Gay Marriage: I came across this website some time ago. Although it doesn't seem to updated frequently, it does represent a radical queer position against same-sex marriage:

"The queer families and communities we are proud to have been raised in are nothing like the ones transformed by marriage equality. This agenda fractures our communities, pits us against natural allies, supports unequal power structures, obscures urgent queer concerns, abandons struggle for mutual sustainability inside queer communities and disregards our awesomely fabulous queer history....We think long-term monogamous partnerships are valid and beautiful ways of structuring and experiencing family, but we don’t see them as any more inherently valuable or legitimate than the many other family structures."

In addition to echoing Robson's argument that the marital relationship privileges marriage over other relationships, in a nutshell, this argument is a response to the "We're just like you" argument many same-sex marriage advocates use to make our families palatable to heterosexuals. While it is true that some LGBT families are quite similar to heterosexually-headed families, it is also true that some are not. Why some find the "We're just like you" argument to be problematic is that it mandates queer assimilation and stigmatizes those who do not conform to a certain standard of "normalcy." I tend to agree with that assessment, although, I also recognize that the "We're just like you" argument is legally and pragmatically necessary for the success of those who seek equal marital rights.

3) Rethinking Marriage: Writing in The Nation, Melissa Harris Lovelace, professor of politics and African-American Studies, advocates for marriage equality while simultaneously arguing that same-sex marriage advocacy offers an opportunity to rethink and improve upon the institution:

"Marriage itself is still bolstered by a troubling cultural mythology, a history of domination, and a contemporary set of gendered expectations that render it both unsatisfying and unstable for many people....

Even as progressives fight for marriage equality for same-sex couples, we need also to reflect on marriage as a social and political institution in itself. Our work must be not just about marriage equality, it should also be about equal marriages, and about equal rights and security for those who opt out of marriage altogether."

While noting the problems with LGBT assimilation into "normalcy," she also recounts the experiences of slaves who were denied legal marriage but who nonetheless considered themselves married anyway, ultimately demonstrating that humans have an "ancient, cross-cultural, human attachment to marriage."

4) Proposition 8 and the Future of American Same-Sex Marriage Activism: In a compelling legal essay, law professor Jeff Redding makes a plea for gays and lesbians to find dignity in a place other than the institution of marriage.

He writes, "...[T]he reinvigoration of right-wing politics surrounding marriage in the US cautions gays and lesbians vesting dignity in an institution which could very likely come under the complete control of conservative forces." These same forces argue that marriage is for heterosexuals only because only heterosexual couples are capable of accidentally having children. Ergo, marriage exists to coerce parents, and fathers primarily, to rear their children together. Or, as Redding observes, "marriage is important as a social prophylactic for when the condom breaks."

Thus, it is not clear to Redding how gays and lesbians will achieve dignity through an institution whose "central concern" is how to handle accidental pregnancies. He then suggests that larger gains to dignity might be made with "the development of a body of family law which is for and by gay and lesbian people."

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