My partner Van and I have been together for longer than most straight couples we know. Friends recently told us that they were explaining battles about Prop 8 to their extremely precocious daughter, who is all of 5 years old. They talked with her about how families take different shapes and sizes, but how same-sex couples don’t have the right to marry. And this charming little girl said immediately to her parents, “But Sublime and Van are married!”
She’s right; we are. But like many progressives, feminists and radical queers, my relationship to the institution of marriage is ambivalent. I’ve never been a part of the LGBT right-to-marry movement, and in fact have been critical of it since its inception. There’s no question (in my mind anyway) that we’ve paid a terrible price for the movement’s myopic focus on marriage equality, privileging the issues of a largely white, middle-class movement whose race and class privilege and affords them some protection from the most brutal effects of institutionalized oppression and violence, which disproportionately affect poor, immigrant and people-of-color communities.
That said, I think it’s a mistake to see the recent protests against Prop 8 simply as the queer community coming together to support gay marriage. Of course, it’s partly true that people are waving their rainbow flags for marriage, but I think it’s also true that they are unifying against forms of legal and economic discrimination that strip queers of rights. I’m all about radical queer critiques of the institution of marriage–but I’m nevertheless vehemently opposed to Prop 8 and ballot initiatives of its kind. They are intentional efforts to disenfranchise citizens and need to be fought by all civil rights proponents.
I also think that questions about the economic underpinnings of the marriage debate–as well as the question of who marriage benefits–need to be asked more. My state gov’t, which is also my employer, doesn’t recognize my union with Van so I cannot get health insurance for her through my job. I always tell people about this and the huge impact it has on our lives because, all too often, it seems like people forget about the very real, material effects of excluding some couples and families from “the charmed circle” (to borrow Gayle Rubin’s famous formulation).
But why should anyone have to be married in order to have access to a basic human right like health care? I would like to see queers participating in a larger conversation about economic benefits and justice for all–one that recognizes the diversity of families, partnerships and households rather than requires people to conform to the traditional nuclear family (which is no longer a norm for most Americans, anyway). Furthermore, for marriage equality to be inclusive of intersex, genderqueer and transgender people, marriage rights cannot be contingent on narrow definitions of sex, which the “same-sex marriage” movement has largely failed to interrogate.
Can we aspire to a world in which marriage is an option and legal right for queer people, instead of the only way to secure benefits and economic and legal recognition?