Marital Privilege: A 'New' Conversation About Gay Progress

This "conversation" between members of the (heretofore homophobic) right and the gays makes two things startlingly clear. First, marriage makes for strange bedfellows, and second, marriage equality will not lead to the dismantling but rather a morphing of heterosexual privilege.
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As the Supreme Court prepares to take up the constitutionality of marriage laws that systematically exclude LGBT Americans, pro-equality forces are quick to celebrate anything that appears to be support for LGBT equality. Take for example the Institute for American Values' announcement that they are shifting their stance on the status of gays and lesbians. The conservative organization's "Call for a New Conversation on Marriage" marks the emergence of a new coalition between people like David Blakenhorn, a witness who argued against marriage equality in California's Proposition 8 trial, and folks like Jonathan Rauch, an avid marriage equality proponent.

Rauch, along with several other signatories, are gay.

At first glance, this decidedly odd alliance appears to be emblematic of the evolving status of gays and lesbians even among conservatives. Yet, there is something far more ominous going on here.

This "conversation" between members of the (heretofore homophobic) right and the gays makes two things startlingly clear. First, marriage makes for strange bedfellows, and second, marriage equality will not lead to the dismantling but rather a morphing of heterosexual privilege.

Historically speaking, talking marriage has long been a tricky business. In the United States, sinister intentions often lie behind efforts to both limit and encourage marriage. Anti-miscegenation laws and even eugenics efforts restricted marriage in particular ways. These efforts not only degraded particular forms of intimacy but also fortified white supremacy and ableism. Likewise, marriage promotion continues to be used to undermine women's status. The ways marriage policy has worked as a smokescreen for fundamentally racist, misogynistic, genocidal, and nativist efforts should make us look very carefully at what underlies the Institute on American Values' marriage efforts.

And we don't need to look very deep to discover what motivates their work. Throughout their vision statement, marriage is positioned as indispensable for healthy child rearing, economic security, and societal wellbeing. But this "new conversation," which is really a very old conversation, upcycled and proudly stamped with gay endorsements, ignores one crucial fact. It's not a marriage certificate or even the rights bestowed through marriage that facilitates healthy societies. It's doing family.

Because of the prevalence of familial homophobia and the lack of recognition, LGBTQ people are experts at doing family even in the face of real challenges -- caring for friend family, living collectively as a way to navigate economic desperation, and serving as "aunties" and "uncles" to children who lack extended families. Frankly, neither gays nor straights need marriage in order to do family. And in fact, marriage certainly doesn't ensure healthy family making (think divorce and family violence).

But if this new conversation isn't about family, what is it about? Just as miscegenation laws had very little to do with preserving "unique" cultures, the inclusion of gay voices in the "new conversation" has very little to do with a newfound attentiveness to equality. Instead, this conversation epitomizes a deeply troubling tactic to deal with the declining viability of heterosexual privilege. The tactic goes like this: as marriage becomes accessible to gays replace heterosexual privilege with marital privilege.

While privilege -- white, male, straight, etc. -- may be a set of "unearned advantages," folks with privilege often subscribe to a set of assumptions and reflect these beliefs in everyday interactions thereby sustaining the value and superiority of a particular status.

Marital privilege is reflected in the following beliefs and practices:

•Celebrating marriage as the most highly valued form of intimacy over and above all other forms of intimate relationships. This looks like treating married couples as valid and other partnerships as less "real," regardless of length or depth of relationship.
•Supporting policies that make certain rights only accessible via marriage. Dispensing Social Security Survivor benefits or family leave via marital status means that those who are not married essentially have earned benefits "confiscated" because their chosen families/friends are not recognized as valid beneficiaries.
•Using the status of marriage to extrapolate other statuses with social value. For example, individuals are treated as fully adult only following marriage. Likewise the unmarried are treated as perennial adolescents.
•Accepting the role of marriage as an avenue for economic security. The widespread presumption that costs of living can be shared amounts to widely unequal life chances for folks who are unmarried.
•Treating marriage as a homogenous and sacred status organized around monogamy, economic stability, and child rearing. This view of marriage is based on ideology rather reality. It ignores celebrity marriages designed for financial profit, impromptu Las Vegas weddings chosen for fun, and marriages of convenience used to access benefits. In excluding these forms of marriage from the idea of "marriage," being married retains a paramount status.

Those who are married can challenge marital privilege by overtly and steadily contesting these beliefs and practices, but not countering privilege helps to maintain a system wherein married people -- their lives and families -- are more valued than unmarried folks.

It's not surprising that as marriage equality looms, the Institute of American Values is generating a vision that redefines the boundary of who should be demonized and systematically marginalized. In fact, if and when the Supreme Court makes a ruling that falls somewhere on the equality side, we will likely see more and more efforts that replace the language of heterosexual privilege with marital privilege.

But the incorporation of gays and lesbians into these efforts makes this work especially troublesome, precisely because it gives this "new conversation" a veneer of progress. The ugly truth is that the gays and lesbians who have signed onto the Institute for American Values' new vision are complicit in an approach that both delegitimizes vibrant queer kinship patterns and fails to address the very problems it purports to tackle.

My concerns are not driven by a queer anti-marriage position. Instead, LGBTQ folks and allies should be on notice about the insidious workings of marital privilege in this moment for two reasons. First, as the possibility of marriage equality is more likely than ever before, it is essential to remember how intoxicating the effects of privilege are. If the desire for marital privilege leads us to collaborate with those whose work is centrally invested in drawing lines between good "married" Americans and bad "unmarried" folks, we are complicit in vilifying the families and intimacies of someone else. This is the very practice that has wreaked so much violence in the lives of LGBTQ people for so very long.

Second, marriage equality is a hollow, and perhaps even malevolent, goal when it is not understood as one objective in a much broader political venture aimed at justice. As the work of the Institute for American Values reveals, marriage equality is already being used in the service of galvanizing gays and lesbians to collaborate on a new vocabulary of exclusion. Clearly, marriage equality will not be a sufficient solution to redress the insidious workings of privilege (heterosexual, marital, or otherwise), and thus we're reminded that efforts to support family, broadly defined and universally celebrated, go on regardless of what the Supreme Court decides.

What the world needs now may be marriage equality. The world certainly depends on love, and marital privilege has nothing to teach us about that.

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