By Roger N. Lancaster
Conservative arguments against marriage equality echo yesterday's justifications for slavery and sexual inequality: It has always been thus; God made it so; the natural order of things requires that it be this way, or great harm will befall us. It's easy enough to refute such arguments, based as they are on pseudoscience, fake universals, potted histories and outright prejudice.
The basic lessons from anthropology, sociology and history are clear: Marriage, family and kinship are not timeless institutions written in the eternal heavens and handed down to humankind with other basic moral values. They are variable and ever-changing social relations, and they change along with other changing social conditions. They are what we make of them, and it does them no dishonor when free men and women remake them from time to time according to their changing needs and their desires for a better future. Please see the American Anthropological Association's recent compilation of selected articles from its publishing portfolio (aaaopenanthro.org) for evidence of variety of changing arrangements.
Social scientists also agree about the effects of marriage: Who's in and who's out of official kinship really matters. Marriage conveys recognition, legitimacy and approval, of course, but it also counts in ways that are more than symbolic. It organizes economic rights; it is about property and economic access. Denying some people the right to marry is a policy of deliberate social exclusion, and such policies are known to correlate with reduced income, poorer health indicators and shorter life expectancies for the excluded segments of society. This is why international conventions recognize the right to marry as a fundamental human right.
My immediate demands as a gay man, then, are modest. I just want the same rights as everybody else. I do not want to be told to go to the back of the line. I do not want special, second-class rights that have been cordoned off from those of other citizens. I want the right to file joint income taxes as long as heterosexual married couples have that option. I want gay couples to have the right to share each other's hard-earned pensions, health insurance policies and Social Security benefits. I do not want to navigate a gauntlet of lawyers and paperwork in order to secure mutual inheritance rights with my partner. And I want to participate in the same welfare, housing and immigration rights as everyone else. The present set-up arbitrarily excludes gays and lesbians from these social and material goods. We thus need gay marriage, and we should accept nothing less than the same rights with the same names.
But -- and this is a big "but" -- many of these "rights" are privileges that exclude someone else from standing, economic access and material goods. In demanding marriage rights, then, we are not only demanding social inclusion; we are demanding access to an institution that has exclusionary functions. This might well give us pause. It certainly would have given pause to previous generations of gay activists, feminists and free thinkers who criticized the family as an exclusionary institution and sought to decouple love from marriage.
In any case, the facts of the present scarcely support the idea that marriage is the one institution that will sustain varied forms of social life. Some women (and a few men) are single parents not by circumstance but by choice; in either case, they strive to provide love, connection and a good life for their families. Their labors have earned our support, not moralizing lectures about how they should get married. Some people never couple up and never have children, nor do they wish to do so, but serve as caregivers for family members; others maintain long-term networks of mutual support with friends that resemble kin relations. Their contributions are worthy of respect, not sympathy. Some never find their one true love but instead find ways to bless the lives of everyone around them. These are not small gifts, and they ought to be reciprocated by society.
There's more than one way to live, love and set up households. It would be a shame if gay marriage were to make the world a drabber, more conformist place. It would be a net loss if we, or at least some of us, were to join the institution of marriage in order to offload the symbolic and material burdens of queerness onto someone else: unmarrieds, single parents, divorcees, the nonmonogamous, etc. It would be far better if gay marriage were to promote a more benign view of variation and respect for difference. It would be better still if gay marriage could lead to the consolidation of more forms of support for more forms of social mutuality.
The times call for a more expansive social imagination: some legal recognition of and material support for the true existent variety of ways that people live and love in the 21st century. So why not return to our radical roots and question the centrality of marriage as the model for how to live? Why not begin thinking about which privileges might be legitimately associated with marriage and which could be distributed in other institutional arrangements? Before the advent of same-sex marriage, civil unions and domestic partnerships were spreading, and these afforded not just gay and lesbian couples with certain recognitions and benefits. Many locales are now eliminating these options, closing off a promising line of development. Why not advocate for marriage equality and various forms of civil solidarity pacts?
I call for supporters of gay marriage to be more inclusive in their campaign for inclusion. A one-size institution won't fit all people or all needs. We need more options, not fewer. And everybody, whether they take the plunge or not, ought to have access to health care, education, affordable housing, partner visitation rights and a decent retirement after a life of work. We need to be as radical as reality about these matters.
Roger Lancaster is professor of anthropology and director of cultural studies at George Mason University. The Meaning of Matrimony, a longer treatment of this subject, is published by Civitas, a British NGO.