Marriage and fighting for the wrong equality

The United States has been on a juggernaut for the acceptance and legalisation of same-sex marriage, from a nation that polled mostly against it to a nation that polls mostly for it, a nation where it was illegal or unprecedented to one where it’s been legalised by Supreme Court mandate. These are signs of social progress to celebrate, recognising both that people who want to celebrate their love through marriage have a right to do so and that social attitudes about the LGB community are shifting. Though the role of heteronormativity and mainstreaming is worrying, and people shouldn’t have to play straight to achieve social gains, it’s telling that people are growing more accepting of the notion that LGB people aren’t the threat they were once presented as — and I’m leaving that T off for a reason, because the issues of the trans community, while related, can’t be lumped in every which way one feels like it.

But the cause of marriage equality has long been a source of frustration for me. I wholeheartedly support people who want to share a commitment or celebrate their love with their community — and not just in the case of couples but also those in triads and other types of more complex relationships. If three people who share close emotional and romantic ties want to wed, I’ll be there throwing birdseed. The right to marry shouldn’t be denied to anyone, on any grounds, and there shouldn’t be obstacles to marriage — like the risk of losing disability benefits if marital status changes.

However, it’s often presented as a red herring on two grounds. One reflects the drive towards heteronormativity and the notion that the queer community must be like the straight community to succeed and be accepted. I reject this. Queers should not have to fit themselves into a little box for the satisfaction of those made uncomfortable by them. Queers who want to get married totally should because hey, who doesn’t love a party, but this should be an issue of genuine desire and love within a relationship, not external pressure — and the same goes for het couples who don’t want to marry but feel pressed into it by families or their communities.

People also defended the ardent push for marriage equality to the exclusion of other LGB issues on the grounds that marriage provides access to partner benefits, adoption and parenting rights, the ability to make end of life decisions, and more. Without marriage, partners in same-gender relationships were caught in tragic situations like being unable to visit their partners in the hospital, having to watch family members swoop in and take their children, and more. These situations were awful and unconscionable and addressing them is indeed a key civil rights issue.

However, marriage isn’t the way to do that. We should not be yoking civil rights to what is fundamentally a private religious or cultural ceremony. If you want someone to have authority when it comes to end of life decisions, post-death care, or the ability to visit in the hospital and make emergency decisions, you should be able to designate that with legal documentation. If you want to add someone to a birth certificate, this should be easy to accomplish. It should be easy to add partners of any gender to an adoption agreement. It shouldn’t be necessary to marry to obtain partnership benefits or immigration status. These are all legal formalities which, while important, lie firmly with the government, not the church.

I understand the expediency of selecting marriage as a tool for quickly accessing these rights all at once rather than having to painstakingly step through them. Overnight, married couples gained a tremendous number of rights, while partners with concerns about these rights were able to marry and access them. But in the long term, we need to be seriously talking about decoupling these rights from marriage, because they don’t belong together. A legally-recognised marriage shouldn’t be the prerequisite to being able to parent a child, for example, and a partner shouldn’t need to be married to pick up her child from school. A company offering partner benefits shouldn’t be permitted to ask for marital status, someone shouldn’t need to marry to sponsor someone for immigration status.

The United States prides itself on the separation of church and state, already a myth for a country so clearly rooted in Christianity, right down to the actions of the founders. Yet here we have this fundamental entangling of civil rights and religion, for marriage is heavily influenced by religious faith and values even when it’s conducted on a strictly civil basis. It has its origins in the exchange of property (one of the reasons I am so reluctant to celebrate its continued existence) but it was also historically a religious ritual.

The state categorically shouldn’t be in the marriage business — legally recognised romantic partnerships should be civil in nature, with people pursuing private religious or cultural ceremonies on their own time. And civil rights definitely shouldn’t be linked to these partnerships, because no one should have to forge a legal bond to another person to have their fundamental humanity recognised, as a parent, as a partner, as anything else. We shouldn’t be building up obstacles to make it difficult for people to access civil rights by creating hoops like requiring notarization or even court orders for basic legal documents like those authorizing the ability to made medical decisions, and this is what we should be fighting for — for, after all, it’s not just romantic partners who might want to be able to make these decisions, but also those in other kinds of relationships, and some might want those authorities distributed across multiple people.

Image: Two, Sean Molin, Flickr