THE PLANK JULY 22, 2008
There's a rather silly debate going on at The American Prospect regarding gay marriage. Yesterday, Courtney Martin wrote an article for the Prospect's website in which she announced that "recent steps toward legalizing gay marriage have prompted me to reevaluate my own longstanding aversion to the institution." Why is Martin averse to marriage?
1) I don't want to participate in an institution that's been historically sexist and currently discriminates against my gay friends, especially considering that my partner and I couldn't have been married in some states just 40 years ago (we're miscegenators), and 2) I'm uncomfortable with the "till death do us part" rhetoric that seems to suggest that two people parting ways is an inherent failure, rather than, as is so often the case, a necessary moment of growth and change.
What a conscientious heart this poor woman has. I can't imagine the stress she must go through worrying that marriage to her boyfriend (whom she refers to as her "partner" -- no heternormativity or sexism allowed!) will offend her gay friends or reinforce an "historically sexist" institution that 4 decades ago, in some states, didn't allow people of different races to take part. Her second concern, that a potential divorce would send the signal that her marriage was "an inherent failure," is probably something she should work out with her therapist and not let get in the way of a broader social analysis.
While acknowledging that gay couples should have the same legal rights endowed by marriage, Martin asks,
But do these rights really trump the woman-as-property history and discriminatory present (on a state by state basis, of course)? Why do so many of my gay friends have such faith that they can transform the institution when I'm still so unsure?
I answer a resounding "Yes" to the first question and don't much care about the second because I don't see how marriage needs to be "transformed" other than that it should be opened to homosexuals. Moreover, that marriage remains a patriarchical, unjust institution is simply taken for granted by Martin -- no evidence is offered to make the case, just emotion. That miscegnation laws once existed -- another reason Martin doesn't want to get married -- is irrelevant. The military used to be segregated. Does that make it inherently bad? (Perhaps that's not a good question for some readers of the Prospect).
I'm all for counterintuitive journalism (hey, I work at The New Republic), but sometimes arguments are just plain stupid, as this one is. Jesse Singal seems to agree with me, and offers a smart (if overly patient) reply. He makes the obvious point that there is nothing inherent in marriage that reinforces "gender assumptions;" couples can individually choose who (if either of them) will stay home with the kids. He finds it "unrealistic" for gay-supportive straight people to abstain from marriage in protest of its exclusionary nature; I find it morally preening and self-righteous, however well-intentioned. Please, breeders, get married. It's good for you, society and your potential children, and isn't mutually exclusive from supporting marriage equality for gays.
Back to the Prospect, Dylan Matthews doesn't like what he reads from Singal. On the proposed boycott of marriage by straights, he offers that:
There is a collective action problem here, of course, and boycotts only work if participation is high, but the correct response to that isn't ending the boycott, it's promoting it so that it reaches that critical level.
A marriage boycott would never reach a "critical level" because there is no "critical level" at which a bunch of straight people abstaining from it would convince the rest of the country to suddenly legalize gay marriage. Guys, this isn't a hunger strike in solidarity with graduate student unionization at your Ivy League college. Contemporary opposition to gay marriage is based mostly on religious rationales and the way this opposition will decrease is by demonstrating that it is morally good for the country and society at large to support gay equality. We're starting to see that in California, where images like the one above are beginning to convince anti-gay marriage hold-outs that they have nothing to fear.
People who are genuinely pro-gay marriage are also pro-marriage generally. Martin isn't helping the cause by reinforcing the notion, held by many people on the other side of this issue who need the utmost convincing, that what some on the Left really want isn't "equality" for gays but the dismantling of marriage altogether.
Matthews reinforces the whole "marriage is racist" canard:
But the institution is still constructed in subtle ways to fit best with same-raced, preferably white, couples. Imagine a traditional wedding in which two white families are sitting on either side of the aisle. Now imagine a wedding in which one side is completely white and the other completely black. See the problem?
No, I don't. Sounds like a wonderful example of America's exceptional multiculturalism to me.
Look, I have no problem with people who don't want to get married. We live in a free country. But these arguments against it should be viewed for what they are: marginal attempts by far left feminist and "queer" activists to upend a vital social institution. It's obnoxious enough when gay people make them. As someone who can't get married (unless I return to my home state of Massachusetts, which isn't in the cards right now), I find heterosexuals complaining that marriage is a series of "ists" to be incredibly myopic.