Queer Marriage: A New Oxymoron




T

o
begin, my three declarations: (1) I firmly believe that everyone
should have an equal choice about marrying legally; (2) I consider
marriage a dying, oppressive institution; (3) Some of my best lesbian
friends have been getting married this month, now that Massachusetts
is the first state to sanction it for lesbians and gays. 


There
is no denying the heartfelt desire of many same-sex couples to be
able to choose marriage. The all-night party at Cambridge, Mass-
achusetts City Hall, beginning at 12:01 AM on the first day of legality,
May 17, 2004, was testament to the sense of victory. By now, many
of us have already attended several weddings. State Representative
Pat Jehlen, who got herself declared a Justice of the Peace in order
to perform my friends’ ceremony, wept throughout. For her—a
heterosexual apparently awakened to homophobia by this legislative
process—it was a satisfying conclusion to her new activism.
For the couple in question, the motivation was gaining permission
from one of the women’s employers to take family leave in order
to care for her mother-in-law, who is ill and living with them. 


On
the other hand, the institution of marriage is in disrepair. Its
history is tied to property and male lineage and initially had as
its main role a means of ensuring that a man’s wealth passed
to his “legitimate” son. Maternity was obvious, but paternity
was more a matter of trust and wishful thinking (DNA testing now
replaces this obsolete means of sanctioning the biological “validity”
of the heir). 


Over
the centuries, marriage has been as much a way of keeping people
apart as bringing them together. In our own country, laws against
inter-racial marriage were on the books until recently. In fact,
Alabama only removed their miscegenation statute in 2000. Today
it is same-sex lovers who are banging their love against the closed
gates of legal matrimony—with Massachusetts the only success
story so far. They quite rightly object to being denied the benefits
and blessings of huddling under the sheets with clergy and Congress. 


The
first month of queer weddings was anything but exclusive and excluding,
as so much about marriage traditionally has been. Instead of the
notion that it’s “You and me against the world, baby,”
or “It’s just the two of us, special and apart,”
whole gaggles of couples waited together on the steps of City Halls
and whole communities have felt a part of the celebrations, even
when they don’t know the actual participants. 


Lesbians
and gays are not likely, however, to save this institution. Even
the pro-family group Concerned Women for America sees marriage as
a weak and insecure structure. They note unhappily that by 1999
the percentage of adults living in marriage had “declined steadily
to 56 percent.” Divorce- mag.com gives us even more telling
stats. They point out that the “median duration of marriage”
(1997) is only 7.2 years. Moreover, as of 1997, 50 percent of first
marriages and 60 percent of remarriages ended in divorce. As the
entertainer Will Rogers said at the turn of the century, “I
guess the only way to stop divorce is to stop marriage.” 


Marriage
is propped up by over 1,100 automatic federal benefits—financial,
social, pension, immigration, judicial, medical, parental—in
addition to being surrounded by a plethora of symbolisms. When blessed
by a religious institution, the bond is given a patina of righteousness:
the union is God’s will. But if the government or the divine
have been joining these couples, why are their marriages falling
apart? 


The
Bush agenda around marriage as an antidote to poverty has added
a taste of the surreal to the debate. Ryn, 25, a trans-queer activist
working in the queer family movement for 9 years, does not think
it should be investing so many precious resources in gaining the
right to marry. Given her personal background, she finds it ironic.
“I am the daughter of a lesbian couple and, when I was young,
I was desperate for my mother and her lover to marry. My mother
was on welfare. Today she would have been required to take marriage
education classes—and they don’t mean same sex.” 


No
activist denies the power of extending legal choice around marriage
to everyone—they just challenge it as “the” political
priority of this movement. After all, says Eleanor Roffman, 60,
psychology professor at a local university, “Marriage brings
‘access’ to things that many people don’t have in
the first place, often because of racism and sexism: pension, health
insurance, job security, family leave, parental rights.” Although
she and her partner have been together for over a decade, they will
not be marrying. “I was married once and it didn’t do
much good for me then! Marriage privileges couples; the benefits
should be available to everyone.” 


Roffman
makes a fundamental critique of the Noah’s Ark syndrome; “Part
of being a lesbian is having my eyes opened by queer theory, which
challenges the traditional heterosexual paradigms that control our
lives. Queer theory re-examines gender roles, power dynamics in
relations, and the assumption that couples should be privileged
over others.” 


Susan
Jacoby, 55, is a paralegal long involved in progressive politics
who thinks it’s no coincidence that, in this election year,
this issue is taking some of the attention away from the wars, military
scandals, unemployment, occupation, and health crisis. 


Although
her partner of 21 years would like to marry, Jacoby refuses: “I’m
not part of the gay movement that wants to say we are just like
everyone else. I’m part of the movement that critiques the
dominant culture. A big motivation is getting onto your partner’s
health plan, but I believe health benefits should be a civil right
independent of whether you’re in a relationship or not. Retirement
with dignity should also be a civil right.” 


She
worries about how single-issue struggles distort the general perspective.
“This reminds me of the ‘gays in the military’ movement.
What’s wrong with the U.S. military is not just that it doesn’t
accept gays, but that it dominates the world.” 


Vermont
was the first state where, through civil unions, queer couples were
granted the same state benefits as married heterosexuals. One of
the first results was that many companies dropped domestic partnership
benefits, so some people felt forced into being civil unionized
in order to maintain their privileges. 


Dave,
43, is a school bus driver in southern Vermont. He and his partner
of seven years, John Scagliatti, got civil unionized for the state
benefits, “the medical in particular, but also the death benefits
and rights to hospital visitation.” Dave watched a friend be
completely disenfranchised by the parents of his late partner—he
was even excluded from the funeral. That couple was registered in
New York as domestic partners, but it did not protect them. 


Scagliatti,
creator of “In The Life,” the first gay and lesbian series
on PBS and a prominent gay filmmaker, experienced the difference
in social interaction. “There is power to being a couple. Once
I was out of the widow role—and you only get about six months
as a gay man—I was considered single. You’re not high
on the social inclusion list as a single person. You really step
up when you get civil unionized.” 


He
welcomes the fact that queer marriage is bringing the institution
into the open. “By demanding marriage, gays and lesbians have
re-opened a debate about family that we haven’t had since the
days of communes in the 1960s.” 


That
view seems optimistic. Any real debate about the institution per
se has been subsumed into the camps represented by “godhates-
fags” counter-demonstrators on the one hand and the “happiest
day of my life” newlyweds, on the other. Those who see marriage
as a welcome form of assimilation decorated their pre-marriage vigils
outside the state legislature with U.S. flags. They promise to strengthen
the institution by reaffirming its role as a declaration of love,
commitment, and family values. At the same time, instantaneous commercial
initiatives—gay videographers, gay gift baskets, gay wedding
rings—have brought this movement into the market. 


Major
employers—from hospitals to corporations—declared the
end of domestic partnership benefits the day after legalization.
Northeastern University is giving those who are presently registered
as domestic partners until July 1, 2005 to get married. 


Dana-Farber
Cancer Institute is “grandfathering” current domestic
partners until the end of the calendar year (no new partnerships
will be recognized) and does recognize civil unions alongside gay
marriages. 


According
to Steven R. Singer, senior VP for communications, DFCI went even
further to ensure equality: “If an employee resides in a state
where marriage or civil union is not recognized…the Institute
will allow them to elect domestic partner coverage.” 


BM,
a lesbian employee of Dana-Farber, is not entirely satisfied with
the new policy. “They should have extended domestic partnerships
to both straights and gays. I do believe that, in a way, the new
marriage law took away the domestic partnership option and I do
not yet know what other options we’ll be losing. As people—gay
or straight—we should have the opportunity to decide what we
want to do. Now, because of this external impetus, my partner and
I are talking about marrying. Of course, the Institute may be driven
by business considerations.” 


Blue
Cross Blue Shield is living up to its commitment to be “an
employer of choice” by recognizing gay marriages at the same
time that it continues to accept both same- and opposite-sex domestic
partnerships. Their director of Media Relations, Susan Leahy, explains,
“We want to have a progressive benefit package that attracts
and retains the highest performing people in their profession.”
(BCBS does not extend benefits to domestic partners of policyholders.) 


Some
LGBT activists have felt quite frustrated during this period of
struggle when the only issue getting attention has been the demand
to board the sinking ship of marriage. Despite its myriad legal
and financial benefits, despite the social and religious scaffolding
propping it up, despite its place as a “keystone” of Western
civilization, marriage just isn’t cutting it. This object of
gay desire is a tarnished prize at best. 


The
French Renaissance thinker de Montaigne has an appropriate final
observation: “Marriage is like a cage; one sees the birds outside
desperate to get in, and those inside equally desperate to get out.”



 





Sue Katz is a
freelance writer.