Getting Cousin Marriage on the Legislative Agenda

How can we get repealing bans on first cousin marriage on the US legislative agenda?

I think it would clearly help in getting started to consider why it has not already been raised as an issue, given facts like that no other Western country prohibits it and that the genetic arguments have been shown to be hollow.

I can see at least two big reasons why it’s been neglected:

1) The affected percentages are lower in the US than in many other countries. The most recent studies were done around a half century ago and found 0.2% of Roman Catholics married to a first or second cousin. We don’t have any data at all on non-marital relationships or for non-Catholics, a demographic that is now over 75% of the public.

2) Cohabiting cousins can blend in amongst strangers, acquaintances and at least some friends.

However, we should definitely balance these factors against this:

1) Cousin marriage is largely still seen as a perversion and is not recognized even as a legitimate political issue in the United States.

In addition to understanding this as oppressive, it is itself another reason why bans on cousin marriage haven’t been disputed. For example, today there is a great deal of media coverage about the issues of race and gay marriage in the United States. Gays and ethnic minorities may receive their share of cruelty and bigotry, but at least there is an expanding community recognizing that these phenomena are unjust. On the other hand, when cousin couples are made out to be stupid, disgusting, incestuous, "polluting the gene pool," etc., there is no comparable consciousness and especially anger at the injustice. Discrimination against cousin couples is not being fought through any kind of coordinated effort, and so those afflicted are inevitably left atomized, alone, and at the mercy of potential accusers.

I think an apt analogy here, and probably a much better one than comparisons to gay marriage, is actually to miscegenation. Compare the uproar over the fact that a justice of the peace refused an interracial couple a marriage license in Louisiana last month to the fact that in over half of US states it is official policy to deny the same license to cousin couples. If we restrict ourselves to black-white marriages, the numbers involved are on the same order of magnitude: there were 422,000 black-white marriages in 2005, according to the Census Bureau, or 844,000 individuals. If we use the 0.2% figure, then multiplying by 124 million married individuals gives 248,000 people. However, we need to take into account that cousin marriage is illegal in most states, so this understates the number somewhat. Also, the number of black-white marriages has exploded since the landmark Loving vs. Virginia ruling, with the percentage more than tripling since 1970.

On Justice Bardwell’s behavior in Louisiana, the ACLU says that it represents "bigotry and prejudice" and "would be both embarrassing and disturbing in any year." It therefore recommends "the most severe sanctions available, because such blatant bigotry poses a substantial threat of serious harm to the administration of justice." But in the case of denying cousin couples the right to marry, their organization presumably does not believe this constitutes bigotry or prejudice, since none of its state chapters have ever raised the issue.

That brings me to the question of how to get this issue on the agenda. In order to start, it will be necessary to contact progressive organizations and convince them to take up the cause. To identify some possible candidates I decided to consider Wikipedia’s list of organizations advocating gay marriage, since I couldn’t find a comparable list for miscegenation or civil rights. Removing organizations exclusively devoted to gay rights, we find:

National Organization for Women,[82] the AFL-CIO,[84] the ACLU,[85] the American Psychiatric Association,[86] the National Association of Social Workers,[87] the Service Employees International Union (SEIU),[88], the National Education Association[89], the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights[90], People for the American Way, Secular Coalition for America, Center for American Progress,, Drum Major Institute[91], Institute for Policy Studies[92], Americans for Democratic Action[93], Progressive Democrats of America, Campus Progress, Democracy for America, Progressive Majority, NARAL Pro-Choice America[94]

There’s also the Green Party and various state Democratic parties. I would hope that eventually all of these organizations can be persuaded to advocate cousin marriage, but since resources in getting this started are scarce and I may be acting alone, prioritization is needed. I tend to rule out the unions as good starting points because unlike discrimination against gays, discrimination against married cousins is probably not much of a workplace issue (in the same way as discrimination against interracially married couples is not, per se, much of a workplace issue). Somewhat analogous reasoning about their foci leads me to axe the American Psychiatric Association and the National Association of Social Workers, though these might be worth coming back to. The feminist organizations I rule out for a different and unfortunate reason: many of the Islamic societies with the highest rates of cousin marriage are also extremely patriarchal, and I fear that some feminists may have an impression of cousin marriage as a kind of back door for Middle East-style sexism. This superficial association is one that I think can certainly be overcome, but not without a good deal of dialogue. The Leadership Conference on Civil Rights has to go because it’s an umbrella group, not a real organization, but I ended up considering one of its members, the Citizens’ Commission on Civil Rights. A couple of think tanks got removed because their issue focus isn’t relevant. Finally, I ruled out and Democracy for America because my personal impression is that they’re incapable of taking issue stances that aren’t explicitly Democrat-approved beforehand.

That leaves us with:

Green Party
Citizens’ Commission on Civil Rights
People for the American Way
Progressive Democrats of America
Secular Coalition for America
NJ Democratic Party (my state)
Center for American Progress

This list is ranked: it represents a very rough gauging of how easy I think it would be to get these organizations to support cousin marriage. The Green Party is simply awesome and if the issue was properly explained, I think there is a very good chance of actually getting it into their national platform for the 2012 elections. The ACLU is a natural ally here, though as a judicially focused organization they would doubtless be more motivated if an actual case was presented of first cousins being denied a marriage license. A major task in soliciting the ACLU is hence finding a couple willing to come forward and file a speculative legal case. As a preliminary effort one would surely also want to consult with ACLU staff about their willingness to actually accept the case.

The next few organizations are small academic think tanks. The modus operandi there is pretty straightforward: just contact their staff and discuss any willingness to take a position. Progressive Democrats of America is fantastic but their issue focus is mostly concentrated on non-social issues. Their state chapters, however, do engage in some gay rights work. Meanwhile Secular Coalition for America is an explicitly anti-religious organization, so it would be probably be necessary to find a religious organization banning or restricting cousin marriage that it could be properly "anti" to. The Catholic Church and its requirement for a dispensation for first cousins comes to mind as a possibility, but it’s not one I’ll take up since I personally have Catholic roots.

Then we have the NJ Democratic Party. Unlike states like Massachusetts, I’m not even sure that we even have a party platform in New Jersey. Anyway, this is a huge task, far beyond my individual capabilities. Dead last we have the Center for American Progress, which I almost discounted for reasons similar to and Democracy for America, but in the end retained because it’s an academic organization and might perhaps have a member or two who can be individually persuaded.

That about rounds out the list! I will try to influence some of these organizations to endorse cousin marriage in the future, in addition to promoting causes that benefit everyone like Medicare for All. Actually, I won’t be blogging for a while-I have some personal concerns that desperately need taking care of, like say finding employment. I will be back at around 5 or 6 p.m. to address comments on this post, though. Cheers!

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