Wedding Bell Blues


t looks like same-sex marriage
is here to stay. It’s even beginning to look downright patriotic.
This past Fourth of July, Cambridge Massachusetts saw one of its
most prominent lesbian couples marry at Memorial Church in Harvard
Yard. Professor Diana Eck, of Harvard Divinity School, and her partner,
the Reverend Dorothy Austin, a minister at the famed church, wed
amid a crowd of well-wishers that included Supreme Judicial Court
Chief Justice Margaret Marshall. Not only did the brides purposely
choose Independence Day for their nuptials, the ceremony’s
final hymn was “My Country ’Tis of Thee.” 

But even though queer Massachusetts residents gained the right to
marry with

Goodridge v. Department of Public Health

decision that has already withstood various challenges to it—and
has, according to some, redeemed the American Way of Life for many
gays and lesbians, some queer political activists are raising questions
about the limits and long-term worth of same-sex marriage. It’s
not that these activists don’t believe that same-sex couples
should have the same rights as heterosexual couples. Rather, the
vital questions they pose are, “What might we lose and who
might be harmed by same-sex marriage?” Such questions stem
from a longstanding division among queer activists dating back to
the 1960s. One side has stood firmly for gaining equal rights while
the other “liberationist” side has celebrated a politics
of difference, arguing that gay culture has its own ethos from which
straight people could learn a thing or two about justice and love.
Not surprisingly, this debate has resurfaced in what many in the
gay community are calling “the great divide” over the
fight for same-sex marriage. 

What’s interesting this time around is that alongside the well-worn
plea for gay cultural liberation is a critique of gay marriage based
on class rather than culture. 

What’s now being called the great divide over same-sex marriage
was anticipated by lesbian legal theorist and activist, Paula Ettelbrick,
in her fall 1989 article “Since When Is Marriage a Path to
Liberation?” published in

Out/ Look: National Gay and Lesbian

, when she wrote that “marriage defines certain
relationships as more valid than all others.” (These days,
a running joke among gay men and lesbians is that, with marriage
as an option, parents are hounding them to the altar just as avidly
as they do their heterosexual siblings.) 

Ettelbrick went on to say that the creation of this new, “more
valid” relationship for gay people “runs contrary to [one
of] the primary goals of the gay and lesbian movement…the validation
of many forms of relationships.” In the absence of legal civil
marriage, lesbians and gay men gleefully invented their own panoply
of romantic and household configurations that worked—at least
as well, if not better, than the traditional “nuclear family.”

Recent critics of same-sex marriage are not just worried that the
antic good old days of lesbians and gays (which, of course, still
exist) are endangered. In an important article, “Speak Now:
Progressive Considerations on the Advent of Civil Marriage for Same-Sex
Couples,” just published in the

Boston College Law Review

lawyers Kara S. Suffredini and Madeleine V. Findley argue persuasively
that while same-sex marriage will provide advantages to some people—those
with incomes that are middle class or higher—it could have
deleterious effects on other groups. Suffredini and Findley examine
a myriad of commonly accepted myths about the benefits of same-sex
marriage and discover that, often, they deliver far less than they
promise, especially if you are poor. 

The most obvious example, perhaps, concerns health care. One of
the most compelling arguments same-sex marriage advocates make is
that civil marriage will give partners, and any children involved,
access to one partner’s health insurance. Suffredini and Findley
point out that this is true only if one partner has health-care
benefits—and most people working low-paying, hourly jobs do

But there are also overt economic drawbacks to being poor and getting
married, the authors argue, which gay men and lesbians from the
working classes will have to suffer if they wed. For example, the
aptly named “marriage penalty,” which kicks in when a
married couple who both work and earn similar incomes end up paying
more in taxes than if they were single, tends to affect same-sex
couples more egregiously than different-sex couples. That’s
because the tax laws assume the traditional arrangement in which
one spouse (usually the husband) will be the primary wage earner
and that the ancillary wage earner will make considerably less.
In that case, a married couple’s joint tax rate equals out,
but when incomes are comparable, as is more often the case with
gay and lesbian couples, they end up paying more taxes. The same
is true of African American couples, according to Washington and
Lee University School of Law professor, Dorothy Brown, who argues
that they are doubly affected since the “marriage penalty”
is harshest on all lower-income families and affects white middle-class
and upper-class households the least. 

A more draconian “marriage penalty”—and one that
affects women on the lowest level of the economic scale—results
from the Bush administration’s welfare reform policy, designed
to discourage out-of-wedlock births. According to Suffredini and
Findley, the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) program
“promotes a ‘family cap’ policy to discourage women
from having additional children while receiving welfare assistance.
The family cap policy denies welfare benefits to children born to
unmarried welfare recipients or heightens work requirements to mothers
who exceed the family cap.” All of this is intended to induce—or
coerce—poor women to get married. But for many low-income households,
getting hitched may also mean losing the earnedincome tax credit
that many single mothers depend on, thus putting them in an even
more vulnerable economic position. The idea that marriage helps
solve the economic problems of poor women—heterosexual or lesbian—is
a myth. 

situation worsens when you consider some of the social-policy changes
engendered by same-sex marriage. Over the past 15 years, various
private companies and some municipalities instituted domestic-partnership
(DP) programs intended for gay couples, i.e., those who did not
have the right to marry, which granted an array of economic and
health-care benefits. This alternative system of benefit sharing
was, for the most part, an effort to extend fairness to gay and
lesbian people. But since the advent of same-sex marriage in Massachusetts,
both private and public-sector DP programs in the state have been
eroded. Because most were instituted out of a sense of fairness
to gays and lesbians, and not to promote viable economic and ethical
alternatives to traditional marriage, it makes perfect sense (to
some) that they will disappear as legal civil marriage becomes available
across the country. Marriage will not be simply a choice for some
gay people, but compulsory if the couple needs any of these benefits. 

But the other reality is that DP programs—where and when they
exist—are not only a boon to gay couples, but mark a shift
toward recognizing alternatives to traditional marriage. Realistically,
many gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender (GLBT) relationships, for
a wide variety of reasons, do not fit the traditional-marriage template,
yet they need healthcare and other benefits, too. Many form what
Suffredini and Findley call “diverse forms of partnership and

They cite the example of a lesbian co-parenting couple who wish
to include the child’s biological father in their family configuration.
But there are many others as well: a gay couple caring for a former
partner of one of its members who is ill from AIDS, or a gay or
lesbian couple who takes on the care of an aged parent. (Who cares
if these examples play into that antigay right-wing stereotype—gay
or lesbian people who form ethical and sustained romantic relationships
with more than two people?) It is a mistake to pretend that all
GLBT families are alike and that legal civil marriage will cure
their ills. Same-sex marriage will not be applied to or experienced
“equally” by all GLBT people. 

If the GLBT movement is simply looking for equality under the law—surely
a modest and estimable goal—why do the particular circumstances
of poor GLBT people matter? The answer lies with the rhetoric of
the GLBT movement, that same-sex marriage is essential for the health
and welfare of GLBT families. The way they have framed the debate,
and the way in which they have lobbied and organized this fight,
has ensured that only the most traditional, and the most middleand
upper-class gay families will reap the lion’s share of the

There is nothing wrong with fighting for same-sex marriage as long
as it is part of a larger scheme in which all the myriad issues
affecting GLBT families are addressed. Rather than working from
the top down, using a model that uncritically accepts the enshrinement
of marriage as the gold standard of personal and romantic relationships,
gay and lesbian legal advocates should have been looking at the
specific needs of a wide variety of GLBT families and shaping and
fighting for policies and law that will benefit everyone—not
just those in the middle class or those who choose to engage in
the most traditional relationships. 

Sue Hyde, who serves as New England field director for the National
Gay and Lesbian Task Force and who has worked on marriage-equality
issues in Massachusetts for close to ten years, is attuned to the
discrepancies between “equal rights” and broader approaches
to social change. “While not addressing structural change in
institutions, this kind of progress, nonetheless, is transformative
for some of the people who live within those structures,” she
says. “This is hardly a net loss.” 

Evan Wolfson, executive director of Freedom To Marry, and one of
the prime movers in the struggle for marriage equality, says that,
although he has not yet read the Suffredini and Findley article,
he is wary of their arguments: “The denial of marriage harms
all gay people, but falls harshest on people of lesser means, immigrants,
people who are ill, children, and in general people who are vulnerable.
They need a safety net, however imperfectly our society accords
these things through marriage,” he says. “Although I believe
marriage should not be the only way that people should access protections—I
believe in universal healthcare—it is an important way that
people can access them. Many of these protections—Social Security,
immigration regulations, qualifying for public assistance—cannot
be replaced by private agreement or with the help of an expensive
lawyer, which many people cannot do. Marriage gives that protection
with the words ‘I do.’ It is a choice and an option that
the vast majority of people who have it, exercise.”

Further, Wolfson thinks that, like it or not, no matter how one
feels about marriage equality, this is the fight we are having now
and it is essentially about the larger place of gay people in the
U.S. “I think it’s important that we engage in this debate
with our fellow Americans—especially to reach out to those
who have not made up their minds about the injustice of second-class

The fact remains that the fight for marriage equality is at its
essence not a progressive fight, but rather a conservative one that
seeks to maintain the social norm of the two-partnered relationship—with
or without children—as more valuable than any other relational
configuration. While this may make a great deal of sense to conservatives—Jonathan
Rauch, the author of

Gay Marriage: Why It Is Good for Gays, Good
for Straights, and Good for America

, argues that one of the
purposes of marriage is to explicitly and legally value some relationships
over others—it is clear that this paradigm leaves the basic
needs of many people out of the equation. In the case of same-sex
marriage the fight for equality bears little resemblance to a progressive
fight for the betterment of all people. This conservatism also shows
up outside the family circle. The fight for equality under the law
as it now stands—no matter how ill-advised or unfair it may
be—often promotes and perpetrates preexisting inequality and
unfairness. For example, in its public discussions about what it
means to fight the ban on gays in the military, the gay rights movement
has never taken into consideration that it is mainly poor people
who join the armed forces and are the most likely to be wounded
or killed. Nor has the gay rights movement had a public discussion
about sexual and gender orientation in hate crimes legislation,
which acknowledged that these laws often add draconian “extra”
time to prison sentences, and add to the power of a troubled and
often-corrupt court system that historically and routinely affects
young African American men more than any other group. The professionalized
gay rights movement is a very middle-class, white movement that
has always had trouble seeing beyond its own limited landscape. 

Same-sex marriage advocates have argued that marriage is nothing
more than a personal choice, that what gay people were denied is
the “freedom to marry.” But marriage—or any legal
or social contact—concerns the entire society in which they
live. The gay movement has to begin looking at issues in a larger,
more socially conscious way. This is not simply a matter of “what
about poor people” or “what about people who want to live
their family lives outside of a dyadic coupling.” 

If the gay movement is to be a true social justice movement, it
has to think about social justice for all GLBT people. This is not
a matter of tactics, but an ethical challenge. The question the
gay movement should be asking is not how to make life more livable
for all gay people, but how to make it better for all people. 

The fight should not simply be for same-sex marriage equality, but
for reforming marriage laws to make them equitable to meet the needs
of all families. A fight for universal healthcare would better address
some of the basic needs of all families—gay and straight—than
the fight for same-sex marriage will. There are those in the gay
movement who argue that healthcare isn’t a “gay issue.”
Tell that to  single lesbian mothers with no health insurance
or to a man with AIDS and no access to medications.  

Unfortunately, the gay rights movement has been looking at life
too long from the inside, often to the detriment of the very people
it is trying to help. 

“Equality under the law” is a pretty phase and one that
resonates well at a Fourth of July wedding, along with phases like
“sweet land of liberty.” The only other phase that’s
missing is “with liberty and justice for all.”

Bronski’s latest book is

Pulp Friction:
Uncovering the Golden Age of Gay Male Pulps

(St. Martin’s
Press, 2003).