Gay Marriage: End of the World?

— Chloe Tribich

When Gay People Get Married:
What Happens When Societies Legalize Same Sex Marriage.
By M.V. Lee Badget
New York University Press, 2009, 288 pages, $35 cloth.

ON JANUARY 14, the fourth day of the trial of Perry v. Schwarzenegger, the case that is challenging California’s same-sex marriage ban, the following exchange occurred between the plaintiff’s lawyer Christopher Dusseault and his witness Ilan Meyer, a Professor of sociomedical sciences at Columbia. (Excerpt from Firedoglake.com, which blogged live from the trial.)

Dusseault: Does DP [domestic partnership] eliminate structural stigma of Prop 8[?]

Meyer: I’m talking about [an] institution [marriage] that has social meaning. I don’t refer to any tangible benefits…Young children do not aspire to be domestic partners. Marriage is a very common socially approved goal. This is a desirable and respected type of goal.

Dusseault: Do you have opinion where DP [domestic partnership] has similar social meaning?

Meyer: I don’t think it has the same social meaning. I don’t think it has any social meaning. It has values in terms of bene[fit]s that people receive. Those bene[fit]s not really relevant to my discussion of stigma.

This argument — that gay people who want to marry, like straight people who want to marry, want social recognition more than tax benefits — is similar to the one that M.V. Lee Badget makes in her new book When Gay People Get Married:

“For [same-sex couples] who marry, their reasoning sounds familiar, and it parallels the reasoning we hear from heterosexual couples...Although they had the option to register as partners and gain most of the same legal benefits of marriage, all but one of the couples who had a choice rejected registration and instead chose to marry.” (40)

Badget spent a year in the Netherlands interviewing gay couples to understand how, if at all, the right to marriage changed them and the heterosexual world that surrounded them. The result is an eminently readable volume that draws on state population data, surveys and Badget’s own interviews.

The book, published in mid-2009, is timely — indeed, Badget was a witness for the plaintiffs in Perry v. Schwarzenegger. Many expect that the case will go to the Supreme Court where it might, in the mold of Loving v. Virginia, which banned anti-miscegenation laws, force the overturn of states’ same-sex marriage bans once and for all. Badget’s book could provide a glimpse of our future in the United States.

The left has a considerable stake in the answer to Badget’s question. If recognition of same-sex marriage has the effect of revitalizing other reform campaigns — such as those for transgender anti-discrimination laws or protections against school bullying for gay teenagers — then it would support the perspective of those who believe same-sex marriage is a viable “transitional demand,” one that paves the way for increasingly radical movements for social equality. If it opens up a privileged category to a selection of gay people then it would less likely be a transitional demand.

Basic Rights and Transformation

It goes without saying all those who value basic decency should stand with LGBT communities against attacks from the right, whether the arena is same sex marriage or sex workers’ rights. And we should recognize and affirm the deeply human need articulated by Dr. Meyer in the exchange quoted above — the desire to be acknowledged and respected. But how we organize ourselves as radicals and revolutionaries over the long term, how we dedicate our scant resources, should be informed, at least in part, by an analysis of strategy and likely outcomes.

That’s why we should care about Badget’s book. The answer to her central question — what happens when societies legalize same-sex marriage? — is, it seems, not a whole lot. Heterosexual marriage in the Netherlands continues to function pretty much as it had before same-sex marriage was recognized. “The findings,” she writes, “all fail to support the idea that policy change led to cultural change in the meaning of marriage.” (85)

The book opens with profiles of the interview subjects. One couple married when they decided to have children. Another tied the knot under pressure from family. A third didn’t marry because they didn’t feel sufficiently committed. Badget’s conclusion: “The similarities between the process that same-sex couples engage in as they decide whether to marry…and the process followed by different-sex couples are more striking than differences.” (42)

Similarly, Badget’s analysis of population data from countries that have legalized same-sex marriage (Denmark, Sweden, Iceland, Norway and the Netherlands) is that heterosexuals don’t forsake the institution when gay people are let in. Or at least they don’t pay much attention: “What heterosexuals do and think suggests that marriage is still a relevant institution in the lives of most heterosexuals.” (67)

There’s not much to say about what happens to societies that legalize same-sex marriage, then, a point Badget enthusiastically reiterates. In fact, it seems at times that her goal is to make same-sex marriage as palatable as possible for queasy heterosexuals. For example, large chunks of the book are framed as patient rebuttals of conservative U.S. pundits’ attacks on gay marriage.

Nearly the entirety of the chapter on “The Impact of Marriage on Heterosexuals” is a response to Stanley Kurtz’s assertion that gay marriage accelerates the decline of heterosexual marriage. “None of the data convincingly link the recognition of same-sex partners to either fewer marriages or a declining belief in the current relevance of marriage,” she concludes.

Gay Identity Under Threat?

In another chapter, Badget addresses those who she calls “marriage dissenters,” particularly supporters and authors of the Beyond Marriage Statement, which called for social movements that aim for inclusion and support for all types of families and communities over what they perceive as the narrow goal of same-sex marriage.

“Might we be planting the seeds of the destruction of gay identity and culture by pursuing the right to marry,” Badget asks, paraphrasing a question posed by dissenters. Her answer is no, since “same sex couples who marry…already look a lot like heterosexual married couples.” (131, 135)

Good point. Perhaps “marriage dissenters” would find closer allies in welfare organizers who are opposing the use of government funding for marriage counseling programs than they find among their marriage-oriented gay peers.(1)

In the same chapter, Badget addresses the concern that the same-sex marriage battles have sucked resources from other LGBT struggles. Badget makes reasonable arguments that health care campaigns have not suffered (and in some cases seem to have benefited) in states where same-sex marriage passed, and that the funding for same-sex marriage campaigns pales in comparison to what’s going to health care reform campaigns. But this is an argument that’s hard to make, she admits, because it’s impossible to track the funding, particularly for smaller LGBT organizations that do more local grassroots work.

Finally, Badget argues, contrary to the criticisms of “marriage dissenters,” that gay marriage could be a transitional demand, since “gay, lesbian and bisexual people [now] know where to find their elected officials, and a little political experience now may well come in handy when gay couples find out that their marriage certificates don’t guarantee them decent wages, health care or other public services that their families need.” (142)

Maybe, but plenty of LGB people already know this. Those who are transgender, are on welfare, are undocumented immigrants or are sex workers do not seem to be pursuing marriage as a strategy — at least not en masse — to win what they need. They have been largely absent from this debate. As activist Kenyon Farrow writes in his article “Is Gay Marriage Anti-Black:”

“Gay marriage…does not address my most critical need as a Black gay man to be able to walk down the streets of my community with my lover, spouse or trick, and not be subjected to ridicule, assault or even murder. Gay marriage does not adequately address homophobia or transphobia.” (http://www.nathanielturner.com/isgaymarriageantiblack.htm)

I point this out not to take an easy shot at the same-sex marriage movement by highlighting its white middle- and upper-class nature — the same could be said about the pro-choice movement, the antiwar movement, and certainly about many radical and revolutionary organizations. Badget describes her sample as “skewed towards middle or even upper middle-class couples,” but points out that other research suggests that it might be representative of a more random sample. (224)

Nor is any of this to devalue the importance of the social recognition that some gay people experience as a result of having the right to marry. The point is that if little changes when societies legalize same-sex marriage, it’s hard to make the argument that the gay marriage movements have broader radicalizing potential.

For better or worse, much of the push for gay marriage in the United States now seems relegated to the realms of the courtroom, legislatures, foundations and advertising firms.(2) If these forces are successful, it will mark a very significant victory in the struggle for formal legal rights for gay people. We should honor the sentiments that have galvanized activists to fight for same-sex marriage: the need for emotional, not just legal, recognition.

It is for that same reason that our strategies and actions should be informed by the words of the Beyond Marriage Statement:

“We must dare to dream the world that we need, the world that has room for us all, even as we also do the painstaking work of crafting the practical strategies that will address the realities of our daily lives. Now, more than ever, is the time to continue to find new ways of defending all our families, and to fight to make same-sex marriage just one option on a menu of choices that people have about the way they construct their lives.

    Notes

  1. For more information on how government dollars fund pro-marriage programs as a response to poverty, go to the website of the Department of Health and Human Services: http://www.acf.hhs.gov/healthymarriage/index.html.
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  2. On this, see Talbot, Margaret “A Risky Proposal: Is it too soon to petition the Supreme Court on Gay Marriage,” New Yorker, 18 Jan. 2010.
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ATC 145, March-April 2010

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