Radical thoughts on gay marriage

Today the Senate votes on a Constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage. Obviously this kind of ban would be totally unacceptable. But I have to admit being a bit conflicted on the issue.

First, I don't see why the institution of marriage is all that desirable in the first place. It might be better to eliminate marriage as a social norm altogether. Still, if people want to get married, that's their choice. Certainly there's no place for the state to interfere in consensual behavior.

But I don't think there's any place for the state to affirm marriage either. The basic set-up now is that the state recognizes marriages and provides financial benefits for people who get married. Why would we want or need state sanction for marriage? And why on earth would the unmarried subsidize those who are married?

Yet the movement for state-recognized gay marriage isn't only about eliminating discrimination between gay and straight marriages (which would be best addressed by removing state involvement altogether). It's also about using a hugely important symbol to push the dominant society into further acceptance of gay people.

Gay marriage does this in two ways:
  • As a provocation, by challenging people's conceptions of one of their most closely-held ideals, it forces them to confront the existence of different sexualities and come to terms with otherwise submerged prejudices;
  • As a move to normalize gays, making them less of a threat, by integrating them into the deeply conservative institution of marriage.
The first is useful, the second more questionable. But maybe acceptance of gay people needs to come before challenging more fundamental systems of gender and sexuality.


suibhne said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
suibhne said...

I'd go a bit further on those two aims, by pointing out the strictly practical side of eliminating discrimination between same-sex and opposite-sex couples: the extension of economic/cultural benefits to same-sex partnerships, without a serious accompanying social cost.

A significant segment of the American workplace now extends benefits to same-sex partners (looking close to home, for example, both Northwestern University and the City of Chicago), but there are at least three significant downsides:
a. that segment of the workplace which recognizes same-sex partnerships is still vanishingly small in the entire labor market;
b. those workplace benefits are only some of the benefits and preferences enjoyed by state-sanctioned couples; and
c. this system preserves and perpetuates a fundamental other-ness about gay couples vs. straight couples.

Even if same-sex partnerships were state-recognized throughout the country, addressing the first two of those problems, that third aim would not only *not* be satisfied; it would be actively subverted.

I agree with you on the fundamental wrongness of any social preference for married couples, straight or gay, and I'm sorry to see the gay-rights movement implicitly endorsing that inequality. But in strictly short-term political terms, I think gay marriage is a practical goal which could lay the groundwork for satisfying a few significant civil-rights needs. (State recognition for gay marriages wouldn't automatically lead to a higher cultural valuation of them, of course, but it would be a major step in the right direction - and probably a necessary prerequisite.)

suibhne said...

Disregard that first post. I can't delete it because Blogger sucks.