Divorce the Past: A Socialist Critique of Marriage Equality

Emaline Kelso, Spring 2015

By: Emaline Kelso, MC ’17, for the Spring 2015 Issue (PDF version)

Divorce the Past: A Socialist Critique of Marriage Equality

Marriage equality is just another roadblock on the path to an equal and just society. Although the gay marriage, or marriage equality, movement has become central and gained significant traction in the past decade or so, the Left as a whole—and socialists in particular—should be more wary about putting their money on this particular horse.

In some ways, the marriage equality movement is inspirational. Even twenty years ago, it would have been hard to imagine an America only 13 states away from the nationwide legality of gay marriage. After Stonewall, in 1969, LGBT* activists were more focused on electing gay public officials, decriminalizing same-sex sex, and fighting for anti-discrimination laws. Lesbians applying for marriage licenses were laughed out of the courts in the 1980s, and given how long it took to legalize consensual sex (Lawrence v. Texas was decided in 2003), the fact that twenty-two states (as well as D.C. and Puerto Rico) have antidiscrimination laws now, 37 recognize same-sex marriages, and hate crimes are punishable under federal law (as of 2009), it’s hard to not feel like we should apply the term “progress” to the arc of LGBT* rights movements of the past couple of decades.

So what are the benefits of marriage? According to the Human Rights Campaign, there are 1,138 financial and legal protections. Marriage provides and expands the benefits of citizenship— if you aren’t an American citizen, citizenship can be accessed through marriage, and if you are, you get other benefits when you tie the knot. From healthcare to hospital visitation rights, we reward pairs who marry with all sorts of perks. Married citizens get tax breaks and can become eligible for Social Security and Medicare through their spouses. Tax and health benefits provided to employers extend to spouses. Our nation places huge moral and cultural value on children and child-rearing, and as it currently stands, our country offers benefits to parents that extend only to married couples. These include the earned income tax credit—eligibility for which depends on the child “qualifying”—head of household status, and the child tax credit. Couples who can’t marry cannot access resources that would contribute to their own wellbeing and their ability to support dependents.

As a leftist, I am opposed to marriage. Every person should have access to universal healthcare. We need a stricter gradated taxation system and broader redistributive properties. Excluding LGBT* couples from marriage and the benefits thereof is, of course, unjust. American policies shouldn’t discriminate on the basis of race, sex, gender, ability, or sexuality—but not every institution is worth keeping. It’s easy to see an exclusionary institution and assume that the just path would be to make it inclusive—but sometimes the best approach to a broken institution isn’t to repair it, but to abandon it.

Marriage bridges the gap between queer and straight romantic and sexual experiences. By opening up this institution, queer people suddenly get to write themselves into a centuries-long cultural script. In doing so, one definition and specific experience of queerness is allowed through the gates, excluding the rich diversity represented in the rest of the queer community. The couple does not represent the entire queer experience, but does make queerness safer.

And admittedly, many critiques of marriage equality critique it on the grounds that marriage is “less important” than other issues facing queer people, like bullying and the disproportionate number of suicides among LGB youth, a problem that’s even worse for transgender youth. Young LGBT* individuals face unemployment and homelessness at staggering rates, and to many activists, solving issues of poverty and violence is just more of a priority than marriage equality— particularly since the issue has become symbolic of all queer demands. National media has used marriage as a counterpoint to old accusations of gay culture consisting of wild hedonism. “Gays are just like us” makes for a comforting rallying cry. But is it worth the cost?

Ultimately, marriage equality is a Band-Aid solution, not a panacea. We erase a vibrant history of alternative family and relationship structures and we replace them with an institution that can only delay a better future. Many people rely on marriage, both for its social and its financial benefits. Raising children and founding a fulfilling life are both incredibly difficult. But marriage is not the institution that should be determining somebody’s ability to raise a child (although, admittedly, research does indicate that lesbian couples raise the most well-adjusted children…) or somebody’s right to a more stable life.

Fighting against marriage would not mean the death of its current benefits. I want a society that recognizes a spectrum of family structures and structures of intimacy by fighting to support the individual citizen, rather than the spectral “child.” With universally accessible health-care, education, and economic resources, I guarantee that future generations will see a better outcome in both child development and institutional progress. At this point, statistics on foster care in America prove that poverty and neglect are irrevocably connected: children suffer from neglect not because of the number and gender of their parents and guardians, but because of the ability of those guardians to acquire food and shelter for them.

Of course marriage should be available to queer and straight couples alike, but it should be divorced of many of its current benefits. Marriage cannot be the key to full citizenship: no cultural institution should have that role. If you told me that the world was never going to change, and that we were stuck with capitalism and inequality, then I would say, sure, why not put a ring on it. But I dream of a future where the arbitrary facts of our circumstance (our wealth, health, and culture) do not determine our worth—so until then, I’ll keep my body in the street and give my heart to my many queer intimacies.

Image: Bristol Museums