Marriage, Same-Sex and Other

23:17 Sun 13 May 2012
[, , , , , , , ]

Same-sex marriage has been a major news topic this week, because of the passage of North Carolina’s Amendment One and Barack Obama’s statement that he thinks same-sex couples should be able to marry. A good time, then, to explore the subject.

That North Carolina would pass a popular measure banning same-sex marriage isn’t too surprising, but particularly disheartening was how mean-spirited Amendment One is. Any measure whose spirit is “those people can’t have something that we can have” will always be mean-spirited, but Amendment One goes out of its way to be worse. Popehat has the details, but in brief, it outlaws all domestic partnerships that are not marriages between a man and a woman (which has plenty of collateral damage for different-sex partners who aren’t married, too), and potentially:

  • Strips health benefits from existing couples in domestic partnerships.
  • Invalidates domestic violence laws covering unmarried couples.
  • Removes visitation rights, and health-related decision-making abilities, from partner in non-married relationships.

I have a hard time understanding the support for this. This makes the lives of many people much, much harder, and incidentally makes them significantly harder in some of life’s toughest situations. All this for what? To deny some people the right to have their relationships recognized by the state[1]? None of the arguments against same-sex marriage seem at all worthwhile, and seem to come down to:

  • Belief in the regulation of relationships and interpersonal behavior of other people[2].
  • Belief that it’s right to privilege one group by denying specific privileges to others.
  • Appeals to tradition/“that’s how it’s always been”. But it hasn’t always been that way, and in any case, that’s hardly a good reason for anything.
  • “Religious beliefs”—scare quoted because this is not a fucking argument[3].

Hearing the turmoil over this issue, Obama emerged from the White House to say, on the one hand, that same-sex couples should be able to marry, but on the other hand, that it shouldn’t be a federal right. This pronouncement was hailed by many as a great step forward, but I don’t see it that way, since that translates to: his personal preference is that same-sex couples be allowed to marry, but that they should only have the right to do if they happen to live in a state that grants such a right to them. No luck for those in North Carolina, for example.

I don’t care about “political realities”—i.e. pandering to those in the wrong because it’s expedient to do so—and thus find Obama’s qualified support less than impressive. There is no argument against same-sex marriage that is worth more than any of the arguments against interracial marriage. It is blatantly obvious that it’s discrimination to deny specific people rights granted to others[4], and such discrimination must pass a very high bar to be justified—and this discrimination clearly fails to do so.

While social and state sanction of some couples’ committed relationships and not others’ is itself a problem, there are ancillary problems often highlighted by those seeking marriage rights for same-sex couples. These underscore other social problems, particularly in the United States. Health insurance is often cited, because in the US spouses are eligible for their partner’s employer health coverage. This leads to an obvious inequality, where an opposite-sex couple can marry[5] so that one of them can gain coverage, but a same-sex couple cannot, and this is significant because the economic value of such coverage can be considerable.

But is that problem, isolated, a problem with the lack of same-sex marriage, or with the health care system? Why should health care be tied to employment at all? In a society that gave health coverage to all of its members, this would simply not be a problem as not only would gender and sexual orientation be irrelevant, but employment status would be also[6]. There’s another layer here, which is the privileging of certain types of relationships over others—not opposite-sex over same-sex, which is one part of it, but “committed” over “other”, or “lover” over “friend”. If health coverage is tied to employment, and one of the benefits of employment is the right to be able to pay more for health coverage in order to extend that coverage to others, why should those others be eligible only if they’re in a committed romantic relationship with the employee? Simply put, why can’t I pay extra to extend my health insurance to a friend of mine[7]?

In another health-related realm, why are hospitals allowed to be so restrictive about visitation rights? This is often cited by same-sex marriage proponents as one of the reasons to end marriage discrimination against same-sex couples. They’re right, but why should the hospital be concerned—or be allowed to be concerned—about your relationships so that they can decide who gets to see you?

There are more, many more, and while the drive for same-sex marriage exposes them as points of discrimination against same-sex couples, it also exposes them as points where people in certain kinds of relationships are granted privileges denied to others. Why is that acceptable at all? Why should a couple who have agreed to a committed relationship be given these privileges?

A common answer would be that it’s because we want to encourage child-bearing/-raising; the validity of that is a question for another time, however, as this is clearly not the case—the privileges I’m referring to are not granted only to those with offspring, or tied to actual child-bearing/-raising in any way. Given the lack of such a tie, that’s clearly not what these privileges are for—so what justifies them?

There is a widespread feeling that these relationships—committed, long-term, monogamous[8] relationships—are the most “responsible” and “respectable” kinds of relationships, and should thus be encouraged by society and the state, and for that purpose be privileged. The reason for the scare quotes around “responsible” is that there’s not much to back up the notion that long-term relationships are somehow more responsible than other relationships—they can be, but they can also involve or enable all kinds of irresponsible behavior. As for “respectable”, that’s a term that deserves scare quotes wherever it’s used, a pernicious concept that means little other than conforming to the expectations of those currently running the social order.

If people want to encourage or discourage certain kinds of relationships, let them do so with their own personal approval or disapproval. Let them shun others, or laud others. Let them speak at weddings, or denounce in public and private. But that should be the extent of it—enshrining their prejudices in law, and turning their personal disapproval into something enforced by the power of the state, is simply indefensible[9].

I have a problem with the campaign for same-sex marriage because I think they’re arguing on both sides of that previous paragraph.

On one side, clearly, they’re arguing for the elimination of such personal prejudices from determination of state power, for the elimination of homophobic bias as a factor in determining who can and cannot marry.

On the other, by focusing on marriage as the site of the equality struggle, they are essentially forced to support it as an institution, and to support its privileges. I look at the debates over marriage and see that true equality would be limiting the privileges of those in married couples[10], as well as allowing any gender combination to marry. But the message that “same-sex couples deserve marriage too”—while true—inherently suggests that marriage as we currently construct it is worthy of its privileges. Rather than seeking a larger degree of equality for all, the focus is a narrow one—expanding the privileged club to include same-sex couples instead of dismantling the club entirely.

It’s still a necessary step, which is why I support it, but I support it with these misgivings, and while I understand the impetus behind the messages used to promote it, I regard many of them as suspect also. The move towards “respectability” is one of those suspect messages. The crux of this can be seen in the use of “friendly” same-sex couples to underscore the inequality of denying them marriage rights and highlight the discriminatory nature of doing so. They’re almost universally middle-class, long-term, committed, monogamous[11]—highlighted because they’re highly similar to stereotypical opposite-sex marriages except that both of the partners are the same gender. The primary message is highlighting the discrimination—but the secondary message is that marriage and its privileges are properly reserved for those kinds of relationships.

Compare that to the Queer movement, which sought[12] to undermine the notion of “respectability” in the sexual and relationship arenas, and to throw off social restrictions applied to them. That approach is a long way from the “we’re just like straight couples” approach favored by the gay marriage campaigns.

This is not to say that same-sex couples should be different from straight couples, either; that’s just as stereotypical and reductionist. But many are quite different[13], and what message, exactly, is the campaign for gay marriage sending to them? Even if the nod to “respectability” is entirely understood as a tactical maneuver, it’s a message that affects society in general, and plays its own part in determining what may or may not be culturally and politically acceptable. And that message is essentially conservative.

There seems to have always been a tension in the struggle for LGBTQ rights between the more conservative approach and the radical one, where the radical goal was to deconstruct more than the “hetero” part of heteronormativity, and to reject the notion that there was anything “abnormal” in the realms of consensual adult sexual and relationship behavior—and certainly that consensual adult sexual and relationship behavior should not be regulated by the state. The campaign for same-sex marriage, by opting to emphasize the “respectability” of same-sex couples who seek marriage rights, is lending support to the notion of “respectable” sexuality and relationships, mirroring the intertwined support they’re giving to the privileging of marriage.

Same-sex couples deserve the same rights as opposite-sex couples; it’s profoundly depressing that this is even a question. But do only certain kinds of relationships deserve the privileges granted by marriage, should marriage be privileged at all, and should anything but scorn be directed towards the notion that only certain modes of relationships and sexualities be granted social (and state) approval?

No, no, and no.

[1] And by society—it’s just that denial of recognition by the state is the most effective way these people have of attempting to legislate denial of recognition by society.

[2] It won’t be expressed this way, but they always imply the “of other people” rider; people with these views don’t ever believe that their own lives should be thusly regulated, although they will often claim that this is because they’re not acting in any way warranting such scrutiny—either having conveniently sculpted the proposed rules as to fit their existing lives, or believing that they can act as they like and will never be subject to the rules in question.

[3] What is it other than an appeal to authority, where the “authority” in question is usually some ancient tome of highly questionable authorship? Given the proliferation of religions, also, it leads right to an impasse of “my religion believes this”/“my religion believes the opposite”, at which point you can either give up or have a real argument.

[4] Although, of course, we do this with young people all the time; at least in that case there’s some argument to be made that this is for their own good, although the US likes to pile on here by making it illegal for some of them to drink even after they’re old enough to vote and serve in the military.

[5] Some states/companies don’t require marriage but a “domestic partnership”, variously defined—which is a policy likely now illegal in North Carolina.

[6] A properly functioning free market for health care could achieve similar results from a different direction; associating health coverage with employment rather than providing competing coverage that anyone could buy is bizarre from an economic standpoint.

[7] The answer to these problems is really universal health care, as that takes away some of the weird economic incentives for a restrictive policy, but that’s another argument; here I’m concerned with why we think it’s okay to discriminate based on relationship types in this way.

[8] Although there’s actually nothing to guarantee that marriages are any of these.

[9] Unless, if you’re not an anarchist, it meets some very high standard of proof that state intervention is warranted—the point is that the discrimination discussed here clearly fails to meet such a standard.

[10] For example, I think it would still be reasonable to make sure that married partners are protected from certain kinds of economic abuse, particularly in terms of breakups and division of assets, etc.—it makes sense to have sets of expectations and rights available in a uniform fashion, rather than to require each and every set of partners to negotiate a new contract.

[11] I’m referring to their public presentation; I’m not making any comment on the realities of these relationships.

[12] As far as I understand it; this is not an area I’ve researched heavily, and it’s entirely possible I’m oversimplifying here.

[13] As are many opposite-sex couples, for that matter.

One Response to “Marriage, Same-Sex and Other”

  1. mollydot Says:

    I could be wrong, but I think the visitation rights are for when the patient is unconscious, or otherwise unable to decide for themselves. If there isn’t some limit, all and sundry could visit, which isn’t always going to be a good idea.

Leave a Reply