Marriage is not assimilation, and even if it was, it would still be a right worth fighting for.
Some inflexible activists have resisted the push for marriage equality by arguing that marriage itself is patriarchal and not worth fighting for. I noticed such arguments especially in response to the battle over Proposition 8 in California, first running across the idea in print on Facebook and a sparsely-formatted website. It always pains me when folks with their hearts in the right places adopt such warped, narrow ways of expressing legitimate criticisms.
I acknowledge that marriage has an oppressive history. In many large cultures, including but not limited to most pre-20th century Western cultures, marriage was a transfer of a woman as property from the control of her father to the control of her husband. Even today, in most cultures, marriage is still frequently deployed to reinforce oppressive cultural norms—not just sexism, but also classism and other ways of reinforcing the dominant order. These norms are bad.
But marriage does not have to be intrinsically sexist or classist. It can mean simply loving someone and living with them for the rest of one’s life—regardless of the identities or social positions of the two people involved. This concept of marriage is valuable and emotionally satisfying to many people—and it already exists, even though it often comes with a bunch of oppressive baggage. Reforms can change the way our culture thinks about marriage itself, doing more to combat the oppressive norms than simply rejecting the whole concept ever could.
I acknowledge that there are people in the gay marriage movement who have problematic ideas. The same is true of any movement. Those ideas can and should be resisted—without rejecting the idea of marriage equality itself. When one progressive idea becomes more mainstream, some people with other, less progressive ideas will be more willing to adopt it. This is a good thing, because it makes incremental gains more possible.
In short, everybody in the world holds some combination of right and wrong beliefs. The simple fact that a single person believes both X and Y—and is wrong about X—says nothing about Y.
Working toward equality is important—regardless of what it is that’s currently unequal. Administrative structures should confer the same material treatment on everybody regardless of arbitrary personal variables like race, ethnic background, sex, gender, sexual orientation, class, ability or disability, medical condition, et cetera. This ideal is valuable even if it has never been fully attained by any major organization or government. It affirms the fundamental value of each human being and reinforces the idea that faultless demographic characteristics should not be allowed to artificially constrain individual choices and freedoms. Any implicit or explicit violation of this principle, by any institution, should be resisted. And the bigger the institution, the more influential its precedents.
Marriage inequality is not the only such discriminatory violation in US law and governmental practices—not by a long shot—but it is such a violation. All should be fought. All are meaningful.
Marriage equality would set a valuable legal precedent. Judges look in many places for information about the status of a law, including tangentially-related legislation and precedent. The mere message that institutional acknowledgment of the basic equality of homosexual and heterosexual lovers might send could eventually lead federal judges to realize that the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause should apply to sexuality more generally.
The law has symbolic effects on society. It would be great if everybody started thinking everything through individually and coming to rational conclusions independent of what the government says, but we don’t, and we never will. We rely on heuristics to make judgments about acceptable behavior, and the institutions that surround us influence those heuristics—especially when they have very simple policies, like marriage restrictions, that can be interpreted without much effort. Governmental acknowledgment of gay and lesbian relationships is absolutely not necessary for those relationships to be valuable and real, but it unquestionably contributes to the widespread social acceptance of those relationships.
I recently heard someone provide an excellent thought experiment. Imagine a classroom of second-graders learning that the federal government prohibits same-sex marriage. What kinds of conclusions will the kids draw?
Finally, marriage equality would bring real, tangible benefits to real, tangible people.
State-sanctioned marriage is an easy way to guarantee important rights in a long-term familial relationship, such as hospital visitation, access to family health insurance plans, work leave to care for a sick spouse, and access to pension plans. Any ideological argument against marriage equality—from the right or from the left—must take responsibility for all of the families who currently lack these rights and the security they provide.
Most of the benefits that I chose to name, by the way, aren’t all that important for Joe Solmonese or any of the other wealthy white gay men who are so often accused (often rightly) of classism and racism in their campaigns for marriage equality. Solmonese can afford any health care plan he wants. He can stop working whenever he wants. Fighting for these benefits isn’t some frivolous pursuit of the wealthy; it is a step toward improving the lives of gay, lesbian, and bisexual Americans in many social and economic conditions. And while it isn’t enough—not even close to enough—it is still something.
Tags: 14th Amendment, assimilation, benefits, bisexual, California, classism, discrimination, equality, expressive law, federal, gay marriage, government, heterosexism, homosexuality, Joe Solmonese, law, legal precedent, lesbian, marriage, patriarchy, prejudice, Proposition 8, same-sex marriage, social effects of law, symbolic law