Marriage is Still Not Assimilation

I recently updated this older post for publication in Consider Magazine. Here is my revised version.

Marriage is Not Assimilation

Some activists have resisted the push for marriage equality by arguing that marriage itself is patriarchal or heteronormative, or that many leading figures in the marriage equality movement exhibit oppressive social attitudes.

But marriage is not assimilation, and even if it were, it would still be a right worth fighting for.

I acknowledge that marriage has an oppressive history. In many influential cultures, including but not limited to most pre-20th century Western cultures, marriage was the 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 practices which reinforce the dominant order.

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 sometimes comes with a bunch of oppressive baggage. Reforms can change the way our culture thinks about marriage, 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.

Working toward equality is important—regardless of the particular inequality at issue. 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 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—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. Perry v. Schwarzenegger, the ongoing suit against California’s constitutional amendment banning gay marriage, is almost certain to be appealed and re-appealed until it is decided by the Supreme Court. A favorable decision, especially one which applies the “strict scrutiny” standard under the federal 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause, could expand official legal theory to encompass many more protections against unequal treatment, and also pave the way for the application of “strict scrutiny” to other marginalized groups.

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. Humans naturally 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.

Finally, marriage equality would bring tangible benefits to real 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.

Fighting for these benefits is not a frivolous pursuit of heteronormative elites: 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.


* Here are some examples of empirical research on the mere belief that a law exists shaping agreement with the law.

Sniderman and Piazza (1993) randomly presented survey respondents with one of two versions of a question about a law guaranteeing a certain number of federal contracts for racial minorities. The first version stated that such a law already existed; the second version stated that “Sometimes you hear it said” that there should be such a law. Of those presented with the first version, 57% agreed with the policy. Of those presented with the second, 43% agreed.

Rayens et al. (2007) asked members of a Kentucky community about their opinions of a ban on smoking in public places. Before such a ban was implemented, 56% supported it. Afterward, 63% supported it. Once the ban had taken effect, community members were also more likely to agree that smoking is a health risk – which suggests that laws can shape attitudes not just of the laws themselves but also of issues related to them.

Works Cited

Sniderman, P.M. & Piazza, T. (1993). The Scar of Race. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Rayens, M.K., Hahn, E.J., Langley, R.E., Hedgecock, S., Butler, K.M., Greathouse-Maggio, L. (2007). Public opinion and smoke-free laws. Policy, Politics, & Nursing Practice, 8, 262-270.


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12 Responses to “Marriage is Still Not Assimilation”

  1. jonolan Says:

    Nothing that can be gained by forcing gay marriage on the people cannot be gained by civil unions. This fight that gays wage is not about rights; it’s about trying to legislate acceptance and it is doomed to failure because you can’t legislate acceptance.

    Don’t believe me? Go ask a Black. They been the recipient of protective and assistive legislation for decades and it’s only delayed their acceptance by the bulk of society.

    Face it, gay marriage has come before the People 32 times. 31 times they voted it down. Do you think that legislators or courts enacting it by fiat is going to do anything but breed further hate and resentment?

  2. Sara Burke Says:

    Marriage equality is not proactive assistance. It’s the application of existing policy equally rather than in a discriminatory fashion.

    In the long run, government policies do influence social norms. Backlash is an inevitable but temporary component of progressive reform.

  3. jonolan Says:

    Why not civil unions then with all the rights, privileges, and duties of marriages? California had that and it wasn’t enough for the gays as Prop 22 and its counterpoint Prop 8 show.

    Due to everyone’s behavior I’m left with two thoughts on matter:

    1 – Gays don’t care about legal rights, just forcing pro forma acceptance.

    2 – Americans, as a whole, don’t want to give in to that.

    I don’t particularly care myself except that I have issues with any small, non-normative group that tries to use the Legislature or the Courts to violate the sensibilities of the People and to force laws that are directly contrary to the will of the People.

    Essentially, I think gay marriage should have been a “social battle” for the hearts and minds of the people, not a legal battle.

  4. Sara Burke Says:

    Regarding “1”
    – Marriage is key to legal rights in most places
    – It’s still unethical for the law to create a distinction
    – I’ll repeat for the third time that laws do NOT just reflect society – they also shape social perceptions. Denial of marriage can hold back social acceptance.

    Regarding “2”
    That’s an assumption the right tends to make. I doubt Americans, as a whole, agree about anything.

    Regarding the overall philosophy:
    The idea that the majority can override the rights of a minority just because they’re “non-normative” is an active force for the status quo. It does not mean “I don’t particularly care myself.” It means “I actively push for things to stay the way they are.”

  5. jonolan Says:

    Regarding 1:

    Marriage isn’t the key. A legally recognized union is the key. Some states offer civil unions identical rights, privileges, and duties to those of marriages.

    And you’re somewhat right. Laws can be used to shape social perceptions, but doing so is close to the depths of un-American and unethical behavior.

    Regarding 2:

    31 out of 32 times that gay marriage has been actually put to a vote by the people it failed, normally by large numbers – though those numbers have been steadily dropping and it did finally pass once at last.

  6. Sara Burke Says:

    “Laws can be used to shape social perceptions” is imprecise. Laws DO shape social perceptions. That effect is not in the control of the lawmakers. The existing laws which contribute to social bigotry are unethical and un-American.

  7. Sara Burke Says:

    General note: I have added a footnote with some citations about the effects of laws on attitudes.

  8. LHosphord Says:

    I found this post interesting and I agree with most of the ideology in it. However I disagree on one critical point. We should not extend the right of marriage legally to everyone, rather we should withdraw the right of marriage from everyone. Marriage has traditionally been a social construct, hence the distinction between civil unions and marriage. The question should be posed as to why the government ever got into the job of marriage. Traditionally the role of marriage has been legislated by the church, hence the religious backlash induced by the very notion of homosexual marriage. Any attempt to legislate equality outside of the civil realm will be seen as infringement upon the church’s right to retain their institution. Removing the notion of marriage from the law and providing universally available civil unions ensures the same benefits as extending marriage by providing that same institutional equality without the social and ideological backlash. I’ll give you that my solution is far less pragmatic.

  9. Sara Burke Says:

    I think there would be more social backlash to eliminating the word “marriage” entirely than there would be to including gays. Plus, the word “marriage” contributes to the progressive symbolic effect that I talked about.

    If you admit it’s less pragmatic, then why is it preferable?

  10. LHosphord Says:

    Perhaps, but not as much as infringing upon traditionally religious concepts, at least as I would expect, they still have it in social settings. Regardless, it’s still a program of change targeted at equality, easing into solutions can contribute to wider spread social change. You never get all your demands at first, trying to get them all is inevitably going to produce resentment.

    It’s only preferable in an analysis that excludes any sort of notion of political capital or public support. In reality I’m willing to settle for compromises like what you’re advocating. What I said is what I would implement if I was the government.

    On a side note though, you may enjoy an essay I wrote on gender for school, it can be found here:!/note.php?note_id=252809847806

  11. Sara Burke Says:

    Ha – it’s preferable in the world of fiat, you mean?

    That depends on whether our frame of analysis includes the public debate. Because eliminating “marriage” from law would require a more drastic legal change, it might spark more controversy during the process. If we ignore the whole process of legal reform, though, I would agree with you, not because of the backlash argument, but because the new phrasing would set a good precedent for more clarity in separating church and state – not just legally but also linguistically.

  12. Sara Burke Says:

    RE: Your essay on gender – I read it when you posted it. I disagree with some of its points, but that is a conversation that should be held elsewhere. Someday I’ll post something here that may be more pertinent.

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