still not married


In a column which appears in the print edition of The Nation this week and also on his own website Alexander Coburn tries to introduce nuance into the discussion of same-sex marriage. Like me, he's against it.

I'm for anything that terrifies Democrats, outrages Republicans, upsets the applecart. But exultation about the gay marriages cemented in San Francisco, counties in Oregon and New Mexico and some cities in New York is misplaced.

Why rejoice when state and church extend their grip, which is what marriage is all about. Assimilation is not liberation, and the invocation of "equality" as the great attainment of these gay marriages should be challenged. Peter Tatchell, the British gay leader, put it well a couple of years ago: "Equality is a good start, but it is not sufficient. Equality for queers inevitably means equal rights on straight terms, since they are the ones who dominate and determine the existing legal framework. We conform -- albeit equally -- with their screwed up system. That is not liberation. It is capitulation."

The major media outlets can't seem to find them, being so incapable of recognizing nuance, but there are apparently plenty of very queer voices out there questioning the current marriage frenzy, and Cockburn airs three of them:
"The pursuit of marriage in the name of equality", says Bill Dobbs, radical gay organizer, "shows how the gay imagination is shrivelling." Judith Butler, professor at UC Berkeley, exhibited kindred disquiet in a quote she gave the New York Times last week. "It's very hard to speak freely right now, but many gay people are uncomfortable with all this, because they feel their sense of an alternative movement is dying. Sexual politics was supposed to be about finding alternatives to marriage."

As Jim Eigo, a writer and activist whose thinking was very influential in the early days of ACT UP put it a while back, what's the use of being queer if you can't be different? "Why are current mainstream gay organizations working to strike a bargain with straight society that will make some queers less equal than others? Under its terms, gays who are willing to mimic heterosexual relations and enter into a legally-enforced lifetime sexual bond with one other person will be granted special benefits and status to be withheld from those who refuse such domestication...Marriage has no more place in efforts to achieve equality than slavery or the divine right of kings. At this juncture in history, wouldn't it make more sense for us to try to figure out how to relieve heterosexuals of the outdated shackles of matrimony?"

Although I confess I just read it now for the first time, several weeks ago Alisa Solomon wrote in The Village Voice on these same issues, emphasizing the church/state thing, and concluding:
There's a wider advantage to promoting civil unions for all [and not marriage] as the simplest and most constitutionally sound solution to the vexations over queer vows. Once queer folks' emotional need to see their love recognized is separated from the practical need for various economic and legal benefits (especially revolving around children), the community can look more clearly at what the state proffers to those civilly united—and why. Should a home with an amorous relationship at its center be any more deserving of the option to file taxes jointly than, say, a couple of single friends who have decided to set up a household together? Sure, I'd like to be rid of those extra income taxes, but I'd rather see our movement fighting for universal health care so nobody's coverage depended on having a spouse with a job with insurance benefits.

As we win this the right way—and help lead America away from establishing fundamentalism as the law of the land by getting the state out of the business of holy matrimony—we can pick up the many issues that have been the bridesmaid for almost a decade now: the rising epidemic of violence against transgender youth and the homophobia faced by LGBT elders, to cite only two. Andrew Sullivan has infamously said that once gay marriage is won, the movement can pack up and go home. On the contrary.

[image from Voyager Virtual Season Project]

For years I agreed that marriage is an outdated heterosexual institution and was glad we were no confined by it's traditions. However as an adult I do recognize that civil marriage is vitally important to all LGTB partnerships. By allowing our relationships to be accorded the staus of a civilly recognized marriage does in no way limit our ability to define our relations on our own terms. We are legal allowed to write or rewrite our own vows during the ceremony, we can privately agree to an open or closed relationship, sign a prenup to either eually share property or hold on to it seperately, like modern heterosexuals both paertners can be in the workforce or take roles as provider and homemaker and finally like modern heterosexuals we have the option of divorce and then remarriage.

What is important for LGBT couples are the hundreds of laws that make direct reference to marrige. Tax benefits are a definite plus for couples and one of the easiest and most obvious thing to point to but legaly they are the least important. In the 80's Sharon Kowalski was hit by a drunk driver and rendered a quadrapalegic who was unable to speak. Sharon and her lover of many years, Karen Thompson, lived a quiet closeted life in New England and has little relationship to Sharon's parents who didn't know she was lesbian. After the accident Sharon's parents came into the picture said she wasn't gay, took custody and forbid Karen from visiting. Sharon eventually learned to communicate with a typing device controlled by her mouth, even though she told her parents she wanted to see Karen, they refused to allow it. Karen spent a full decade in court, first gaining visitation rights and eventually custody. If their long term relationship was recognized by the law estranged parents could not have jumped in and taken full power of attorney.

In the event of death or debilitating illness a second cousin you met once when you were 5 has a greater legal claim on paper to power of attorney or your estate than a lover of 50 years. In many areas of the country hospitals STILL do not recognize LGBT parters as next of kin in intensive care units. There are many custody cases where a divorced parent comes out and is not allowed to live with a lover in an unmarried household and still retain custody visitation rights. As many LGBT persons are choosing to parent, frequently in couples, there are new legal nightmares when they split and the courts have to determine custody and whether both were full parents or not. Some successful LGTB persons have asked their lovers to leave their carreers to become fulltime spouses being supported within the relationship. After many years of being out of the workforce if the relationship ends the homemaker does not have the legal leverage to ask for the same type of support a housewife of 30 yrs would get when she gets dumped for a 20 yr old. On an academic level insurance is a weak bourgois argument for marriage. I fully agree that the big fight should be for universal single payer health care. However right now for better or worse most health care is provide by employers. Until we finally win the universal health care battle, which is many years away, access to a partner's health care plan is a lifesaving issue for many uninsured LGTB persons who could otherwise take advantage of a partner's coverage. Also on a social and psychological level, the option of civil marriage allows us to clearly define and choose the parameters of our relationships. Are we entering and creating a social contract/ life partnership with our spouses. Are we simply sharing rent with a roommate who we have sex with but maintain seperate personal and financial lives with. If my lover get's a job offer out of state and wants me to move with him and leave my job and life here, what commitment is he will to offer in exchange for mine? Having legally enforcable contracts and boundaries as an option gives us more freedom to make intelligent choices about how we will proceed and define our relationships. Over the years I have found there are too many real world situations where having our relationships legally recognized as a civil marriage would have an enormous impact on our lives. I am now a full convert into believing that LGBT marriage is one of the many important issues we must fight for.
Jon W

I think we need to acknowledge that simply because one happens to be homosexual, one isn't necessarily "queer" in the sense that many on the left want us to be. I understand the desire to want the freedom to be different, but I also understand the desire to have the things, tangible and intangible, that everyone else enjoys simply by being born heterosexual. I'm just not comfortable expecting other gay people to be asked to forego marriage and other rights just because it might not be a choice I want; I don't think my version of what's best for gay people is the only way to be gay. I happen to have an emormous amount of respect for Jim Eigo, but I gotta tell you, the last thing I've got time for right now is helping "relieve heterosexuals of the outdated shackles of matrimony"!! And the so-called alternative movement was never that big... so as far as it dying, I dunno. The simple fact is that many many more people are identifying as gay, and one no longer needs to be on the fringe to be comfortable saying that.

Jon, you seem to be arguing that long-term/life partner relationships consisting of two people are the only ones that deserve any respect. A lot of people are going to fall through the cracks with an approach like that, including most people I know in NYC. They have no one here that they can easily grant authority for things like helping them if they end up in intensive care. Or leave them the art they have created and collected.

I agree that arrangements need to be made for couples with children, but to argue that marriages are the only way to deal with these issues seem short-sighted. What if two lesbians, their child, and a birth father want to make some kind of arrangement that calls them a full family? Marriage activists don't have an answer for that.

James and I have enormous financial incentives to get married should that be allowed. That doesn't mean we would, or that we think it's more important than preventing gay people from being fired from their jobs. I can't believe people are working on marriage when non-discrimination laws don't exist for much of the country.

I told myself I wouldn't jump back in, but I changed my mind. My own thoughts on the subject are in my earlier, March 11, post, "not married." Please take a look.

I'm queer. Everything about me begins with that identity, but while it's the beginning, it's not the end. Just as narrow (selfish) economic interest would have me a Republican, especially as I have no spawn to inherit the mess I make, narrow (selfish) identity interest would see me married to the man I love. Everybody else would just be on their own.

I don't expect to ever see the beautiful world which I want to survive our depredations, or the more just society which should replace our poor substitute, but I can't stop fighting for both, even if the struggle won't do much for me or my "kind."

There are all kinds of people out there, with all kinds of affectional relationships and all kinds of needs and dreams. Only some of them are in this country, and only some of them are alive right now. I'm interested in them all.

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Published on March 24, 2004 2:11 PM.

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