Of course LGBT people should be able to get married. Of course we should be treated equally under the law. And of course, the dismantling of institutionalized homophobia within our government can only lead to less condoning of personal and structural marginalization and bias against LGBT people, particularly against kids bullied for being perceived as LGBT. In fact, as soon as lesbian and gay people are allowed to marry in all fifty states, we can begin to dismantle the legal institution once and for all.
There are big problems with marriage as an institution. First off, marriage between a man and a woman is rooted in the history of men owning women as property. Second, marriage in the United States privileges the committed couple over any other kind of relationship. Marriage started as a form of government social control that to this day encourages and rewards one particular form of family structure. The thousand or so federal rights that are afforded to a married couple are denied to those that are single or live within other kinds of family or relationship structures. One of the benefits of the marriage equality movement is that it has stretched people to redefine the notion of family. So now the idea that a family can consist of two moms or two dads is more commonplace, but we need to go further: all kinds of relationships matter and the government shouldn’t be in the business of ordering them by importance.
I love the idea of an emotional marriage. I love the idea of two (or more) people committing their lives to each other and deciding what that commitment means to them. I actually believe that love is the most gratifying of human experiences and that a healthy, long-lasting relationship is one of the greatest joys of life. I love a wedding or commitment ceremony in that love ought to be celebrated and every relationship needs the support of its friends, family and/or community to thrive. That said, these are personal decisions that should be removed from government oversight. Shouldn’t a person be able to leave her social security to whomever she wants, whether that’s an aunt or a best friend? Why should the government get to say that a marriage is superior to any other kind of relationship and therefore subject all other relationships to an inheritance tax?
In my clinical practice, I have seen all kinds of relationships, including (in no particular order):
- A cis woman, married to a cis man, who has three other significant partners, both male and female. The husband remains emotionally and sexually monogamous.
- A transman who lives among a community of friends (his “created family”) and has no interest in dating.
- Heterosexual partners, together for 20 years, yet unmarried because they “never found it necessary.”
- A triad, together for 15 years, who are sexually and emotionally polyfidelitous. They have no legal ties to each other.
- Bisexual partners who are married but occasionally have sex with other people.
- A heterosexual, polyamorous man with several female partners who chooses to live alone.
- Lesbian partners who have had a wedding ceremony and consider themselves married but don’t have legal recognition in any state because they don’t want the state to regulate their primary relationship.
- Three straight best friends living together and raising a collective seven children under one roof.
- A cis lesbian couple splits up as one of the partners transitions to male. They each then partner with other cis women.
- A woman and her husband who comes out as gay and continue to live together to raise children with the woman’s new boyfriend.
- A monogamous queer couple who would like to get married but live in a state where they can’t.
It’s part of my work to help people find what makes them happy. To help them identify and separate out the social constructs they have internalized of who they are supposed to be, what is expected of them, from what they authentically are and what will lead to a connected and gratifying life. For some folks, that will be a traditional marriage and for some it won’t. Surprisingly, at least in New York, it seems that lots of queer people are generally happy being freaks, being outsiders, being different. For some of my clients, their “queerness” is not only something to be accepted but to be celebrated.
As the LGBT community dives further into the marriage equality movement (14 states down, 36 to go), we must be careful not to lose who we are, not to lose our history, and what made us unique in the first place. I often tell my clients, “Being queer means that we get to find our own way.” And it’s true that while there is suffering in having an outsider status, there is also freedom. Many of our heterosexual counterparts have been shackled by a normative narrative and expectations of marriage and child-rearing. Pressure to conform to that norm has left many heterosexuals feeling stifled and trapped. Let’s make sure we don’t do the same thing to ourselves.
In the past several decades, we have defined our relationships as we have seen fit and we have refused to conform to gender roles and puritanical notions of sexuality. The gay men’s bathhouse movement in New York and San Francisco was a time when gay men took ownership of their sexuality. Their unapologetic expression of sexuality was transgressive and political. Let’s not dilute what we have fought so hard for: a sex-positivity that branched outside puritanical boundaries. Being queer is still in part about having sex how we want and with whom. In obscuring our sexuality behind the more acceptable veneer of monogamous marriage, albeit an effective political strategy, we lose some of our history and our identity.
Back in 2004 as the gayby boom was taking off, an older lesbian friend said to me, “The best thing about being gay is that you don’t have to have kids, you don’t have to get married, and you don’t have to join the military.” (I think she was paraphrasing John Waters). She wasn’t speaking to the fact that we couldn’t but to the fact that we didn’t have to. In every successful civil rights movement, there are accommodationists/assimilationists and there are reformers. (see Booker T. Washington vs. W.E.B. Dubois or Martin Luther King vs. Malcolm X), and both are necessary for progress. The more accommodating mainstream gay movement has made strides with the messaging of “We are just like you.” There are apparently many LGBT people who feel that “we are all the same” and want and deserve a normative life. Real progress and real social justice is achieved however when we can say, “I am not like you, but I am just as deserving of equal treatment and respect.”