President Bush tells us that marriage between a man and a woman is a pillar of our civilization. Yet long before same-sex marriage debates, who could marry and what marriage meant were contested. Slaves could not marry. For many years interracial marriage was illegal. And if marriage has been a bulwark of our civilization, that civilization has struggled for gender equality. Women had to fight for the right to divorce, and coercive sex within a marriage was not treated as rape.
Bush is right in one sense. How we resolve debates about marriage will have major implications for our understandings of privacy, equality, work and child-rearing.
Today, many same-sex couples seek the right to marry in their quest for social and legal equality. In many ways they are courageous radicals, but ironically in another sense they are reconfirming values celebrated by the president. I understand why many gays and lesbians seek the right to marry. In the United States, health, pension and disability benefits are often tied to a job. When one partner does not work, his or her connection to these benefits is often indirect and through the working spouse.
Many citizens depend on the stability of their job and their marriage for access to some of the necessities of life. Granting gays and lesbians the right to marry expands their access to necessities and a range of other rights including medical guardianship, adoption and death benefits, etc.
Nonetheless, these considerations might suggest another line of inquiry. What does it say about our culture that so many necessities and rights are pegged to participation in the labor market and to marriage? The United States often prides itself as being a nation in which government makes minimal intrusions into the lifestyles of its citizens. Yet unlike other advanced industrial democracies, health care is closely tied to successful participation in the labor market. In most other industrial democracies one must work at least some of the time in order to live. But one can be a sporadic participant in the labor market and even choose to live a subsistence lifestyle without risking the loss of one's health care. Nor need one remain in an abusive relationship in order to obtain health care
In United States, work, marriage and family have been a moral triad. Postponing sex until marriage was seen as intrinsically virtuous and as contributing to a steady focus on work. In addition, cultural and economic pressures tying women both sexually and economically to marriage provided an unpaid resource for men and children entering workplaces and schools.
Abstinence, monogamy and the work ethic represent valuable choices for many, but their place as universal values to be imposed on everyone is and should be contestable. As modern societies become more productive, one might even argue that continual stimulation of the demand to work more so that we can consume more is both psychologically and environmentally destructive.
And why should one need to tie oneself in a binding relationship in order to qualify for essential benefits? Government should have a minimal interest in intimate relations.
It may legitimately punish domestic abuse. And when adults have chosen to have, to adopt, or to assume responsibility for children, government has an obligation to see that they discharge at least their financial responsibility to those children in the event of a breakup.
A constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage does nothing to advance the needs of children. It feeds the fires of cultural hatred. It may respond to the cultural anxieties and doubts of many overburdened conventional families. But if one were genuinely interested in responding to their needs without denigrating cultural minorities, the pro-family agenda would include a greatly enhanced tax credit for dependent children and greater emphasis on free time. There is no more family unfriendly initiative today than corporate impositions of forced overtime and Bush's collaboration in this injustice.
Nonetheless, a Massachusetts court's decision to impose same-sex marriage is not the way to achieve full civic equality and protect legitimate privacy rights. Lisa Duggan points out in a recent issue of The Nation that in a bid for equality some gay groups are producing rhetoric that marginalizes unmarried people. They promote same-sex marriage in the same terms welfare reformers used to stigmatize single mothers.
Perhaps in a state and legal climate where so much has already been tied to marriage, same-sex marriage might be the best way to go. This is, however, at best is a short-run solution and should be decided upon and implemented by state legislatures rather than imposed by courts. If the struggle over abortion rights is an example, turning to the courts to achieve full liberty and equality is a frail reed at best. Only an ongoing political struggle committed to liberty and equality for all can secure these gains.
John Buell is a political economist who lives in Southwest Harbor, Maine. Readers wishing to contact him may e-mail messages to email@example.com.
©2004 Bangor Daily News