Gay marriage = social equality?

When it comes to marriage rights, have progressives chosen the wrong fight?

By Tracy Clark-Flory

Published October 20, 2009 12:23AM (EDT)

Sunday's New York Times Vows section led with quite the politically charged pair: Feministing's Jessica Valenti, author of "Full Frontal Feminism," and Andrew Golis of Talking Points Memo. I say "politically charged" because the very fact of Valenti's nuptials sparked controversy. Some people argued that this was an ultimate surrender to the patriarchy that rendered her feminist credentials null and void, and called it a betrayal of the campaign for marriage equality. As Melissa Harris-Lacewell argues in the Nation, the response to this off-white, nontraditional wedding reflects the depth of the marital conflict facing progressives: It's wrong to deny same-sex couples the right to marry -- but it will take more than gay marriage rights to fix the flawed institution.

Of course, it makes political sense to pick your battles. Why not win the fight for marriage equality and then give the creaky old tradition a modern makeover? After all, conservatives' worst nightmare is that same-sex marriage will destroy the institution as they know it, and we don't want to stoke their fears. That's why same-sex marriage advocates so often publicly insist that our aim is one of assimilation: They're simply being subsumed into hetero tradition -- not to worry, they'll totally fit in and (mostly) follow your rules! But Harris-Lacewell says we've got it all wrong.

Interestingly enough, her essay was inspired by "Til Death or Distance Do Us Part: Love and Marriage in African America," a book that details how many black families managed to maintain robust, lifelong marriages throughout American slavery, despite the fact that the unions weren't legally recognized. Love can survive even without the privileges and protection of official state recognition -- of course. But, she says, the right to legal recognition doesn't guarantee a union or its endurance -- again, of course. Today, despite "formal, legal equality, marriage has never been more rare or more insecure among African Americans," Harris-Lacewell says. She goes on to argue:

Fewer people who can marry are choosing to do so. More people who do marry are choosing to exit. This is not solely about selfish individuals unwilling to sacrifice for joint commitment. Marriage itself is still bolstered by a troubling cultural mythology, a history of domination, and a contemporary set of gendered expectations that render it both unsatisfying and unstable for many people. 

This is a long and circuitous route to her ultimate point, which is that marriage needs a major overhaul. Her credo: "Let's use this moment to re-imagine marriage and marriage-free options for building families, rearing children, crafting communities, and distributing public goods." In other words: Let's campaign for true civil rights -- for everyone. Not just for couples who want to marry and adhere to the traditional rules of marriage, but families and individuals of all stripes. If marriage were to resemble anything even close to a fair and just social institution, it would support the well-being of people, not a particular ideology or institution. Not to mention, as Harris-Lacewell puts it, "contemporary heterosexual marriage is a bit of a mess."

The critical question is whether we can remake the institution from the inside out, or whether marriage is too constrained by tradition to fully evolve and needs to be demolished (at least in the government's eyes) and rebuilt from the ground up. The latter scenario represents the danger in limiting the marriage equality movement to same-sex access. So, thanks to Harris-Lacewell's essay, I now find myself considering a truly vexing question: Are we progressives fighting the wrong fight?

Tracy Clark-Flory

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