Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Beyond Marriage

An interesting petition and statement lends a new dimension to the "marriage equality" fight. Signed by an all-star cast of left-wing affiliated notables (such as Gloria Steinem and Kenji Yoshino), the statement deftly and impressively sidesteps the issue of marriage entirely. Rather, it says that we should focus on providing benefits to all family types regardless of status.

For the most part, I think that's a worthy goal. While I think marriage equality has tremendous symbolic importance and should be pursued for that reason alone, in general I think the manner in which law nurtures relationships should be primarily designed to a) provide basic protection to all members of the relational unit (especially particularly vulnerable ones, such as children) and b) give people the tools to support and protect the people important to them, regardless of status. When I get married, I definitely want my wife and children to receive the full panoply of rights and benefits I receive. But if, God forbid, my parents need to turn to me for support in their old age, I'd like that same assurance that I could provide whatever resources I could to them as well. As such, I think the role of law is not to mandate certain types of relationships (beyond the aforementioned stipulations about protecting the vulnerable), but to provide an "enabling environment" for relationships that already exist. For gay couples then, the wrong question to ask, I think, is whether or not the state should be encouraging or discouraging their formation (and/or them raising children). Gay couples already exist, and they already are raising kids. The question for the state is how we ought treat these relationships, what obligations we have to its members, and how we can create the best possible environment for flourishing and human freedom within such a context of choice.

I do wonder if the group has run ahead of itself when it makes statements like this:
For example, who among us seriously will argue that the following kinds of households are less socially, economically, and spiritually worthy?
Committed, loving households in which there is more than one conjugal partner.

If that is (as it sounds to me) a reference to polyamorous relationships, then they've probably gotten a bit ahead of the rest of the population. But by-and-large, I think this is an interesting document, and one well-worth considering.

The H/T goes to Rob Vischer, who asks (fairly, in my view) for greater elucidation of the theoretical underpinnings that are behind the statement.
One or more of the following premises seems to be operative: 1) individuals' structuring of their household relationships is unaffected by the law's content; 2) all categories of household relationships are of equal value to the long-term health of communities; or 3) regardless of the comparative social value of relationships, the government overreaches if it tries to reflect that comparative value in public policy. Whichever premise is doing the work here, the statement would benefit considerably from bringing it to the surface where it can be unpacked and engaged.

I'm not sure this is (or is intended to be) an exhaustive list, but I would probably come down on a modified version of number 3. I've seen some evidence that two-parent homes are better than one-parent homes for raising children, no evidence that heterosexual homes are better than homosexual homes for the same. But regardless of what the evidence is on either of those counts (or any other family structure, not to mention the numerous cases where there are no children to speak of), I think that whatever marginal benefit might be accrued from forcing people into the "ideal" relationship is wildly outweighed by the harms that come from not giving benefits to already existent non-ideal relationships. That is, even if one could find an ideal relationship "type", I believe the benefits of encouraging that type to the exclusion of all or most others are negligible compared to the harm suffered by those persons who are not and will not become part of said relationship type. For example, even if it could be shown that heterosexual families are better for children than homosexual ones, depriving benefits to homosexual families would do far more damage to the children of such unions than could be justified by whatever benefits might come out such a deprivation.


Anonymous said...

Clearly, the biggest mis-step of the gay-rights movement has been the direct assault on marriage and its associated language, with total dismissal of a "seperate but equal" period. Even civil-union supporters in the gay community made it clear that this was just a quick step to full assimilation. The biggest tragedy of this is that by inflaming the opposition, the achievement of equal rights and protections in the workplace has been set back 5 to 10 years.

I've always believed in equal-rights for gays (equivalent legal protections in all institutions), but equal doesn't mean "the same" to me. David, I read the proposal above to say: escalate the status of gay-unions or debase the legal esteem of traditional marrage, just treat them "exactly the same". This is an approach that will also fall flat.

Americans concerned about gay-marriage are concerned about the hijacking of the language, institutions, and rituals, and traditions. Any approach to gay-unions MUST take this into account to have political viability.

If gays can hijack the word "gay", why don't they hijack a new set of words, develop their own rituals, and start joining themselves inside this new cultural formation. Then push for this union to have "equal legal protections". This would have been and still could be the best political approach. Gays and lesbians DO NOT NEED THE APPROVAL OF THE GOVERNMENT to join themselves, just as they didn't need the approval of their parents to be gay.

Gay marriage across the land is 20 years away, it could be 10 if the gay communitites play their cards right. I hope they do.

PBI said...

I enjoyed and agree very much with the point of view underpining your post, as well as many of its key points.

I also believe, however, that by allowing ourselves to focus on government regulation of family and relationships, we may be overlooking an easier answer. To me, the key issue remains that we continue to conflate the religious and legal definitions of "marriage" and not that we lack a means or justification for providing benefits. My suggestion - as you also mention, but which I would amplify - is that the first step is to take as much of the emotion out of this controversy as possible. To do that, some fundamental re-examination of what marriage in a religious organization does versus what it accomplishes in the civil realm is needed.

I recently wrote a piece detailing my own suggestion for closing the debate - one that I believe holds up well to logical examination and that would be less cumbersome to implent. I would love to have feedback from you or anyone else who finds this topic of interest. The post can be found here.


Anonymous said...

An interesting idea, but the way it's executed it comes off more as life on the commune during the age of aquarius than a real policy suggestion. And from a social perspective, frankly, it looks far easier to criticize as something which would dramatically threaten the traditional family than gay marriage.

I liked Paul's post mentioned in the comment above. It's nothing that hasn't been said before and it has some merit. But it misses the point that for a very large, vocal portion of the anti gay crowd, the issue isn't just the word "marriage," it's about denying gays any type of legal legitimacy whatsoever. Calling it by a different name isn't going to change their opposition.

Anonymous said...

Interesting post. Michael Warner talks for awhile in the chapter on gay marraige in "The Trouble With Normal", essentially arguing that benefits in taxation, health care, adoption, visitation, and so on should be disentangled from marriage altogether. What he advocates is a kind of "domestic partnership" package that can sustain everything from roommates to polyamorous couples, traditional families, siblings who live together, group homes, so on. Essentially, marriage would be its own ceremony (that ideally a church could bestown on any couple it wanted) and all the legal stuff would be dissasociated from it.

That seems pretty close to what's asked for in the proposal. I think you're right that mainstream America isn't quite ready for polyamory. I don't think the queer rights movement should abandon its less socially acceptable constituents, however, but they should be careful about assuming that everyone alrready agrees with them.

Anonymous said...

Oh, what do you know, Warner signed on to the statement. And Cornel West! And Judith Butler!

Its like ann all-star cast of people who are awesome!