I've been a gay activist since the gay-liberation Stonewall Riots in 1969, and today I'm a visiting professor of gay and lesbian studies at Dartmouth College. I'm often asked why gay men and lesbians are fighting for same-sex marriage, and my answer is always the same: I don't really know. To me, the fight for same-sex marriage seems not so much shortsighted as beside the point.
Don't get me wrong. I completely support giving gay men and lesbians the right to partake of civil marriage, and the basic economic benefits that come with it, simply as a matter of equality under the law. Within a generation most states will likely follow Massachusetts' bold lead and insure marriage equality for all couples. It's a no-brainer: states that don't allow gay men and lesbians access to the legal status given to heterosexuals blatantly discriminate.
What I don't understand is why gay men and lesbians want to get married. The unswerving fight that gay men and lesbians have waged for marriage equality has been predicated largely on the idea that traditional marriage is the best possible form a relationship can take. For gay-marriage advocates, marriage carries the gold seal of approval: however loving, fruitful, or productive other relationships are, they are, by definition, not as good as marriage.
This is curious, given how deeply ambivalent heterosexuals are about marriage. It's there in the 50 percent divorce rate, the high rates of spouse and child abuse, the incidence of adultery-check the record of the congressmen who voted for the Defense of Marriage Act, never mind average couples. Despite their distinct 1950s ring, jokes about balls-and-chains still abound, and the famous Mae West quip, "Marriage is an institution, I'm just not ready for an institution yet," still gets laughs.
What makes gay people think marriage will work better for them? It probably won't.
I'm not the sort of gay activist who thinks everything heterosexuals do is wrong. I see "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy" as a show about five busybodies who interfere in other people's lives with intrusive product placements. I also recognize that some marriages work marvelously: my parents' 50 wonderfully happy years together ended only with my mother's death a few years ago. But as it is practiced in the United States, we can all agree that marriage is not perfect, and for so many of us marriage no longer suits our current emotional or social needs. We-homosexuals and heterosexuals alike-might do better by spending some time rethinking how we want to live our emotional and sexual, private and public lives.
Gay-marriage proponents argue we should end these experiments, some saying marriage will "civilize" gay people by making us act more responsibly toward one another. William N. Eskridge titled his 1996 book "The Case for Same-Sex Marriage: From Sexual Liberty to Civilized Commitment." Well, that just seems silly to me. Heterosexual marriage has not guaranteed better behavior once men and women tied the knot. Not incidentally, it is deeply homophobic to imply that gay people cannot and do not act decently or "civilized" now.
Other gay activists point to the benefits civil marriage brings in the form of tax breaks, inheritance arrangements, access to health care, and guaranteeing loans and credit. But we need to find a way to ensure that these are available to all people, not just those who decide to marry.
Much of the discussion about same-sex marriage concerns deeper economic and social-justice issues: health care, raising children, and protecting family units from outside forces, especially poverty. But these too aren't really the concern of marriage. If you want to ensure that all families are secure and safe, if you want children to be healthy, and well fed and safe, there is plenty to do. You can fight for universal health care or a higher minimum wage, for a negative income tax that will benefit anyone living close to or under the poverty line, for federally funded childcare, for federal funding to pay parents (both mothers and fathers) who choose to work at home caring for their children. When it comes to fighting for social justice, the right to traditional civil marriage seems pretty low on the agenda.
The gay-marriage movement isn't about these things. Nor it is about commitment or the sanctity of marriage. It is about sentiment and the power of advertising. People-gay and straight, but especially women-have a profound emotional attachment to the idea of marriage. (It is no surprise that close to 75 percent of couples who have applied for same-sex marriage licenses in San Francisco and now in Massachusetts are lesbians.) It is what we have always known, and we have a difficult time thinking of any other way to organize our lives. We also live in a culture that has a multibillion-dollar wedding industry, which inundates us everyday with the message that we will only be happy when we are married.
Equality under the law is nothing to scoff at. But will it make gay men and lesbians happier? In the long run, I doubt it. At least no happier than they are now, and certainly no happier, or unhappier, than heterosexuals. Now that we have it, I wonder if people will think it was worth the fight.