Another New Kind of Marriage
Has fiscal conservatism found a partner in gay rights?
On Friday, the Supreme Court of the United States issued a decision guaranteeing the right of same-sex couples to marry in every state in the nation. This landmark case concludes just as another marriage is crumbling: the marriage between anti-gay politics and fiscal conservatism.
Since the 1980s, Americans have grown accustomed to a national-level political discourse juxtaposing the buzzwords free markets, small government, and family values. This union between anti-gay politics and economic conservatism was never merely a marriage of convenience. Even so, it now seems unlikely that these fellows will continue to share a bed. When the union-busting Governor of Wisconsin Scott Walker responded to the Supreme Court’s decision by asking “the American people to support an amendment to the U.S. Constitution to affirm the ability of the states to continue to define marriage,” even his supporters were skeptical. “Governor, I respect you more than any other politician I’ve ever followed in my life,” one posted on Walker’s Facebook page. “That said, I urge you to just let this one go.”
Over the past ten years, many Americans have shifted radically in their opinions on LGBTQ issues, especially when it comes to gay marriage. Sixty-three percent of Americans report that they consider “gay and lesbian relations” “morally acceptable” — up from 45% in 2005 — with 60% supporting gay marriage. This shift makes it tempting to see Friday’s decision on gay marriage as striking a blow to the right and to conservatism more broadly. Walker’s supporter suggests that disentangling social and economic conservatism might not be as difficult as it once seemed.
In fact, gay marriage, in many ways, neatly accompanies the economic austerity measures and corporate entanglements embraced on both sides of the political aisle. As proponents of gay marriage have been arguing for decades, marriage extends real material benefits to couples, ranging from the extension of health care or immigration papers to spouses, to the joint filing of taxes, to legal protections for the couple’s children. Marriage, for instance, makes it more likely that a parent would be able to remain in her child’s life in the event of a nasty break-up with or the death of her same-sex partner and co-parent. Marriage also makes it more possible that a man could stay in the house he lived in with his partner should his partner die, even if his partner’s family claimed that asset.
Certainly same-sex marriage provides important legal protections for queer couples, especially middle-class ones. Nationwide recognition of their marriages will protect them from circumstances that put them in real danger of economic ruin in the past. But we should remember that economic security remains largely a private matter in the United States, a phenomenon largely unquestioned on the left as well as on the right. Since the 1970s, American access to a social safety net has weakened, driven by a politics of austerity claiming that a living wage, a 40-hour work week, and functional infrastructure are luxuries our society can ill afford. By making marriage one of the few ways by which individuals — gay or straight — can achieve some modicum of security, we make marriage both more important to attain and harder to leave.
Yet marriage is an inherently inefficient and exclusionary system of providing economic security. Marriage reframes questions about access to health care, legal immigration, and child rearing as private issues that hinge on one’s relationship status. Single LGBTQ people, members of households or communities that are not organized around a coupled head of household, and multigenerational or communal childcare arrangements have been markedly absent from recent debates about LGBTQ politics on the national stage. Marriage equality does not just fail to address the political and economic status of people who do not enter into monogamous coupled romantic partnerships. If we continue to treat marriage as one of the prime ways that individuals can avoid financial ruin in absence of a state supported social safety net, we exclude non-married people from economic citizenship even while we begin to include LGBTQ couples for the first time.
Although the LGBTQ community and its supporters have lauded the Supreme Court for “choosing love” in recent days, marriage remains an institution based not merely in love but also in property and the preservation of material wealth. In fact, ideals such as love and companionship came into the picture rather late. In our current age of austerity politics, we have embraced marriage anew as a romantic solution to the economic dislocations of globalization, deindustrialization, and financial collapse. The two-partner household — legally protected, economically encouraged, and culturally privileged — promises the cushion of a second wage-earner in the event of a layoff. Perhaps marriage equality gained so much traction against the backdrop of austerity politics precisely because of marriage’s offer of privatized security and wealth preservation.
“Don’t like gay marriage? Don’t get one,” quipped one pithy refrain in the gay marriage debates. Marriage is, of course, a choice. That choice is now available to every couple in the United States. But it is a choice embedded in a political and economic system that privileges marriage over all other possible social arrangements. Supreme Court Justice Kennedy carried heavy normative baggage when he opined in his decision that “no union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and family.”
As a queer married person, I disagree. Foregrounding “sacrifice” in this definition violates the vows my partner and I took to use our partnership as a means towards nurturing each other’s process of self-determination. And is no union more profound? Without marriage available to us, and often without families of origin to support us, queer people have a long history of creating communities of support that extend beyond romantic couplings. As a feminist I bristle at the word “devotion.” It has been used too often historically to coerce women (and men) to remain in toxic relationships out of duty. The point is not that marriage is evil. But by dubbing marriage the most “profound” of our institutions, and by using it as a substitute for a publicly provided social safety net, we do injustice to other ways of organizing life and advocating for justice.
With gay marriage the law of the land, we find ourselves in a truly amazing political moment. Americans support what they deem to be pro-gay politics more than ever before. As conservatives rush to figure out how to operate in this new political landscape, and as liberals pat themselves on the back for a job well done, queer activists have an opportunity to craft a new politics that will extend beyond the quest for marriage, a queer politics that will help all of us in ways that marriage doesn’t.
We face an uphill battle. Marriage equality cost the government very little. As historian Timothy Stewart-Winter points out, it saves money for corporations. Securing protection for all queer people in all dimensions of life will be much more unsettling to our current political and economic system. It requires crafting a social safety net that does not depend on private arrangements like marriage (or full-time employment with a large corporation). It demands immigration reform, prison reform, job protection for queer workers (who in many states can still be fired for being gay or transgender) and economic security for homeless queer youth.
The majority of Americans have told us that they support equality for LGBTQ people, and the Supreme Court has told us that they do too. Now is the time to fight to institutionalize as broad of a conception of “equality” as we can imagine.