Culhane: Why do gays and lesbians care about marriage?
How did marriage, of all things, become the cause célèbre of the LGBT rights movement? Let’s face it: There are good historical reasons for us to eschew and pooh-pooh this institution, which doesn’t exactly have a glorious track record.
“Since When is Marriage a Path to Liberation?” was the provocative question that lesbian activist Paula Ettelbrick raised in an influential article more than 20 years ago. Her article slammed what was then the emerging focus on same-sex marriage as a misguided effort that would secure gay and lesbian “equality” within the stifling confines of an inherently unequal and patriarchal institution.
Yet there we were, Ettelbrick and I, together in 2007 on a panel discussing LGBT legal issues, and she was arguing for marriage equality. What happened?
I had the chance to ask her about this dramatic about-face during a cab ride to the train station after the event. Had she been possessed by the spirit of Andrew Sullivan? Well, kind of. All of the same-sex couples making their clear and passionate case to have the state recognize their unions had convinced her to value reality over ideology, and (here I’m guessing) perhaps to see that same-sex marriages have the potential to revitalize the institution, and to help transform it into a more egalitarian partnership.
But why is it so important for the state to recognize our unions in the first place? Let’s start by considering the alternatives. The first of these is a religious union. For many lesbian and gay couples, getting married in their church, synagogue, or mosque is deeply meaningful. But it’s not enough. Some (straight and gay) couples don’t derive spiritual nourishment from such ceremonies. And even for those who do, “the power vested in” clergy to legally solemnize marriages can’t solemnize theirs.
So what about a “secular substitute” for marriage, such as the civil union, that confers all the benefits of marriage but not the title?
Do I really need to ask this question?
First, the civil union doesn’t confer all of the benefits of marriage. It’s not recognized at the federal level, so that even if the obnoxious Defense of Marriage Act were repealed, couples in a civil union wouldn’t have any of the federal benefits of marriage, which are the most significant ones.
But it’s not just about the benefits, either. In some paradoxical way, the civil union is worse, because it’s pure discrimination. The state has given up all of the arguments against equality in conferring the civil union status, but still insists on a separate label. In In re Marriage Cases, The California Supreme Court hit the bull’s-eye in rejecting this kind of “virtual equivalence:
“[A]ssigning a different designation for the family relationship of same-sex couples…poses at least a serious risk of denying the family relationship of same-sex couples such equal dignity and respect.”
By this point, some of you are likely muttering: “OK, marriage, fine. But what about discrimination, social justice, and the real economic barriers to equality? Aren’t these the things that should be concerning us instead of this mostly abstract equality debate?”
Well, you probably didn’t mutter exactly that, but the point is fair anyway. Why all this emphasis on marriage?
First, many of us are, at heart, assimilationists who want to fit in with the most traditional structures. Think marriage and – the prom! Those gay and lesbian teens who demanded to attend their proms are radical and traditional at the same time, as are those seeking marriage equality. It’s that scary incursion of the outlandish into “safe” structures that explains, at least in part, the sometimes vicious resistance we find in everyone from Maggie Gallagher to those parents who engineered the fake prom  that Constance McMillen was sent to.
The other part of this fight for equality has to do with the government’s role in the discrimination. Remember that many of the most important achievements of both the civil rights and women’s movements were ending government-sponsored discrimination in voting, unfair marriage laws, and segregated public facilities and schools. If government is willing to declare that members of a group are second-class citizens, then private and social discrimination is fair game.
Since laws prohibiting same-sex intimacy have now been declared unconstitutional, the most important state-sponsored formal discriminations we face are DADT and the ban on our marriages. So, while marriage may never be a path to liberation – much less to robust social and economic fairness – it’s a vital part of our rights as citizens. That’s why it matters.
John Culhane is Professor of Law and Director of the Health Law Institute at Widener University School of Law in Wilmington, Delaware. He blogs about the role of law in everyday life, and about a bunch of other things (LGBT rights, public health, sports, pop culture, philosophy and lots of personal stuff) at: http://wordinedgewise.org. Here’s a fuller bio . He will be blogging the week-long Equality Forum  from Philadelphia later this month.
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