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Marriage Isn’t Enough

 

The Washington Defense of Marriage Alliance gets my award for this season’s most brilliantly cheeky organizing strategy. Faced with a moronic state Supreme Court ruling that justified prohibiting same-sex marriage on the basis that the state had a legitimate interest in ensuring that marriage was only for people who could procreate together, they decided to fight it by “working to put the Court’s ruling into law.”

They are trying to get three initiatives on the ballot. The first would annull any marriage for which the couple didn’t provide proof of procreation within three years. The second would prohibit divorce once children had been conceived. The third would make having a child together the equivalent of a legal marriage ceremony. The goal, of course, is to force the court, or at least the public at large, to realize the absurdity of the “marriage is about making kids” argument.

It does, however, beg a question. What is the state’s interest in privileging marriage? On-going uproar notwithingstanding, it is painfully obvious that if the state is going to do so, it should treat same-sex and different-sex couples equally. But why are any of us interested in registering the state of our intimate relationships with the government? And why would a reasonable government want us to?

The answer is complicated, of course, but it boils down to this: It’s a better world when we take care of each other. People are social beings. We form families and familial networks, of various sorts, because most of us are happier that way. From the government’s perspective, happier people are healthier, more stable, more productive. Within families we also redistribute resources to allow for a lot of essential, yet unpaid work: raising children, absolutely—but also caring for the elderly, disabled, or infirm; letting each other take time to go to school; cushioning the effects of job or health crises; maintaining households and volunteering in our communities.

These are all things that we, rightly, also consider government’s job to help with if families are not available to do so, or need help. And so, it is in government’s interest to acknowledge and support these commitments and financial interdependences where they have been formed. Tax breaks, divorce laws, survivors’ benefits, immigration rights, automatic inheritance, custody rights, hospital- visiting rights, financial power of attorney—these can all be seen as attempts, though often partial and flawed, to encourage and reward and stabilize the work of families.

But here’s the rub—just as there’s nothing in any of what I’ve just said that’s unique to heterosexual couples, there’s also nothing that’s unique to married couples at all. Families take a cornucopia of forms. Single parents with extended kinship support systems. Divorced but friendly couples who still co- parent. Queer men and women—single or in relationships—who join with others to create and raise kids together without being in a sexual relationship. Couples who don’t marry for various reasons. People in multiple-adult loving relationships. People who create long-term households with close friends. I won’t even pretend that I can make a comprehensive list.

All of these provide the benefits of families. All of them should be recognized as such. As the Beyond Marriage statement (www.beyondmarriage.org) released last summer puts it: “To have our government define as ‘legitimate families’ only those households with couples in conjugal relationships does a tremendous disservice to the many other ways in which people actually construct their families, kinship networks, households, and relationships.”

To make a truly fair pro-family legal framework would take more work than simply opening marriage wider, but it could be done. Standards for determining financial interdependence already exist in domestic-partner regulations and could be adapted. Existing tools of wills, health-care proxies, and legal guardianships would have to be made more accessible and more a matter of course. For family groupings of more than two adults, there would have to be decisions about whether a benefit could be split between two or more people. National healthcare would make the whole thing much easier.

I am not, please note, anti-marriage. In fact, I’ve gotten married twice.

Before you cue the laugh track, let me clarify:

I’ve gotten married twice, but never been divorced or widowed. I married my college girlfriend in 1997, with vows we wrote ourselves, and sometimes still recite to each other. We baked more than 30 loaves of banana bread the day before to be the wedding cake. We were young, but the process gave us roots we relied on in building a life together.

In 2005, we held another marriage ceremony, in which she and I and the man who had become part of our family in 2001 formalized our commitment to each other. (You have to make your vows short when they’re going to be said six times.) My mother wrote an English country dance for three couples for the reception, to replace the traditional first-dance-with-parent. We all wear two rings on our left hands, in different shades of gold for each of the pairs that make up our whole. A marriage certificate signed by everyone present at our wedding hangs on our wall.

We support each other financially, emotionally, and intellectually. We own a house and a car together (though the DMV can’t figure out how to put three names on a car title). We parent together, equally. We don’t care that there wasn’t a legal marriage license at either of our ceremonies.

But like many families, we worry about money, health coverage, and what will happen to our children if we all get hit by a bus. We know that if we didn’t have the good luck to have loving and accepting families of origin and no psycho exes, our daughter’s right to a stable life with all of her parents could be precarious. We support the fair-marriage movement 100 percent, but it will not actually help us.

As the authors of the Beyond Marriage statement emphasize, the theocratic social reactionaries have not limited their movement or their vision to preserving a narrow definition of marriage. Even as we take incremental and hard-fought steps toward fairness, those who reject the inhumane and bigoted right-wing worldview also need to think big. We need to craft a bold vision of a caring society that fully supports diverse families and the strong communities those families create.

—Miriam Axel-Lute

www.mjoy.org

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