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
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
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.