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Rethinking Marriage. The World Has Changed. It's Time!

We must do more than simply re-integrate new groups into an old system. We need to seriously consider our assumptions about the system itself.
 
 
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Feminist author Jessica Valenti's marriage to Andrew Golis of Talking Points Memo was the lead wedding story in the New York Times style section this Sunday. It was odd to see this Full Frontal Feminist not only marry, but also submit to a romantic short story about her union. Indeed the Times seemed intent on portraying Valenti's marriage as a morality tale: tough feminists may talk about social equality, but all girls really want is a good man and note-worthy bustle. For some, Valenti's wedding became a lens for assessing her feminist credentials.

Valenti's story, as written by the Times, is an interesting companion to last week's National Equality March in Washington, DC. The National Equality March was clearly defined by organizers and participants as a demand for equal protection in all matters governed by civil law. It was a demonstration for justice in housing, employment, property, citizenship, and family law, but media nearly exclusively reported the event as a march for same-sex marriage equality.

For Valenti and for the National Equality March participants, as for many in America, marriage is the terrain where the personal is indeed political.

Marriage as the intersection between the personal and political is not new in the United States. In an upcoming book, ‘Til Death or Distance Do Us Part: Love and Marriage in African America, Frances Smith Foster challenges the received wisdom that black families were destroyed during American slavery. She marshals convincing, historical evidence refuting the assumption that enslaved people accepted that their marriages were not "real" because they were not recognized by the state.

Her study of slave marriage does not reveal fragile, transient attachments; rather Foster uncovers a rich legacy of love, struggle, and commitment among enslaved black people. By choosing whom to love, how to love, what to sacrifice, and how long to stay committed, black Americans carved out space for their human selves even as enslavers tried to reduce them to chattel.

In spite of the fact that their marriages were not legally sanctioned, many enslaved people formed lifelong attachments, sacrificed personal security and freedom to maintain their relationships, protected their fidelity despite unthinkable obstacles, and remained deeply attached to their identities as married persons.

Some black men and women chose to remain in slavery or to submit to more brutal enslavers in order to stay married to their chosen partners. Foster's stories of these marriages challenge any idea that marriage is just about health insurance and burial rights. Clearly marriage is rooted in something far more personal and spiritual. To sustain marriage some were willingly to endure slavery.

I'd just finished reading Foster's book when I discovered the story of Keith Bardwell, a white, justice of the peace in Louisiana who makes it a practice to refuse marriage licenses to interracial couples, despite the Supreme Court's 1967 decision in Loving v. Virginia. Bardwell explains his resistance to interracial marriage not as racism, but as a protective measure for the potential children of these unions who, according to Bardwell, are not accepted in any racial community.

It is impossible not to laugh aloud about the utter absurdity of defending the tragic mulatto narrative in the age of Tiger Woods, Mariah Carey, Ben Jealous, and Barack Obama. The hilarity is exceeded only by Bardwell's quaint assumption that refusing a marriage license to a heterosexual couple would block their ability to procreate. It is clear that Bardwell is not protecting children; he is protecting a particular understanding of marriage rooted in old American bigotry.

Together Foster's text and Bardwell's policy are reminders that marriage is a complex interplay between private choice and public practice. Marriage is never exclusively about loving attachment and commitment among consenting adults. It is also about state recognition of and ability to confer a specific bundle of privileges on particular individuals and relationships. But these privileges and state recognition are not enough to explain why people desire and chose marriage. The power to love, commit, and consent is more deeply human than that.

Enslaved people desired marriage, performed marriage ceremonies, and understood themselves as married, but without the protection of the state their marriages could be disrupted without their consent. They fought back, resisted, and sacrificed in order to stay married, but without the state they were vulnerable both as persons and as spouses.

To be gay in America today is not the same as being a slave in the 19th century. Despite the civil inequality faced by LGBT communities, little in human history compares to the realities of intergenerational, chattel slavery. But there are important connections between the realities of marriage for the enslaved and for contemporary gay men and lesbians.

Today, many same-sex couples in the United States live in a fraught, contingent space of loving attachment, unprotected by state recognition. My fierce commitment to marriage equality derives, in part, from my personal biography as an interracial child, descended from American slaves, and raised in Virginia, beginning less than a decade after the Loving decision. Even though I am heterosexual, marriage equality is personal. I learn from the history of racial and interracial marriage exclusion that the denial of marriage rights to same-sex couples is wrong.

But, there is more than one lesson to be learned from the parallels between racial and same-sex marital exclusion. Today, black Americans can securely marry one another. And despite the bigotry of officials like Bardwell, they can legally marry opposite-sex partners of a different race. But despite this formal, legal equality, marriage has never been more rare or more insecure among African Americans.

Marriage is now a minority lifestyle among black people. African American women in all socioeconomic categories are the group least likely to marry, most likely to divorce, and most likely to bear and rear children alone. And although marriage has fallen most precipitously among black people, it has declined throughout the United States. Since 1970, marriage rates in the United States have dropped more than 15% overall, and divorce rates have climbed steadily during this same time.

Fewer people who can marry are choosing to do so. More people who do marry are choosing to exit. This is not solely about selfish individuals unwilling to sacrifice for joint commitment. Marriage itself is still bolstered by a troubling cultural mythology, a history of domination, and a contemporary set of gendered expectations that render it both unsatisfying and unstable for many people.

In short, despite the fierce battles for marriage, contemporary heterosexual marriage is a bit of a mess. The current state of straight marriage is a reminder that simply having the right to marry is not sufficient to generate social equality, create economic stability, or ensure personal fulfillment. Marriage is a crucial civil right, but not a panacea. Even as progressives fight for marriage equality for same-sex couples, we need also to reflect on marriage as a social and political institution in itself.

Our work must be not just about marriage equality, it should also be about equal marriages, and about equal rights and security for those who opt out of marriage altogether.

As LGBT communities were organizing for the D.C. event some LGBT activists were expressing concern that an exclusive focus on marriage rights obscures other pressing issues of civil inequality and ignores the contributions of non-traditional families. These critics pushed back against the assimilationist impulse of same-sex marriage advocatesin favor of a celebrating the social, cultural, and political contributions of queer individuals and communities. Their arguments sounded quite a bit like the feminist critique of marriage offered by Jessica Valenti, before the NY Times style section got to her.

So what are we to make of marriage? It is both a deeply personal relationship for which people will make almost unthinkable sacrifices, and it is a declining social institution offering little security for most who enter it.

As a black, feminist, marriage-equality advocate I reside at an important intersection in this struggle. This movement must acknowledge the unique history of racial oppression, while still revealing the interconnections of all marriage exclusion. This work must reflect the feminist critique of marriage, while still acknowledging the ancient, cross cultural, human attachment to marriage. This work must be staunchly supportive of same-sex marriage, while rejecting a marriage-normative framework that silences the contributions of queer life.

Typically advocates of marriage equality try to reassure the voting public the same-sex marriage will not change the institution itself. "Don't worry," we say, "allowing gay men and lesbians to marry will not threaten the established norms; it will simply assimilate new groups into old practices."

This is a pragmatic, political strategy, but I hope it is not true. I hope same-sex marriage changes marriage itself. I hope it changes marriage the way that no-fault divorce changed it. I hope it changes marriage the way that allowing women to own their own property and seek their own credit changed marriage. I hope it changes marriage the way laws against spousal abuse and child neglect changed marriage. I hope marriage equality results more equal marriages. I also hope it offers more opportunities for building meaningful adult lives outside of marriage.

I know from personal experience that a bad marriage is enough to rid you of the fear of death. But this experience allows me suspect that a good marriage must be among the most powerful, life-affirming, emotionally fulfilling experiences available to human beings. I support marriage equality not only because it is unfair, in a legal sense, to deny people the privileges of marriage based on their identity; but also because it also seems immoral to forbid some human beings from opting into this emotional experience.

We must do more than simply integrate new groups into an old system. Let's use this moment to re-imagine marriage and marriage-free options for building families, rearing children, crafting communities, and distributing public goods.

Melissa Harris-Lacewell, an associate professor of politics and African-American studies at Princeton University, is completing her latest book, Sister Citizen: A Text for Colored Girls Who've Considered Politics When Being Strong Isn't Enough.