Is Marriage Worth Fighting For?
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First it was my history professor friend from Indiana -- "We're heading to CA for a friend's wedding (and while we're there ... we're getting married, too!)" she emailed me, using an uncharacteristic amount of exclamation points throughout. Then it was a colleague from Austin -- "busy summer with planning a San Francisco wedding in July :) (hurrah for the CA Supreme Court)." Now it looks like Massachusetts will become the next summer vacation state of choice for gay couples looking to tie the knot; last Tuesday the state senate voted to repeal a 1913 law that kept out-of-state same-sex couples from marrying there.
I'm happy for them. I really am. But part of me can't help but feel a little confused by the whole affair. You see, I'm a 28-year-old feminist who apparently wears a sign on my forehead that says, "Ask me when I'm going to get engaged." For the past eight years, I've been in a relationship with a great human being who happens to be male. We share taste in movies, a rascally kitten, and a mutual discomfort with the institution of marriage. I've spent more time than I'd like to remember in the past three or four years explaining to family, friends, and perfect strangers why I'm not dying to walk down the aisle (note: he has spent at least half as much time doing so, an incredibly irritating discrepancy). Usually my answer goes something like this: 1) I don't want to participate in an institution that's been historically sexist and currently discriminates against my gay friends, especially considering that my partner and I couldn't have been married in some states just 40 years ago (we're miscegenators), and 2) I'm uncomfortable with the "till death do us part" rhetoric that seems to suggest that two people parting ways is an inherent failure, rather than, as is so often the case, a necessary moment of growth and change.
For the latter explanation, I usually get a pitying look and an onslaught of romantic counter-argument, as if I am a princess in a fairy tale who has suddenly lost faith in the glass slipper. (Never mind the cold, hard fact that over half of marriages end in divorce.) For the former, I get little more than skeptical silence; people always suspect that the political argument is just a big cover up for my boyfriend's frozen feet.
Public reaction aside, I'm starting to doubt my own justifications. What am I to make of my commitment to not participate in a sexist, historically racist institution when my own gay friends are flocking to the coasts so they can join in the gift registry and the white-dress hoopla? Of course they deserve all the legal protections and economic benefits of a legalized marriage; according to the Gay & Lesbian Advocates and Defenders, there are over 1,400 state and federal rights guaranteed by marriage, while there are only 300 state benefits and no federal protection for civil unions. But do these rights really trump the woman-as-property history and discriminatory present (on a state by state basis, of course)? Why do so many of my gay friends have such faith that they can transform the institution when I'm still so unsure?
I've always been partial to Audre Lorde's insight that "the master's tools will never dismantle the master's house." But professor of Chicano/a studies, Lisa Justine Hernandez, who is getting married this month, sees the radical potential in marriage. "I think it works both ways," she told me. "Jane and I are being transformed by the outpouring of love and support from our families. Our marriage has opened positive conversation and also transformed others."
Loved ones often try to counter my resistance to marriage with the plausible argument that marriage is what you make of it. My own father repeated that old wisdom to me recently. "There are as many kinds of marriages as there are married couples," He said. Okay, I get it. I have faith in my partner and my capacity to re-imagine lots of things. He's never brought me flowers; instead our idea of romance is silly dancing on Saturday mornings before we go out and get our bacon, egg, and cheese sandwiches. I think we have a good a chance as any two creative people of making marriage over in our own image.
But I also respect the power of historical precedent and dominant culture -- all of which perpetuate rigid ideas of gender roles within marriage. Even my most radical friends -- even my very own radical parents (who, by the way, have been married since '69) -- seem to gravitate toward the black hole of traditional gender roles, and I can't help but blame the institution at least a little. Why not avoid the temptation to fall into a his-and-hers routine by never adopting the marriage label? I have a fantasy that, without the dominant culture's definitions of husband and wife as default, my partner and I will be constantly pushed to reinvent our relationship, question our assumptions about who should do what, and stay honest and authentic. Some people see that point of view as inherently naÃ¯ve (just live together, they argue, and you'll be struggling over dirty socks) and selfish. Weddings, after all, are often about the community that surrounds the couple and their opportunity to witness and honor their love, and sometimes even pledge to support it for the long haul. I'm convinced that the loss of ritual and lack of community is one of the ills of our culture, so this idea is compelling. I can see why my gay friends -- whose relationships have long been belittled and discriminated against -- are especially invested in having a community of people recognize their union in a public, official way. But must it be public, official, and marriage? Must we twist our revolutionary ideas about love and government to fit into such a traditional box? Must I give into the pressure to marry now that my gay friends are rushing off to the altar?
No, no, and no again, but I'm shocked at how much fight it takes to avoid walking down the aisle of least resistance. There is no other personal issue, no other private choice, that I've experienced such public scrutiny on -- as if marriage were a college education, something proven to benefit those who participate (in fact, some studies indicate that women suffer a lower quality of life when married, while men are healthier and happier). People seem to feel an urgent need to persuade me that I'm just repressing my "big day" dreams.
Claire Savage, a social worker that works with gay, lesbian, bisexual, trans and queer homeless/runaway youth, is still trying to make her own mind up about marriage, but expresses her confusion quite beautifully: "Maybe we need to have our own kind of queer marriage -- make it known that we don't want to be a part of a society that doesn't accept us or embrace us, even hates us. A lot of queer people want to just have the same rights and be treated the same as their hetero counterparts. Inclusion is the ultimate goal for a lot of folks. I haven't quite decided where I stand."
Neither have I. Do I stand at an altar with a theologian, under a tree with a group of friends, or avoid the public performance all together? One thing's for sure -- as more of my queer friends rush off to California and Massachusetts, it complicates my understanding of the institution of marriage. I'm still not sure that I'll ever get married, but I'll never look at the white dress again without seeing all the shades of gray.
Reprinted with permission from Courtney E. Martin, "Aisle of Least Resistance," The American Prospect Online : July 21, 2008. www.prospect.org. The American Prospect, 2000 L Street, NW, Suite 717, Washington, DC 20036. All rights reserved.