POLLITT: Gay Marriage? You've Been Warned

When gay friends argue in favor of same-sex marriage, I always agree and offer them the one my husband and I are leaving. Why should straights be the only ones to have their unenforceable promise to love, honor and cherish trap them like houseflies in the web of law? Marriage will not only open up to gay men and lesbians whole new vistas of guilt, frustration, claustrophobia, bewilderment, declining self-esteem, unfairness and sorrow, it will offer them the opportunity to prolong this misery by tormenting each other in court. I know one pair of exes who spent in legal fees the entire value of the property in dispute, and another who took five years and six lawyers to untie the knot. Had these couples merely lived together they would have thrown each other's record collections out the window and called it a day. Clearly something about marriage drives a lot of people round the bend. Why shouldn't some of those people be gay? Legalizing gay marriage would be a good idea even if all it did was to chasten conservative enthusiasts like Andrew Sullivan and Bruce Bawer, who imagine that wedlock would do for gays what it is less and less able to do for straights --encourage monogamy, sobriety and settled habits. Gay conservatives are quick to criticize hetero offenders against the socio-marital order, like divorced and single parents and poor women who nonetheless have children. Legalizing gay marriage will do a lot to open these men's eyes: Soon they'll be divorcing, single parenting and bankrupting each other like the rest of us. Maybe we'll hear less about restoring the stigma of "illegitimacy" and divorce over at The New Republic when gay men find themselves raising kids with no help from a deadbeat co-dad. I'm for same-sex marriage because I'd be a hypocrite not to be: I married, after all, for reasons that apply to gay couples -- a mix of love, convention and a practical concern for safeguarding children, property, my husband and myself from unforeseen circumstances and strange legal quirks. I don't see why gays shouldn't be able to make the same choice, and I've yet to see an argument on the other side that doesn't dissolve into bias and prejudice and thinly disguised religious folderol. In a recent New York Times Op-Ed, former Quayle speechwriter Lisa Schiffren attacked the idea of gay marriage by defining marriage as about procreation, with the many non-procreating couples-infertile, voluntarily childless, middle-aged and elderly-included out of politeness. (It was a banner weekend for Schiffren at the Times -- the very next day the Magazine published her essay claiming that the legalization of abortion explains why no one offered her a subway seat when she was pregnant.) In a particularly overwrought 1991 Commonweal essay, Jean Bethke Elshtain depicted gay marriage as "antinatal-hostile to the regenerative female body." Haven't these writers ever heard of Heather's two mommies and Daddy's roommate? Lots of gay and lesbian couples are raising children together these days. Interestingly, neither of these defenders of the hearth mentions love -- maybe gays are the last romantics, after all. For social conservatives like Elshtain and Schiffren, opposition to gay marriage is more than homophobia: It's a move in a larger, high-stakes policy struggle over the family. The kernel of truth grasped by anti-gay-marriage conservatives is that same-sex wedlock is part of the modern transformation of marriage from a hierarchical, gender-polarized relationship whose permanence was enforced by God, law, family and community into a more equal, fluid and optional relationship whose permanence depends on the mutual wishes of the partners. Whatever its conservative champions think, gay marriage could never have become a realistic political issue, with considerable popular support from straights, without the breakdown of traditional family values-widespread divorce, nonmarital births, cohabitation, blended families, double-income couples, interracial and interfaith and no-faith unions, abortion, feminism. When it becomes legal, as I believe it will, same-sex marriage will be the result, not the cause, of a change in the meaning of marriage. The reason arguments against it sound so prudish and dated and irrational is that they are. Proponents of same-sex marriage make much of the unfairness of denying gay couples the many rights and privileges awarded husbands and wives-health insurance, survivors' rights, mutual custody of children, job protection under the Family and Medical Leave Act and so on. Far be it from me to pooh-pooh as a motive for marriage a system that has saved me literally thousands of dollars in dental bills. But even as we support legalizing same-sex unions, we might ask whether we want to distribute these rights and privileges according to marital status. Why should access to health care be a byproduct of a legalized sexual connection, gay or straight? Wouldn't it make more sense to give everyone his or her own health insurance? Similarly, gays and lesbians rightly resent the ways in which their inability to marry leaves them vulnerable to parental interference: The case of Sharon Kowalski, whose parents took custody after she suffered brain damage in a crash and for many years denied visitation to her lover, is a notorious example but hardly unique; the annals of the AIDS crisis are full of parents who cut their child's lover off from contact, participation in medical decisions and property-including shared property. But all unmarrieds are potentially subject to this kind of hostile takeover, not just gays. What's wrong is the legal mindset that regards unmarried 40-year-olds as the wards of Mom and Dad. The truth is, we are moving toward a society in which the old forms of human relationships are being disrupted and reshaped, and sooner or later the law must accommodate that reality. Legalizing gay marriage is part of the process, but so is diminishing the increasingly outmoded privileged status of marriage and sharing out its benefits along different, more egalitarian lines. Andrew Sullivan and Bruce Bawer may have more in common with single mothers than they would like to think.

Enjoy this piece?

… then let us make a small request. AlterNet’s journalists work tirelessly to counter the traditional corporate media narrative. We’re here seven days a week, 365 days a year. And we’re proud to say that we’ve been bringing you the real, unfiltered news for 20 years—longer than any other progressive news site on the Internet.

It’s through the generosity of our supporters that we’re able to share with you all the underreported news you need to know. Independent journalism is increasingly imperiled; ads alone can’t pay our bills. AlterNet counts on readers like you to support our coverage. Did you enjoy content from David Cay Johnston, Common Dreams, Raw Story and Robert Reich? Opinion from Salon and Jim Hightower? Analysis by The Conversation? Then join the hundreds of readers who have supported AlterNet this year.

Every reader contribution, whatever the amount, makes a tremendous difference. Help ensure AlterNet remains independent long into the future. Support progressive journalism with a one-time contribution to AlterNet, or click here to become a subscriber. Thank you. Click here to donate by check.

DonateDonate by credit card

Close

Thanks for your support!

Did you enjoy AlterNet this year? Join us! We're offering AlterNet ad-free for 15% off - just $2 per week. From now until March 15th.