We love each other, and we’ve been in a committed relationship for nearly 20 years. We are residents of Massachusetts. But we’re not getting married. We fully believe that gays and lesbians should have the right to marry, and we celebrate the fact that a significant barrier to our full citizenship has fallen. In not taking advantage of this new right, however, we can more comfortably advocate for the kind of society in which we would like to live.
Those who have fought for gay marriage have made clear that, in the U.S., important benefits are tied to marital status. As the judges of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, themselves, noted in the Goodridge decision, “marriage provides an abundance of legal, financial, and social benefits.” Indeed, over 1000 federal benefits attach to marriage—benefits relating to social security, inheritance, tax status, child custody, and the like. Further, other significant benefits—most notably, health care—are often linked to marriage. Opening up this status to gays and lesbians makes an enormous difference to those in committed relationships in which at least one partner has access to benefits or resources to share.
But focusing on the right to marry perpetuates the idea that these rights ought to be linked to marriage. Were we to marry, we would be contributing to the perpetuation of a norm of coupledness in our society. The norm marginalizes those who are single, single parents, widowed, divorced or otherwise living in non-traditional constellations. The Massachusetts decision argued that “marriage is a vital social institution….The exclusive commitment of two individuals to each other nurtures love and mutual support; it brings stability to our society.” Thus, the judges affirmed the right of gays and lesbians to marry while, at the same time, reinforcing very traditional beliefs about the centrality of marriage to the social order.
Seeking expanded benefits through marriage also contributes to what amounts to the increasing privatization of responsibility of caring for children, the elderly, the ill and disabled. The Massachusetts decision argues that gay marriage is good for society because children ought to be raised by two parents. The judges stated, in fact, that “it cannot be rational under our laws to penalize children by depriving them of State benefits” because of their parents’ sexual orientation. But why is it any more rational to deprive children of state benefits because their parents are not married? Yet, precisely such arguments tying benefits to marriage are being used to justify repressive “marriage promotion” policies that pressure single mothers receiving welfare benefits to marry, and deny them (and their children) significant benefits if they do not marry.
A focus on marriage and familial status leads us, moreover, to neglect our social responsibilities to provide adequate childcare, day care, elder-care, etc. that would allow all adults who want to work to be able to do so. We all deserve a basic standard of care, as persons and as citizens. We should not have to rely on family members—generally the women in our families— to attend to our needs when we cannot care for ourselves. Similarly, a focus on increasing the numbers of people who can get access to health or retirement benefits through their spouses can easily lead us to ignore or deny our societal responsibility to provide basic health care and old age security to all our citizens, regardless of marital status.
It’s not easy to walk away from the legal benefits that come with marriage. We are fortunate, in that we do not need to rely on one another’s employers for our health coverage, and this allows us the luxury of deciding not to marry.
Nevertheless, as feminists and as lesbians, we have considered ourselves to be part of social movements that were modeling a variety of ways to be in the world, and to be in meaningful relationships, other than through marriage. Indeed, the early women’s liberation and gay liberation movements challenged the claim that the married-couple nuclear family was the only legitimate way to organize our intimate lives. What happened to that vision? Where are the feminist and gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered voices calling for the separation of civil and religious unions? Why not argue for the disestablishment of marriage as a legal form and the creation of a status of “civil union” that will allow people to create their own forms, and have them recognized by the state? At this moment, when there is so much focus on celebrating the right to marry, we want to hold up a vision of a society in which basic rights are not tied to marriage, and in which there are many ways to organize one’s intimate life, marriage being only one of them.
Martha Ackelsberg is Professor of Government and Women’s Studies at Smith College and author of Free Women of Spain: Anarchism and the Struggle for the Emancipation of Women.
Judith Plaskow is Professor of Religious Studies at Manhattan College, a former president of the American Academy of Religion, and author of Standing Again at Sinai: Judaism from a Feminist Perspective and the forthcoming The Coming of Lilith: Essays on Feminism, Judaism, and Sexual Ethics.