By affirming the right of same-sex couples to marry on Friday, the US supreme court has blessed an unknowable number of lives. Families will be protected, survivorship benefits will be ensured and queer kids will grow up with one more life option open to them. A wrong has been righted, and that should be celebrated – preferably by launching rainbow fireworks over the compound of the Westboro Baptist Church.
Formal inequality – the kind that’s written explicitly into law – must obviously be undone. Yet I can’t help but feel that we’ve gotten the right answer to the wrong question. I have no problem with marriage as a religious tradition, or as a non-religious communal expression of love and commitment. Give me a fancy dress, lots of flowers and an excuse to day drink anytime. But it’s poorly designed to be a modern civil institution. Allowing gay people access to it makes it a little more fair, but it doesn’t make it any more just.
It’s an archaic practice, an imprecise way of getting at something the government actually does have a legitimate reason to promote: caring.
Think about it this way: if a parent dies, and there is no one to care for their children, who has to step in? The government. If I am all alone, and I have a medical issue, who do I call? 911 – the publicly funded emergency system. If I lose my job, can’t pay my rent and have no one to take me in, where will I end up? A homeless shelter (if I’m lucky), which is probably at least partially, minimally funded by some level of government. In all of these situations, not having someone to care for me leaves me as an expense that the government must shoulder.
Therefore, the government has a legitimate interest in promoting alternative systems of care, ones that put me in someone else’s hands when I need help. And once upon a time, the only system that we recognized for doing that was marriage. Privileging the institution doesn’t reflect the way our society actually works nowadays. Why shouldn’t two elderly siblings, who care for one another in a long-term way, receive financial incentives to keep doing so? Or – as in my case – three men who love each other very much? Giving any caring relationship minor tax breaks in exchange for the partners’ legal obligations to one another would still be a fabulous deal on the government’s end.
This critique is probably the last thing anyone wants to hear in the wake of the supreme court decision – and if you don’t already agree with me, this probably all sounds like “sour grapes, sour grapes”.
But in a practical way, we’ve already untangled a lot of this caring work from its absolute and permanent connection to marriage. You can legally have “legitimate” children with a surrogate, a friend or by yourself, and I can hire someone to care for me in my old age. Yet we still privilege marriage as the best way to do these things, both in our imaginations and in our laws.
Why? By connecting marriage to all kinds of fiscal and legal entanglements, like money or citizenship, we actually weaken its relationship to love, God or family – and hurt the institution of marriage. And it also hurts – and discriminates against – people who don’t choose or can’t find a “traditional” spouse.
When I see so many crucial issues that remain unaddressed in our community, like the skyrocketing rates of murder and suicide faced by trans people, the vulnerabilities of queer youth (from bullying, to higher rates of suicide, to an increased likelihood to be in foster care or on the streets), our fixation on marriage seems especially shortsighted.
Still, I’m glad we have it, for the dignity it gives to same-sex relationships, for all my friends I know it will help – and so that now we can move on to other issues.