It simply goes without saying that in a liberal democracy, two individuals of the opposite sex have a political right to marry one another before the state. The conversation on “marriage equality” ends there, though more can be said about the nature of marriage itself and marriage politics.
To qualify my first claim, American conservatives defend a fundamentally anti-liberal position when it comes to “marriage equality.” As people who maintain that they are concerned with individual rights and the minimization of government coercion, conservatives have performed some remarkable ideological back flips in projecting their social values onto others. The less overtly homophobic arguments are disguised as defending “traditional marriage” or “strong families” as well as religious freedom, but at their core, these positions presuppose that it is okay to dictate the private lives of individuals based on one’s own conception of what is normal and socially acceptable.
Conservative arguments against “marriage equality” are hollow, and anyone who understands and takes liberalism seriously will be in favor of extending the right to marry to the LGBT community. More importantly, however, the politics surrounding marriage in this country provide an opportunity for us to consider what that institution really means on a societal level, as opposed to on an individual basis.
The term “marriage equality” belongs in quotes because marriage as an institution is not about equality. The central question of the DOMA case before the Supreme Court involves the state’s refusal to grant economic benefits to same-sex couples whose marriages are not recognized under federal law. While it is important that those benefits be extended to such couples, it bears noting that marriage itself creates a class of people that enjoy differential treatment by the state. In this light, we see that marriage involves the establishment of two unequal classes: married Americans and single Americans.
Through another example, this one historical, we observe that marriage may have actually enforced unequal gender norms. Since its inception, marriage has been linked to the continuance of a patriarchal and misogynistic status quo that conceptualizes women as property and permits the state to intrude upon the private lives of individuals. Admittedly, we can easily draw parallels between the patriarchy of the pre-civil rights era and our own time, but it’s worth considering that the traditional notions of marriage were much less about love and more about maintaining a certain type of social order.
This sort of thinking forces us to confront the gulf between what our society thinks of as marriage and what actually constitutes a healthy relationship. It is absurd to suggest that marriage itself offers anything but certain minor economic and social benefits. What of all the single mothers and fathers who have successfully raised children, or couples, both hetero and homosexual, that have formed enduring relationships without informing the state of their status? If strong relationships and healthy families are not founded upon societal norms but on the authenticity and love that exists between those involved, then why should two people have to register their status with the state in order to enjoy their rights as citizens?
While the struggle for “marriage equality,” in one sense, requires non-normative individuals to conform to a traditional notion of relationship building — and here we might consider the implications of so many straight, white men deciding the fate of the LGBT community — a more appropriate notion of marriage allows for an understanding of marriage as a social construct, something void of any intrinsic meaning by itself.
It is not my intention to suggest that marriage is a valueless institution or that marriage is not empowering. On the contrary, marriage is an important and meaningful public consummation of love; it is as much a religious, social and legal rite as it is a political right. But it is also important to recognize that marriage is a social construct that reinforces certain norms and inequities, and that a loving relationship is no more built upon the institution of marriage as such as it is on the two people involved being of the opposite sex.
Don’t be fooled, Michael Dean is really a closet romantic waiting for his special day.