What We’ll Lose When Gay Marriage Wins

May 28, 2009

The setback at California’s Supreme Court is only a bump in the road. When same-sex marriage becomes legal in Iowa , you know the train has left the station. Inside a year, two at most, I predict that same-sex marriage will be legal nationwide. That’s a change that seemed unthinkable a decade ago. But it’s not an umixed blessing. Here’s one secular humanist whose celebration of the gay-marriage victory will be tempered by a recognition of what we lost along the way.

Consider the scenario most social-change advocates probably expected, say, ten years ago. Inside and outside of the GLBT community, circa 1999 most activists would have predicted that someday, maybe 25 years in the future, GLBT activists would finally succeed in getting some kind of civil union firmly recognized in the law. Same-sex marriage? When pigs fly! No, the old plan was to establish a new, alternative institution for recognizing committed relationships. Legally robust civil unions would one day provide the benefits opposite-sex couples realized through matrimony: community property, clear custody of children, the right to inherit, access in hospital, access to health insurance, and so on.

There were pluses and minuses to this approach. On the minus side, civil unions would never be marriages, not quite: same-sex couples would always have to settle for “second class marriages.” On the plus side—well, civil unions would never be marriages, not quite. Consider that matrimony is a hybrid social institution, rooted partly in the law and partly in the churches. Consider its unsavory baggage: not that long ago, matrimony essentially amounted to the bride’s father transferring property rights in his daughter to the groom. It locked women into relationships where they couldn’t own property, couldn’t vote, where they essentially existed only as legal shadows of their husbands. Yes, those days are gone. But the institution of matrimony still carries that taint on its record. Civil union, a wholly new institution, would not. Further, as a new creation of the law civil union would be utterly secular, free of any historical attachment to the churches.

For all these reasons, some social-change activists, even straight ones, wanted nothing to do with traditional matrimony. We were waiting hungrily for the day when same-sex civil unions became legal ... so we could sue to have the same privilege extended to opposite-sex couples.

Today, that’s the scenario that will come about when pigs fly. Six years ago or so, the GLBT community realized that gay marriage might be an attainable goal and quickly abandoned its old strategy of seeking to create robust civil unions. Now it’s on the cusp of victory, an attainment that should not be underestimated. But let’s never lose sight of what was lost along the way. Around the turn of the 21st century, the GLBT movement—arguably the most-powerful, best-organized, best-funded social change movement in America—stopped being an opponent of traditional matrimony. Instead of applying its impressive muscle to creating an alternative to this hoary, unsecular, historically sexist tradition, the GLBT movement opted to support the status quo. If the definition of marriage could just be expanded to include same-sex couples, the GLBT community would stop seeking to overturn matrimony’s monopoly on the legal recognition of committed relationships.

Because of that, there’s essentially zero chance that those of us who find traditional matrimony repellent will gain a genuine alternative in our lifetimes. The GLBT movement was the only constituency with the power to force that sort of reform, and it’s been effectively co-opted into supporting, thus perpetuating, the troubling monopoly of matrimony.

Oh well, it was too late for me anyway. Several years ago my live-in lifepartner and I gave up and tied the knot—in order to get access to family-plan health insurance. I’m happy to report that that ol’ debbil matrimony has not ruined a wonderful relationship. But damn, I wish we could have been among the first plaintiffs to sue for civil unions for straight couples.

(FYI, I wrote an op-ed along similar lines in FI, Dec. 2003-Jan. 2004: https://www.secularhumanism.org/library/fi/flynn_24_1.htm



#1 Noadi (Guest) on Thursday May 28, 2009 at 10:35am

I’m a little surprised to see this article. Marriage is a word, why would an intelligent secularist get so wrapped up in an emotional reaction to a word. Doesn’t make sense to me, it would be like me as a woman saying I don’t want my vote being called that because it has baggage from a time when women couldn’t vote.

Definitions change over time, the current definition is not the same as it once was in our culture. Also marriage has had many forms over just about every culture so why worry about a single form that is no longer the accepted norm?

#2 Tom Flynn on Thursday May 28, 2009 at 12:00pm

We’re dealing with more than words here. The outdated sexist aspects of matrimony continue to be defended by social conservatives as part of the essence of that “sacred institution”; fundamentalist churches still teach wives to be submissive to their husbands and so on. Another aspect of the problem is nowhere near obsolete: right now, today, matrimony continues to have dual roots in church and state. It’s a legal institution AND a religious institution, therefore unsecular. Alternatives to matrimony, especially alternatives rooted solely in the sphere of law, are very much worth pursuing.

#3 Dave DeGroote (Guest) on Thursday May 28, 2009 at 1:27pm

Both Tom and Noadi have good points.  There’s no need to get caught up with the word.  Even if civil unions someday win, I’d bet the average person will still call it marriage.  I mean if you’re going to ask someone “Will you join me in a civil union?” wouldn’t you really still say “Will you marry me?”  If not, we need a new word.  But Tom is also right that marriage has a lot of religious baggage.  Over time some of that will fade…even now no one cares that someone was married in an otherwise “wrong” church.  The problem though is the religious baggage that’s still a part of the law, and would have still been a part of civil unions.  For example, polygamy.  While it’s still politically incorrect to advocate it, it’s just as valid as any other kind of marriage.  One of the points of marriage is to gain additional rights, such as hospital visitation, for those you are close to.  There’s no secular reason to limit that to two people (the abuse claims are red-herrings since abuse can happen in any relationship).

#4 Lauren Cocilova (Guest) on Friday May 29, 2009 at 8:29am

I’m not sorry I got married, but looking back on it I do wish I could have been civil unioned instead…

#5 Rachel (Guest) on Friday May 29, 2009 at 9:59am

Thank you, Tom, for this post! It is a much needed critique of marriage from the secular humanist camp.

We have lost more than civil unions, though. We have lost our opportunity to remove the bright red dividing line between married (or coupled) and unmarried (or uncoupled) people. As Michael Warner pointed out in “The Trouble with Normal,” the LGBT movement was fighting for the recognition of other family forms, not just those based on couples. Even civil unions still uphold couples as the standard social form.

To anybody who thinks that marriage is just a word, please take a look at “Here Comes the Bride” by Jaclyn Geller who analyzes the mythology surrounding marriage and its deep religious and patriarchal history that is still influencing modern weddings (and marriages). Also the GAO counted the number of laws that provide rights, benefits, and privileges based on marital status: Over 1,130! Marriage is not just a word. It is an institution.

Another interesting approach is the one suggested by the Canadian Law Commission in their “Beyond Conjugality” report: Rather than expanding the rights marriage endows, we need to step back and ask what rights we’re trying to ensure and who we want to protect. For example, in your case, why did you have to get married to get health insurance? Health insurance should be available readily and affordable to everyone independent of civil status. We want to protect children? Well, let’s protect children no matter what civil status their parents have. Nancy Polikoff in her book “Beyond (Straight and Gay) Marriage” also gives examples of changing laws to value all families rather than moving the red line to include more couples.

(I don’t know how to “activate my membership,” so I can’t log in and post links. If you have trouble finding any of the references, please post and I can supply URLs once I figure out how to activate my membership…).

#6 RachelAB on Friday May 29, 2009 at 1:22pm

Here is the link to the GAO report, which is more difficult to find than the other things referenced in my comment above:


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