Love, Inc

The intersections of emotion and capitalism.

What if Gay (& Straight) Marriage Is Bad For Most Americans?

Marriage rights won't help most Americans because most Americans are single.

 Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you know the Supreme Court is considering whether gay and lesbian couples should have the same federal marriage rights afforded to straight couples. The media coverage has been staggering. The gay marriage story has eclipsed other important stories about the legality of New York’s Stop and Frisk policy or the possible quarantining of persons with HIV/AIDS in Kansas. Unlike the media, however, I just don’t believe that federal recognition of same sex marriage is that important an issue.

Saying this aloud feels dangerous. My Facebook page, awash in red equal signs, is group think in iconic form. In fact, about ten percent of my 660 Facebook friends have the red equal sign or some version thereof as their profile image and most of these friends are straight. Friends post about how this is the "most important civil rights issue of our time." I want to be moved by this huge show of solidarity, and in a way I am, but I am also scared of the absolute and unquestioned faith that marriage is good and thus deserving of special rights. I am also puzzled by the gay marriage movement's refusal to advocate for legislation to support all American families, not just married ones.

Several of my straight friends have chastised me for expressing doubts that federal recognition of same-sex marriage is a necessary goal for anyone who wants a better and more just world. As a lesbian mother for seventeen years now, I find this "straightsplaining" (like mansplaining, but when straight friends explain homophobia and civil rights to their queer friends) both sweet and sickening. Sweet because I am glad all my straight friends care so much about my family’s civil rights that they are really fired up about the Defense of Marriage Act. But sickening because in their hurry to extend marriage rights to gays and lesbians, they seem to forget that I am- like the majority of Americans- unmarried.

Of course I want gay and lesbian couples to get the exact same rights as straight couples. As Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said yesterday, heterosexual couples have

 “The full marriage, and then (gays have) this sort of skim-milk marriage.”

I just don't want any of my civil rights to depend on my marital status. My fear is that by allowing married Americans to have the "whole milk" of benefits, single Americans, who are the majority, will be permanently reduced to "skim milk." Worse, singles’ skim milk rights will be justified since marriage will continue to be upheld as "better for the children" and "better for the country," whether it's straight or gay. And single parents, whether straight or gay, will be seen as less deserving of federal rights and privileges. By focusing on getting the 1400 or so federal rights that married people get, the gay and lesbian marriage movement has left behind the majority of Americans, gay and straight. The majority of children born to women under 30 years old are born to unmarried parents. Race and income also play a role when it comes to marriage. If you’re white and better off, you are much more likely to be married and stay that way.

So what about us single Americans? Do we get our own civil rights movement? If the married gays and lesbians get their full citizenship status, will they then help to redeploy all that money and political energy into making sure single Americans get the same rights as they enjoy? Will singles soon have the ability to give someone health insurance without being taxed, the ability to pass on benefits or property at death, the ability to be "legitimate" in the eyes of the law and the culture? Or will married gays and lesbians join married heterosexuals in insisting that their lifestyle is the only good one and all of us living an "alternative" lifestyle as singles do not deserve the same rights?

I get the excitement among my equal-sign posting friends: we might be on the cusp of a seismic shift in our legal and cultural landscape. That landscape has always privileged straight over gay. Very soon we might live in a world where married couples, straight or gay, are legally “whole” Americans and those of us who are unmarried will be the watered down, second-class citizens. If so that new landscape will certainly be different, but not necessarily good for most Americans, myself included.

Laurie Essig, Ph.D., is a professor of sociology and women and gender studies at Middlebury College.

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