[Bella’s intro: Welcome to the latest edition of the occasional series on single-minded change agents. To the readers of this blog, the wonderful women of Onely.org, Christina Campbell and Lisa A, need no introduction. You already know them from their witty and oh-so-insightful Onely blog, their terrific contributions to the Singlism book, their awesome Atlantic article on the high price of single life, and more. Thanks, Christina and Lisa, for sharing your stories and your insights.]
1. Question: Let’s start with the personal. Is there something that happened in your life, or in someone else’s, that really brought home to you the need for change? I’m talking about change on any level – the way we think about people who are single in everyday life; the place of singles in the workplace, in the law or in public policy; or anything else that seems relevant. Do you have a story you can tell about this?
Lisa and Christina: Yes. It happened during what began as normal phone conversation between the two of us: about men, meals, and money.
Lisa: . . . So I told him I don't want kids, and he said I was selfish 'cause I didn't want kids, and that was the end of our second date. At least I got some free pizza.
Christina: Well, my pizza today was not free. I paid yet another five dollars for yet another baby shower in our office. Every month if it's not the woman in row A, it's the wife of the guy in row C (even though we had a shower for him last year too). You know, I'm not exactly swimming in five dollar bills here.
Lisa: And you hate pizza.
Christina: (Sigh) Yeah. I wish someone would give me a shower. We would all pass around slices of Reeses Peanut Butter Cups. (Bigger sigh) Like that'll ever happen.
Lisa: Your office sounds very heteronormative.
And that's when Christina learned from Lisa about how prevailing cultures "normalize" certain lifestyles, such as man-woman relationships, inherently marginalizing other lifestyles, in this case especially gay relationships. And that's when Lisa realized that the concept of heteronormativity could also be applied to the single-married dynamic, where singles are seen as "other" or less important. (We have since also adopted the term "amatonormative" to represent this same situation.) After further research, we realized that there was little to no media or literature speaking up for the rights of singles, especially those who choose to remain unmarried.
Lisa: You know, we can’t be the only single people who get angry at this kind of s***!
Christina: I don't know, maybe we are. I mean, we only just realized this problem just now, and we're in our thirties!
Lisa: We're also both writers. We should start a blog.
And that’s the beginning of the Onely story.
2. Question: Is there one particular issue or goal that is especially important to you as you try to create social change?
Christina and Lisa: Onely's goal is to educate, dialogue with, or at least laugh at people who insist that the sexual-couple-unit is preferable to being single (or poly).
Although we focus on all the different dimensions of discrimination against single people (social, cultural, financial, political, institutional, etc.), we’ve been particularly focused on the legal aspects of this discrimination. Specifically, we focus on marital-status discrimination, which we term Marital Privilege. We hope to draw attention to the thousands of laws and policies that have been institutionalized into (U.S.) governments and companies, which almost always favor married people--thereby discriminating against more than fifty percent of the population.
We are astounded that the legal dimension of this has been virtually ignored in mainstream media, at least until recently, when our article “The High Price of Being Single” was published in The Atlantic online. Although we were honored to be published in this venue and flattered by the positive feedback we received, we are both convinced that our voices alone are not enough to start shifting the reality of the legal discrimination that singles face in their daily lives.
More people need to talk about it.
3. Question: In your experience of trying to persuade skeptics of the importance of fair treatment for singles, or accurate perceptions of them, is there any particular example or line of reasoning that seems to be especially effective?
Christina and Lisa: No single line of reasoning has proven to be particularly effective, because different lines of reasoning work on different people depending on what’s at stake for the individual. Sometimes simply pointing out that your interlocutor has many other important people in their life besides a spouse will make your point. At other times, you might as well be talking to a brick wall. What we’ve found is that many people just need time to process the fact that singles are treated unfairly--you can see their foreheads wrinkling and their eyes widening as they try to make sense of the problem. What we’re asking for is a paradigm shift, and we recognize that making this kind of a shift requires a great deal of mental effort, one that not everyone is prepared for or open to.
As Bella has previously stated, when all else fails, maybe the most, hm, memorable approach is the commonly used "reversal" technique, which is used when singles are treated unfairly in social (as opposed to legal) situations. For example:
Amatanormative Person: Don't worry, you'll find someone some day.
Answer: Don't worry, you'll get divorced some day.
Or sometimes you can try humor:
Amatanormative Person: Why aren't you married?
Answer: Because a spouse would interfere with my plans for world domination.
4. Question: One difficulty I’ve often encountered is the misperception that if you have a positive message about singles or single life, that necessarily means that you are putting down marriage or traditional family life. Have you run into that, and if so, how have you dealt with it?
Christina and Lisa: People who have worked hard to arrive at a place in their lives--whether a hetero couple who has worked hard to keep together, or especially a gay couple who has advocated hard for marriage equality--may be (understandably) nervous that their hard work might be undermined, at any point, from any angle. So when they hear the word "marriage" their ears perk up, and when they hear the words "abolish" and "privilege" in conjunction with "marriage", this feels like a threat. They first hear these words in sound-byte form, then assemble them into "assault on marriage." Our brains are programmed--from long and repeated exposure--to hear those words assemble in that way. Our brains are not programmed to hear those words as what they are--an assault not on marriage, but on marital privilege and marital status discrimination.
In effect, because of this pre-programming, almost every time we at Onely explain our stance, we have to say it twice: First that say we are against marital status discrimination, then immediately we follow it with the caveat, "Now, this doesn't mean we're against marriage, gay or hetero, but rather. . . [then we restate the fact that we are against marital status discrimination]".
At that point, most people "get it", and we see a light come on in their eyes--especially if they are unmarried, or socially single. However, some of Onely's biggest supporters are married people who are particularly progressive thinkers).
5. Question: So much of the cultural and political discussion around marital status is about people who are officially married compared to couples who are unmarried – whether same-sex or not. I know that many uncoupled singles feel left out of that conversation, and they find that inappropriate. Is that a tension you’ve faced? What are your thoughts on creating change on behalf of all legally single people, regardless of whether or not they are socially coupled?
Christina and Lisa: One important step is for unmarried couples to start referring to themselves as Single. Or rather, Legally Single. For instance: Person X asks Person Y, "Are you single?" Person Y says "Yes. I am legally single. But I do have a boyfriend/girlfriend." The more we draw attention to the difference between legally and socially single, the more people will question why legality has to play into the discussion of relationships--and perhaps come to see that, in fact, it doesn't.
Onely's audience tends to consist primarily of socially single people. I think social singles are more likely to be involved in marital privilege discussions, because they--more than coupled singles (especially hetero couples)—are constantly bombarded by reminders of their relationship status – by their friends and family, by their doctors, by social media (Facebook in particular stands out), by mainstream media more generally, by politicians (who love to glorify “families” in their rhetoric), and even by the IRS.
The limited rights of gay couples have been in the spotlight recently, and it appears that they are making great strides in achieving marital equality. While we support gay rights advocates in their efforts to ensure that anyone who wants to marry should have the right to do so, we believe that the most of the arguments made in favor of marriage equality actually ignore the underlying problem of marital-status discrimination. Unfortunately, achieving the right to marry does not ensure equality among all. Single people of all sexual orientations will continue to endure legal discrimination based on their marital status alone.
6. Question: Can you describe an especially positive or memorable experience you’ve had in your role as a single-minded change agent? It doesn’t have to be a big thing – it could be something small but especially meaningful or poignant.
Christina and Lisa: We’ve had many positive and memorable experiences since starting Onely. We're thrilled whenever someone writes to us and says our blog has made a difference in their lives, or even if they just say it makes them laugh and think. People from around the world have contacted us to say that we've helped them appreciate their single status--whether they plan to be single forever, or are enjoying single life in the now, or are single and seeking.
7. Question: Over time, thousands of people will read this interview, and many of them care deeply about the topic of living single. I want to offer you the opportunity now to say whatever you’d like to them. It could be a story, an observation, a piece of advice, or anything else at all.
Christina and Lisa: Read Onely.org! We are looking for a more diverse crowd of readers who are affected by amatonormativity or heteronormativity.
We want to hear more from single moms, single dads, gay couples, married couples, polyamorous people, asexual people, and anyone else who is affected by marital status discrimination. Which would be everyone.
[Bella again: Other single-minded change agents who have been highlighted in this series include Thomas F. Coleman, Nicky Grist, and Rachel Buddeberg. I also took a turn answering the questions. Are there other single-minded change agents you would like to hear from? Just let me know. Self-nominations are welcome, too.]