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Same-Sex Marriage: A Queer Critique

Shouldn't we question the privileges of marriage?

It is now possible to marry your same-sex partner in the state of New York, and no doubt, this is a good thing. The freedom to marry should be available to everyone and indeed, I plan to marry my partner of 29 years once we are able to do so in our home state of New Jersey.

And of course, why not? Marriage brings rewards--and allowing same-sex couples to tie the knot makes these privileges accessible to them. Among the many benefits available to married people are coverage under a spouse's health insurance and the ability to inherit his or her Social Security benefits, pension, and personal assets without excessive taxation. Married people have virtually unlimited access to their spouses when they are hospitalized and can make healthcare decisions for each other when they are rendered incapable. Husbands and wives cannot be forced to testify against each other in court, and may pursue litigation in their wrongful deaths. In addition, there are many social benefits attached to marriage. Being married is seen as a healthy and normal, while the mental health and maturity of those who are single is suspect. (How many of us therapists look suspiciously at middle-aged and older clients who have never been married or in a long-term relationship?)

The argument for gay marriage is indeed appealing because legally recognized same-sex marriage would provide gays and lesbians a shortcut to its legal and social benefits. However, I am concerned that the fight to legalize same-sex marriage may be shortsighted. There is simply not enough critical questioning of why such privileges are bestowed on marriage, particularly on the part of progressive thinkers.

Conservatives are clear as to why marriage should be rewarded. Since the 1960's, the number of people in the U.S. who marry each year has decreased by 50% while the proportion of marriages ending in divorce has increased to 50%. The decline of marriage is a likely result of the growing financial independence of women, the increased effectiveness and acceptability of contraception, and the continued transformation of our society, which up until fairly recently emphasized obedience to authority and now prizes personal freedom, pleasure, and individual choice. Conservatives concerned about these trends, believe marriage must be privileged to make it attractive in the face of its waning importance. They assert that heterosexual marriage is healthy for men and women and provides the optimum environment for children, and is therefore worthy of reward. To bolster their arguments, conservatives selectively cite findings to argue that compared to singles, married people are better off physically and psychologically, and that children living with married rather than single or divorced parents fare better physically and emotionally--even though such conclusions do not stand up to a more comprehensive, critical review of the available research. For example, it is unclear whether marriage actually makes people better off, or that wealthier, healthier people are more likely to marry. Furthermore, for children in single and divorced families, it is difficult to untangle the effects of parental martial status from the higher rates of poverty, parental stress, and discord these families also experience.

Conservatives also argue that marriage tames and contains our sexual urges and behavior and that this taming is essential to civilized society. In order to make the limiting of one's sexuality to heterosexual marriage palatable, society must provide incentives as well as punishments for noncompliance. As a matter of fact, conservative Christianity in tandem with the federal and state government has historically sought to limit non-procreative sexuality not only outside but also within marriage. Until the legal court case Griswold v. Connecticut in 1965, the state could prevent a married couple from using birth control and some conservative Christians still condemn all (including marital) non-procreative sex. Legalizing same-sex marriage would, in effect sanction non-procreative sex, and therefore, according to conservatives, must be opposed.

Like conservatives, same-sex marriage advocates stress its potential physical and psychological benefits to gays and lesbians. However, the most repeated argument for same-sex marriage is that gays and lesbians deserve access to the same rights and privileges afforded married heterosexuals. What is troubling is that same-sex marriage advocates are silent on whether this privileging is fair or legitimate. Years ago, early gay activists challenged the restrictive sexual norms of marriage but these challenges are rarely heard today. This silence should concern all who care about social justice and personal freedom.

Questioning the Privileging of Marriage

According to queer theorists, leaders in politics, religion, and medicine maintain social control by imposing the norm of heterosexual monogamous marriage and condemning those who fail to adhere to it. Rather than preserving families or benefiting children as conservatives claim, marriage privileges are meant to reward and legitimize certain relationships and sexual behaviors while marginalizing and stigmatizing others. Limiting access to rights such as affordable health care to those who are married, while penalizing and marginalizing those who do not restrict their sexuality in this way (e.g. gays, lesbians, single persons, etc.) is a form of oppressive social control.

Are those who cannot find a partner or who choose not to limit their sexual behavior or relationships to marriage less worthy of affordable health care than those who are married? One could argue that we currently have a caste system of married people versus singles whereas unmarrieds must, for example, pay more for their own health insurance and suffer marginalization and stigma in our traditional family-oriented culture. Same sex marriage will likely perpetuate and replicate these inequities among gays and lesbians.

Don't get me wrong. Everyone who wants to marry should be able to. As I have said earlier, I shall marry my partner once I am able. However, rather than assimilating to society's narrow sexual and relationship norms by uncritically adopting the institution of marriage, gays and lesbians and others who care about social justice must recognize the unfairness of the privileges attached to it. Sexuality and relationships can be expressed in many forms and it is unjust to privilege only a small portion of them. Each of us, whether married, partnered, or single, deserves affordable health care, and should be able to leave our resources, including our Social Security benefits to whomever we choose. In addition to the right to marry, these are causes that psychologists and all other who care about social justice should support.