In this guest post, Dr. Betsy Lucal reflects on the recent legalization of same-sex marriage in the United States. Dr. Betsy Lucal teaches sociology and women’s and gender studies at Indiana University South Bend.
It was my turn to sleep in on June 26, so I awoke to the news that SCOTUS had decided that same-sex marriage is a right. My initial reaction? I said, “Oh, fuck.” Probably not what most people would have expected to hear from me, since I’m well known as an advocate for equality and fairness.
But my concern is that the freedom to marry–the right to be allowed legally to marry–is quickly going to become a requirement to marry in order to secure other rights. I worry that this ruling has inserted the state into my relationship in ways that I cannot resist unless I’m also willing to forego other rights and protections that will now be completely limited to married partners. I’m afraid that this ruling—which indeed reflects the extension of the rights, privileges, and protections of marriage to same-sex couples—will further strengthen the perception and reality that only relationships that bear the stamp of legal marriage should be recognized and respected. I’m afraid that my partner and I will be required to marry in order to secure her access to health insurance through our employer (she works there part time; I work full time, so only my job includes health-insurance benefits). I’m afraid that this ruling will make marriage the only way for us to take care of each other in all the ways we wish to, the only way to secure the life and family we have built together.
When I filed paperwork with my employer to add my partner, Alison, to my health insurance, I completed a form that included my affirmation that I would marry her legally if I could. In other words, she could become my domestic partner as long as same-sex marriage remained illegal in our state. The university does not extend benefits to unmarried other-sex partners. And the implication was that, should marriage law change, that would still be the case; and only married partners, straight or queer, would be able to access benefits. Honestly, when I completed that form, I had no inkling that, within a year, same-sex marriage would become a reality in my very red state and, just one year after that, in the United States as a whole. We jokingly said that we’d only marry each other if we had to. In fact, we promised not to marry each other unless we had to.
As the marriage equality movement picked up speed, though, we started to talk more seriously about the implications of a potential–soon, likely–national ruling for our relationship. We agreed that we would only get married if we had to. We would only marry, in other words, if the state (and, by extension, the university) forced our hand.
You may wonder why a committed, loving couple would resist marriage. You may wonder why my reaction to this ruling was not to cheer and celebrate but to feel annoyed and irritated.
Here’s why: As of June 26, the only available path to the recognition of the commitment, seriousness, and mutual support involved in our relationship is through marriage. The only way to garner recognition for our partnership and our family now is by marrying each other.
Yet, for the last five years, I have supported her and our children emotionally, socially, financially, and in every other way. I have become a parent and accepted all of the responsibilities that accompany that status without having any of the rights that usually come along with it. All because we are not married. I cannot sign permission slips or grade cards; I cannot seek medical attention for my children and have no legally recognized right to participate in any decision involving their welfare. And this is true despite the fact that I have accepted all of these responsibilities for the past five years. That is, for the last five years, I have shared a home and a life with these three people without any legal protection for the life we’ve made together.
Please understand what I’m saying here. I am not suggesting that marriage rights should not have been extended to same-sex couples. I understand the symbolism, the feeling among many queer people that this, and perhaps only this, right could affirm their humanness. And I am certainly not asking to go back to the dark days of same-sex partners not being able to stand by each other’s side in medical emergencies, of same-sex partners losing the homes they had built together when their partners died because the house was only in the dead partner’s name, of pretending the love of your life was “just a good friend” and “de-gaying” your living space before suspicious relatives visited. I’m not calling for that. For those couples who, after months or years or decades together, long to marry, I will not stand in their way. I understand the desire to affirm your relationship this way, to make it public with this ritual.
What I am calling for is attention to the fact that marriage is an exclusionary, discriminatory institution. And this ruling doesn’t change that. It doesn’t change the history of marriage and it doesn’t change marriage’s present or future. It simply expands the possibility that now the meaningful distinction in our society will be between people who are married and people who aren’t, with the unmarried continuing to experience prejudice and discrimination. Will we now look skeptically at partners who choose not to marry when they legally could? If the history of treatment of unmarried heterosexual partners is any guide, then that’s exactly what we can expect to happen.
In other words, this ruling expands the possibility that partners who choose not to marry, who choose not to accept the legal strictures that marriage brings, will face prejudice and discrimination. This ruling does not, for example, allow individuals in multi-partner relationships to legalize all of their bonds and access the rights and privileges associated with marriage. It does not remove policies that penalize poor people with children for marrying by decreasing or ending their public assistance once a marriage is in place. (After all, the solution to women’s and children’s impoverishment is marriage, right?) If anything, this ruling places more pressure on partners to hew to the requirements associated with legal marriage to have the seriousness and dignity of their relationships recognized.
That is, unless I’m willing to enter into a marriage—which is one, but only one, way to organize a relationship—my family still will not be recognized by the state and others as worthy of protection, rights and privileges. Why is that? Why are we so convinced that only relationships organized this way are legitimate and worthy? Why is it that my partner must marry someone in order to access affordable, quality health care? Why is it that I must be married to their mother to legally parent the children I accepted as my own years ago?
June 26 was, indeed, a historic day for our country. Had you told me even five years ago that same-sex marriage would so quickly become the law of the land, I would have responded with incredulity and skepticism. But my fear is that, in the exuberance of that celebration, we have lost sight of the limitations of marriage.
Marriage, like any other contract, is supposed to be entered into freely, voluntarily. On June 26, SCOTUS took that possibility away from me and everyone else who shares my perspective on this flawed and limiting institution. Unfortunately, the freedom to marry also signals the tyranny of marriage.