Sunday, April 07, 2013

Marriage and beyond

My colleague at Tenured Radical (we do gather some fantastic people at The New School!) has provided an excellent resumé of the social justice case against marriage, a case which has been largely drowned out by the unexpected and not unwelcome prospect of wedding bells for all. 

This talk of happier children (who become crucial if you believe that marriage is designed almost exclusively for reproduction) deliberately diverts us from the queer case against marriage, a civil rights strategy that has implications for children but posits that there are far greater stakes to the marriage debate than the psychological well-being of children or adults. The argument goes like this: marriage narrows, rather than expands, the framework within which social justice and economic rights can be delivered. Why does it do this? Because marriage then becomes the normative condition for delivering social justice, it further marginalizes alternative forms of kinship and mutuality, and it confines the delivery of economic/social rights to those in state-sanctioned unions.

In other words, rights are something you get by agreeing to the social contract of two-adult family units that are recognized by the law. Hence, activisms that make marriage central to equality (the euphemistic phrase “marriage equality” has subsumed the phrase “gay marriage” in common parlance just as abortion rights are now “the right to choose”) obscure many other ideas of what equality might look like. They flatten differences that queer people and radicals have cherished over the years: households, kin and economic networks that celebrate many different kinds of connection. Finally, they makes a lack of access to rights into a “bad choice” rather than an effect of unequal access to economic resources.

People are made for relationship, I do believe, and social recognition of those relationships is important in many ways. Growing up without the hope that your relationships could be recognized - could be worthy of recognition - is, as Jonathan Rauch recalled in a debate rebroadcast on this morning's "On Being," a pain and sadness people on the inside of social favor can hardly imagine. (It took James Baldwin's Giovanni's Room to make that point to me, the only book I've ever stayed up all night to read.) But what Tenured Radical calls "America's romance with romance" narrows our appreciation of relationships, putting all eggs in one basket. To kinship and mutuality add friendships too, in all their forms. Do they also need or deserve social recognition or even promotion? Perhaps. For the children, for all of us.

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