Marriage Equality, Pride, & Refusing to Be Invisible

NYC Pride as seen looking east on 5th Ave, between 12th and 13th St.

A few weekends ago, a couple friends and I went to the NYC Pride Parade.  It had been ten years since I had been to an LGBT event.  I’m not afraid of being out, nor am I suffering from internalized homophobia, but I do get exhausted by the internal politics of gay culture, and for awhile it was less uplifting and more frustrating to participate.

This year we had more than our usual annual pride.  We saw an undeniably historic SCOTUS decision.  I remember well when gay marriage was legalized in my home state of Massachusetts — I was 12 years old, had recently come out (or rather, been outed), and I ended up writing a paper for my English class on the issue.  At the time of writing said paper, I saw the issue, and the community, as fairly black and white.  Gay people and straight allies were categorically good — it was the kind of immature and dichotomous thinking that is characteristic of young teenagers (and that we see so often in Tumblr-brand slacktivism).  Later that same school year I attended my first pride parade in Northampton.  And it was one of the most depressing days of my young life.  The participants were all very homogenous: butch-adjacent lesbian couples in hiking mandals with young children.  The parade was for gay marriage and gay adoption rights.  It was — and there’s really no other word for it — conservative.

I was not the only one of my LGBT friends to leave that parade upset and confused.  Gay friends, bisexual friends, genderqueer friends, even straight friends found the march odd.  I remember one of my older gay friends at the time said of the small town political march “Pride is supposed to be about men and sex… These people look like they never have sex!”  His bias towards attention to men aside, he was essentially right.  Pride is meant to be celebratory and open, not directed at achieving one lifestyle.  The style of pride that was celebrated in my hometown had such a narrow view of the future, and it was a future I didn’t want for myself. The very community that was supposed to include me for not fitting into the traditional American nuclear family left me feeling ostracized because I failed to embrace the gay nuclear family.  I didn’t want a wife and 2.5 children.

My experience at the political rallies and family day events that took the place of pride in Northampton led me to realize that just because an idea has the loudest supporters does not mean it is the only idea or the best idea.  Even the term “marriage equality” has an awkward connotation to it: all relationships, gay and straight, are equal, as long as they include a marriage.

When the news of the SCOTUS decision hit my Facebook feed, I noticed what many LGBT people did: most of the rainbow profile photos belonged to straight allies (considering that there are far more straight people than gay people on the planet, this isn’t all that surprising).  Some were exasperated by the display of support; voicing concerns that straight allies would think marriage equality was the end all and be all of gay rights.  After watching the push for gay marriage the last ten years, I have faith in our allies and activists to keep talking about the issues that are not solved.  Homelessness and healthcare are not as glamorous as marriage, but they are ten times as important.

Along with the waterfall of rainbows in my newsfeed, there were some of my LGBT friends who were actually disappointed in the SCOTUS decision, and in many ways, I consider myself one of them.  Not because we think marriage is between a man and a woman, but because we don’t think marriage should be the only goal, and certainly not the most important one.  The national legalization of gay marriage is a big step and it is a good step.  For many, it feels like nationwide affirmation that we are not “the others” anymore.  We should celebrate and be proud, and if pride in NYC was any indication, we definitely are.  But we should keep in mind that there is not only one way to be gay.  Gay or straight, marriage isn’t what makes a family.

Marriage is a legally binding contract entered into on the basis of emotion.  If that doesn’t sound terrifying, frankly I think you’re misunderstanding the concept of marriage.  My personal feelings aside, it is extremely risky to tie yourself to someone financially, and in our culture of capitalism, a marriage is essentially a business agreement.

In a benign example, you may have one spouse who likes to use credit cards to buy expensive things on a payment plan and another who hates to be in debt and will avoid it at all costs.  Why then should one person be held to the other’s financial decisions, simply because the two are in love?  A less benign example is the abusive spouse who can manipulate the financial entanglement of marriage to force their spouse to be dependent on them, essentially trapping them in the marriage. And while many people find thinking of the “what ifs” of ending a relationship to be upsetting, it’s an undeniable possibility and should be considered.  Ending a marriage is expensive, even in an amicable split.  Ending a domestic partnership can be as simple as a trip to city hall.

Many of the benefits of marriage that advocates of gay marriage were fighting to get are benefits that should not be restricted to married couples.  These marriage incentives were created to encourage reproduction, something our planet does not need more of (but that’s for a separate post).  For example, an individual shouldn’t need to rely on a spouse to get health care – they should be able to get health care from the government if they can’t afford private health care.  And as a single adult, I pay twice as much in rent as each person in a married couple of my same economic status — why does the married couple still need a tax break if a single person is paying double the rent and receives no tax break?

On a larger scale, discrimination against unmarried couples and single people is far from unheard of, especially when it comes to the housing market.  In many states, landlords are legally allowed to refuse to rent a property to a couple based on their marital status.  It’s possible for a landlord to use other laws, such as a local law prohibiting more than three people not related by blood to live in the same house, to discriminate against an unmarried couple with children who are not legally adopted by both parents.

There is also the cultural and social aspect to being in an unmarried couple.  Older family members may take your relationship less seriously than your married cousins.  Without a bridal shower or wedding registry, no one sends gifts, and you have to buy all the expensive home goods usually gifted on your own.  I can see how this would be read as petty, but it isn’t really about the material things — for years gay rights activists fought to have gay relationships seen as just as legitimate as straight relationships.  And they came to the conclusion that the only way to be taken seriously was to get married.  What does that say to those of us who do not want to be legally married?  That our relationships are not as legitimate or as serious?

I am not anti-marriage, I think it’s a wonderful commitment to make to another person if you choose to, but I do not believe a person should be punished for not wanting to or not being able to marry, and I do not think a person should have to make a financial commitment tangled with an emotional commitment.  Being married does not make a person morally superior to a lifelong single adult or two adults in a domestic partnership or long-term relationships not legally defined.  No one should feel less than because they are not interested in traditional marriage.

I encourage everyone who is excited about the SCOTUS decision to celebrate, and everyone who is troubled by it to keep talking about why.  The more we talk about why marriage is not for us, the more domestic partnerships will cease to be looked down on and unmarried couples will not be seen as “the others” as all gay couples once were.  As Lea DeLaria (Boo on Orange is the New Black, Lord of the Lesbians, butch icon, etc.) is so fond of saying: Refuse to be invisible.

For more on housing discrimination towards unmarried couples, see: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5.

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