Monday, August 29, 2011

The Trouble With Privilege Is That Everybody Doesn't Have It

I don't remember where I first heard the title of this post, but it seems to me that someone ascribed it to Virginia Woolf. Whoever said it, I think it's right.

One day about a week ago Homo Superior posted on same-sex marriage, attacking an article by the English writer and provocateur Mark Simpson. The article, which turns out to be two years old, argues that marriage is basically a religious institution and that same-sex couples don't need it if they can get marriage-equivalent civil unions, as they can in England. This displeased HS, who argued that
there is no progressive case against gay marriage as an issue of social justice, not unless progressive politics has stopped meaning the struggle for maximum freedom and full equality. One might make radical critiques against the institution of marriage — and please do so in the privacy of your own seminars — but all social justice movements of the past have sought to change access to existing institutions, not attempted to create new ones out of air, because that’s what equality requires.
Does it? And why should "radical critiques" of marriage take place only "in the privacy of your own seminars"? (And who's "you"?) Such critiques have been around for some time, and they don't have anything to do with same-sex marriage per se. The early Christian churches weren't big on marriage or on sex of any kind, and a radical critique of marriage was advanced by nineteenth-century feminists. It should also be remembered that heterosexual marriage is rather on the skids in the US, with many heterosexuals preferring to avoid legal bonds in favor of more informal arrangements. Domestic partnerships were first registered in the US by cohabiting heterosexuals. Simpson didn't claim in his article that new institutions should be created "out of air" -- he pointed out that different sexual and domestic arrangements already exist. He also argued that most British queerfolk were satisfied with civil partnerships, which would be one of those "new institutions."

It's also false that "all social justice movements of the past have sought to change access to existing institutions", though I must thank Homo Superior for giving me such an opening. The anti-slavery movement didn't seek to change access to an existing institution, it sought to abolish it. Slavery was very old and had a religious dimension as well: in the New Testament the Christian is a slave of Christ, and abolitionists have always had difficulty finding biblical support for their position because there really isn't any. (This counts against the Bible, of course, not in favor of slavery.) "Changing access" to the institution of slavery would have entailed something like subsidies to enable the less wealthy to have slaves of their own, and eventually to allow black people to own slaves too, including white ones. That would be "equality" in exactly the sense HS is talking about, but I don't think many people would see it as desirable.

The reason a radical critique of marriage is in order is that marriage has traditionally had nothing to do with equality. First, it existed, and still exists, to privilege some couples over others. If you're married, your sexual relations are licit; if not, they are fornication or adultery. Laws against fornication largely fell by the wayside in the United States in the late twentieth century, but some states still have laws against adultery. The children of married couples are also licit, or legitimate, and the aim has always been to privilege some children over others. The stigma of illegitimacy has diminished greatly in the past few decades, but it's not totally gone yet. Many "marriage equality" advocates talk about the "rights" that follow from marriage, but they are privileges and benefits, not rights -- if they were rights, it's a violation of the principle of equality to reserve them for married couples.

The gap has narrowed somewhat in the past century, but marriage also enshrines inequality between the partners, with the wife losing much of her legal personhood when she marries. And those are just the legal disabilities. Until fairly recently, married women were less happy than unmarried women -- or married men. The change has been explained as a result of married women's increased autonomy, especially the freedom to earn their own money. But whatever the reason, women have been voting with their feet against heterosexual marriage, around the world. The real question ought to be why marriage still has so much prestige.

The legal and social disability of single people -- including unmarried couples -- compared to married ones isn't exactly a secret: "marriage equality" campaigners harp on the point constantly. But they aren't campaigning to increase access to marriage's privileges and benefits by single people -- only by same-sex couples. As IOZ asked once, "If they are, in fact, human rights, then why must you be married to acquire them?" To invoke equality in connection with an intentionally and functionally unequal institution such as marriage is dishonest.

Let's not forget divorce. Marriage makes it harder and messier for couples to separate, even when there are no children involved. It looks to me as though many couples stay together longer than they should, from a misplaced fear of being judged wanting -- selfish, lazy, immature -- because they didn't live happily ever after. I've succumbed to it myself, but I've also seen enough other people make the same mistake, at great emotional cost, that it bears stressing here.

I have a few bones to pick with Simpson, though. He begins his diatribe by objecting to religious opponents of same-sex marriage being called bigots.
It’s faintly absurd to have to even say this, but it isn’t bigoted to believe that marriage is between a man and a woman. It’s just being conventional.
We have a false antithesis here: a goodly proportion of bigotry is conventional, often obligatory. Like many people, Simpson mistakes bigotry for an individual pathology, not a social structure.

Nor is marriage a fundamentally religious institution (though see above, on the religious dimension of slavery). In un-secular societies, just about every aspect of life is sacralized, from birth to death. If marriage were basically religious, though, that would be an argument against government involvement in it -- in the United States, that is. Simpson seems to overlook the formal separation of religion and government in America, while England has a state Church. In European countries, even those with established churches, the distinction between civil marriage and religious marriage is often even more sharply drawn.

Besides, as I've pointed out before, the American separation of religion and government means that same-sex couples who want religious ceremonies can roll their own, as it were, and there's no legal barrier to their doing so; the legal barriers here are to same-sex civil marriage. The "conventional" non-bigots Simpson defended can wail and gnash their teeth, but they can't stop same-sex couples from redefining religious marriage to suit themselves.

I'd point again to Nancy Polikoff's book Beyond (Straight and Gay) Marriage (Beacon, 2008), which argues that all families should be valued, whether they involve married or quasi-married couples, or no couples at all. Children need support and protection whether their parents are married to each other nor not. American and European society were already moving in that direction until the 1980s, when a pro-marriage backlash pushed by the religious Right tried to reverse the trend. The depressing thing is that so many gay people went along with it.

A common misunderstanding of second-wave feminism and gay liberation was that, because they made radical critiques of marriage, they were therefore against any coupling or relationships at all. It's important to recognize the validity of single life (and celibacy, for that matter), and of erotic life that doesn't involve exclusive couples, but many people have formed successful long-term couples that weren't formalized in marriage. (One researcher recently pointed out that non-marital couples don't last as long as married ones; but that may be not be a bad thing -- from what I've seen, a good many couples stay together a lot longer than is good for them.) The importance of friendship, whether or not it includes erotic relations, needs a lot more attention too. What matters is enabling and encouraging people to discover and choose what they really want from their relationships, and I believe one way to move in that direction is by decentering marriage, and making it one possibility among others for people who are getting intimate with each other.