What We’ll Lose When Gay Marriage Wins

May 28, 2009

The setback at California’s Supreme Court is only a bump in the road. When same-sex marriage becomes legal in Iowa , you know the train has left the station. Inside a year, two at most, I predict that same-sex marriage will be legal nationwide. That’s a change that seemed unthinkable a decade ago. But it’s not an umixed blessing. Here’s one secular humanist whose celebration of the gay-marriage victory will be tempered by a recognition of what we lost along the way.

Consider the scenario most social-change advocates probably expected, say, ten years ago. Inside and outside of the GLBT community, circa 1999 most activists would have predicted that someday, maybe 25 years in the future, GLBT activists would finally succeed in getting some kind of civil union firmly recognized in the law. Same-sex marriage? When pigs fly! No, the old plan was to establish a new, alternative institution for recognizing committed relationships. Legally robust civil unions would one day provide the benefits opposite-sex couples realized through matrimony: community property, clear custody of children, the right to inherit, access in hospital, access to health insurance, and so on.

There were pluses and minuses to this approach. On the minus side, civil unions would never be marriages, not quite: same-sex couples would always have to settle for “second class marriages.” On the plus side—well, civil unions would never be marriages, not quite. Consider that matrimony is a hybrid social institution, rooted partly in the law and partly in the churches. Consider its unsavory baggage: not that long ago, matrimony essentially amounted to the bride’s father transferring property rights in his daughter to the groom. It locked women into relationships where they couldn’t own property, couldn’t vote, where they essentially existed only as legal shadows of their husbands. Yes, those days are gone. But the institution of matrimony still carries that taint on its record. Civil union, a wholly new institution, would not. Further, as a new creation of the law civil union would be utterly secular, free of any historical attachment to the churches.

For all these reasons, some social-change activists, even straight ones, wanted nothing to do with traditional matrimony. We were waiting hungrily for the day when same-sex civil unions became legal … so we could sue to have the same privilege extended to opposite-sex couples.

Today, that’s the scenario that will come about when pigs fly. Six years ago or so, the GLBT community realized that gay marriage might be an attainable goal and quickly abandoned its old strategy of seeking to create robust civil unions. Now it’s on the cusp of victory, an attainment that should not be underestimated. But let’s never lose sight of what was lost along the way. Around the turn of the 21st century, the GLBT movement—arguably the most-powerful, best-organized, best-funded social change movement in America—stopped being an opponent of traditional matrimony. Instead of applying its impressive muscle to creating an alternative to this hoary, unsecular, historically sexist tradition, the GLBT movement opted to support the status quo. If the definition of marriage could just be expanded to include same-sex couples, the GLBT community would stop seeking to overturn matrimony’s monopoly on the legal recognition of committed relationships.

Because of that, there’s essentially zero chance that those of us who find traditional matrimony repellent will gain a genuine alternative in our lifetimes. The GLBT movement was the only constituency with the power to force that sort of reform, and it’s been effectively co-opted into supporting, thus perpetuating, the troubling monopoly of matrimony.

Oh well, it was too late for me anyway. Several years ago my live-in lifepartner and I gave up and tied the knot—in order to get access to family-plan health insurance. I’m happy to report that that ol’ debbil matrimony has not ruined a wonderful relationship. But damn, I wish we could have been among the first plaintiffs to sue for civil unions for straight couples.

(FYI, I wrote an op-ed along similar lines in FI, Dec. 2003-Jan. 2004: https://www.secularhumanism.org/library/fi/flynn_24_1.htm