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Altar ego
Why some queer political activists are raising questions about the limits and long-term worth of same-sex marriage

IT LOOKS LIKE same-sex marriage is here to stay. It’s even beginning to look downright patriotic. Last weekend, on the Fourth of July, Cambridge saw one of its most prominent lesbian couples marry at Memorial Church in Harvard Yard. Professor Diana Eck, of Harvard Divinity School, and her partner, the Reverend Dorothy Austin, who ministers at the famed church, wed amid a crowd of well-wishers that included Supreme Judicial Court chief justice Margaret Marshall. And not only did the brides purposely choose Independence Day for their nuptials, the ceremony’s final hymn was "America" ("My Country ’Tis of Thee"). Take that, George W. Bush and Mitt Romney.

But even though winning Goodridge v. Department of Public Health — and defeating various challenges to it so far — has redeemed the American Way of Life for many gay men and lesbians, some queer political activists are raising questions about the limits and long-term worth of same-sex marriage. It’s not that these activists don’t believe that same-sex couples should have the same rights as heterosexual couples. Rather, the vital questions they pose are, "What might we lose, and who might be harmed by same-sex marriage?"

Such questions stem from a longstanding division among queer activists dating back to the ’60s. One side has stood firmly for gaining equal rights, while the other, "liberationist" side has celebrated a politics of difference, arguing that gay culture has its own ethos from which straight people could learn a thing or two about justice and love. Not surprisingly, this debate has resurfaced in what many in the gay community are calling "the great divide" over the fight for same-sex marriage.

What’s interesting this time around, however, is that alongside the well-worn plea for gay cultural liberation is emerging a critique of gay marriage based on class rather than culture. Indeed, the push to legalize same-sex marriage has been so rushed and emotionally heady — no one, not even the litigators who fought so hard for it, thought we’d win anytime soon — that complicated legal issues with particular implications for the working poor and people of color were quite simply ignored. Couple that with the desire among many gay and lesbian people to be "normal," and the result has been that a lot of thinking has taken place inside the box — and a very small box, at that.

WHAT’S NOW called the great divide over same-sex marriage was anticipated by lesbian legal theorist and activist Paula Ettelbrick in her fall 1989 article "Since When Is Marriage a Path to Liberation?", published in Out/Look: National Gay and Lesbian Quarterly, when she wrote that "marriage defines certain relationships as more valid than all others." These days, a running joke among gay men and lesbians is that, with marriage as an option, parents are hounding them to the altar just as avidly as they do their heterosexual siblings. Ettelbrick went on to say that the creation of this new, "more valid" relationship for gay people "runs contrary to [one of] the primary goals of the gay and lesbian movement: ... the validation of many forms of relationships." In the absence of legal civil marriage, lesbians and gay men gleefully invented their own panoply of romantic and household configurations that worked — at least as well, if not better in many instances, than the traditional mom and dad and kids at home.

But more-recent critics of same-sex marriage are not simply worried that the antic good old days of lesbian communes and gay-male extended families of fuck buddies (which, of course, still exist) will become endangered. In a cogent and important article, "Speak Now: Progressive Considerations on the Advent of Civil Marriage for Same-Sex Couples," just published in the Boston College Law Review, lawyers Kara S. Suffredini and Madeleine V. Findley argue persuasively that while same-sex marriage will provide advantages to some people — those with incomes that are middle class or higher — it could have deleterious effects on other groups. Suffredini and Findley examine a myriad of commonly accepted myths about the benefits of same-sex marriage and discover that, often, they deliver far less than they promise, especially if you are poor.

The most obvious example, perhaps, concerns health care. One of the most compelling arguments same-sex-marriage advocates make is that civil marriage will give partners, and any children involved, access to one partner’s health insurance. Yet as Suffredini and Findley point out, this is true only if one partner has health-care benefits — and most people working low-paying, hourly jobs do not.

But there are more overt economic drawbacks to being poor and getting married, the authors argue, which gay men and lesbians from the lower classes will have to suffer if they wed. For example, the aptly named "marriage penalty," which kicks in when a married couple who both work and earn similar incomes end up paying more in taxes than if they were single, tends to affect same-sex couples more egregiously than different-sex couples. That’s because the tax laws assume the traditional arrangement in which one spouse (usually the husband) will be the primary wage earner and that the ancillary wage earner will make considerably less. In that case, a married couple’s joint tax rate equals out; but when incomes are comparable, as is more often the case with gay and lesbian couples, they end up paying more taxes. The same is true of African-American couples, according to Washington and Lee University School of Law professor Dorothy Brown, who argues that they are doubly affected since the "marriage penalty" is harshest on all lower-income families and affects white middle-class and upper-class households the least.

A more draconian "marriage penalty" — and one that affects women on the lowest level of the economic scale — results from the Bush administration’s so-called welfare-reform policy, designed to discourage out-of-wedlock births. According to Suffredini and Findley, the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) program "promotes a ‘family cap’ policy to discourage women from having additional children while receiving welfare assistance. The family cap policy denies welfare benefits to children born to unmarried welfare recipients or heightens work requirements to mothers who exceed the family cap." All of this is intended to induce — or coerce — poor women to get married. But for many low-income households, getting hitched may also mean losing the earned-income tax credit that many single mothers depend on, thus putting them in an even more vulnerable economic position. So the idea that marriage helps solve the economic problems of poor women — heterosexual or lesbian — is simply myth.

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Issue Date: July 16 - 22, 2004
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