Same-Sex Marriage Is a Radical Feminist Idea

Does anyone remember yesterday, before our minds were blown away by watching (on Twitter) Roberts vote to uphold the Affordable Care Act and Kennedy join with the three billygoats to declare the whole thing unconstitutional? I’m having trouble remembering, too. But my notes here say that yesterday I wrote about David Blankenhorn’s decision to support same-sex marriage, and I critiqued (via something Richard Kim wrote at The Nation) the more progressive faction of the LGBT movement for their long-ago hopes of rerouting the marriage equality movement into a more general attempt to overhaul marriage and family law.

That post yesterday took some hits, in ways that suggested I hadn’t accurately conveyed my beliefs. In particular, Chris Geidner wrote, in a series of tweets that I’ll condense here:

Whoa: @ejgraff takes on @RichardKimNYC (& many others) in an almost stridently conservative piece: The piece, in several places, was dismissive of what was a far more even split on how to approach marriage than you treat it. It reads, in many ways, like something Sullivan would write. Which is, of course, interesting in its own right. And then, to add your dig at those w advanced degrees who want to think deeply about these issues, it was a very striking piece.

The fact that Geidner would call me conservative, much less stridently so, suggests that the post left out some key portions of my thinking. So let me try to backfill here. I first started writing about same-sex marriage (before we called it “marriage equality”!) in the mid-1990s to counter both the antigay folks and Andrew Sullivan’s high-profile contention that marriage was inherently conservative and would domesticate gay men. In fact, I’m going to post here the piece that I published in The Nation on June 25, 1996. I was younger and angrier then, so the tone is a little strident. I can no longer find this piece on their server, so I am going to quote large swaths of it here, leaving out some then-contemporary references that are no longer contemporary:

The right wing gets it: Same-sex marriage is a breathtakingly subversive idea. So it’s weirdly dissonant when gay neocons and feminist lesbians publicly insist—the former with enthusiasm, the latter with distate—that same-sex marriage would be a conservative move, confining sexual free radicals inside some legal cellblock. It’s almost as odd (although more understandable) when pro-marriage liberals ply the rhetoric of fairness and love, as if no one will notice that for thousands of years marriage has meant Boy+Girl=Babies. But same-sex marriage seems fair only if you accept a philosophy of marriage that, although it’s gained ground in the past several centuries, still strikes many as radical: the idea that marriage (and therefore sex) is justified not be reproduction but by love.

… Same-sex marriage will be a direct hit against the religious right’s goal of re-enshrining biology as destiny. Marriage is an institution that towers on our social horizon, defining how we think about one another, formalizing contact with our families, neighborhoods, employers, insurers, hospitals, governments. Allowing two people of the same sex to marry shifts that institution’s message.

…Very little about marriage is historically consistent enough to be “traditional”. That it involves two people? Then forget the patriarch Jacob, whose two wives and two concubines produced the heads of the twelve tribes. That it involves a religious blessing? Not early Christian marriages, before marriage was made a sacrament in 1215. That it is recognized by law? Forget centuries of European prole “marriages” conducted outside the law, in which no property was involved. That it’s about love, not money? So much for centuries of negotiation about medieval estates, bride-price, morning gift, and dowry... Those who tsk away such variety, insisting that everyone knows what marriage really is, miss the point. Marriage is—marriage always has been—variations on a theme. Each era’s marriage institutionalizes the sexual bond in a way that makes sense for that society, that economy, that class.

So what makes sense in ours? Or, to put it another way, what is contemporary marriage for?... Its answer has to fit our economic lives. In a GNP based on how well each of us plumbs our talents and desires in deciding what to make, buy, or sell, we can hardly instruct those same innards to shut up about our intimate lives—as people could in a pre-industrial society where job, home, and religion were all dictated by history. The right wants it both ways: Adam Smith’s economy and feudal sexual codes. If same-sex marriage becomes legal, that venerable institution will stand for sexual choice, for cutting the link between sex and diapers.

Ah, but it already does. Formally, U.S. marriage hasn’t been justified solely by reproduction since 1965, when the Supreme Court batted down the last laws forbidding birth control’s sale to married couples....

A more notable progressive shift is that… marriage law will have to become gender-blind. Once we can marry, jurists will have to decide every marriage, divorce, and custody question (theoretically, at least) for equal partners, neither having more historical authority. Our entrance might thus rock marriage more toward its egalitarian shore.

Some progressives, feminists, and queer nationalists nevertheless complain that instead of demanding access to the institution as it is, we should be dismantling marriage entirely. But lasting social change evolves within and alters society’s existing institutions…. Making lesbians and gay men more visible legally will insist that there is no traditional escape: that our society survives not by rote but by heart.

Yesterday, I was trying to accurately characterize the intellectual underpinnings of the Blankenhorn/Gallagher/Catholic Church idea that all of the above is bad. It’s worth understanding that their opposition does have logic. But here’s my larger point: They’re fighting a rearguard action. Once upon a time, as I’ve written before, marriage was a gendered labor partnership, the way families exchanged one of two ways of enabling their offspring to make a living: land or labor. If your family had property, they found another family with whom to exchange it, through you. If you belonged to the rest of us, you found a fellow worker whose savings and skills matched up with yours, and started your own farm or blacksmitherie or butcher shop. But with the rise of capitalism, work left home. Very rarely does a working couple today work together in a family business. For the most part, we explore and exploit our own skills and talents, looking for what we have that the market will buy. We do the same on the love market. Capitalism is a radical centrifuge, spinning apart the various parts of our lives and hopes—work, income, sex, intimacy, babies—into unrelated à la carte items. They needn’t match up for us to survive in this economy. Often they do not. Those mismatches can lead to a different sort of agony (see under: divorce, infertility, unemployment, et al.) But those are the challenges of our era. 

One thing I didn’t yet understand in 1996, before I had researched the social history in depth, was that between 1850 and 1970 marriage law underwent a feminist revolution. For various reasons, as industrial capitalism ascended married women had less power under Western marriage law than they had had previously. The early feminist movement changed that, knocking down all kinds of barriers to married women’s equality. The Married Women’s Property Acts were radical and hard-fought legal changes that allowed women to own what they inherited and earned. Women gained the right to have custody of their own children. They gained independent legal identities, the right to work without their husbands’ permission while married, and the right to vote. During the 1970s, second-wave feminists changed marriage laws still further, inventing the concepts of “marital rape” and “domestic violence”—in other words, giving even married women the right to say no in bed and at home without spousal punishment. The gendered requirements to “obey” and “support” one’s spouse were taken out of marriage laws across the Western world. All these were more bitterly fought than we can imagine today. But as a result, the only gender requirement left now in American marriage law is the entrance requirement—which same-sex couples are challenging.  

In other words, same-sex couples are following, not leading, the radical changes made in marriage law since 1850. (There are others, but I can’t recap my entire book here!) All those changes leave room to change the marriage equation from Boy+Girl=Babies to Girl+Girl=Love. Blankenhorn and others who are trying to turn back the clock cannot do it—even though they are correct that marriage equality further inscribes these changes into the institution’s meaning.

Is all this conservative? Was my tone unfair to the radical faction? Well, given that this diatribe is already well beyond an appropriate blog length, let me take all that up in still another post, tomorrow. Stay tuned!

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