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I'm Pro Gay Equality. Pro Marriage? Less So.

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Photographed by Tory Rust.
"No union is more profound than marriage,” wrote Justice Anthony Kennedy in his majority opinion in last week’s Supreme Court ruling, “for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice and family. In forming a marital union, two people become something greater than once they were." This passage will, as many have already noted, soon become a staple of wedding ceremonies — same-sex or otherwise. In fact, I’m sure you’ve read it already, because half your friends have already posted the quote to Facebook. Personally, I’ve had a tough time figuring out whether to click “like.” As someone who is interested in decreasing the importance of marriage as a political institution — but who is also wholeheartedly in support of equality for LGBT Americans — the marriage ruling is a little tricky.

Marriage, despite what Chief Justice John Roberts will have you believe, is not actually a “social institution that has formed the basis of human society for millennia.” It is a political institution — one that is the point of access to hundreds of federal rights and benefits in modern America. I couldn’t be happier that all gay couples can now access each other’s Social Security benefits, file their taxes jointly, adopt children, and more easily emigrate to be with each other. I just wish marriage weren’t the only path to these benefits.

Justice Kennedy is correct in calling marriage a "profound union," but it often falls far short of the “highest ideals” of love. Historically, the institution has been used as a justification for everything from excusing rape to paying women less to do the same work as men. It has more subtle effects, too: Married women do more housework than their single counterparts. These are things that rarely come up during wedding speeches.

“Personally, I'd rather see our government get out of the marriage business and instead recognize the wide range of American families according to function, not form,” writes Sally Kohn in an essay for Elle about why she won’t be marrying her partner of 11 years. Most modern families don’t resemble the traditional two-parent nuclear model on which so many of our policies are based, and unmarried adults outnumber those who are married. It’s high time that federal policies reflected these facts. Marriage is all well and good, but it should not be a fundamental way we access government resources and social privilege in our society.

Still, I’m celebrating the Supreme Court’s ruling, because even if I don’t agree with Justice Kennedy’s high-minded assessment of marriage, I want all couples to have that option. And I’m hopeful that this ruling in favor of equality means we can stop building up the institution of marriage in a political context, and focus our attention on other pressing issues that involve more radical liberation. For example, 40% of homeless youth identify as LGBT. Transgender Americans are four times more likely than the general population to live in extreme poverty, and 41% report they have attempted suicide. It’s still legal in many states for employers to discriminate on the basis of gender identity and sexual orientation. LGBT immigrants — particularly those who are transgender — face detention and abuse. Even under the Affordable Care Act, health care remains prohibitively expensive for many people. It’s tough to argue that marriage equality will meaningfully improve life for all LGBTQ Americans. As The Onion put it, “Only 47,000 Social Justice Milestones To Go Before U.S. Achieves Full Equality.”

There’s a classic conservative complaint that allowing same-sex marriage will change the institution for everyone. I still hope there’s some truth to that. While it would be laughable to suggest that every same-sex union is an egalitarian dream, I do think that longstanding and deeply ingrained sexist roles are easier to eschew when “one man and one woman” is no longer the norm. The more types of couples there are, the wider variety of examples we have of how to live in partnership. I don’t believe that marriage always makes two people greater than what they once were before deciding to walk down the aisle (or to the courthouse). But maybe — just maybe — more varied types of married couples will make the institution of marriage greater than it was before. And, in the meantime, let us get to work on those 47,000 other milestones.
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