Taking a mental breather this week, so blogging might be patchy. But I couldn’t let this discussion slide. Anna at Jezebel is concerned that straight people demanding recognition for their domestic partnerships, complete with the benefits that unmarried gay couples registered as domestic partners get, is somehow a problem because of straight privilege. This line of thinking shows the limits of using “calling out privilege” as a substitute for demanding justice and radical change. This is no small thing; for a long time, many gay rights activists have expressed the concern that focusing on marriage rights would distract from the larger struggle to not privilege one family type over another in terms of rights—basically, that focusing on allowing gay people to marry would distract from things like the health care needs of the unmarried, and reinforce the incorrect belief that married people are superior to unmarried people. And some of us, like myself, have argued that the struggle for equal marriage rights is a step towards the ultimate goal of de-privileging the married over everyone else. Ironically, an example I’ve always used in this argument is domestic partner benefits for straight people—that the fact that they are a result of the struggle for equal marriage rights, and that they undermine the privileging of the married over everyone else (gay or straight), proves that the struggle for same sex marriage is ultimately going to serve the radical goal of equality for all.
When you apply the concepts of equality for all and enthusiastic consent to the question of whether or not domestic partnerships should be available to straight people, and not exist strictly as a half-measure for gay couples that don’t have the right to marry, then the answer is, “Of course”. Add to that the principle that whatever the people at the Family Research Council wants is almost surely wrong, and of course, that’s the case here.
And Peter Sprigg of the conservative Family Research Council says the unmarried straight couples’ argument “illustrates one of our concerns — that once you open the door to anyone other than married couples, you’re beginning a process of the deconstruction of marriage.”
This exposes how openly conservatives believe that “traditional marriage” is and, more importantly, should be a coercive institution. This sews it up for me. It’s immoral to use basic rights like health care and the right to define your own family as a tool to coerce people into marriage. I agree that it’s icky that this comes up because some straight couples are suing for discrimination because they’re being shut out of a right that gay couples have, but we should remember that this is merely a legal argument and the assault is not on the rights of gay couples, but on the privilege of the married over everyone else. Which is why I thought this “yes, but” from Anna was inadequate:
That said, given the prohibitions against gay marriage in this country, it’s hard to view the lack of benefits for straight domestic partners as the primary discrimination here.
The problem with Oppression Olympics kind of arguments is that they can always be employed. You could just as easily—and some people have done this—argue that gay rights are secondary to [the Iraq War, the economy, the labor movement, racism], and that we should therefore put that battle off to another day. Feminism has always been attacked from this angle. The irony of this is that only by fighting multiple oppressions can we even get close to achieving the main goals. De-privileging marriage will only benefit gay couples who want to marry. More importantly, gay people in general will be served by de-privileging marriage, because it’s tied up with de-privileging straightness. Also, not all gay people want to get married any more than all straight people want to get married.
Anna is on board with the goal of de-privileging marriage, but surprisingly, some Jezebel commenters agreed with Peter Sprigg that marriage benefits are a reward that should be reserved for those who comply with a coercive institution. Like, oh, the first commenter out of the gate.
What I do say is that marriage is a privileged state in part because it implies a legal permanent commitment that is enforceable and that has long term benefits for both individuals and the state, and can be chosen or not to be entered into freely – thereby conferring obligations on each spouse as well as privileges.
While she claims she’s not saying married people are superior, her argument is shot through with that assumption, commonly made more by conservatives, that the unmarried are less committed because we are less interested in the idea of having outside forces hold us in the relationship should we choose to leave. No matter how fancy you make it, this is the argument that unmarried couples want to have their cake and eat it, too. Which implies, in turn, that living unmarried is “cake”. Which undermines the pro-marriage arguments you hear when people’s backs aren’t up against the wall, or they aren’t begrudging unmarried people basic rights to things like health care and hospital visits. We’re otherwise told to marry is a choice made for pleasure, for love, for good, wholesome reasons. But when the whiff of coercion enters the room—when rights to health care are held over your head, for instance—then it’s hard not to ask, “If marriage is so great, how come you’re trying to force me into it?”