Marriage Equality: How to Achieve It?

—Melanie Heath

Quelle surprise! On June 22, 2012, David Blankenhorn, the founder of the Institute of American Values, came out in favor of marriage for lesbian and gay couples. Blankenhorn became a national figure as an expert witness in Perry v. Schwarzenegger on the side of proponents for California’s Proposition 8, a constitutional amendment passed in the November 2008 state election that defined marriage as between a man and a woman. His testimony was based on arguments concerning same-sex marriage that he made in his 2007 book, The Future of Marriage—and they run as follows: the “natural” family consists of a male and a female whose sex act makes the child; the natural couple makes a commitment to one another to raise the child together; and, the sexual bond with the female transforms the male from inseminator to father. Blankenhorn asserts in his recent New York Times op-ed that marriage for the natural (heterosexual) family is fundamentally different than for lesbians and gay men: “Marriage is the planet’s only institution whose core purpose is to unite the biological, social and legal components of parenthood into one lasting bond.”

Blankenhorn’s step, then, to come out on “how my view of gay marriage has changed” is momentous in the fight for marriage equality. In his op-ed, he explains his belief that the time for denigrating or stigmatizing same-sex relationships is over. “Whatever your definition of marriage, legally recognizing gay and lesbian couples and their children is a victory for basic fairness.” Interestingly, Blankenhorn himself does not use the term “marriage equality,” although his reference to basic fairness captures its essence: the fundamental civil right to choose one’s partner in marriage is a powerful symbol of full equality and citizenship.

But how do we achieve marriage equality? Basically, we must recognize that the “natural” family is no longer the sole or predominant family form in the United States. The logic that follows, in my view, is the need to think beyond a focus on the right to choose one’s partner—whether of the same or different gender— in marriage. Another factor often left out of the debate is the tendency in the United States to treat marriage as the only form of family worthy of merit, making it legally and economically privileged above all others. In fact, the idea that marriage is the superlative institution for family life and raising children is what motivated Blankenhorn to found the Institute for American Values with its focus on stemming the “breakdown” of American families and its advocacy of what are broadly known as “marriage promotion” policies.

In my book, One Marriage Under God, I outline the social consequences of marriage promotion and its effects on social inequality. Marriage promotion is a major current in contemporary public policy aimed at the reduction of poverty, using anti-poverty funds for programs and activities to strengthen and promote marriage (heterosexuality is implicit). These policies started with the 1996 passage of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, or welfare reform, which designated promoting marriage as an allowable activity and use of a state’s welfare block grant. Since then, federal laws and funding programs have incorporated activities to promote “healthy marriage initiatives” across the nation.

How do these policies relate to marriage equality? Blankenhorn and other proponents of marriage promotion might argue that these policies will help the impoverished who have historically low rates of marriage and marriage success to build stronger families by giving them the tools to help them get and stay married. This would be a commendable goal if it not were for the fact that these initiatives and policies tend to actually create more inequality rather than reduce it.

My book, based on ethnographic research conducted on the marriage initiative in Oklahoma—a pioneer of marriage promotion policies funded by the state’s welfare grant—examines marriage promotion policies on the ground. One of the goals of the marriage initiative has been to provide low-income couples with marriage education skills—the skills and behaviors needed for successful marriages. I found that, in contrast to the initiative’s intention to target low-income couples, a large proportion of these services are actually going to more privileged recipients. The marriage initiative offers free workshops to the general population, and the majority of those who attend can afford to pay. Thus, the outcome is a redistribution of funds and services away from the more impoverished segments of the population. When services do go to poor women who are eligible for or are receiving welfare benefits, these women have little interest in learning skills to help them marry. Most expressed the need to get on their own feet before considering marriage, and they articulated being unnecessarily stigmatized and targeted by workshops that focused on their need to marry. Marriage education workshops also assume that all relationships are heterosexual, reinforcing the marginalization of lesbian and gay couples.

If lesbians and gay men were offered the legal opportunity to marry, this last form of discrimination would likely disappear. Yet, we would still live in a society where the ideology that views marriage to be the gold standard of relationships pervades our laws and social policy. Advocates of marriage equality point out that, in 2004, the General Accounting Office of the Federal Government compiled a list of 1,138 rights and benefits related to civil marriage, including social security and related programs, housing, and food stamps, veterans’ benefits, and taxation. It is certainly true that lesbians and gay men should not be denied these rights, or the right of basic equality to choose their partner in marriage. It is time, however, to consider a broader definition of equality for the married and unmarried—whether heterosexual or non-heterosexual—to support and recognize alternative forms of households and families beyond promoting “one marriage” for all.

Melanie Heath is the author of One Marriage Under God: The Campaign to Promote Marriage in America, published by NYU Press in April 2012. She is assistant professor of Sociology at McMaster University in Ontario.

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