a year ago, most antifamily activists believed that legal same-sex marriage lay
decades in the future. The best near-term bets for unmarried cohabitors—gay,
lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered (GLBT) couples included—seemed to be
either expanding domestic partnership rights (as in California, the District of
Columbia, Hawaii, and Connecticut) or winning recognition for civil unions (as
in Vermont and Quebec, Canada). In recent years progress on each front has been
slow but steady.
In June and July 2003, Canadian court rulings opened legal
matrimony to same-sex couples in Ontario and British Columbia.1 As I
write, the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts will soon rule on Goodridge
et al. v. Department of Public Health, perhaps legalizing the first same-sex
marriages in the United States. Across North America, the issue of same-sex
marriage has gained a level of traction activists couldn't have hoped for just
twelve months in the past.2 This momentum could be blunted if any of
the conservative initiatives to declare marriage a bond between one man and one
woman succeeds. But right now, what is most startling is how suddenly
perceptions of same-sex marriage switched. Yesterday's utopian dream now looks
like an achievable short-term goal; to some, the drives to widen domestic
partnership or establish civil unions have become history's discards.
Stand back while I commit heresy: I'm not convinced that
legalizing same-sex marriage is such a great idea.
Daunting inequalities confront all unmarried couples, and
also participants in more complex nonfamilial living arrangements. The activist
group Marriage Equality counts 1,049 federal benefits, rights, and
responsibilities available only to legally married couples: hospital visitation
rights, health care decision-making, parental rights, inheritance privileges,
Social Security benefits, access to joint insurance policies, joint home
ownership, tax-free gift-giving between partners, established legal frameworks
for determining child custody and dividing shared property when a partnership
ends, and many more.3 It's unfair, discriminatory, and just plain
wrong that married couples enjoy these benefits automatically while they are
denied to men or women who choose to form less conventional lifepartnerships.
So why might a secular humanist view same-sex marriage with
ambivalence? Wouldn't its legalization solve all 1,049 of those problems, and
To be sure, extending the privileges of conventional
matrimony to same-sex couples would largely end unequal treatment of same-sex
couples, a desirable step. But same-sex couples are only one class of
individuals whom current matrimonial law unfairly burdens. Current law
discriminates against unmarried opposite-sex couples too, to say nothing of
individuals who form households that are open, communal, polyamorous, or
otherwise comprise more than two persons. It can be
objected that this latter group is small, but you can't say
that about opposite-sex unmarried couples. According to the Alternatives to
Marriage Project, 9.7 million Americans cohabit with an unmarried opposite-sex
partner, 89 percent of all cohabitors. Only about 1.2 million Americans cohabit
with a same-sex partner.4
I'm one of those 9.7 million straight cohabitors. If my
lifepartner, Susan, is hospitalized, I may be restricted from visiting her. I'll
have no voice in her health-care decisions. When one of us dies, any assets
passing to the other will be taxed. And on and on. Susan and I are as thoroughly
cut off from that menu of 1,049 benefits, rights, and responsibilities as any
gay or lesbian couple. Granted, we could marry, which same-sex partners cannot
(at least without a trip to Canada). But we choose not to, in our case for
reasons of conscience5; why should we—and millions like us—be
excluded from benefits that same-sex couples may soon be able to attain by tying
Legalizing same-sex marriage is at best a mixed blessing.
If activists kept pressing to expand domestic partnership rights—ideally
making them available not only to couples, but to any voluntary grouping of
individuals willing to declare themselves a household—they could eventually
reverse social injustice for gay couples, for the far-larger population of
unmarried straight couples, and even the for experimentalists who find
"couple" too timid a category.
As an added bonus, they would satisfy the ideological
objections of antifamily activists who spurn traditional marriage because it
entails sanction by church or state. If activists focused instead on
establishing civil unions, that might reverse injustice for gay and straight
couples. Depending how the rules are written, civil union could also fill the
needs of participants in complex nonfamilial partnerships. The only people civil
union would leave behind are those with conscientious objections to letting any
outside authority legitimize their partnership.
Either goal, if attained, would emancipate unmarrieds in a
wide rangeof nontraditional relationships. An added benefit: by providing a
full-featured alternative to marriage, expanded domestic partnership or civil
union would break matrimony's social monopoly. By contrast, legalizing same-sex
marriage helps only the 11 percent of cohabiting couples that are GLBT. And far
from weakening traditional marriage's inequities, GLBT reformers who embrace a
to include them will wind up backhand-edly affirming an
outmoded institution whose "traditional definition," cartoonist Ruben
Bolling reminds us, is "an exchange of property arranged by the parents of
Twelve months ago, this unmarried opposite-sex cohabitor
watched with elation as vigorous, influential GLBT organizations worked to widen
domestic partnership or establish civil union. I had reason to hope that their
activism would emancipate not just gay couples, but all Americans who have
chosen to form nontraditional households. Today I feel a sense of abandonment as
many GLBT activists transfer their energy, resources, and organizational skills
to the far narrower and in some ways retrograde goal of legalizing same-sex
marriage.7 I can only wonder-now that they've lowered their sights,
where will the momentum come from to emancipate the rest of us?
A mixed blessing, indeed.
2. If your
passport's current, same-sex marriage has been available for years in
Scandinavia and the Benelux countries, but these unions may not be available to
U.S. nationals, and in any event would not be recognized in the United States.
See Doug Ireland, "Marriage of Convenience," The Nation, September 1/8,
2003, pp. 4-5.
http://www.atmp.org/statistics.html, interpreting data from the 2000 U.S.
5. For a digest
of reasons why couples remain unmarried, see
http://www.atmp.org/faq.html#whydont. For a fuller exposition of my
objections to traditional marriage, see "Legitimize Bastardy!," Secular
Humanist Bulletin Spring 1996, pp. 8-9,
Bolling, "Tom the Dancing Bug" #660, Universal Press Syndicate, August 2003.
7. The GLBT
advocacy group Human Rights Campaign maintains an excellent and informative Web
site at http://www.hrc.org/familynet/
which, laudably, still gives roughly equal prominence to the gay marriage, civil
union, and domestic partnership agendas.
Tom Flynn is editor of Free Inquiry and author of the
novel Nothing Sacred, forthcoming from
Prometheus Books. D.J.
Grothe provided research assistance in the preparation of this article.