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Mixed Blessings

by Tom Flynn

The following article is from Free Inquiry magazine, Volume 24, Number 1.

Tom FlynnOnly 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 more besides?

Well, no.

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 the knot?

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 matrimony broadened

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 strangers."6

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.


1. http://www.hrc.org/issues/marriage/background/faq_ont_bc.asp.

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.

3. http://www.marriageequality.org/facts.php?page=why_marriage_matters.

4. http://www.atmp.org/statistics.html, interpreting data from the 2000 U.S. Census.

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, http://www.secularhumanism.org/library/shb/flynn_12_1.html.

6. Ruben 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.

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