Gay Marriage Blues


This article is from the May/June 2004 issue of Dollars and Sense: The Magazine of Economic Justice available at

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This article is from the May/June 2004 issue of Dollars & Sense magazine.

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This month, thanks to the state Supreme Court's unprecedented decision last November, gay men and lesbians will begin getting legally wed in Massachusetts. Meantime, in a genuine uprising, gay couples have crowded into city halls in San Francisco, Portland, and New Paltz, New York, for their marriage licenses. I ought to be delighted. When I came out, the idea that in 20 years lesbians and gay men would be donning tuxes and gowns for legally-sanctioned weddings would have seemed—well, unrealistic at best.

Delight isn't the operative word, though—more like consternation. Placing marriage at the top of the gay political agenda represents a kind of surrender, and while I don't want to ruin anybody's party—or reception—it's important to examine what it means to focus on the right to marry in the larger context of the gay movement. While the gay-marriage campaign is certainly making waves in this election year, in some ways it represents a deeply conservative shift in gay-rights strategy.

The legions who oppose gay marriage may be remembering something that its supporters have forgotten: gay liberation was supposed to be a radical, gender-bending, society-shaking movement. It wasn't supposed to be a we're-just-like-you, please-let-us-in-the-door tea party.

The radical potential of gay politics has many facets. Drag queens and dykes on bikes defy gender stereotypes. Lesbianism challenges patriarchal social systems that define a woman only in relation to her husband.

But especially with the advent of AIDS, economic justice issues moved to the core of radical gay politics. AIDS brought home the crises of housing, income, and, particularly, health care that poor Americans face every day to thousands of gay men (and a smaller number of lesbians)—including many from comfortable backgrounds. It made plain the gaping holes in the United States' patchwork private health insurance system. It pushed activists to challenge the health care institutions and pharmaceutical corporations whose policies, they argued, were literally killing them.

To promote marriage, however, is to accept a privatized framework for meeting basic needs such as health care. As Lisa Duggan wrote recently in The Nation, "Marriage thus becomes a privatization scheme: Individual married-couple-led households … 'privately' provide many services once offered through social welfare agencies. More specifically, the unpaid labor of married women fills the gap created by government service cuts. … So there is an economic agenda, as well as surface moralism, attached to calls for the preservation of traditional marriage. The campaign to save gendered marriage has some rational basis, for neoliberals in both parties, as a politics of privatization."

Moralism aside, there is no reason the "politics of privatization" cannot expand to include gay families, just as traditional marketing has expanded to include gay men and lesbians as consumers. If a lesbian today lacks health insurance, she'll probably look to government to provide it. She may even join in the movement for single-payer national health insurance. Legalized marriage opens up to her the same private solution that straight people have: find a girlfriend whose job has good benefits and marry her.

Of course, lesbians and gay men have every right to get married. And some gay-marriage activists see the possibility of significant social transformation in rewriting traditional definitions of marriage and family. But if the primary benefit of civil marriage is to provide a financial safety net—by giving lesbians and gay men access privately, through their partners, to health insurance, disability benefits, pensions, and untaxed estates—then an unfortunate result of same-sex marriage will be to sap a potentially much more radical challenge to the country's current system for providing these benefits.

What about love? Some commentators have argued that the state should leave "marriage," with all its emotional, spiritual, and romantic connotations, to the churches; government should simply offer a civil union status, identical to today's civil marriage, to any straight or gay couple who wants it. Leave the churches alone, this analysis goes; focus on getting equal rights out of the government.

What if gay activists reversed the equation? Gay relationships deserve the same recognition in their romantic and spiritual dimensions as straight ones do: so let's pressure religious and other civil-society institutions to open themselves up, as some gay activists are already doing. But as for health insurance and pensions, let's instead fight to make sure that everyone is entitled to them regardless of romantic connections or household status.

Zackie Achmat, the HIV-positive leader of the Treatment Action Campaign in South Africa, pledged not to take antiretroviral drugs himself until the medicines were available to the country's poor majority of AIDS patients. His act galvanized the movement to force the South African government to provide treatment for all people with AIDS. Granted, not everyone can or should engage in that kind of self sacrifice. But we should at least view gay political strategy through Achmat's lens: how can the gay movement leverage its radical potential to promote economic justice for all?

Amy Gluckman is co-editor of Dollars & Sense. She and former D&S editor Betsy Reed edited the volume Homo Economics: Capitalism, Community, and Lesbian and Gay Life (Routledge, 1997).