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Saturday, March 5, 2011

marriage ≠ equality

by Kaleigh

            One of the topics of greatest debate in modern times is that of same-sex marriage. It is argued by many in the gay rights movement that by obtaining the right to marry, gay and lesbian identified people will have broken through a monumental barrier to the recognition and equality that they have sought for so long. This idea, however, negates the truth that marriage as an institution has been inherently oppressive for hundreds of years. Would being granted the ability to cooperate in such a stifling institution truly give same-sex couples the legitimacy they deserve? This essay argues that marriage is not the gateway to equality that many people believe it to be because of its history of systematic oppression of women, people of color, and people of lower socioeconomic status.

            Marriage, as a controlling arm of the nation-state, limits the ways in which people enact and fulfill certain roles in their day to day lives. One of the ways peoples’ identities are shaped by means of marriage is through gender roles. Traditional gender roles are reinforced by marriage, allowing for men and women to only participate in the established forms of masculinity and femininity deemed acceptable by society. As stated by Nancy F. Cott in Public Vows, “The institution of marriage has thus been the vehicle for the state’s part in forming and sustaining the gender order – or, it might be said, in forming and sustaining gender itself” (Cott 1442). In this quote, Cott is explaining that by shaping and limiting the ways we conform to gender roles, we are, in fact, shaping gender itself by allowing only two dichotomous genders to exist. This is extremely detrimental to the queer community, because they are a community in which gender is very much defied, in many instances. For queer-identified individuals to participate in marriage, a system that readily limits gender expression, their identities would be further marginalized and forced into traditional masculine and feminine roles.

            Marriage has also historically been used to control the citizenship of marginalized peoples, such as people of color. When African Americans transitioned from slavery to becoming citizens, they were punished if they tried to enter society with their pre-existing values, and were thus forced to do so according to the norms of the dominant culture (Franke 253).  Although they were no longer slaves, African Americans had not escaped the control of the state; the dynamics of said control simply shifted. One of the most influential ways African Americans’ experiences were shaped and controlled was through marriage laws (Franke 253).

            Upon being “freed,” African Americans were forced, in a similar way that gay and lesbian couples today would be forced, into behaving in certain ways as a result of control by marriage. Marriage laws granted African Americans various social and economic privileges, however, simultaneously required them to adhere to the norms of the prevailing culture, regarding race and gender (Franke 255). It would be no different for gay and lesbian couples today. By participating in marriage, queer identified people would be subject to the same strategies of assimilation that African Americans were subjected to upon being granted freedom and the right to legally marry. Some social and economic privileges were granted, but at what cost?

            Gay and lesbian identified peoples’ participation in marriage may also fuel homonormativity, defined by Lisa Duggan as “a politics that does not contest dominant heteronormative assumptions and institutions, but upholds and sustains them, while promising the possibility of a demobilized gay constituency and a privatized, depoliticized gay culture anchored in domesticity and consumption” (Duggan 50). Homonormativity is yet another way that gay and lesbian peoples’ true identities will be marginalized, while the institution of marriage will impress upon them the need to be good, unquestioning patriots and consumers. Homonormativity is reinforced in such ways as the Human Rights Campaign’s advertisement featuring Keith Bradkowski (Aganthanelou, et. al. 126). The advertisement emphasizes Bradkowski’s patriotism and hegemonic masculinity, which are intended to normalize him in heterosexist eyes. In other words, the intention homonormativity is to assimilate queer-identified people into straight, mainstream culture.

            Not only is homonormativity the source for assimilating gay and lesbian identified people into the heteronormative culture, but it is also done so to further ostracize people of color (Aganthanelou, et. al. 126). This is done, for example, in the Human Rights Campaign advertisement previously discussed:

In exchange for begging for state rights and recognition, Bradkowski participates in the process of creating new outsiders and outsides, those whose racial, sexual, and economic aberrance beat the mark of counter-national, as decidedly un-American difference. (Aganthanelou, et. al. 126-127)

Again, the advertisement prizes Bradkowski’s patriotism, hegemonic masculinity, and whiteness, while concurrently establishing people of color as the terrorists, who are the “other.” This allows for certain queer-identified people, namely the ones who reproduce the nation’s message as closely as possible, to be granted into the “us vs. them;” us being the privileged United States, and them being the terrorists, or people of color. This is the process referred to as “incorporation and quarantining,” which is a subsidiary of the greater process of “enemy production;” both of which are instruments of building the nation (Aganthanelou, et. al. 127).

            The “us versus them” idea presented above denotes simplicity in the fight for equality. To simplify the struggle for equality for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender individuals to one obstacle essentializes the community’s goals in a way that hinders progress instead of fueling it. As stated on, “LGBT communities have ample reason to recognize that families and relationships know no borders and will never slot narrowly into a single existing template” (“Beyond Same-Sex Marriage” 1). The statement on goes on to say that the U.S. Census reports that the majority of people in the United States do not live in traditional nuclear families (“Beyond Same-Sex Marriage” 1). The LGBT movement played a large role in the diversity of families in our country, through domestic partnerships, second parent adoptions, powers of attorney, and so on. To reduce the fight for equality to gaining one right, which simplifies the ways our families look and operate, demeans the work that has gone into diversifying the faces of families. “Marriage is not the only worthy form of family or relationship, and it should not be legally and economically privileged above all others” (“Beyond Same-Sex Marriage” 2).

            We must also take into consideration the fact that those who oppose same-sex marriage are not simply “anti-gay,” but that there is a larger framework of white supremacist capitalistic patriarchy at work. Sexuality that differs from the norm is not the only form of identity under attack, but also race, gender, class, and citizenship status (“Beyond Same-Sex Marriage” 2). Not only does the conservative Right’s agenda force upon us the limited ideas of heterosexist marriage, but it also enacts to cut funding for an array of family services (“Beyond Same-Sex Marriage” 2).

            It is also important to note exactly who will be benefiting from the right to marry. It will be the same type of people who benefit from heterosexual marriage; specifically, those with property and economic entitlements (Willse 2). This goes to show that granting the right to marry to same-sex couples does not get at the root of the problem. How can having the right to hospital visitation be worth anything if neither of the partners has health insurance the other can benefit from? While some will benefit from the right to marry, the people with a certain amount of privilege, granting same-sex marriage will not help all same-sex couples. It does not address the needs of the poor, immigrants, or people of color. As stated in “Ban Marriage!” Willse asserts:

When we say ‘I know there are problems with marriage, or I know gay marriage won’t fix everything, but it’s what we can do right now,’ I worry that we are justifying the gains of racially and economically privileged people at the costs of a broad spectrum of poor people, people of color, immigrants and their political struggles. (Willse 2)

This illustrates that granting same-sex marriage still only operates to benefit people who already have a certain amount of privilege, instead of truly granting equality. Furthermore, dissecting issues into “gay issues” and other types of issues, such as race, class, and so on, denies the fact that these issues intersect and interact with each other, creating social and political circumstances. By denying the fact that intersectionality exists, we are denying those who are an integral part of our community.

            The excerpt from Willse’s piece also sheds light on an often discussed argument for same-sex marriage. Many people who support same-sex marriage argue that it is something tangible which can be obtained soon, as opposed to larger, loftier goals that will grant more people rights, such as universal healthcare. The problem with this argument, as stated previously by Willse, is that it justifies overlooking people of color, poor people, and immigrants right now for the sake of those with skin color, economic, and citizenship status privilege (Willse 2). In other words, by granting same-sex marriage rights to people who already have more privilege, we are continuing to deny and devalue people who don’t have access to privilege in many ways, thus furthering their oppression.

            In conclusion, there are numerous ways that the institution of marriage as a whole is oppressive and devaluing to many people. Marriage is used by the nation-state to regulate racial and gender expression, allowing for only rigid views of identity. Same-sex marriage also promotes homonormativity, which furthers the marginalization of queer-identified peoples’ experiences and promotes assimilation into the dominant heteronormative culture. It is in these various ways that same-sex marriage is an inadequate “quick fix” solution to much larger complex issues.


*References available upon request.


  1. Really interesting essay, Kaleigh! Although I've read about and considered the marriage issue a lot, I have to play the devil's advocate for a moment and say, based only on my personal observations, that it's definitely possible for individual marriages to be free of any prescribed gender roles -- it may not be the norm (well, that's an understatement), but is that really the fault of marriage as an institution or is it just an indication of the larger problems with gender roles in all aspects of our society? I agree with the principle of your argument, but I have a hard time thinking that all marriage is inherently oppressive, in the same way that I have a problem with the idea that all religion/faith is bad because of the horrendous history of corruption that plagues pretty much all human institutions (government, marriage, religion, etc). So shouldn't we be fighting inequality and oppression in all arenas of society, and not just the tools that are used to effect them? Or do you think that marriage as an institution would be rendered worthless if not for the sexist and oppressive purposes it evolved to serve?

    Personally, despite my feminist views, and no matter how equal my relationship was, I know I would still want the "married" label, for religious and "traditional" reasons, whatever that means. Now I find myself struggling to answer the question of why that is, and how that value fits with my otherwise open-minded philosophy. Thanks for such a thought-provoking post!

    - Catherine

  2. Agreed. I was more concerned with the legal institution of marriage, as opposed to individual relationships defined by marriage. I think committing oneself to another and celebrating that commitment is a beautiful thing, and I also think the legal institution has perpetuated racism, heteronormativity, and misogyny, and I can't overlook that. This is not to say that these elements exist within every individual marriage. Yes, I do think this is an issue larger than roles within individual marriages. This is an issue at the institutional level, and systematic institutionalized oppression is perhaps the most macro level area for oppression to exist. I think this is about more than gender roles; it is also about racism, citizenship, and ethnocentrism.

    So essentially, I'm extremely conflicted on this topic, as well! I believe that if someone embraces monogamy and wants to commit to another person, that is lovely and wonderful, just as it is lovely and wonderful for people exist in relationships in other ways. Thanks for reading my post!


  3. Kaleigh,

    It is apparent through your writing that have researched this topic thoroughly. I appreciate the way you have incorporated not only the same-sex population, but any population that has been discriminated against. Although allowed to marry it was the bi-racial couple that was condemned or frowned upon in the early 1960's.

    I have to disagree with Catherine. No matter what the relationship and gender of the couple...there is always a role for each partner and that is determined by the couple themselves. As for religion and marriage...I really don't understand how marriage equates religious freedom and tradition. I eloped and was married in court by a judge. Religion never came into play and still doesn't. I do my thing..he does his...and we respect each others' views. As for tradition...."Traditionally" it is man + woman = couple. Now if it is the tradition of uniting a couple with all the formality and rituals involved...then that should be for all and not limited to heterosexual couples.

    Lastly...after 26 years of marriage...I am one of the lucky ones that can say we split our roles, and our roles have changed. He was the breadwinner, and now I am. I used to do the he does...I used to pay the bills....and thank he does...people change and roles change.

    Great post!