A (Personal) Essay on Same-Sex Marriage by Barbara J. Cox, Professor, California Western School of Law
Very little since Stonewall, and the break from accepting the status quo that those riots symbolize, has challenged the lesbian and gay community as much as the debate we have had over the past several years on whether seeking the right to marry should be the focus of our community’s efforts, political influence, and financial resources. As is often true in most political debates, both “sides” to the debate make important arguments about the impact that the right to marry will have on each member of our community, on the community as a whole, and on society.
Arguing against same-sex marriage in her article, “Since When is Marriage a Path to Liberation?”, Paula Ettelbrick believes that it will not liberate lesbians and gay men but will make us more invisible, force assimilation, and undermine the lesbian and gay civil rights movement. She also argues that it will not transform society into respecting and encouraging relationship choice and family diversity, which are primary goals of that civil rights movement. Ruth Colker in “Marriage” echoes Ettelbrick’s concerns, arguing that rather than expanding the couples who can marry, we should change the institution of marriage to eliminate its marriage-dependent benefits, so that people will choose it for symbolic, rather than legal or utilitarian, reasons.
She also recognizes the class-based assumptions inherent in the marriage debate, realizing that for most poor people, marriage offers few economic advantages. Nitya Duclos examines four reasons advanced for same-sex marriage (political reform, public legitimation, socioeconomic benefits, and safeguarding children of lesbian or gay parents) in her article, Some Complicating Thoughts on Same-Sex Marriage.” She concludes that the effects of allowing same-sex marriage will not be felt uniformly throughout lesbian and gay communities and questions whether it will exacerbate differences of power. In a companion piece to Ettelbrick’s, Thomas Stoddard, in “Why Gay People Should Seek the Right to Marry,” while recognizing the oppressive nature of marriage in its traditional form, believes that lesbians and gay men should be able to choose to marry and that the civil rights movement should seek full recognition of same-sex marriages. His three reasons for pursuing this right are the practical advantages associated with marriage-related benefits, the political reason that marriage is the issue most likely to end discrimination against lesbians and gay men, and the philosophical explanation that lesbians and gay men should have the right to choose to marry and that providing that right will be the principal means toward eliminating marriage’s sexist nature. Nan Hunter, in “Marriage, Law and Gender: A Feminist Inquiry,” argues that legalizing lesbian and gay marriage will destabilize marriage’s gendered definition by disrupting the link between gender and marriage. She analyzes both marriage and domestic partnership against the feminist inquiry of how law reinforces power imbalances within the family and views same-sex marriage as a means to subvert gender-based power differentials. Mary Dunlap finds that same-sex marriage is constructive when lesbians and gay men are encountering gay-bashing resulting from Bowers.
She examines the values underlying the push for same-sex marriage, such as equality, autonomy, fairness, privacy, and diversity, and encourages the expansion of the marriage debate beyond legal circles. One way to expand this debate is to read interviews with lesbian and gay couples, some of whom have chosen to have public ceremonies celebrating their commitment, and some of whom have chosen to keep their commitment private. The debate continues to rage, as seen from the recent articles contained in the Virginia Law Review’s symposium issue. Without resolving the debate here, it seems clear that obtaining the right to marry will drastically impact the lesbian and gay civil rights movement.
My response to the debate is best expressed in the following short (and personal) essay, explaining the vital political change that can result from the simple act of marriage. Yes, I know that weddings can be heterosexual rituals” of the most repressive and repugnant kind. I also know that weddings historically symbolized the loss of the woman’s self into that of her husband’s, a denial of her existence completely. Furthermore, I am aware that weddings around the world continue to have that impact on many women and often lead to lives of virtual slavery. However, I believe that marriage can also be a powerful tool for social change and equality, and that denying same-sex couples the right to marry is a violation of their basic human rights.
How could a feminist, out, radical lesbian like myself get married a year ago last April? Did I simply join the flock of lesbians and gay men rushing out to participate in a meaningless ceremony?