Moving beyond marriage

Should the LGBT community focus on another political project besides marriage?

Jason Stahl

This past January, The New York Times ran a story on marital trends which asserted that for the first time “more American women are living without a husband than with one.” The same article reported, “In 2005 married couples became a minority of all American households for the first time.”

Conservative columnists nationwide had a conniption over the article arguing that it included women who were too old and too young – among other objections.

Complaints aside, the trend is undeniable: While 51 percent of women are now living without a spouse, this is up from 35 percent in 1950 and 49 percent in 2000. Among younger women, the trend is just as pronounced: “Between 1950 and 2000, the share of women 15-to-24 who were married plummeted to 16 percent, from 42 percent. Among 25- to 34-year-olds, the proportion dropped to 58 percent, from 82 percent.”

In other words, conservative complaints aside, marriage as an institution is less central to the lives of Americans than ever before.

Professor Lisa Duggan argues that it is facts like these which make the focus on marriage within the mainstream GLBT community anachronistic and politically unwise. Duggan is the author of the forthcoming book, “The End of Marriage: The War Over the Future of State Sponsored Love,” and is also part of a group of activists who began the campaign “Beyond Marriage” (beyondmarriage.org) which seeks, as the title suggests, to move beyond marriage as the primary political project of the LGBT community.

Duggan spoke this past Saturday night in Minneapolis, and her political project persuaded even a straight married guy like myself.

Duggan’s argument, and the argument of her group, essentially goes as follows. Most people don’t live in marital reproductive households, and distrust of marriage is at historic highs. At the same time, politicians idealize marriage and the “traditional family” as the norm. According to Duggan this is done, at least in part, to displace the economic insecurity and anxiety most people feel (which was brought about by conservative economic policies) onto the institution of marriage, which seems like it is the last bulwark against such anxiety.

She argues that mainstream LGBT organizations have played into this conservative charade – thus implicitly endorsing all of the false conservative assumptions and real conservative economic policies contained within. Moreover, Duggan argues that this has led to an enormous backlash which has rolled back previous gains. For instance, most states that have passed antigay marriage amendments have included in these amendments anti-civil union measures, which have undone pervious laws designed to protect gays and lesbians against discrimination.

Given these factors, Duggan argues that the LGBT community needs to get beyond marriage and instead focus on, as the Beyond Marriage Web site states, “Legal recognition for a wide range of relationships, households and families -regardless of kinship or conjugal status.” Duggan and her group argue that this project not only better acknowledges the lived realities of our society, but also makes it possible for the GLBT community to create wider coalitions without the same risk of backlash entailed in marriage politics.

As an example of such coalitional politics, Duggan focused on the campaign of The Arizona Together Coalition which, this past November, helped win the first state victory over an antigay constitutional amendment. Duggan argued that the group did so by focusing on the amendment’s threat to not only same-sex couples but to seniors, survivors of domestic violence, unmarried heterosexual couples, adopted children, and the business community because of its rejection of domestic partnerships as well as marriage. In addition, ATC also publicized the fact that supporters of the amendment in many cases also wanted to keep cohabitation a crime.

The “Beyond Marriage” project seems like a smart one to me. However, I would be interested to hear what my readers think of this project. In particular, I would like to hear from my LGBT readers, given that Duggan says her group often receives the most criticism from marriage advocates in the GLBT community. This is an important conversation for gays and straights alike. So, what do you think? Letters to the editor and e-mail are open.

Jason Stahl welcomes comments at [email protected]