Carlos A. Ball: Same-Sex Marriage as a Means to Something Better

It may surprise some to learn that the debate over same-sex marriage is not only between gay rights supporters and their opponents. For the last fifteen years, there has also been a vigorous debate over same-sex marriage within the LGBT and progressive communities.

For almost two decades, the organized gay rights movement, led by groups such as the Human Rights Campaign and Lambda Legal, have been pushing hard for marriage. But there have also been LGBT rights activists who have questioned whether it makes sense to focus so much of the movement’s energies and resources on seeking to expand an institution that has for so long contributed to the subordination of women and that has also served to discriminate against those who choose not to marry.

These critics argue that our society unjustly privileges marriages at the expense of other types of relationships. Our current laws make a slew of crucial benefits — from health insurance to social security survivorship payments to tax advantages — dependent on marital status. Rather than limiting eligibility for these benefits to individuals who are married, critics propose that everyone be allowed to choose one designated beneficiary. It should not matter, the critics argue, whether the two individuals in question are married or even whether they are in an intimate relationship. (One of the leading proponents of this view is law professor Nancy Polikoff. You can check out her blog here.)

From the critics’ perspective, the marriage equality movement’s focus has been too narrow because it ignores the interests and aspirations of those who prefer not to marry. It also does not go to the crux of many of the most compelling questions of justice in our society. On the health insurance issue, for example, pushing for same-sex marriage does nothing for employees (straight or gay) who work for employers that do not provide the benefit.

I must say that I find many of the arguments made by progressive critics of the marriage equality movement compelling. And yet, I do not believe that the pursuit of same-sex marriage has been a mistake. As long as society continues to privilege marriage in the way that it does, it is unconscionable to deny same-sex couples the opportunity to marry. I think where the marriage equality movement goes wrong is when it understands the pursuit of same-sex marriage as an end in itself rather than as a means to achieving a more fair and just system for distributing rights and benefits.

In a very short period of time, the marriage equality movement has succeeded in getting millions of Americans to question whether it makes sense to privilege heterosexual marriage in ways that tangibly harm gay people. The movement deserves an immense amount of credit for this. But now that the legal and moral advisability of limiting marriage to different-sex couples is in play — a result that would have been unimaginable as recently as 1995 — the time has come to also debate the legal and moral advisability of continuing to privilege marriage, whether gay or straight.

If it is unfair, for example, to deny a married lesbian the opportunity to receive social security survivorship benefits when her same-sex spouse dies, why is it not also unfair to deny the same benefit to someone who lived and cared for a deceased unmarried partner regardless of her sexual orientation?

There are some who may think that it is not possible to seek to both expand the institution of marriage — by allowing same-sex couples to marry — while at the same time seeking to reduce its importance. But I think that this is perhaps an instance in which we can have our cake and eat it too. We should, by all means, strive to make the institution of marriage more inclusive. But our goal, over the long run, should be to lessen the prioritization of marital status in the distribution of rights and benefits.

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